For all my Dylanite regular readers out there, the ones who believe that Bob was immaculately conceived, walks on water and conjures up loaves of bread with a sleight of his hand – close this quickly and go watch Big Brother. I’m going to talk today about both Bob’s imperfections and his perfections. These are my opinions. I’m not even saying they’re empirically correct. But it’s my blog, so I’m allowed to express them. Go shout at someone else.
Back in SoTW 164, I talked about one of Dylan’s finest songs (‘Tangled Up in Blue’) from one of his finest albums (“Blood on the Tracks”). I tell about him learning multi-perspective dramatization under painter-mentor Norman Raeben, about the dissolution of his marriage, about the jaw-droppingly casual New York sessions of the songs and about their criminally tasteless re-recording several months later in Minnesota.
I remember my first impressions of the official release of the album. Five of the songs I recognized immediately as among his very finest, masterpieces from the git-go: ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, ‘Simple Twist of Fate’, ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’, ‘You’re Going to Make Me Lonesome When You Go’, ‘Buckets of Rain’. Three were appealing but flawed: ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ (although over the years I’ve learned to appreciate it deeply), ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’ and ‘Shelter from the Storm’. One was a toss-off blues, ‘Meet Me in the Morning’. And one was an aberration–
‘Idiot Wind’. Snarling, abrasive, foul. A ‘let-me-out-of-this-room’ song, Dylan at his worst. It reminded me of the debasement (pun intended) of “Before the Flood”, to which I listened once in 1974 and vowed never to expose myself to again, a resolution I’ve resolutely kept. It had all the venom of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, but with a hack organist instead of Al “God” Kooper, and a vocal devoid of charm, just an artless, tasteless bawling, which I’d regularly skip.
Some years later I became aware of the original New York recordings of “Blood on the Tracks,” uniformly superior to the Minnesota cuts from the released version. Except for ‘Idiot Wind’–
which was a wholly different song. The garish garage band jettisoned, replaced by a two acoustic guitars, Dylan’s with open tuning in D and Eric Weissberg; a reserved, tasteful bass (Tony Brown, consciously emulating Charlie McCoy from “John Wesley Harding”); a pinch of organ for the occasional garnish, Dylan’s harmonica at the end. The tempo braked to fully elicit the passion and pain within. The strident 7th notes raised one game-changing half-step to anguished, remorseful Major 7ths. God is indeed in the details. And crucially, the vocal, no longer sneering from behind the white-faced, basketball arena mask. Here is that rarest of Bob Dylans – exposed, vulnerable, introspective, self-critical. Honest, straightforward, open. Human.
Something very terrible happened to a close friend last week. We’re both guys, so we didn’t really talk about it, just sort of grunted at each other over a couple of beers talking about 50-year old music. I think he feels profoundly wronged, but also accepts that he’s not blameless. “We’re idiots, babe, it’s a wonder that we still know how to breathe,” said I. “And don’t think that refrain does not pass through my mind on a regular basis,” said he.
Dylan circa 1974-75 revised lyrics more frequently than he had changed underwear a decade earlier. In some cases, the changes were significant (see ‘Tangled Up in Blue’), but (astoundingly) equally brilliant. Here the changes are almost all detrimental, some as radically so as the re-recording. Check out the difference between New York’s You close your eyes and pout your lips and slip your fingers from your glove./You can have the best there is, but it’s gonna cost you all your love./You won’t get it from money. versus Minnesota’s You’ll never know the hurt I suffered nor the pain I rise above/And I’ll never know the same about you, your holiness or your kind of love/And it makes me feel so sorry.
It indeed makes me feel so sorry. Much ink has been spilled on the confessional aspect of “Blood on the Tracks” as the log of the breakup of Dylan’s marriage. In his now-famous words, “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?”
If we need to feed our morbid voyeurism, Dylan said in an interview that the experience with Raeben wrought havoc at home. “Needless to say, it changed me. I went home after that and my wife never did understand me ever since that day. That’s when our marriage started breaking up. She never knew what I was talking about, what I was thinking about, and I couldn’t possibly explain it.” And here, he sings, ‘Even you, yesterday, you had to ask me where it’s at. I couldn’t believe after all these years, you didn’t know me better than that, sweet lady.’
Tellingly, the authors of “A Simple Twist of Fate (Bob Dylan and the Making of Blood on the Tracks” (Da Capo Press, 2004) relate in their analysis (pp. 153-158) to the Minnesota version of the song (“The listener is plunged once again into the maelstrom of paranoia, blame and reproach that characterized earlier songs such as ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and ‘Positively 4th Street’”). That’s true, guys.
But the original acoustic version is something much rarer in the Dylan canon – Bob unmasked, naked and vulnerable.
|Someone’s got it in for me, they’re planting stories in the press.
Whoever it is, I wish they’d cut it out, but when they will I can only guess.
They say I shot a man named Gray, and took his wife to Italy.
She inherited a million bucks, and when she died it came to me.
I can’t help it if I’m lucky.
|People see me all the time, and they just can’t remember how to act.
Their minds are filled with big ideas, images, and distorted facts.
And even you, yesterday, you had to ask me where it was at.
I can’t believe after all these years that you didn’t know me any better than that, sweet lady.
|Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your mouth
Blowing down the back roads heading south.
Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth
You’re an idiot, babe, it’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe!
|I threw the I Ching yesterday; it said there might be some thunder at the well.
Peace and Quiet’s been avoiding me for so long it feels like living hell.
There’s a lone soldier on the hill, watching falling raindrops pour.
You’d never know it to look at him, but in the final shot he won the war,
After losing every battle.
|I ran into the fortune-teller, who said beware of lightning that might strike
I haven’t known peace and quiet for so long I can’t remember what it’s like
There’s a lone soldier on the cross, smoke pourin’ out of a boxcar door
You didn’t know it, you didn’t think it could be done, in the final end he won the wars
After losin’ every battle
|I woke up on the roadside, daydreaming about the way things sometimes are.
Hoof beats pounding in my head, at break-neck speeds and making me see stars!
You hurt the ones that I love best, and covered up the truth with lies.
One day you’ll be in the ditch, flies buzzing around your eyes; blood on your saddle.
Visions of your chestnut mare shoot through my head and are makin’ me see stars
|Idiot wind; blowing through the flowers on your tomb.
Blowing through the curtains in your room.
Idiot wind; blowing every time you move your teeth.
You’re an idiot babe, it’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe
|It was gravity which pulled us in, and destiny which broke us apart.
You tamed the lion in my cage, but it just wasn’t enough to change my heart.
Now everything’s a little upside-down. As a matter of fact the wheels have stopped.
What’s good is bad, what’s bad is good. You’ll find out when you reach the top;
You’re on the bottom.
|I noticed at the ceremony that you left all your bags behind.
The driver came in after you left; he gave them all to me, and then he resigned.
The priest wore black on the seventh day, and waltzed around while the building burned.
You didn’t trust me for a minute, babe. I’ve never known the spring to turn so quickly into autumn.
|I noticed at the ceremony, your corrupt ways had finally made you blind
I can’t remember your face anymore, your mouth has changed, your eyes
don’t look into mine
The priest wore black on the seventh day and sat stone-faced while the building burned
I waited for you on the running boards, near the cypress trees, while the springtime turned
Slowly into Autumn
|Idiot wind; blowing every time you move your jaw
From the Grand Cooley Dam to the Mardi Gras
Idiot wind; blowing every time you move your teeth
You’re an idiot babe. It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.
|Idiot wind, blowing like a circle around my skull
From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol
|We pushed each other a little too far, and one day it just jumped into a raging storm
The hound dog bayed behind your trees, while I was packing up my uniform.
I figured I’d lost you anyway; why go on? What’s the use?
In order to get in a word with you I’d have had to come up with some kind of excuse.
And it just struck me kind of funny.
|I can’t feel you anymore, I can’t even touch the books you’ve read
Every time I crawl past your door, I been wishin’ I was somebody else instead
Down the highway, down the tracks, down the road to ecstasy
I followed you beneath the stars, hounded by your memory
And all your ragin’ glory
|I’ve been double-crossed too much. At times I think I’ve lost my mind.
Lady killers load dice on me behind my back while imitators steal me blind
You close your eyes and pout your lips and slip your fingers from your glove.
You can have the best there is, but it’s gonna cost you all your love.
You won’t get it from money.
|I been double-crossed now for the very last time and now I’m finally free
I kissed goodbye the howling beast on the borderline which separated you from me
You’ll never know the hurt I suffered nor the pain I rise above
And I’ll never know the same about you, your holiness or your kind of love
And it makes me feel so sorry
|Idiot wind; blowing through the buttons of our coats.
Blowing through the letters that we wrote.
Idiot wind; Blowing through the dust up on our shelves.
We’re idiots, babe. It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.