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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