When I first saw the cover of Bob Dylan’s 2012 album Tempest, I thought it was a joke. No, I really did. I figured once the album finally got released we’d see the real one. A muted close-up shot of a statue in Vienna, with an underlined lipstick font reading “Tempest”? It’s just a place-holder, right?
This shouldn’t be surprising. Dylan often makes the wrong choices about what songs to include on albums too. (“Pretty Saro,” for instance, would have been the highlight of 1970’s panned Self Portrait, except that it wasn't released for another four decades.) In recent years, his covers have often been less inspired than the artwork for the back cover. (For Triplicate, he includes a funny photo of himself with a woman in a classic car. Online forums debate who the obscured woman on the back cover of Empire Burlesque is, certainly a more interesting shot than the ‘80s cover. And I’m more fond of back-cover shots to Desire, despite the fantastic hat he’s wearing on the cover.)
Used to be, a lot of care went into his covers. And sometimes beautiful accidents became immortalized. Here are my Top 7 contenders of best Dylan album covers.
7. STREET LEGAL (1978)
Not many people will put this in their list (sorry Freewheelin’ and Basement Tapes), but I’ve long felt no Dylan cover better illuminates a theme or lyric from the album than this one from 1978.
A lot’s told here in this photo of a newly divorced Dylan tentatively peeking out from a house's back steps before committing himself to the exposure of the street. It makes me think of the line on "No Time to Think," where he's caught in the act as he hears the "sound of the keys as they clink." But in this case, it was shot outside the bedroom at least, at 2 Pacific Terrace in Santa Monica by film director Howard Alk (who would later overdose at Dylan's nearby Rundown Studios, where this album was recorded).
(And no matter what Greil Marcus said about it on its release, it is worth listening to the album, particularly “Journey through Dark Heat.”)
6. SELF PORTRAIT (1970)
Few people listen to Bob’s second double album. (It’s mostly a collection of folk songs and random standards done with Nashville musicians including Charlie Daniels. It has been considered so bad that it must have been intentionally done to distance himself from the demands of his fans. Je ne sais pas.)
Most of the few who do listen surely prefer the funny, sky-facing photo of Dylan on the back as a better potential cover than Dylan’s smeary self-portrait painting, packed in a matte cover in 1970. Not me. I think this makes for the perfect “mask” to what Dylan says sums up who he is at that stage of his career*.
Incidentally, this is the first time Dylan didn’t put a photo of his face on his album cover (something that’s happened only a handful of times in 50-plus years). Apparently, MoMa has the original 1970 painting now. (He released outtakes of the album several years ago with another self portrait, which looks more like Harry Dean Stanton.)
*And possibly now too, considering he’s released five straight records’ worth of Frank Sinatra songs. See my video asking if that’s OK.
5 - BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME (1965)
How to package a passing of the torch, when you go electric and make folkies mad in one swoop? Well, Dylan went with this carefully constructed cover photo. Here he sheds his scrappy folkie image by dressing up as a “country squire,” as Bob Egan puts it in this video interview with photographer Daniel Kramer. As a blurry, unsure world revolves around him, Dylan is in clear, steady focus. Holding a Persian cat.
The shoot was quick, only 10 photos. But Dylan had spent three hours roaming his manager Albert Grossman’s country home near Woodstock for symbols to scatter around him. (The woman is Sally Grossman, Albert’s wife – slyly backed by Dylan’s previous album Another Side of Bob Dylan.) Much of it is Americana (LBJ on the cover of Time magazine, a Robert Johnson album, beatnik poetry). The title could be a knock at the British Invasion too. (Adopting faux Dylan voice: “hey man, where do you think all that music comes from?” )
4. HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED (1965)
This whole thing happened just because Dylan wanted a photo of his new Triumph motorcycle t-shirt sitting on the stoop of 4 Gramercy Park West.
“Usually you have a plan, especially for a cover,” says its photographer Daniel Kramer (in this dorkily perfect video about the cover shot, again by Bob Egan) , “but this wasn’t the plan.” The shot wasn’t working, so he had artist Bob Neuwirth (who drew the cards for the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” video) stand behind Dylan, dangling a camera, which made it seem like, to Kramer, “something’s going on.”
Naturally, it’s memorable because it fronts such a classic album (“Like a Rolling Stone" etc), but Neuwirth’s striped shirt kinda steals the show too.
3 - NASHVILLE SKYLINE (1969)
After a tumultuous year of assassinations, riots and devastating war in 1968, the Woodstock generation held out hope Dylan would return to his “protest songs.” Instead, Dylan kept it country. He stopped smoking, turned his voice into a clear baritone, and threw together this country-tinged album that begins with a Johnny Cash duet and ends, in all its lap-steel glory, in less than a half hour. (Its “Lay Lady Lay,” originally intended for Midnight Cowboy, is one of Dylan’s biggest hit singles.)
The cover shot, taken on a lark near his home, was initially intended as a back-cover shot. Photographer Elliott Pandy talks about the fuzzy warmth of Dylan’s expression, but I can’t help but find a darker sarcasm in Dylan’s tipped hat and cheesy smile – a last poke at the ‘60s from outside his door in the woods.
Incidentally, you can order a copy of cover, without the tacky Columbia logo in the corner, from the photographer directly.
2 - JOHN WESLEY HARDING (1967)
Following the “summer of love” in the coming-out year for trippy psychedelic songs (Jefferson Airplane, the Doors, the Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request and – especially – the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band), Dylan reversed the course. He stripped back with a subdued effort of religious parables built around a few chords on an acoustic guitar, including “All Along the Watchtower.”
Cover-wise, it’s one of Dylan’s most concerted efforts. Very likely, Dylan here is purposefully countering the Beatles’ over-the-top color explosion cover art. A muted gray-brown border for a quick black-and-white Polaroid snapshot taken around Woodstock, NY. Instead of celebrities, as the Beatles showed in mass on their cover (including Dylan), John Wesley Harding is made of a different “Fab Four”: a bearded Dylan looking into the sun, plus two Indian musicians and a local gardener.
Curiously, some have reported seeing the images of all four Beatles upside down at the top of the tree trunk. (Have a look.) It’s almost certainly a lucky accident (or suggestive imagination). Photographer John Berg, who sold the original photo for $50, swears nothing was intentionally added.
Meanwhile, leave it to Dylan to offer drab, earthy tones to the year of colorful excess. Within a year, almost everyone was following him. The Byrds started making country rock, and the Beatles and Stones both released bare-white album covers.
1 - BLONDE ON BLONDE (1966)
It’s a contractual obligation for everyone writing about this double album to mention “that thin, that wild mercury sound” as Dylan once famously described it. So I’ve done that. But what better shot than an out-of-focus portrait to document Dylan at his wildest and thinnest, racing like the amphetamine-fed, double-time snare of “Absolutely Sweet Marie” to an inevitable K’BOOM, in his case a motorcycle accident?
This caps an incredible trilogy that simply humbled everyone else. In the past year and a half, he’d gone electric, made the first music video (taken in one shot), told us about Johnny in the basement, told mama he was only bleeding, described Napoleon in rags and painting passports brown, then telling Mr Jones he didn’t know what was happening, then described Mona Lisa’s highway blues, and sang a hit single chorus of “everybody must get stoned.” After this breathless trio of albums, Dylan would never be the same again.
This cover is perfect. No title. Just a stern face. The hazy choice is a bold move any time, much less at the period where the Beatles were releasing movies about needing help and singing songs about belles named “Michelle.”
And notably, the true view of the cover, taken by Jerry Schatzberg on a freezing day in Greenwich Village, should technically be tilted sideways as it opens to fuller shot of Dylan wearing the same coat he'd wear on the next two covers (John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline).
What makes it best for me is that Dylan’s not even really gazing at the camera, or us, but somewhere just past us. The cover of Blonde on Blonde is everything about that time, and as iconic for Dylan as Aladdin Sane or Low for David Bowie would be.
Plus that’s a winner scarf, Bob!