Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Bob Dylan Song #173: Tangled Up in Blue

Once more unto the breach, dear friends.


So about four months ago in the post for "Dirge", a commenter named Tim (presumably not this Tim or this Tim, though one never knows, does one) posted a very lucid analysis of the song, and then made this observation at the end:

"Perhaps none of you who have commented so far have ever fallen in love against your better judgment, when you have every reason to not do so. (Or remained in love with someone who broke your heart - that should strike a chord with Tony, as unrequited (?) love seems to have substantially changed the pace of output of this blog.)"

I didn't then, and still don't really now, know how to respond to that comment, although I have no qualms in saying that he's pretty close to the truth, if a little too uncomfortably on the nose. Then again, these posts are written for public consumption, and any such consumption will bear forth analysis by the readers (a point which has obvious implications for what I'm about to write about), so I can't really be too put off by a reader attempting to decipher my mindset in the same way that I've been attempting (or "attempting", depending on how you feel about my (fill in the blank) post) to decipher our man Bob's. I have no problem admitting that I've explored my own romantic foibles through Bob's music, which surely makes me no different from many of you reading this blog right now; as I've stated a couple times during this project, Bob touches on so many parts of what makes us human that it only seems natural to do this. His pain and emotions and feelings often help serve as a kind of therapy and catharsis for us, both consciously and unconsciously. This is true for many great musicians and their fans.

However, the main reason it has taken me so long to write this post is that, plain and simple, I have been absolutely dreading it. I mean, what is there to say about Blood on the Tracks that has not been said? Any Dylan fan that isn't a total neophyte knows everything about this album, about how Dylan wrote a bunch of songs about his deteriorating marriage (whether he wants to admit it or not); how he recorded an entire album's worth of material in New York, only to pull a 180 and re-record a number of the tunes in Minneapolis with local session musicians; how hordes of music critics and listeners alike have been trying to decipher the more cryptic lyrics on the album ever since; how the album hit #1 and served as linchpin to Dylan's second creative Renaissance; how Dylan uttered the infamous quote "A lot of people tell me they enjoy that album. It's hard for me to relate to that. I mean, it, you know, people enjoying that type of pain, you know?" (which, given how much of popular music is about that type of pain, makes me wonder why Dylan would ever say something so strange); and how the album still regularly tops or hovers near the top of both "best Dylan album" and "best album ever" lists 35-plus years after its release. John Updike famously wrote about Ted Williams that "Gods do not answer letters", and yet here is Dylan, reporting back to us mere mortals about his pain in the way only he can, like a long-lost friend catching you up on the really crappy year he's been having with the humor, pathos, and intelligence of the kind of long-lost friend you'd want to reconnect with in the first place. Writing about this album is kinda like writing about Gettysburg or The Godfather at this point - any new insight will pretty much be discovered by accident.

That doesn't mean I'm not going to try, though. For one thing, my small-yet-loyal base of readers (bless every one of you) would absolutely and rightly pillory me if I didn't at least make a good faith attempt at trying to talk about what I consider Dylan's crowning achievement as a recording artist. But the main reason why I want to give this album its due is because (presumably despite Dylan's perplexity in this regard) I consider Blood on the Tracks to be part of my societal DNA, as much an influence on my life as anything I've ever heard, seen, or read in my lifetime, and something that has helped me deal with my own personal pain and heartache and what have you. I know I am not alone in this and that many of you feel the same way; and while I realize the limitations of this blog and that I'm not exactly performing some kind of great boon to the world by writing it, knowing how many people that DO read this blog feel the same way as I do raises the stakes, even just a little bit. And if those that read this and the next nine entries in this blog are helped in any small way emotionally by what I have to say, then it has to be worth it, right?

One more word about Blood on the Tracks, the album/social phenomenon/what have you. If I had to describe this album to someone without saying "it's his breakup album" or something similar, I'd probably describe it as "a Dylan album for people that don't like Bob Dylan". Hear me out on this - what do we usually think of as the public's conception of Bob Dylan, as opposed to our own conceptions of Bob Dylan? For me, when I think of the mainstream and how they view Bob, it's usually "the old guy with the funny voice that wrote those weird songs"; obviously that's unfair and staggeringly incorrect (except, perhaps, for the "weird songs" part), but the mainstream has a funny way of eliminating nuance in forming a reputation (and why I've heard so many terrible Bob voice parodies in my lifetime). And then there's Blood on the Tracks, where Bob's voice is in remarkably fine form, where he's singing about things everyone can understand, and where poetic, occasionally outre (though downright Mamet-ian compared to what came before) lyrics replace all that shit about Napoleon and motorcycle black Madonnas and whatever the fuck else. You can like this album without liking Bob Dylan or the rest of his catalog, which is not something you can say in general. I don't know, I think that's an interesting notion.

So on we go, then, into Dylan's little universe of romantic entanglement, broken hearts, unchecked anger and bile, deep soul searching, and maybe even a little spiritual peace mixed in somewhere. We all know this album inside and out; I see no need in trying to describe how it sounds to your ears and in your mind. So let's try to see how this album sounds to our hearts and our shared experiences instead. After all, that's what was on Dylan's mind when he wrote it - his own broken, bitter, and weary heart.


And thus we start with "Tangled Up in Blue" - one of Dylan's most famous album openers, maybe his most famous song, and one of the few contenders for "best Dylan song" that is a plausible alternative to "Like a Rolling Stone". That's a lot of very important descriptors, very hard ones to live up to, and yet I think that "Tangled Up in Blue" manages to live up to all of them. It's basically the perfect distillation of everything that Dylan was trying for on this album, where his newfound, more direct songwriting style (as unveiled in Planet Waves) mixed with the poetic style he developed in his earlier career, fueled by the obvious preoccupation on his mind (the crumbling of his marriage, of course - as opposed to, say, his preoccupation with New Orleans titty bars or obscure Brooklyn streets), producing an epic masterpiece that feels like the best romantic drama you'll never see in your life. That's really no small feat.

What I also like about "Tangled Up in Blue", and I'm not sure if this makes a ton of sense (but when has that ever stopped me?), is that it manages to play as a six-minute trailer for the rest of the album, setting the tone for the album both in its ability to tell compelling song-stories and to hint at both the weary despair and occasional optimism that informs the nine other songs (though without some of the bile that also informs the other nine songs, thankfully - I don't think acidic insults would've fit too well here). You've got the, yes, cinematic scope of something like "Simple Twist of Fate", the aching loss of "If You See Her, Say Hello", and the emotional reach of "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go", all rolled up into seven of the best verses you will ever hear a human being sing in your life. Even the title of the song pretty much sums up the album, in all its heartbroken glory - a song cycle dedicated to the thorny, knotty issue of trying to deal with lost love and the path of carnage it leaves behind. That, too, is no small feat.

I imagine that I'm not the only person to have thought of this before, but the feature of "Tangled Up in Blue" that has become most appealing to me after the umpteenth listen is that it's, to me at least, a brilliant example of a circular narrative (see this article for a scholarly and occasionally confusing example of how circular narratives work in film), a story that bounces all over the place and only really "ends" because Dylan decided "hey, probably a good point to stop singing and give 'em one more harmonica solo" at a certain point. That's not to say that you can't take the song at face value, of course, and think of it as a tale of a man that divorces his wife, meets her in a random topless place (always my least favorite part of the song, for some reason), moves in with her and some third guy in what can only be described as a "reverse Three's Company", and then ends up moving on again, presumably in search of her or someone like her. But I like to think of the song as a jumbled-up narrative, one not meant to be taken at face value, in which any number of what we consider signposts in telling a Tale of Lost Love (the meeting, the breakup, the third man) are thrown all over the place, making us wonder if it was that man on Montague Street she was married to when they first met, or at what point the narrator was lying in bed thinking of that redhead that stole his heart. It might not make a lot of sense, but it's more fun that way.

And, in a strange way, more honest. Love narratives tend to be neat and tidy because we expect them to be neat and tidy; just like nobody likes a storyteller that leaves out important details and then has to double back once he's remembered them, nobody particularly likes to watch or hear about a love story that starts with "we moved in together", then jumps to "she threw my clothes out into the street", then back to "our boss set us up together, funny enough". But that, of course, is so often how our memories tend to work when it comes to relationships, isn't it? Nobody, when thinking to themselves about a current or former love, says to themselves "well, guess I'd better start from the beginning - so I was taking in my dry cleaning when this lovely buxom lass caught my eye..." (at least, I hope not, because that's some Rain Man type stuff right there). Reminiscences have a funny way of not adhering to a storyline, more so as a particular moment within that storyline, like a random YouTube clip pulled out of a movie because it's got a funny quote or something blowing up in it. And when we go long form and start piecing together how a relationship either came together or failed, this is how we tend to do it - piecemeal style, no particular worry about the niceties of assembling a cohesive narrative, plucking memories out of the ether and trying to assemble them like one of those Magnetic Poetry kits. Nothing in life is ever neat, and that goes double for anything to do with love.

To bring things full circle (pardon the pun), that's ultimately what I consider to be my favorite part of "Tangled Up in Blue". I love all the stuff everyone else loves - the coolly understated backing from Deliverance, Dylan's outstanding vocal delivery (his voice rises at just the right moment in every verse), "we always did feel the same/we just saw it from a different point of view" - and yet what stands out the most for me is how a song so neatly delivered, so precise in its verbiage from start to finish, can perfectly evoke something so gloriously, painfully messy. We'll be seeing a lot of more of that on this album, you can be sure...but not done quite as well, or as memorably, as it is here.

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Mr. E. said...

I'm thrilled the blog is back. I hope the next break won't be quite so long.

Nick Garland said...

I'll reiterate what Mr. E said- it's great to see you posting again.

Good post; your analysis of the song sounds about right to me. I was wondering what you think of the many changes to lyrics he made during live performances over the years (most obviously the Real Live version). While I don't think there's a version to match the live one, I always find the change in perspective and lines like 'we always saw her from a different point of view' to be rather intriguing...

freeware and mushrooms said...

I too am glad that you're back on track. It´s wonderful to see it ,
it´s cetainly a thrill.

Keep on pressing....

freeware and mushrooms said...

Keep on. It´s certainly a thrill

Pat Shuff said...

Sir Christopher Wren/St Paul's Cathedral

The epitaph on the wall above is very similar to the one on the floor of the Cathedral under the Dome: it ends with the Latin words which are usually translated: 'Reader, if you seek his memorial - look around you.'

Posthumous recognition is preferable for greatness if only for the merciful avoidance of seeing the results of one's work.

Rob Geurtsen said...

A while ago my understanding of Dylan's art was entrenched in what you wrote about the songs, his lyrics, the singing – your experience. They were blogposts pregnant with eyes and ears and internal turmoil. Offering a point of view, that made the music, the words, the singing, the sounds more interesting. A blog post became a reason to dug up the art, and get lost into it the arts in a lovely way, that art is presumably made for. Which says something about your writing too. Hopefully the compliment is an inspiration. “Don’t let me wait too long, ‘cause you know how to lay it down.” You’re back. Right?

Your appreciation of Blood on the Tracks is obvious. You’re right. What can one write about this awesome piece of art and music that might attract readers and raise an eyebrow, or make readers put on the disc and hear it again. Just not an ‘i’-version, but the real one, that moves the body, the heart, the soul. Flac just won’t do.

I like your observation that Tangled Up in Blue is the six-minute trailer icon for Blood on Tracks. Not sure whether you’re right, the cohesiveness of the album is fascinating. Tangled up in Blue is part of the whole picture, not an iconic summary. Yet I won’t ever be able to erase from my mind your proposed position of Tangled up Blue in the tableau called Blood on the Tracks. But to experience Tangled up in Blue as an entry point and not an integral part of Blood on the Tracks makes Blood on the Tracks less attractive. It is less an iconic six-minute trailer than… overture, or what?

Your elaborations on Dylan’s work are interesting and a good place for referring new fans to, or those that want to gain a better understanding of Dylan’s art.
Here, willingly, knowingly or maybe none of it applies, you depict a quality of Dylan’s poetic work that is typical for what he was learning… or was it unlearning to mix perspectives of time and place.

“I like to think of the song as a jumbled-up narrative, one not meant to be taken at face value (…), signposts in telling a Tale of Lost Love (…) are thrown all over the place. It might not make a lot of sense, but it's more fun that way.

And, in a strange way, more honest.”

If I’m right Dylan has explained his artistic mentor, by accident, Norman Raeben, showed him by example Dylan wasn’t able to paint a vase he had just observed - “I started drawing it and I couldn’t remember shit about this vase.” Tangled up in blue indeed, his thoughts and associations were all over the place, preventing him from seeing what is or was.
Maybe one of the reason why the Drawn Blank series might be closer to his own observations than the copy cat photo paintings of the Brasil and Asia series.
To me it is not a problem Dylan’s verse seems to come from a mind ‘Tangled up in Blue’ that is producing observations that come across honest, indeed, and make a lot of sense to me. “Time Out of Mind”, “Love and Theft” and “Modern Times” are a welcome outcome.

Dylan does mix storylines, perspectives, times and places like not too many of his peers can. While tangled up in blue Dylan does it well. The title of the song is observant of the state of Dylan’s own art – at least the way he had learned to see it.

Dhiraj said...

Whaaaaat a post man. The elderly statesman of music has collided with forms ranging from folk to glam rock and many in between and has left them richer, altered forever. In every endeavour he opened new gates and redefined what can be treated as art. Dylan the unquestionable ‘poet laureate’ of the rock started with folk and transcended the form by owning it. He lent poetic nuances to the protest movement that was shrieking around him in early sixties. He was the reluctant hero who was seen as the voice of his times. Since then he has been conducting a ceaseless and successful campaign to break one rock archetype after another.

Jens said...

Thanks for continuing.

David said...

Been looking forward to this, thanks for keepin' on.

Wherever said...

Uh Yeah -

Look, I have mixed feelings about not only this exercise in hero worship & adulation of his words but also the over-analyzing of those words as contrasted with what was going on in his life and how it all tied together, so forth & so on. That said, I find it encouraging that folks who were probably not even born when "Blood on the Tracks" was released are discussing it today.

My cousin turned me on to "Freewheelin'" in late 1963 while I was in 9th grade & from that point forward I eagerly awaited the next album. I say this not to attempt to acquire some higher status based upon the "I was there when" syndrome but to just say I come at this subject from a different perspective. Kinda like the quote you used above:

"We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point of view."

I will agree that many of my contemporaries viewed Dylan in just the way you put it - the strange voice (but he famously proclaimed to a reported at the time that he thought he sounded like Caruso) & the weird songs. Many just didn't get it back then due to the music, the times; perhaps, less so today now that he's recognized as he is, times & tastes have become more sophisticated, people have moved on from their frozen positions. To use another quote from the song:

"All the people we used to know
They’re an illusion to me now
Some are mathematicians
Some are carpenters’ wives
Don’t know how it all got started
I don’t know what they’re doin’ with their lives"

Anyway, I can't agree that "Blood on the Tracks" is his best album & strongly disagree that "Tangled Up in Blue" is his best song or even the best song on the album. Personally, I think "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts" is the best song on the album, closely followed by "Shelter From the Storm." I've always thought that a short film in the style of "Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid" put together with jump cuts that exactly followed the action of "Lily, Rosemary..." would be a great project.

As to the meaning of "Tangled..." - have you ever given any consideration that the song seems disjointed simply because it is not a story of a man & a woman's history but rather unrelated incidents from Dylan's life that merely illustrated the type of situations typified by the title?

I appreciate what you are doing with this blog but I wonder if you've never watched "No Direction Home" or "Don't Look Back" (yes I'm sure you have - that was rhetorical) because two scenes come to mind:

First, Joan Baez talking about how Bob could go way deep & would play a song in 4/4 time one day & then as a waltz the next just to fuck you up, i.e. there's no predicting him.
Second, A reporter asks Bob what his song(s) mean and he smirkingly replies disingenuosly, "I don't know what they mean, I just write them." Putting folks on is his speciality.

As far as best song - we all have our favorites, subjectivity rules, but I could never agree to "Tangled Up in Blue" as even being in the top 10, let alone being ahead of "Chimes of Freedom" or "Gates of Eden" or "My Back Pages" or even "Visions of Johanna."

Gronk said...

Excellent piece. Isn't there an alternative lyric (in a live version, or something) when he sings, "We just saw her from a different point of view"? If you apply that idea to the song, the woman becomes the absent centre of the story, and the different narratives are of different men recalling how they met/split from the same woman at different times in her life. That's a nice interpretation too, I think.

Temptation less it runs said...

I would just like to point you in the direction of something i've noticed on "Buckets of Rain" before (or if) you write your next post on it. At the absolute final seconds of that song, Dylan exhales the weariest, most sorrowful syllable, not audible enough to be a sigh, but just audible enough to notice. The purpose of this noise is rather obvious in light of the whole album but i thought it would be worthy of a mention on your blog so more people can hear the way Dylan rounds off one of his masterpieces.

Please Mrs Henry said...

Your point about circular narrative, probably the best one you make in the piece, is very interesting as it relates partly to why Dylan chose to employ such a shattered timescale in this song. I imagine most Dylan biographers are aware of the influence that Norman Reuben had on Dylan's career, and it is in fact in this song that his influence is best shown (outside of Dylan's paintings of course).

Reuben had a interesting take on a Cubist, or specifically Braque and Picasso idea that painting an object from different angles on the same canvas could produce a projection of the object, that was more true, more essential than the plain reality. Why this is relevant is the Reuben applied the same concept, expect instead of angle he used time. So he would begin to paint at one point in the day, under a certain light, then later on, maybe at night, or maybe a month later when his mindset was different and had a new way of viewing his subject. At this point I'm sure that most of you can see the similarities this technique has with Tangled Up in Blue and indeed most of the songs on Blood on the Tracks (Simple Twist of Fate, Lily, Rose and the Jack of Hearts spring to mind) as they all appear to jump around in term of time and mood before settling on one single interpretation (i.e the finished canvas). Dylan has always had a close relationship to art throughout his work, but i think it is here that the influence of his painting becomes so interesting.

Anonymous said...

My ex-wife said of the NY sessions version of this song: 'every time I hear it, it's like I hear it for the first time'.

So true.

David George Freeman said...

Hello there Tony, Thank you for posting this interesting analysis. Another piece of musical history. When you are ready come inside Bob Dylan's Music Box and listen to every version of every song.

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