One of the most revealing aspects of Blood on the Tracks is the anger and lack of maturity that love can bring out in those that are old enough to know better. Quite often the album seems to adopt the refrain of 1964’s “My Back Pages” as its mantra and despite the extra years of lived life and experiences, the voices Dylan sings in seem younger than those of his past work.
Nowhere is this more evident than in “Idiot Wind”. Eleven years prior to that song’s release, Dylan released “All I Really Want to Do”. Taken at face value, this pop-infused folk song seems a bit slight and naïve:
“I don’t want to fake you out / Take or shake or forsake you out / I ain’t lookin’ for you to feel like me / See like me or be like me / All I really want to do / Is, baby, be friends with you,” Dylan sings in his best Dust Bowl voice, whooping to falsetto at each refrain and laughing in the middle of the last verse, giving the impression that the entire song is little more than internal rhyme and child’s play.
The sweet naïveté of “All I Really Want to Do” is bludgeoned beneath the childish tantrum of “Idiot Wind”, an ugly portrait of a man who feels betrayed by the woman he loves. The track is magnificently performed, sung with such frantic desperation and spite, that it’s difficult to see the charming child of “All I Really Want to Do” in the midst of the angry man spitting the lyric, “You’re an idiot, babe / It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe” to anybody willing to listen to him unburden himself of such immature vitriol.
“I been double-crossed now for the very last time and now I’m finally free,” Dylan cautions in “Wind”, but at the song’s conclusion he sounds anything but free and he certainly isn’t happy.
The two songs present another difference that comes with age, the youthful conception of a romantic ideal that all too frequently grows into a dissatisfying romantic reality. When listening to the songs under the premise that they are being sung by the same narrator, a listener can use a direct line from “My Back Pages” to describe the relationship between the two: “Ah, but I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now.”
The naïve notion of not wanting to “block you up / shock or knock or lock you up” and simply be friends with a woman is immature and certainly sung from the viewpoint of somebody with very little relationship experience. However, it’s far more mature than the experienced man who verbally undresses a woman simply because they won’t be lovers for that much longer. Once again, Dylan manages to express the feelings of an experienced man who has no words of his own because for all of his experience, he hasn’t quite experienced this yet.
In a world of romantic idealism, the boy who just wants to be friends would mature into the narrator of “Shelter from the Storm”, a beautifully poignant ballad about romantic dependency that finds a young man that doesn’t try to change the woman he loves, but he has little need to because the woman he loves is a paragon of maternalism intent on protecting him at every turn until, having been taken for granted one time too many, she begins to pull away. The song contains sadness and loss, but is completely devoid of anger. There is just a sense of longing for what was and what should still be. “If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born / ‘Come in,’ she said, ‘I’ll give you shelter from the storm,’” Dylan sings in a beautifully honest vocal.
The fact that “Idiot Wind” and “Shelter from the Storm” appear on the same album is proof that this isn’t a romantically ideal world. It is also further proof of Dylan’s power as a lyricist. He pens the thoughts of an angry man kicking and screaming his way to the end of a relationship he can’t wait to get out of. He writes the thoughts of a sad man who realizes he’s lost his most loving relationship due to his own actions. He then sequences them a mere five tracks apart leaving the listener to wonder if they are thoughts of the same relationship.
The Voice, the Twist, the Tangle and the Blue
Blood on the Tracks was more than a study of love and loss, or a study of romantic idealism aging to a stark reality; it was also a study of resignation and confusion.
“You play with my world / Like it’s your little toy,” Dylan sang in 1963’s “Masters of War”, a prototypical Bob Dylan narrator, a brash young singer who would never simply let life happen to him because he was too busy happening to life. The world the warmongers were destroying belonged to him, after all. With the stakes so high there simply wasn’t time to be passive. The man singing “Masters of War” would never wait for a “Simple Twist of Fate”.
The ‘60s had much more to offer than romantic, or even political idealism; the youth movement had a definite sense of movement. Like the youth of any era, they weren’t always certain what they were fighting for, but they were certain they should be fighting for something, doing something, moving forward as part of a progression. So even if their lives proved to be complete shams, and they lost everything and felt “like a complete unknown” they still felt “like a rolling stone”. The doll that was bound to fall in 1965’s “Like a Rolling Stone” still moved on.
By 1975 many, Dylan included, had married and begun to raise families. This one simple fact changes the fights that a person is willing fight on a daily basis. The 19-year-old of “Masters of War” will sing “And I hope that you die / And your death will come soon” and he will watch the masters of war be lowered into the ground so he knows they are actually dead. The 31-year-old, however, feels “the heat of the night hit him like a freight train / Moving with a simple twist of fate.”
“Simple Twist of Fate” is perhaps the saddest song Blood on the Tracks has to offer because it is a portrait of inaction sung, more beautifully than Dylan ever seems to get credit for, by a man that had come to signify action. It is a song entirely told in past tense and the tense seems to make it all the more passive.
“Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”, is an amazing, rollicking heist as relationship metaphor masterpiece. The story, also told in past tense, finds virtually everybody in a small western town waiting on the elusive bank robber the Jack of Hearts. There is action in the song to be sure, but any action taken is in response to or anticipation of the Jack himself, a character who remains little more than metaphor. By the song’s end, Rosemary is on the gallows being hanged for killing Big Jim because she wanted a life with the Jack of Hearts. The up-tempo forward movement in the song belies the backward movement of its characters.
The characters in “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”, with the exception of Jack himself, are discontented, but they aren’t the discontented youths of 1965; when they find themselves in unbearable situations they are unable to roll, “like a rolling stone”, into new ones. They are victims of the confusing nature of reality, who make the wrong choices and get trapped in even worse ones.
Finally, resignation rears its head again in Blood on the Tracks’ opening track, “Tangled Up in Blue”. However the narrator (or narrators since the song can be seen to have more than one) is neither the passive figure of “Simple Twist of Fate” helpless to take action nor the passive until desperate characters of “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” who take detrimental action.
The voice of “Tangled Up in Blue” is the voice of a man that has been through a lot but is still able to be hopeful. The vocal, one of Dylan’s best ever, simply sung with a complete absence of artifice, tells of a woman or several women, that the narrator has loved. The narrator is alone and he is sad, the blue-eyed innocence of “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” has abandoned the singer and he’s now “Tangled Up in Blue”. However, he remembers how it feels to be “like a rolling stone” and he decides to” … “keep on keepin’ on like a bird that flew”. He seems resigned to wait for the next love that comes his way but seems certain this next love will find him elsewhere.
The Voice, the Cliché and the Truth
Bob Dylan is not the voice of a generation. He is much more than that.
He is the voice of his generation, at every point of his generation’s timeline. He gave voice to rebellious youth, and young love. As he and his listener’s aged, he gave them Blood on the Tracks, a masterpiece of the love, lost idealism and resignation, an album that served as a guarantee that Bob Dylan would always, in spite of himself, give voice to the emotions his generation couldn’t quite put into words.
Blood on the Tracks, and its spare soundscape detailing the dissolution of a once healthy relationship, made Bob Dylan pop culture’s universal contemporary bard. Time would prove that Blood on the Tracks not only served to give a voice to Dylan’s generation, but all of those that have followed thus far.
Bob Dylan is not the voice of a generation. Bob Dylan is the voice of generations.