Pete Astor has been a staple of the British indie scene since the early ’80s, fronting a diverse number of outfits including the Loft, the Weather Prophets, the Wisdom Of Harry and Ellis Island Sound. He launched a solo career in 1990, as well, and is also a senior lecturer in music at the University of Westminster. Astor’s latest release is One For The Ghost (Tapete). He’ll be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week, writing about the origins of these songs and how they relate to the LP’s theme of past and future, complete with illustrations he created with Susanne Ballhausen.
Astor: California, 1974, breakfast time. The well-known wife has got the kids ready, taken them to school and has returned to the state-of-the-art kitchen for a mid-morning coffee. Late rising, the famous husband comes down, but not alone. With an assortment of scarves, long, tumbling black curls, accompanied by a vague silence, the husband’s latest companion stares out at the Pacific through the floor-to-ceiling window. Once again, perhaps under some misplaced idea of freedom and openness, the husband has brought one of his lovers to the family home. And now they are having breakfast. Later that day, the wife will go to see a local lawyer and file for divorce.
What’s true? And, more specifically, what’s true in a song? Songs inhabit us: They soundtrack, define, explain, bemoan, critique and articulate our lives. We use songs with scant regard to biographical truths they might be telling. As audiences, we try to understand songs but, at the same time, project our own meanings on to them. So the truth of any song or album of songs inevitably gets a bumpy ride. And each album of songs performs an uncomfortable, indulgent and sometime embarrassing dance with that thing: the truth. And, as a songwriter and listener myself, I play the same games along with it.
Blood On the Tracks is quite an album—I’m not the first person to say that. After accidents, marriage and family life, Dylan returned full time to the world of music with the release of Planet Waves and his 1974 tour of the USA. This is when Dylan’s marriage started to unravel, with serial infidelities, as well as with him apparently bringing a series of lovers down to breakfast in the family home. These various biographical nuggets of “truth” have become part of the listening experience for Dylan aficionados, giving a patina of authenticity to the songs. In an interview with Mary Travers (Peter, Paul And Mary), Dylan said, “A lot of people tell me they enjoyed that album. It’s hard for me to relate to people enjoying that kind of pain.” Dylan had also recently completed an art course with Norman Raeben that he said changed the way he saw the world; he said Raeben was “more powerful than any magician. I went home after that and my wife never did understand me ever since that day. She never knew what I was talking about. And I couldn’t possibly explain it.” On the album, “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” is said to document an affair with CBS executive Ellen Bernstein. If these songs feel real, well, it’s because they are! Or so we can believe, having been supplied with a range of biographical “truths.”
However, by the time Dylan came to write his memoir, Chronicles, seemingly referring to the album, he writes, with the kind of spectacular implausibility that only Dylan can muster: “I would even record an entire album based on Chekhov short stories. Critics thought it was autobiographical—that was fine.” It seemed as if, now so many background details about the album were in the public domain, he was keen to return the meanings of the songs on Blood On The Tracks to something more fluid. And in doing this, it seems he was seeking to allow the songs more potency for the ways that we use songs as ciphers for what we are going through. As well as listening to songs, we listen through songs, we inhabit them: In the most straightforward sense, we sing along or sing them in our heads. So, on the one hand, we listen to, enjoy and appreciate songs and the work of the performers and writers and listen in to what they do; on the other, we use what they do for our own purposes. We make the truths in our own heads and lives.