Thursday, October 25, 2007

Tangled Up in Blue - Dylan Project

Time for an fat update to my Bob Dylan Project that will have people running for the door like crazed jackalopes.

Tangled Up in Blue is among the most accessible of Dylan songs, and combines all the great things about his music that I state in painful detail on My Back Pages (the FAQ for this thingamabob) : poetry, storytelling, great music and great timing.

If I had to recommend one song as an intro to Dylan, this would be it. Why? In short, it has it all, and it was the song that got me hooked.

I still get chills every time I hear the opening low note - high note - strumming pattern that opens the song and repeats throughout.
So now let's circle back and have another look.

"Blood on the Tracks" is an outlier as an album, made in 1974, fairly long after Dylan's prime, but to me, emotionally his most powerful and honest work. His "King Lear." I hear he had to be talked into releasing "Idiot Wind," because it was so personal.

Blood on the Tracks has a unified theme, into which all the songs are in-folded: you could call it "the breakup," since that's what it centers around, but it also ends up telling the story of a whole relationship in condensed form. Like Homer's Illliad is just two weeks of a 10-year war, but the whole story gets crammed in.

The bloody heart of the album, the song "Idiot Wind," will absolutely be the topic of another post. But
-Simple Twist of Fate
-You're a Big Girl Now
-You're Going to Make Me Lonesome When You Go
-If You See Her, Say Hello
-Shelter From the Storm
-Buckets of Tears

are all great, great songs.

Blood on the Tracks is about Dylan and his wife, Sarah Lownds, apparently at a point in their marriage where it was all but over, but Dylan was still thinking about giving things one more try.
However in this case _ and this is highly unusual for me _ authorial intent isn't that important.


There comes a certain moment with music you love where you begin to adopt it as part of your self, which is I guess what people mean when they say they "identify with" a character in a story.

For me, the moment I began to absorb Dylan's music into my DNA came in 1996-7 when I heard Blood on the Tracks after I: broke up with a girl, looked her up a year later, and ended up the *loser* in a brief but spectacular love triangle.

The album tells a similar, but different story.

It begins with "Tangled Up in Blue," which again tells the whole story of the relationship, but in slices, like a Picasso or a fractured mirror. The other songs go into some element of the story in greater depth. Call it a "concept" album if you will. "Tangled Up In Blue" is the overture.

the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

The lyrics begin with the storyteller reflecting about the girl, after the end of "part two" of the relationship:

"Early one mornin' the sun was shinin'
I was layin in bed, wonderin if she'd changed at all,
if her hair was still red."


(footnote: my wife, my Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, has red hair).

The teller begins reminiscing about "part two" of their relationship, before they got married.
"Her folks they said our lives together, sure was going to be rough" & etc. Basically he was a poor boy, had it hard.
"Lord knows I've paid my dues getting through _ tangled up in blue."

One of the other great things about this song to pay attention to is how long Dylan pauses before heading into the refrain, 'tangled up in blue' _ varying exquisitely, with each verse, for maximum effect.

So then the teller launches into the full story, from the beginning of "part one":

"She was married when we first met _ soon to be divorced"
(CLASSIC line!)


"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 and looked at me, as I was walking away
I hear her say over my shoulder we'll meet again someday...on the avenue...
tangled up in blue."

So that's the first meeting and breakup.

Then there's a verse describing his travels without her. I think this would stand alone as poetry, no? You have to speak it with a drawl for the rhyme scheme to work...maybe you have to be American to appreciate how well Dylan captures Southern expressions. I alter the spellings from 'proper' English to give the flavor.


"I had a job in tha Great Nawth Woods, workin as a cook for a spell
But I never did like it awl that much and one day the axe jus' fell.
So I drifted down to New Orleans
Where I'z lucky 'nuff 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 'scaped my mind and I jus' grew
tangled up in blue."


Then the story moves to their second meeting, with her working in a topless bar.

Sarah Lownds was a Playboy bunny _ that part of the story doesn't fit my biography obviously, but I understand the jealousy it implies about other men looking at her...


"Later on, when the crowd thinned out,
I was just about to do the same,
She was standing there, in back of my chair
Said to me (Jimmy?) don't I know your name
I muttered something underneath my breath
She studied the lines on my face
I must admit, I felt a little uneasy when she bent tie the laces...of my shoes...
Tangled up in blues"

I laughed out loud the first time I heard that line. Now I just love the timing of the delivery.

They go back to her place, and he relates what anybody who has ever fallen in love will recognize as the experience of two minds meeting.


"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 13th century."

(I'm guessing Petrarch? Dylan had apparently never read it.)
"And every one of them words rang true and glowed like burnin' coal
pouring off of every page like it was written in my soul
from me to you,
Tangled up in blue."

That also gives me chills.

And now, jump shift to the most confusing verse.

"I lived with them on Montague street in a basement down the stairs
There was music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air"

The easiest explanation is, it's back to phase one, when he helped her out of a jam.
But my gut tells me he's talking about himself in both in the first and third person.

I guess everybody gets the "Romeo and Juliet" reference _ a doomed relationship.

"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."

It paints a brief picture of the breakup, anyhow. "When finally the bottom fell out" _ Just wait for Idiot Wind.

And finally, the semi-optimistic ending, which picks back up from the opening line of him lying in bed.


"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 carpenter's 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."

I can't get the line
"all the people I used to know, they're an illusion to me now
some are mathmeticians, some are carpenters' wives."

Out of my head.

All the people I used to know, including the girl that broke my heart at about the time I got hooked on Dylan, they're an illusion to me now.

And I'm with the right one, the mother of my children.

But the music; ah, it was wallowing in sweet misery for me then, and it's stayed with me until now.


Unknown said...

Lovely article, Toby! I never listened to the lyrics of that song so closely. It’s beautiful.

I think my suggestion for a follow up would be a song from Bringing It All back Home, which has some of my favourite Dylan songs on it.

I think of that that album as a transition between Dylan the revolutionist (like on 'the times they are a-changin') and Dylan the pop singer (with songs such as 'just like a woman' on Blonde on Blonde). Originally an LP, one side of the album has poppy songs on it like 'Maggie’s Farm' or the hilarious (and my actual introduction to Bob Dylan) 'Bob Dylan’s 115th dream'. The other side consists of 'Mr tambourine man', 'Gates of Eden', 'It's alright ma' and 'It's all over now, baby blue' All of these give me chills, but I think lyrically I like 'it's alright ma' best.

Incidentally, I translated a Dylan song once in high school: Dirge from Planet Waves. I still remember one part, I’m sure you can appreciate it:

There are those who worship loneliness, I'm not one of them,
In this age of fibreglass I'm searching for a gem.
The crystal ball up on the wall hasn't shown me nothing yet,
I've paid the price of solitude, but at last I'm out of debt.

Er zijn er die de eenzaamheid aanbidden, maar ik ben niet graag alleen
In deze tijd van plexiglas zoek ik een edelsteen
Ik heb nog niets vernomen uit de glazen bol bij mij op schoot
Ik heb de prijs voor eenzaamheid betaald, maar sta tenminste niet meer rood

Keep those Dylan stories coming! I'll be a-readin'.

ps Mrtn is Maarten, I apparently have a blogger account named Mrtn. I kinda like it

Toby Sterling said...

Love the translation _ that must have taken you a long time to get the nuances.
Yeah, I did do something on Tambourine Man and I'll probably get to It's All Over Now, Baby Blue _ but I consider the latter as one you can only love AFTER you love Dylan.
Anyhow, not sure what's next up, but probably from that period, which is what I mostly like, from Blonde on Blonde backwards. "I've got a little list..."