Sunday, July 29, 2012

Bob Dylan Song #176: Idiot Wind

I don't think this is an original sentiment (though I would be hard pressed to remember who came up with it first), but on an album full of moments where Dylan made the right musical choice (not least of which was his decision to reconfigure the album's sound itself), one of the best right choices he made was to start "Idiot Wind" with his voice, band swooping in behind him, as though the song had already started and we just happened to wander in three or four verses deep. For a song so sweeping and epic in its scope, there's something brilliant about throwing us in to the deep end immediately, wondering what Dylan's on about when he sings about stories being planted in the press, shooting a man named Gray ("wait, somebody's been saying Bob shot a guy?"), until we get to the chorus and we remember that, ah yes, Bob's still angry at a woman and he's letting us know all about it. And then everything falls into place, and we can let ourselves get swept away in the rising, spiteful tide.


"Idiot Wind" is often cited as a favorite on Blood on the Tracks, which I've always found interesting just how much sheer emotion, both angry and regretful, is contained in this song. Clinton Heylin, who I haven't had the opportunity to politely disagree with in some time, states that the original version suffers in comparison to the more barbed New York version because of the lyrical rewrites Dylan underwent in Minnesota, considering the album version "overwrought" and lamenting how it "belies all the underlying sorrow rippling through the original vocal." While I have no particular disagreement with Heylin's opinion about the original vocal (pretty much all the New York versions have underlying sorrow to them; this kind of speaks to the same-y nature of those sessions, which I'll get back to in a moment), I find myself amused that he can consider the album version "overwrought" when the New York version's lyrics read as overstuffed to the point of self-parody (the last two verses specifically feel like Bob wrote them in some sort of fever haze, then looked back at the lyrics the next day and said "wow, I really wrote that, huh?"), and that he can't find any sorrow within the album version (not that there's a lot, but it's there, particularly in the final verse, which I'll also get back to eventually). The album version, in all its confusion and rage and ultimately misguided stab at reconciliation, captures the album's mood in a way that the original version, good though it may be, could not have hoped to accomplish.

And, in the larger sense, is what makes the album succeed so damn spectacularly. What makes Dylan's infamous quote about people relating to all that pain all the funnier, besides how amazingly disingenuous it is, is that it also sidesteps the fact that while the album may be about Bob's pain, it's not just pain that makes its way into the album. Nor could it be, of course - it is the rare breakup that doesn't spark some kind of anger within at least one of the parties, and Bob's very public breaking up is no different. "Idiot Wind" serves as the distillation of all that anger and rage, channeled forth in some of the most cutting lyrics he ever wrote (go back and read the lyrics to the chorus again and marvel at just how ridiculously mean they are - he's telling this "anonymous" woman "you sound like a fucking moron every time you talk, moron"), and delivered in a vocal that wrings every last drop out of those emotions through some of his most infamous vocal tics (how can you not love the way he sings "lightning that might str-IYYYYYYYYYYY-ke?") so that we, the listener, feel everything he felt in his heart when penning this epic screed...twice, even. What's funny is that, to me, he managed to find a perfect balance between his poetic lyrical ability and all that pissed-off righteous fury in the album version, whereas the New York versions tilt way more towards the poetic side than is probably necessary (sorry, Clinton, but the "hound dog bayed behind your trees" is detail this song just didn't need) and the Rolling Thunder Revue versions of 1976, as perfectly perverse a set closer as you could possibly ask for a tour as fraught with peril as that one was, foregoes any measure of sorrow or longing that cuts the acidity and just goes straight for the throat, aided by Bob's most infamous rewrite ("visions of your flaming tongue" - damn, Bob!) and a band that didn't so much go over the edge on that tour as catapult themselves off it with a drunken rictus grin on their faces. No wonder people relate to it - yes, there's rage, but there's not so much rage that you want to put your hands up and slowly back away.

Yet I've always found myself bothered by that final chorus, the one in which Bob switches from "you" to "we", coupling himself in as an idiot as well, in an attempt to find the middle ground he'd so effectively torched in all the previous verses. For me, at least, it's never seemed particularly earned, like one of those movies where the lead character is such an insufferable shit for 95 minutes that when the movie suddenly tries to make you actually like him or her by having them have some sort of realization about what an insufferable shit they are, you don't so much go "wow, I'm so happy he figured out what a terrible human he was!" as you go "nope, I'm not buying this, screw this terrible movie". What's odd to me is that Dylan didn't make his own version of a terrible movie here (must...resist...so many jokes), but still chose to almost ruin it with a "hey, we're all the same, aren't we?" moment that absolutely didn't need to be there. I mean, you can listen to the entire song and see that Dylan is trying to undercut all the bile that he's spewing forth in the song anyway - no person can be that angry at someone they're ending a marriage with unless they're irredeemable as a person, and I don't think Bob was shooting for "irredeemable person" for the song's erstwhile narrative voice. We listen to the song hearing the anger, relating to the anger, and all the while knowing that the anger is simply there because the hurt is so fresh and at a certain point it will fade away. So why ruin that realization with Dylan putting his version of the rat crawling across the barrier at the end of The Departed in there? Will anybody really hear him going "we are idiots, babe" and then thinking "ohhhhh, he's NOT that mad at her!" I don't know, it's never sat right with me, is all.

I say all this, of course, and I still acknowledge that that quibble is not nearly enough to make me dislike "Idiot Wind", because I also know how that anger works and how it plays with a person's mind. And the song really is amazing in its epic sweep, carrying us through false rumors (about the narrator, about Bob's public persona, about whatever you want it to be about), fortune tellers' visions, the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol (one of my favorite Dylan couplets - just think, it could have been "blowin' every time you move your jaw/From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Mardi Gras", which is so very, very clunky), to as frightening a marriage/funeral/I guess it doesn't matter what ceremony you could ever imagine, and finally to a breeze blowing through the letters they wrote each other (the one part of that final chorus I do like). It's not quite the album's emotional center, but it's the album's most necessary moment, where all the piled-up emotion floods out in one powerful, cresting wave, leaving behind nothing but regret, sorrow, and (despite it all) an inkling of hope for what comes next.

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15 comments:

Chuck said...

Congratulations on finishing the bar & great to have you back! Looking forward to more posts!

Jacek Bełc said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bill VT said...

tiThanks for your review of one of my favs dylan

Jane said...

I don't think of his anger in this song, either version, as righteous. It's more a sense of being in the grip of an uncontrollable need to reject - everything you loved about a person, and perhaps excused or accepted, suddenly becomes its own opposite. I have never imagined it to be a description of a judgement, more, as you imply, an emotional process. That to me means there's no need to look for him to be redeemable, it's proper catharsis, you've got to take it as far as you need to.

I agree the "we're idiots" is weak and a bit unconvincing. But it sounds real, like someone weakly trying to get some sense back.

David said...

It seems to me that the "we're idiots" line is his response to his own raging, and a realization that he has spewed out buckets of accusation, recrimination, and bitterness, without letup or restraint. I agree that it comes perhaps too abruptly, but it reminds me of the regret I feel after saying something harsh, walking away, and slamming a door; I have an immediate realization that, regardless of my "right" to feel offended, I've just been an overly-dramatic jerk. I feel a sense of inadequacy and foolishness.

Jane said...

sorry to bang on, but I don't think he's trying to win an argument with her, he's at that truly horrible part of a relationship when everything offends you about the person you've tied yourself to. A frightening, unresolveable feeling, not anger, but rejection in spite of yourself, you feel all the awful negative feelings about the person, but you can't fully accept that you do. Never felt anything like this myself of course.....

Simon George said...

I think bob Dylan should be considered one of the best lyricists ever regardless of the genre. His music is timeless and even the way he presents his lyrics is unique. Great post keep up the hard work. Check these out IStillGotMyGuitar.

ch51 said...

Good to see you back!

Contains one of my all time favourite Dylan couplets:

I waited for you on the running boards, near the cypress trees, while the springtime turned
Slowly into Autumn

Of course, for me half of Dylan's magic is his phrasing and timing ...

As for the "you, we" arguement ... I've never had a problem with it. He's human, and he's being VERY human throughout this album. It's not a "miswrite" - perhaps it's just a "misspoke" in life.

Matt Waters said...

great write-up, glad you have returned... the Hard Rain version is my favorite. One point I'd like to mention: the singer in 'Idiot Wind' is not angry because he's heart-broken. He's angry because he thinks it's the only way he can survive, at that moment. That obvious desperation allows the listener to feel empathy. The empathy we feel for this tortured artist is what allows us to relate to the song, instead of dismissing it as mad ravings poetically represented. The anger is protection. Protection against emptiness, the emptiness where there used to be love. What an album… what an album…

joejmedler said...

His anger to me in this song is both petulant and self-aware. http://developingdad.com/2014/08/27/bob-dylan-artistic-expression-and-emotional-development/

Anonymous said...

To me, the version on Bootleg Series 1-3 is very interesting. It's from the New York sessions but is not the recording initially intended to be released.

I like it because it's very contemplative, measured, lacking a lot of the judgemental, bitter delivery associated with this song . As pointed out before, the final verse shifts to 'we'. In this version, the tone is 'we' throughout.

Anonymous said...

One thing I have always found interesting about this song is the difference between the delivery of the last line of the final verse on the album version and the Hard Rain version. On the album the way he sings 'and it makes me feel so sorry' is very regretful and soft whilst on Hard Rain the word 'sorry' is belted out with real anger. It's the best example of how Dylan can sing the same word in different ways and entirely change the meaning.

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David George Freeman said...

Thank you for posting this excellent analysis of the song. When finished reading come inside Bob Dylan's Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/286/Idiot-Wind and listen to all the great versions of every song.

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