164: Bob Dylan, ‘Tangled Up in Blue’

Posted by on Feb 15, 2013 in Rock, Song Of the week |

‘Tangled Up in Blue’ — NY Sessions, Take 1
‘Tangled Up in Blue’ — NY Sessions, Take 2
‘Tangled Up in Blue’ — Minnesota, Official Release

Painting by Bob Dylan. Blue man.

Blue man. Painting by Bob Dylan.

Bob Dylan, 1974, the man of a thousand faces, as multifaceted and puzzling as life itself.

After nine monolithic albums in eight years (1963-70) that not only described but actually prescribed the lives of an entire generation, then a creative drought of four years. After years of frenetic touring, then a seven year hiatus induced by a motorcycle crash. What was he doing in those interim years?

Well, he married in 1965 and had four children. In ‘Sign on the Window’ from “New Morning”, one of the greatest songs on the last in his string of great albums, he sings “Build me a cabin in Utah/Marry me a wife, catch rainbow trout/Have a bunch of kids who call me “Pa”/That must be what it’s all about.”

Bob Dylan with brood

But then came 1973-1974. A new album for a new record company, “Planet Waves” for David Gefen’s Asylum, commercially mediocre, artistically uneven. The “After the Flood” tour with The Band, more shouted than sung.

In the midst of all this activity, Dylan began to study painting with 73 year-old Russian-born Norman Raeben, the son of Sholem Aleichem. He stressed perceptual honesty rather than conceptualization. “Bob”, Norman said to Dylan, “look at that round coffee table. Now, show me how you would paint it.” He thought the scruffy Dylan was destitute, and told him that if he’d clean up the studio after class he could crash there. Raeben berated his students in class, with a kill-or-cure indifference to their feelings.

Mortal Dylan

“He put my mind and my hand and my eye together in a way that allowed me to do consciously what I unconsciously felt,” said Dylan. This metamorphosed into a songwriting technique employing a fragmented narrative of time, place and person. Events, personae, and sequences Bob and shift. It is left to the listener to struggle to reconstruct some coherence, some linear narrative. He never quite succeeds, because the images are built for slipping and sliding, defying mere denotations. But the energy generated in the leap between the given and the sought for creates a kinetic aesthetic experience, ever-changing, transcending time and place, forever young.

“I had met magicians, but this guy is more powerful than any magician I’ve ever met. He looked into you and told you what you were. And he didn’t play games about it.”

Bob Dylan Blood on the Tracks Painting

Painting by Bob Dylan. Bloody tracks.

The experience with Raeben seems to have brought trouble to Dylan’s domestic paradise. “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.”  (‘Idiot Wind’: ‘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.’)

The technique and the trauma engendered an artistic achievement of monumental scale in the resulting 1974 album, “Blood on the Tracks.” It is a collection of ten songs, mostly written in D, employing lots of major seventh chords (giving the overall tone of sweet, pained wistfulness) and performed on an acoustic guitar in open tuning with minimal accompaniment – a bass, sometimes a steel guitar, sometimes a touch of organ (very reminiscent of the format he employed on the softer acoustic songs on Bringing It All Back Home). He first recorded the songs in New York City in September, 1974, with a shifting array of studio musicians in a series of sessions that took Dylan’s notoriously casual studio work to new levels of shoddiness. He would just start playing and expect the musicians to follow. Adding verses, extending breaks. At times, they pleaded with him to do another take. Then three months later, he redid the songs in Minnesota with a bunch of his brother’s buddies.

'Motel Pool', painting by Bob Dylan

‘Motel Pool’, painting by Bob Dylan

The officially released version of the album is a mix, five recordings from New York (‘Simple Twist of Fate’, ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go’, ‘Meet Me in the Morning’, ‘Shelter from the Storm’ and ‘Buckets of Rain’), five from Minnesota (‘Tangled Up in Blue’, ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’, ‘Idiot Wind’, ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’, ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’). The NY takes are softer, gentler, more sincerely loving, more nakedly pained. The Minnesota takes have a harder surface, faster tempi, more aesthetically distanced. Uniformly, the New York takes are superior. Some of the Minnesota takes are respectable, none improve on the originals.

That would be impossible. They’re pretty perfect. “Blood on the Tracks” is widely considered a peak achievement for Dylan, for the music of our times. It was ranked number 16 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Bill Wyman (of The Rolling Stones) considered it “…his only flawless album… It is his kindest album and most dismayed, and seems in hindsight to have achieved a sublime balance between the logorrhea-plagued excesses of his mid-1960s output and the self-consciously simple compositions of his post-accident years.” Logorrhea? Bill Wyman??

'Opium', painting by Bob Dylan

‘Opium’, painting by Bob Dylan

Dylan famously said, in a radio interview with Mary Travers, “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?” Well, ‘enjoy’ certainly doesn’t begin to encompass the rich experience which can be derived from “Blood on the Tracks”. If you’re going to revisit it or learn it, I urge you to seek out the bootleg New York sessions.

For our Song of The Week, we have the pleasure of saying a few words about the iconic, seductive, elusive, indelible song that opens the album, ‘Tangled Up in Blue’. All Dylan’s passion – both the love and the pain, strongly weighted towards the latter – and the wit and the wisdom and the humor are there. We often forget what a master craftsman of lyrics Dylan is. He’s not just deep or profound. He has a command of the technique of writing lyrics that is often obscured by his many other talents.

Tangled Up in Blue

Dylan riffed his writing abilities on ‘Tangled Up in Blue’. From the start, he invented new lyrics at every turn. Here’s Take 1 from New York. Here’s Take 2. In both, you can hear the clicking of his jacket buttons against the guitar. And you can feel the pounding of his heart. Here’s the official release, the Minnesota version. At the bottom, you can see the lyrics of Minnesota (mostly first person) juxtaposed with those from New York (mostly third person).

Serious people have made a study of comparing variant versions of the song.  Here’s one. Here’s another. Here’s a third. There are many more. And what is so remarkable is that every switch, every shift, works. They’re all great, they’re all legitimate. Do you get that? He writes a magnificent song, and then recreates the lyrics every time he sings it!! Not even Charlie Parker did that.

Tangled Up in Blue, the single

Tangled Up in Blue, the single

The song seems to tell a story, even though the details can’t be pinned down. Dylan plays with pronouns, with personae. ‘He’ and ‘I’ and ‘she’ and ‘they’ are indecipherable, shifting, a dance of veils.

In the first verse, he’s remembering her: the song is a flashback. At the end, he’ll say that he’s going back to her. They wanted to get married, but her parents didn’t approve. He’s hitching East. Why? Who knows. Let your imagination work. The humor—I was wondering if she’d changed, if her hair was still red. Oh, Bobby.

Second verse. He extricates her, they run off, they split. ‘I heard her say over my shoulder’—he doesn’t even turn around. But he’s saying this all with unbounded love. Boy, is there a whole world right there.

Third verse. Lumberjack cook, the ax fell. Rhyming ‘employed’ and ‘Delacroix’. Jeez.

Painting by Bob Dylan

Painting by Bob Dylan

Fourth verse. She’s dancing topless in the spotlight. He’s gaping at the side of her face. Right. ‘Later on as the crowd thinned out, I was just about to do the same.’ It don’t get no better than that. ‘I muttered something underneath my breath.’ Ok, it just did. He ‘gets uneasy’ when this topless dancer hitting on him ‘bends down to tie his shoes’.  I have nothing to say, I’m just shaking my head in appreciation and enjoyment.

Fifth verse. Dante Alighieri, 1265-1321, author of The Divine Comedy. In subsequent versions, this changed to Jeremiah and Baudelaire and others. This stoned, topless, brazen red-head introduces our Horatio Alger to Dante.

Verse Six. Who knows who is in the scene—2 people? 3? But the fragments are indelible: ‘There was music in the cafés at night/And revolution in the air.’ That is the 1960s encapsulated in a single image. ‘Keep on keeping on’. That’s life.

Last verse. What is ‘tangled up in blue’? It’s a chaotic pastiche, a vortex of glimpses of situations that makes absolute emotional sense. It’s a perfect union of fifty states of mind. It’s a song.

We know exactly where we are in every bar, be it a measure of beats or booze. Until the next one, then we’re somewhere wholly other. We’re on a six-minute road trip, in flux, heading for another joint at every moment. But we always feel the same, we just see it from different points of view. And we all know why. Because we’re all so tangled up in blue.

1 Early one mornin’ the sun was shinin’
I was layin’ in bed
Wond’rin’ if she’d changed at all
If her hair was still red
Her folks they said our lives together
Sure was gonna be rough
They never did like Mama’s homemade dress
Papa’s bankbook wasn’t big enough
And I was standin’ on the side of the road
Rain fallin’ on my shoes
Heading out for the East Coast
Lord knows I’ve paid some dues gettin’ through
Tangled up in blue
Early one mornin’ the sun was shinin’
He was lyin’ in bed
Wond’rin’ if she’d changed at all
If her hair was still red
Her folks they said their lives together
Sure was gonna be rough
They never did like Mama’s homemade dress
Papa’s bankbook wasn’t big enough
He was standin’ on the side of the road
Rain fallin’ on his shoes
Heading out for the old East Coast
Lord knows he’s paid some dues gettin’ through
Tangled up in blue
2 She was married when we first met
Soon to be divorced
I helped her out of a jam, I guess
But I used a little too much force
We drove that car as far as we could
Abandoned it out West
Split up on a dark sad night
Both agreeing it was best
She turned around to look at me
As I was walkin’ away
I heard her say over my shoulder
“We’ll meet again someday on the avenue”
Tangled up in blue
She was married when they first met
Soon to be divorced
He helped her out of a jam, I guess
But he used a little too much force
They drove that car as far as we could
Abandoned it out West
Split up on a dark sad night
Both agreeing it was best
She turned around to look at him
As he was walkin’ away
She said “This can’t be the end,
We’ll meet again someday on the avenue”
Tangled up in blue
3  I had a job in the great north woods
Working as a cook for a spell
But I never did like it all that much
And one day the ax just fell
So I drifted down to New Orleans
Where I happened to be employed
Workin’ for a while on a fishin’ boat
Right outside of Delacroix
But all the while I was alone
The past was close behind
I seen a lot of women
But she never escaped my mind, and I just grew
Tangled up in blue
He had a job in the great north woods
Working as a cook for a spell
But he never did like it all that much
And one day the ax just fell
So he drifted down to LA
Where he reckoned to try his luck,
Workin’ for a while in an airplane plant
Loading cargo onto a truck
But all the while he was alone
The past was close behind
He seen a lot of women
But she never escaped his mind, and he just grew
Tangled up in blue
4 She was workin’ in a topless place
And I stopped in for a beer
I just kept lookin’ at the side of her face
In the spotlight so clear
And later on as the crowd thinned out
I’s just about to do the same
She was standing there in back of my chair
Said to me, “Don’t I know your name?”
I muttered somethin’ underneath my breath
She studied the lines on my face
I must admit I felt a little uneasy
When she bent down to tie the laces of my shoe
Tangled up in blue
She was workin’ in a topless place
And I stopped in for a beer
I just kept lookin’ at the side of her face
In the spotlight so clear
And later on as the crowd thinned out
I’s just about to do the same
She was standing there in back of my chair
Said to me, “What’s your name?”
I muttered somethin’ underneath my breath
She studied the lines on my face
I must admit I felt a little uneasy
When she bent down to tie the laces of my shoe
Tangled up in blue
5  She lit a burner on the stove
And offered me a pipe
“I thought you’d never say hello,” she said
“You look like the silent type”
Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you
Tangled up in blue
She lit a burner on the stove
And offered me a pipe
“I thought you’d never say hello,” she said
“You look like the silent type”
Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you
Tangled up in blue
6  I lived with them on Montague Street
In a basement down the stairs
There was music in the cafés at night
And revolution in the air
Then he started into dealing with slaves
And something inside of him died
She had to sell everything she owned
And froze up inside
And when finally the bottom fell out
I became withdrawn
The only thing I knew how to do
Was to keep on keepin’ on like a bird that flew
Tangled up in blue
He was always in a hurry,
Too busy or too stoned.
And everything that she had planned
Just had to be postponed.
He thought they were successful
She thought they were blessed
With objects and materiel things,
But I never was impressed.
And when it all came crashing down
I became withdrawn
The only thing I knew how to do
Was to keep on keepin’ on like a bird that flew
Tangled up in blue
7  So now I’m goin’ back again
I got to get to her somehow
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
But me, I’m still on the road
Headin’ for another joint
We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point of view
Tangled up in blue
So now I’m goin’ back again
I got to get to her somehow
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
But me, I’m still on the road
Headin’ for another joint
We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point of view
Tangled up in blue

Copyright © 1974 by Ram’s Horn Music; renewed 2002 by Ram’s Horn Music

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

087: Bob Dylan, ‘Black Diamond Bay’
126: Bob Dylan, ‘Tears of Rage’ (The Basement Tapes)
085: Randy Newman: ‘I Think It’s Going to Rain Today’ (First Album)

 

5 Comments

Astrid
Feb 15, 2013 at 3:35 pm

This album packs an emotional punch like few others. You did a first class job of breaking it down and showing some of the underpinnings of just how this album is so effective. Terrific post. Thank you so much for this blog. I also think your photos and captions are hilarious. Keep up the good work!

~Astrid in Ontario


 
Mike
Feb 15, 2013 at 4:17 pm

Ahhh, Dylan.


 
Malcolm Pordes
Feb 15, 2013 at 8:23 pm

Never seen that photo of Dylan with his family. Anyone know whether his kids have his talent?
Melanie does a good version of Sign On The Window. I wish more people could get past her awful hits and in to her deeper catalogue.


 
Recruiting Animal
Mar 5, 2013 at 1:57 am

Tangled Up In Blue is one of my favourite songs but I don’t share your enthusiasm (or Bill Wyman’s) for the album as a whole.

I found what you were saying about his painting lessons interesting but not fully comprehensible. It sounds like he was introduced to an expressionistic approach that, transposed to behaviour in daily life, would lead to a relaxation of personal discipline and inhibition. If so, it’s no surprise his wife couldn’t understand him.

And I’m sure you know that Dylan’s paintings were in the news recently because many were copied from photos without attribution.
http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/09/26/questions-raised-about-dylan-show-at-gagosian/


 
Recruiting Animal
Mar 5, 2013 at 2:08 am

I just listened to all 3 versions of Tangled Up In Blue. The Minnesota version that we’re all familiar with is clearly the best.


 

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