Minnesota songwriter Kevin Odegard was just 24 when, in the winter of 1974, he was tapped to play guitar in a super-secret recording session on Bob Dylan’s pièce de résistance, Blood on the Tracks. Legend has it that the music icon wasn’t satisfied with the existing tracks, which had been recorded with New York City talent. So Odegard helped round up Minneapolis’s finest, even contributing the “Tangled Up In Blue” opener. Though he and the other Minnesota musicians weren’t credited on the album, the experience changed the trajectory of both his career and his life. Nearly half a century later, Odegard shares his story.
What inspired you to become a songwriter?
It was a guy named Dale Menten from Mankato. His band, the Gestures, got airplay on WDGY. The fact that he could write a hit song and get it on the radio gave me something to shoot for.
All the Minneapolis bands were my inspiration, really: the Gestures, the Trashmen, the Underbeats, the Castaways, the Accents, David Rivkin’s Chancellors. It was a twangy Fender guitar sound, a sound Minnesota was really famous for at that time.
In my hometown of Princeton, there were two places you could play, one being the armory. When I was in junior high, I would sit at these guys’ feet when they’d come through town and study what they were doing. They’d play on these big Fender Showman amps, and I aspired to do that.
I really started writing in earnest on July 25, 1965, when I was 14. I heard “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan on the transistor radio, and it was like nothing I’d ever heard before.
How, then, did you end up working as a railway brakeman?
I drifted out of college and hitchhiked to New York City with my girlfriend to get discovered in Greenwich Village in the folk clubs, just like Bob Dylan had. That led to an album deal. We went out on tour for a while, and we got some good radio airplay.
That ended after a year. I was at a Super Bowl party, and I met some railroad brakemen. I had wanderlust. Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan told all kinds of tall tales about hitching rides on the rails, and it was romantic to me. And the job turned out to be very romantic — and very strenuous. I did that for four years.
By 1974, I was invited to play at Bob Dylan’s cousin’s wedding at Camp Teko on Lake Minnetonka. (His brother, David, was my manager at the time.) Bob had just written and recorded a new song, “Forever Young,” that I played. He was sitting about five feet in front of me with his back to me. I gave a very nervous performance, but I think it might have helped lead to an invitation to the Blood on the Tracks sessions later that year.
Talk us through how that came about.
I’ve heard a few different versions. The legend I choose to believe is that Norio Ohga, the president of Sony at the time, was developing a new device called the Walkman. Bob was listening over and over again to the New York City recording sessions on his Walkman and brought it home for the holidays. (He used to come home over the winter holidays.) The story goes that Bob played it for David, and David told him it was weak — too soft, too acoustic, too folky. Bob listened to him, and we started rounding up musicians. Of course I pitched all my good friends.
So we showed up at Sound 80 the next night, December 27. The rhythm section was David’s favorite: bass player Billy Peterson and drummer Bill Berg, who happened to be from Hibbing. That really put Bob at ease. He was no longer Bob Dylan the celebrity; he was Bobby Zimmerman. We were just a bunch of guys from Minnesota.
It was only supposed to be one song, but once we got started, Bob just kept adding songs. I didn’t play during the first session; I just sat there listening, stunned. To pay me back for getting him the gig, Gregg Inhofer put in a good word for me, so David made sure I got a chance to play during the second session.
The second night, December 30, we started with “Tangled Up In Blue.” It was an OK song in G. After we recorded it, we sat there for a minute. Bob lit a cigarette, turned to me and asked, “What’d you think?” I could tell he felt like something was missing.
By this time, I was comfortable, just like the guys on the steps of the armory. So I turned to him and said, “It’s passable.” He said, “Passable? What do you mean passable?” And I said, “Well, I think it would great if we all pitched up a key, from G to A. I think it would have more power, more urgency, more tension.” He looked down for a minute, and my heart kind of stopped. Finally he said, “Let’s try it.”
Those next six minutes transported me to another dimension. By the time the fourth and fifth verses rolled around, we were really chugging. I was interplaying with Bob’s guitar, and we were playing off each other. He was reading the lyrics off pink Post-it notes on the music stand then ended with his harmonica solo. Paul Martinson, our brilliant engineer, faded it on the board in real time — which is a dangerous thing to do, because that’s final. At the end, we all fell silent and just stared at our shoes.
After a few minutes, we took a breath. It was a historic moment for all of us in the studio. We knew that this was greatness. That was really a defining moment in my journey into the music industry proper.
What was it like working with Bob Dylan at that time?
You could tell by his tenacity and his focus that he not only had something artistic in mind but that he was also in pain. And he was his own healer. Getting those things out and getting them out in the right way was very significant for him at that moment in time. Seeing Bob bring these things to fruition was the big treat for all of us in the room.
Was he who you had imagined?
Even better, because he was like me. He was a human being, flesh and blood. I never put anybody on a pedestal after that, which enabled me to work with all of my heroes. I met everybody that I had grown up loving as a kid; I met the Beatles. That moment in 1974 electrified me and made me realize I could do anything. It also put a feather in my cap and opened a number of doors, which I thanked Bob for later.
So then Blood on the Tracks comes out, and you and the other Minneapolis musicians aren’t credited. Were you disappointed?
No. My expectations were low. We got paid union scale for the sessions. I interviewed everybody for my book, A Simple Twist of Fate: Bob Dylan and the Making of Blood on the Tracks, 30 years later, and I found completely different attitudes in Minneapolis and New York City. One New York City guy, Tom McFall, actually had his name taken out of the credits because he hated it.
Those recording sessions were really a catalyst for your career.
Afterward, I got another record deal; that wasn’t hard after Blood on the Tracks. David Rivkin produced it, and Bobby Rivkin played drums. We went on tour. One day, there was this short kid from North Minneapolis sitting at Williams Pub scouting for a drummer. And eventually David and Bobby rode [Prince’s band] the Revolution to worldwide fame. I still play with those guys today.
Once the tour was over, I got married, moved to Los Angeles and eventually wound up volunteering for the Songwriters Guild of America. Within a few years, I was running the National Academy of Songwriters, working with ASCAP and BMI. And we took up the subject of musician and songwriter credits. No mystery there, right?
What prompted you to eventually write A Simple Twist of Fate in 2004?
First, Michael Berkowitz remixed Blood on the Tracks for the first time in 30 years. He got his hands on the master tapes and isolated all the different instruments. So for the first time, in 2003, I heard my guitar on “Tangled Up In Blue.”
Second, I realized I should get this book together before people got sick or passed away, which they did shortly after that. A friend of mine recommended I team up with London writer Andy Gill, who had written about the New York City sessions.
It was a lot of work. Life imitated art, and I got divorced during that time.
What did you experience working on the book?
I think I got the closest to who Bob Dylan is that I’ve ever been. And what I got by doing the enormous amount of digging that I did is that you could just keep digging forever and never get to the bottom of Bob Dylan — because there’s no bottom there. He’s a vessel. He’s a channel. He’s a conduit.
So it was a vacant experience for me in one sense, because I never got to the spiritual heart of that. And Bob didn’t participate in the writing of the book. He didn’t want to deal with the fact that Blood on the Tracks might have been about his divorce. So he made up a story about it being about a series of Chekhov plays. He didn’t want to address it, even though his own children later said, “That’s my mom and dad talking on that album. That’s them.”
But the more digging I did, the more I realized this is part of the nature of genius. A genius is plugged into something even he doesn’t understand. And that’s true of Bob. When he gives speeches, it’s like one of his songs. They are these brilliant, stream-of-consciousness rants about everything coming through his mind at the moment.
What has it been like to watch his transformation over the decades?
Inspiring. I admire the way he can morph from one project to another — to a book, a movie, a tour, an art exhibition, a sculpture. He does it all. He’s living his dreams. I admire that, and I emulate that in my own life.
What lessons have you learned from Bob Dylan about music and about life?
He was the blueprint for me artistically. Even though I chickened out from taking the hard road through rock-and-roll, I still made it in the music industry. And I’m living out all of my dreams. I’m a kid from a small town who has had every one of his dreams come true — every one of them. I was a little odd for Princeton. But I was able to live out all my dreams, and I’m not nearly done yet.
Maybe I’ll run into Bob again someday. I’d like to collaborate with him, but not on a song — instead on a two-act play about the making of Blood on the Tracks, a comedy about all those grouchy New York City guys telling a great artist how to paint his masterpiece.
And I’d go fishing with him, too. That’d be fun.
Read this article as it appears in the magazine.