“Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” T. S. Eliot
BOB DYLAN’S “TANGLED UP IN BLUE,” from his 1975 classic Blood On the Tracks, is unfinished. Always has been, always will be. Its incompleteness, however, is part of its power. It is no accident. Dylan engineered “Tangled Up In Blue” to be open-ended, unsealed, and shape-shifting, not unlike a jazz composition. He tinkers with it, sometimes radically reinventing it, both lyrically and melodically, to this day, making it one of the most resilient, resonant unfinished songs ever.
“Tangled Up In Blue” first rose in1973, when Dylan’s marriage to Sara Lownds was on the rocks. Blood On the Tracks, in fact, is widely considered Dylan’s “divorce album.” (The couple would officially split, after twelve years of marriage, in 1977.)
The emotional intensity of a failing marriage was new ground for Dylan. For all his experience, the Bard of Hibbing had not yet tackled intense personal heartbreak in his songwriting, and he was suffused with it. True, he’d already penned most of the material that would rightfully crown him “The Greatest Songwriter of the Rock Era”: “Blowin’ In the Wind,” “The Times They Are A-Changing,” “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “Like A Rolling Stone,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” “Maggie’s Farm,” “Visions of Johanna,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” and “Highway 61, Revisited,” to name a few; he’d been The Great White Hope of Folk, the New Woody Guthrie, the clarion voice of a generation on the steps of the Capitol, opening for MLK with the most potent of protest songs; he’d morphed into the enfant terrible wielding a Strat and fronting a cantankerous blues rock band at Newport Folk Fest, biting the hand that fed; he’d influenced the Beatles (and thus, everyone), electrified folk, taken a lot of amphetamines, and forever altered popular music. All before he turned thirty.
But the wrenching pain of a crumbling marriage? Terra incognita.
He’d tried to leave chaos behind, to no avail. A mysterious 1966 “motorcycle accident” (no hospital reports exist) had precipitated retirement from the spotlight, a detour leading away from an early grave. Manager Albert Grossman had been pressuring Dylan to perform ever more, but the body housing all that unprecedented creative force was faltering. Instead, after “crashing his Triumph,” Dylan hunkered down in Woodstock, tended his singed wings, released quieter, understated (and less favorably reviewed) albums, and became a family man. He and Sara – to whom he’d devoted an entire LP side of 1966’s Blonde On Blonde, with “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” – stayed three years in the Catskills. Bored and unhappy, they moved with their growing brood (three sons and a daughter, eventually) from Manhattan to California, as Dylan gradually let himself be drawn back to the spotlight.
Not surprisingly, the spotlight – the 1974 Before the Flood tour with the The Band in particular – widened cracks in his marriage. Shit got very ugly, and corresponded with a downturn in Dylan’s productivity. Eager to jumpstart his flow – and seeking refuge from his unhappy home – Dylan dropped in on painting classes at Carnegie Hall, falling under the spell of seventy-three-year-old teacher Norman Raeben.
Bereft Dylan was showing up to class a mess, in the thrall of intense emotions unresponsive to his famed songwriter touch. This heartbreak was a much more slippery animal than, say, apocalyptic visions, societal injustices, and/or lysergic discourses. How to shape the distinctive pain of failed family man into song? Raeben encouraged Dylan to free himself from linear narrative, approach the songs like paintings, but with words.
Dylan listened, and got to work. Here’s what he told Cameron Crowe: “I guess I was just trying to make it like a painting where you can see the different parts but then you also see the whole of it. With that particular song, that’s what I was trying to do . . . with the concept of time, and the way the characters change from the first person to the third person, and you’re never quite sure if the third person is talking or the first person is talking. But as you look at the whole thing it really doesn’t matter.”
Here’s Dylan’s first stab at it:
Yet, even with fictionalized details, that first version was still too raw, too intimate. (For Dylan, not for me. It’s my favorite.) In a wonderfully expansive piece in Uncut, Nick Hasted writes that Dylan, after carrying around an acetate of the recording for months, halted production of Blood On the Tracks so he could re-record “Tangled Up In Blue” (and several other tunes). With different musicians, he presented what would become the most well-known version in a different key (key of A, and in standard tuning, in case you’re wondering), more up-tempo, different chords, and most interesting, it begins in the first person, unlike the earlier version.
Some words are different, too. Instead of “working for awhile in an airplane plant loading cargo onto a truck,” the protagonist is “working for awhile on a fishin’ boat right outside of Delacroix.” Because, of course, Delacroix is much more euphonious than truck.
Many who love the song do not consciously realize the unusual perceptual devices Dylan employs. I, for one, enjoyed “Tangled Up in Blue” countless times before I caught the lyrical oddities, and I only did so when I heard my wife’s demagnetized bootleg cassette of the version that was too raw for Blood On the Tracks. (This bootleg would see official release in 1991 on The Bootleg Series.)
But still, that “official” version? The one most likely to inspire head bobbing in the produce aisle of the supermarket? A mere blueprint, a sketch, subject to change. When he took it out in front of folks, he was back to third person in the beginning.
Dylan himself claims his favorite version is from 1984’s Real Live, on which he extensively rewrites passages, whole new verses and characters traversing the stage. He also alters the melody and chords, to the audience’s delight, and once again introduces the protagonist in the third person. (He never hews to the “official” version, ever.) According to him, this is the jam.
Then there’s this, which is it’s own animal. Dylan, at times, sings as if he is the woman in the relationship. “Now I’m going back again, I got to get to him somehow.”
What the hell is going on? Although all iterations are much longer than the average pop song, and the meaning won’t sit still for a snapshot, this eminently accessible piece of pop art plays on smartphones, laptops, stereos, and brain radios at this very moment, remaining in the firmament for forty years, weathering dizzying cultural changes and Dylan’s own nuttiness so that it now plays alongside Sam Smith and Maroon 5 on the public sound system. (Well, the “official” version.) Yet it is odd, odd, odd. Beautiful, but odd.
I maintain Dylan, as he is wont to do, tapped into something mystical, so even if you’re not conscious of why you respond as it washes over you, it doesn’t matter. The programmers probably don’t know what they’re dealing with either; they just know folks dig it. I think one of the reasons folks dig it is because it taps into dreamtime.
All that advice from Raeben about employing nonlinear storytelling led to Dylan using the language of dreams to convey this emotion-heavy material. Think about it: in dreams, people shape shift, you experience time differently, your personal truths emerge from the shadows, you fly, you kill, you’re standing there, at the back of her chair saying “What’s your name?” The rules of reality change.
Dreams are rarely exact. The indirect “Tangled Up In Blue” approach allows us to actually see and feel, not unlike watching an eclipse indirectly, lest you go blind; the emotional currents are too hot and fluid to be constrained to a definitive set of chords, an exact melody. All must remain amorphous. And no matter the rendition of “Tangled Up In Blue,” each evokes dreamtime, and as in a dream, they’re all the same thing, yet not.
Dylan, of course, survived his broken marriage and went on to experience many more return-to-form moments (and low points), defying expectations and confounding folks up until just last week, when he sang “The Night We Called It A Day” on Letterman‘s second-to-the-last show. (I thought it was moving. Some of my friends thought it sucked. That’s Dylan for you.) His fans talk on about their most and least favorite Dylan albums and/or periods, and what each does for them. For me, “Tangled Up In Blue” – particularly the early bootleg version – ranks with his best. It’s up there with the Bringing It All back Home-Highway 61 Revisited-Blonde On Blonde triumvirate. His soul was bare, an exposed nerve, and in this song in particular, he found a means to share it with authenticity while keeping everyone – himself, his lover, his faithful listener – protected.
Even as he alters the receptacle for this changeling tune, it speaks to me still, and ever will, though it’s hard to put it into waking words exactly what transpires in the head and heart as it plays. How I feel about it would be better sung and/or dreamt.
In any event, Dylan would soon go from evoking the language of dreams to embracing the God of Abraham as a means of grappling with his passions. That’s when he lost me for a bit. But “Tangled Up In Blue” – whichever one you prefer – remains a window into a place where artistic force alone reigns over the tyranny of time, space, and loss.