The Past Was Close Behind
We’d turned 30 just a few months apart, but I’d never given the album much thought until we were the same age. Blood on the Tracks found me in an eventful, moody, and transitional year, and Bob Dylan now mattered to me. A lot happened in 2005, including—most significantly—earning my doctorate in English and dealing with the end of a seven-year relationship. In mid-April, I was single again after a sudden but necessary breakup. Then, in early August, I was “Dr. Joseph Fruscione” and preparing for my first semester as a professor, who wasn’t also writing a dissertation.
That summer, a cousin sent me some burned CDs from artists I’d always meant to get into, among them Yo La Tengo, Wilco, and Dylan. Blood on the Tracks was the first Dylan album I’d listened to in full. I was hooked from the beginning. Earlier that year—not long after the breakup—my friend Meg told me to just keep on keepin’ on. Her dad had always said it to her, so she passed it along to help me. When I first heard Dylan sing, She had to sell everything she owned and froze up inside / And when finally the bottom fell out I became withdrawn. / The only thing I knew how to do / was to keep on keepin’ on / like a bird that flew, late in “Tangled Up in Blue,” I paused, remembered what Meg had said, and smiled.
Certain albums, like some novels or films, have to reach us at the right moment in our lives. I didn’t know it when I opened the envelope of burned CDs, but summer 2005 was the right moment for Dylan. I’d loved his song from the Wonder Boys soundtrack, and the time felt right to start listening to this artist I’d heard about for most of my life.
Almost immediately, I imported the album into iTunes, transferred it to my iPod, and wove it into my daily life. His voice and lyrics suddenly made sense. The great rhythm and acoustic guitar on “Simple Twist of Fate” was relaxing during busy days as I shuttled between home and school. I’ve always loved the opening verse: They sat together in the park / As the evening sky grew dark / She looked at him and he felt a spark tingle to his bones. The rest of the song tells another great relationship story.
I always had fun picturing the great tale “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts” tells: But then the crowd began to stamp their feet and the houselights did dim / And in the darkness of the room there was only Jim and him / Starin’ at the butterfly who just drew the Jack of Hearts. This would make a great short film.
In the next few months, I got CD or digital versions of other Dylan albums, but none have ever worked for me the same way Blood on the Tracks does. I’d tell anyone new to Dylan to start with this album. There are some other great songs besides the opener. “Shelter from the Storm” and “Buckets of Rain” can work for the tough times, and “If You See Her Say Hello” is apt for anyone who shares friends with an ex.
It always comes back to “Tangled Up in Blue,” though: And every one of them words rang true / And glowed like burnin’ coal / Pourin’ off of every page / Like it was written in my soul from me to you. We’re both in our early 40s now, and I like the song and album more every year. My baby son smiled the first time we listened to it, especially to the harmonica parts. My wife isn’t much of a Dylan or harmonica fan, so Blood on the Tracks will be more of a father–son soundtrack.
Cliché alert: if you’d told me in 2005 that in 2016 I’d be looking back on this first real listen to Dylan as a freelance editor, adoptive parent, and stay-at-home dad, I’d never have believed you. At the time, I expected to get a job as a full-time English professor. Things didn’t work out that way, though. I’m thankful every day that life had other plans for me. Eleven years after I first heard Blood on the Tracks, I hear songs from it regularly as I shuffle my iPod or iPhone songs—often as my son plays. What used to be a key part of my daily soundtrack as a new PhD is now an occasional part of my parenting soundtrack…and keep on keepin’ on suddenly has a new meaning as I’m trying to figure out an even bigger life transition.
Joe Fruscione is a freelance editor and post-ac consultant living in Silver Spring, Maryland. He left academia in 2014 after 15 years as an adjunct professor of literature and writing. In addition to his freelance work, he co-founded the non-profit PrecariCorps to support adjunct faculty. As a stay-at-home dad, he regularly picks up the same toys and books off the floor.