Bob Dylan is an artist who seems to delight in inscrutability and the great singer-songwriter certainly has a baffling approach to album covers. Blonde on Blonde (from 1966) is celebrated for a blurred portrait assumed to represent the music’s druggy otherness, although photographer Jerry Schatzberg later claimed it was simply so cold in New York that he couldn’t stop his hands shaking.
Actually, of Dylan’s 38 studio albums, at least half a dozen feature out-of-focus cover shots. Maybe he is just short sighted. This slap dash approach has extended to amateurish paintings by his own hand (notably Self Portrait in 1970 and Planet Waves in 1974), trashy pulp art (Shot of Love in 1981, Knocked Out Loaded in 1986) and some of the least flattering portraits in rock history (has a major artist ever looked so monumentally disinterested as Dylan on Good As I Been To You, 1992?).
And yet, given his creative mystique and towering status in pop culture, Dylan’s covers are amongst the most iconic and minutely examined in rock history. One groundbreaking album, in particular, has been dissected and debated with forensic zeal.
What is it?
Bob Dylan’s fifth album Bringing it All Back Home from 1965 marked the moment the folk bard chose to go electric. The cover is a teasing cornucopia of clues as to the state of his mind.
It is formally posed, reminiscent of the portraiture of Flemish painter Jan van Eyck, but also a pastiche of a celebrity lifestyle magazine: at home with the voice of a generation. Forsaking the folky earthiness of earlier albums, Dylan has swapped his rustic attire for a hipster shirt and black jacket. He stares with deadly intent at the camera, a Persian cat in his lap, whilst a glamorous woman in a red dress reclines with model imperiousness on a chaise longue.
The setting is an affluent home with an ornate fireplace, yet the image is untidily crowded with scattered books, records, magazines and other artefacts, all within a swirl of circular, druggy movement. Fans became so fixated on deciphering its secrets that a rumour took hold that the enigmatic woman was Dylan in drag, representing the feminine side of his psyche.
The story behind the cover
The cover model is actually Sally Grossman, wife of Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman. The picture was taken in their home in Bearsville, New York, close to Woodstock, where Dylan and the Band would later settle to record The Basement Tapes. The image was conceived by photographer Daniel Kramer, who had come up with a technique to capture a focused portrait whilst objects on the periphery blurred. “I wanted Bob to be the nucleus,” explained Kramer, with “the universe of music turning around him.”
Dylan liked the idea, and one snowy day in January 1965 drove Kramer to his manager’s large country house. The setting is the Grossman’s kitchen, with an original 18th-century fireplace. The multicoloured divan was a gift from Mary Travers of folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary. “Great portraiture is really great furniture moving,” according to Kramer. “We had to drag in all the lights, make the set and find the right clothes.”
Dylan himself spent hours walking around the house, selecting props. The meaning of some seems self-explanatory, a nuclear-fallout shelter sign and copy of Time magazine featuring President Lyndon B Johnson representing Dylan’s political interests. The albums splayed out on the couch include the delta blues of Robert Johnson and Lotte Lenya singing Brecht and Weill, both profound influences on the development of Dylan’s songcraft. His last release, Another Side of Bob Dylan, mischievously pokes out behind Sally Grossman.
But there are other curious inclusions, including a portrait of an unknown 19th-century gentleman, a collage of a clown made by Dylan from cut glass, a pamphlet about arcane Gods and a copy of Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges. Even the pink cufflinks Dylan is wearing have a hidden meaning: they were a gift from his secret lover, folk queen Joan Baez.
Kramer shot on a large 4x5 format camera, creating a double exposure by spinning the film holder on the back of a camera in a circle. He only took ten shots (which would be shocking to today’s profligate digital snappers) and immediately knew he had the right one, when the Grossmans’ cat Lord Growing stared right down the lens. “Cats don’t take direction as well as human subjects,” Kramer noted.
So what is the music actually like?
It is not quite the bold leap forward the cover implies. Dylan’s next album, Highway 61 Revisited (released later the same year) is the one really fired up by electricity. Bringing It All Back Home is a stepping-stone, yet a work of genius. Dylan experiments with rock arrangements on side one, with songs like Maggie’s Farm, She Belongs To Me and the coruscating Subterranean Homesick Blues.
But side two is solo acoustic, with Dylan allowing the words to create their own dazzling fireworks on a quartet of masterpieces including Mr. Tambourine Man, Gates of Eden and his most nihilistic song, It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding). In its beauty and strangeness, it was an album that signaled generational change was coming.
And what is its legacy?
The fusing of rock drive with the lyrical riches of folk and poetic traditions had a profound impact on pop music in the Sixties, influencing everything that followed. The cover has its own legacy. It was one of the world’s first conceptual album covers, presaging The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper and so many more carefully conceived images that listeners could scour for insights into the music.
“I wanted to do something utterly different and break with tradition, not just for Dylan, but for album sleeve design in general,” Kramer has explained. “I wanted Dylan still and motionless in the midst of swirling chaos, to reflect how perceptive he was. As the world changed he could not only see it but understand it too. To the rest of us, it was just a blur.”
Do you have a favourite album cover? Neil McCormick will be in the comments section between 4pm and 5pm today to reminisce about vinyl, album art and the moment when Dylan went electric. Either leave a comment for him to respond to ahead of time or join live.