In 1975, I was two years old. That same year, Columbia Records released Bob Dylan’s 15th album Blood on the Tracks. Written during the disintegration of Dylan’s marriage to Sara Lownds, the album has all the bite, the longing for warmth, and the watery sunshine of an early winter afternoon.
For years, when I heard the first tumbling cascade of guitar notes on “Tangled Up in Blue,” the album’s opening track, I felt like I’d been shot-gunned back to the drafty, old house in Wainiha, Kauai where I lived with my family in 1978, the house that would later be destroyed in the hurricanes of 1981. There was always a kind of heart swelling, the sensation of time-traveling, sliding into the vortex, and then I was returned to the place with the slanted kitchen floor, broken screens, ginger root growing under the rickety porch steps, and a guava tree in the yard.
And at the bottom of that vortex was my dad, his eyes droopy, stoned on cans of Budweiser and roach rips; he’d be surrounded by buddies, lounging in corduroy shorts and t-shirts around the high-ceilinged front room, Blood on the Tracks crackling and spinning on a record player my parents had bought while they lived in Germany during my dad’s stint in the Army. I would remember him calling me over to sit on his lap so he could kiss the top of my head and tell me how much he loved me; the beer made him sloppy and effusive. I’d beg for a sip from the slightly warm can, although I didn’t much like the bitter liquid inside.
My mom has a crumbling photo album from that time period. In one picture, I’m wearing a green cotton dress with tiny white flowers, a pinafore over it, my brown legs splayed across my dad’s. He holds me close, like I’m going to run off if his hands aren’t wrapped around me. Next to us, a guy with a red afro and a Hawaiian shirt lies passed out, his mouth hanging open, a Budweiser label slapped to his forehead. The rest of the group is tanned, young, and mustached in that Burt Reynolds seventies fashion, and they’re in full raging mode. It was 1978—can you blame them?—and they were living, surfing, and partying on a tropical island.
My dad would have been about twenty-eight years old. He was two kids deep and working as a bartender at the Princeville Resort where the haoles went to escape from mainland life; the work provided money enough for rent, drinks, and surfing Hanalei Bay. My mom would take us to visit him some afternoons, after finishing up with her work as a seamstress for wealthy clients (The wife of a tour manager for the Rolling Stones, for example); I’d drink Shirley Temples at the bar, admiring my dad in his crisp white button-down shirt and black bow tie. I don’t know if my mom would drink. In my memory, she is blonde, tan, fit and beautiful, and more about getting out on the ocean in an outrigger canoe and hiking whenever and wherever she could, than knocking back beers.
That was before my dad was fired for doing god knows what. He ended up working at the local gas station and falling into some kind of trouble. My mom left him, taking my sister and me off the island, and back to the Mainland. My dad didn’t join us again until six months later, after my beloved Papa died suddenly of a stroke, an empty bottle of wine next to him where he lay on his sister’s couch. I don’t know if my dad would have come back otherwise. I’ve only pieced together parts of this story. It’s not something my parents talk about much, even now, more than thirty years after the fact. They’re still married, and my dad stopped drinking years ago, but still, the story is spotty, and though we talk about so much during our long monthly phone conversations, we don’t talk about what happened on the island.
Dylan and Sara Lownds eventually divorced in 1977, after nearly twelve years of marriage and four kids. Dylan said early on that the album wasn’t autobiographical, but the couple’s son Jakob told at least one biographer, “Those songs are my parents talking.” Really, it’s hard to deny the way they capture the distinct, bitter heartbreak that comes at the end of a long-time partnership.
We had a falling out like lovers often will/ And to think about how she left that night it still brings me a chill/And though our separation, it pierced me to the heart/She still lives inside of me, we’ve never been apart3
Blood on the Tracks was my dad’s favorite drinking album. Along with alcohol, it was his ministrant between worlds; a passport into the sinking-way-down-land, where he could swim with the sharks and demons of his own suffering subconscious— an ancestral family trait, by the way. I’ve had my own records, the ones that I put on because, and not despite of, the fact that they take me into the darkness of the long night.
“Dylan doesn’t fall in,” writes journalist Peter Hamill in the liner notes for Blood on the Tracks. “Instead, he tells us the essentials, a woman once loved, gone off, vanished into the wild places of the earth, still loved.”
My dad would have been twenty-five when the album came out. An obsessive fan, he would have rushed out to the record store to buy it, and then rushed home, to tear off the plastic wrapping, and to pull the gleaming new black vinyl from its jacket. He would have smoked a fat joint and lay down on the floor, listening to each note with the reverence of a Buddhist monk meditating in a temple. He might have studied the muted, out-of-focus painting on the cover—it’s a blurred soul kind of painting of Dylan in dark sunglasses. My dad would have fallen into the songs that acted as a midwife to his truth, the torment of being a young father who wanted to live free on the waves and in the sun, who saw his family as both a solace and a lifelong prison, who dreamed of escape, but still wanted the comfort that comes from love, children, commitment and all of the other trappings of domesticity. It’s no wonder that he was led into and through the darkness by this album, at Dylan’s weary, slightly cynical encapsulation of a soul’s quarrel between open road visions, and an overpowering desire to return to the ones that he loves.