Back in 2006, Bob Dylan was interviewed for yet another Rolling Stone cover story. Looking back on the tumultuous decade in which he’d first made his name, Dylan reminded the interviewer, author Jonathan Lethem, that he was “talking to someone who owns the ‘60s”. Which is true. The flip side, though, is that for a long time, the ‘60s seemed to pretty much own Bob Dylan. It was as though he had signed some kind of Faustian bargain with the spirit of that decade, guaranteeing him artistic success and a quasi-religious following, but forbidding him ever to evolve beyond it.
Had Dylan’s infamous motorcycle crash in 1966 actually killed him, it would have been seen as a fitting end to his story: it could have been his James Dean moment, the 500cc Triumph Tiger serving as a perfect metaphor for the breakneck speed and unpredictable trajectory of his ‘60s career. Like some sort of countercultural Icarus, they would have said, he flew too high, too fast, and was thrown back to the ground. Tragic, but inevitable.
Blood on the Tracks
(Columbia; US: 17 Jan 1975)
Instead, after a brief hiatus during which all sorts of rumours about the crash circulated, Dylan returned; but the Dylan who returned seemed even more of an enigma than the one who’d momentarily vanished. If Dylan’s audience had trouble relating to the new Dylan who emerged, Dylan himself had problems relating to his own art, and even his own sense of self, as he stated to Craig McGregor in New Music Express in March 1978:
“Well, it wasn’t that the crash was so bad. I couldn’t handle the fall. I was just too spaced out. So it took me a while to get my senses back. And once I got them back I couldn’t remember too much. It was almost as if I had amnesia. I just couldn’t connect for a long, long time.”
A lot of Dylan fans shared that sense of disconnection. To many, Dylan’s post-crash career was a letdown; if the stripped-back countrified arrangements and minimalist, Biblically-flavoured lyrics of John Wesley Harding were bad enough, then subsequent albums such as Nashville Skyline and New Morning seemed ten times worse.
By the mid-‘70s, Dylan was seen as something of an anachronism, whose only contemporary appeal was retrospective. The hugely successful 1974 “comeback” tour with the Band, which had filled stadiums and set records for ticket sales, was viewed as an exercise in nostalgia, a chance for aging hippies and well-fed baby boomers to fondly recall the high tides of the ‘60s from the calmer, more contented shores of the ‘70s.
The 74-city tour had coincided with the release of Dylan’s 14th studio album, Planet Waves, which received a fairly muted response: it hit number one on the U.S. Billboard charts, but only because of pre-sales; business dropped off sharply, and overall it was far from a spectacular success, particularly when compared with the phenomenal popularity of the tour. This served to reinforce the impression that Dylan was very much an artist of the ‘60s. He had dominated that decade, but now that decade was becoming an albatross around his neck, threatening to drag him under. As the ‘60s receded into the past, so the cultural phenomenon known as “Bob Dylan”, once such a powerful force, appeared to be ebbing slowly away.
Put simply, Blood on the Tracks reversed that process. His most pivotal album since (at least) Bringing It All Back Home, it was simultaneously a return, stylistically and conceptually, to his earlier, acoustically driven work, and also a determined, irreversible leap forwards.
If Blood on the Tracks as a whole exploded the gathering consensus that Dylan’s best work was behind him, “Tangled Up in Blue”, being the opening track, was the song that lit the fuse. Leaping out of the speakers with an unrivalled sense of assurance and subtle aggression, this was an unambiguous and incontrovertible announcement that the game had forever changed.
By the time a contemporary listener to Blood on the Tracks had watched the needle make its way across that first inch or so of black vinyl, winding its way around the first set of grooves to the end of track one, and had heard the last verse of “Tangled Up in Blue” go ringing by, there could have been no doubting that Dylan was officially back.
Despite the plethora of Dylan biographies and critical studies, mystery still surrounds the source of Dylan’s inspiration for many of his most remarkable creations. Biographers and “Dylanologists” have illumined a certain amount (a lot, in fact) about Dylan the man, Dylan the artist, and the complex relationship(s) between the two; but none of this has done anything to erode the idea that Dylan is utterly sui generis, or to alleviate the sense of awe which inevitably attends any serious contemplation of Dylan’s songwriting. Where does an album like Blonde on Blonde, or a song such as “Like a Rolling Stone” come from? How does someone go about constructing something like that? We can’t even begin to speculate because thinking of such works in those terms feels like a category error.
In the case of Blood on the Tracks, however, the specific circumstances surrounding Dylan’s inspiration are actually quite well documented. Obviously, the subject matter is assumed to be highly autobiographical, whatever the vehemence of Dylan’s denials, or his sly, coquettish claims, in Chronicles, Volume One, that the whole album was based on “a book of Chekhov stories”. Musically, Dylan was influenced in open guitar tunings by Joni Mitchell’s album Blue, also said to have inspired the title for “Tangled Up in Blue”, although that explanation has never felt right. But what was really different about the song writing on Blood on the Tracks was the very particular set of methods Dylan employed in the construction of the narratives, methods which were closely related to abstract and cubist concepts in the field of painting, an art form in which Dylan had long been keenly interested; these methods allowed Dylan to break out of the artistic impasse he found himself in.
Dylan has repeatedly discussed, in interviews, the crippling sense of “amnesia” and confusion that plagued him at the time, the uncertainty regarding how to progress, and the circumstances leading to his being equipped to transcend those problems. “Blood on the Tracks did consciously what I used to do unconsciously”, he said. “I knew how to do it because it was a technique I learned, I actually had a teacher for it.” (Circus Weekly, December 1979)
The teacher in question was a man named Norman Raeben who was, at the time Dylan met him, an octogenarian art teacher, working in a studio on an upper floor of Carnegie Hall in New York. Dylan had been prompted to seek out Raeben when he overheard some friends discussing artistic ideas of “love” and “beauty” and seeming to have very concrete, confidently held definitions for these words:
By all accounts, Raeben was a classic non-sufferer of fools, who would routinely lambast his pupils with loud cries of “Idiot!”, reputedly leading to Dylan’s use of this pithy epithet in the song “Idiot Wind”. In any case, Dylan, who had long had an amateur interest in painting, met with Raeben and was immediately impressed with the extent to which Raeben was not at all impressed by, and even seemed to be totally unaware of, Dylan’s fame. (The story goes that Raeben, sizing up Dylan’s dishevelled appearance, took him for a vagrant and offered him food and board in return for Dylan cleaning up his studio).
Discussing the aspects which set Blood on the Tracks apart, Dylan said, “Everybody agrees that that was pretty different, and what’s different about it is that there’s a code in the lyrics and also there’s no sense of time.” (Rolling Stone, November 1978)
What can we say about the code in the lyrics? More than any other artist in the history of popular music, Dylan has been the subject of analysis, interpretation, and theorising. That his lyrics might contain some sort of code is a dangerous line of enquiry to pursue, and Dylan has often railed against people who do so. There are intriguing possibilities, though.
In “Tangled Up in Blue” Dylan mentions Delacroix, a Louisianan town near the Gulf of Mexico (where a roadside billboard once reportedly informed visitors, “You have reached the end of the world” – meaning anyone aboard a fishing boat “outside of Delacroix” might find themselves in some quite dubious waters). But Delacroix was also the name of a 19th century painter who influenced the French Symbolist poets, notably Arthur Rimbaud, himself a crucial literary influence on Dylan. Rimbaud is explicitly mentioned elsewhere on the album, and could perhaps have provided the model for the character in “Tangled Up in Blue” who “started in to dealing with slaves”, as Rimbaud was said to have done in his later years in Africa. If so, Delacroix’s influence on the Rimbaud would be a neat analogy for the way Raeben would influence Dylan.
When Raeben decided to allow Dylan to enroll in his art class, he set a vase down on a table in front of him, left it there only a few seconds, then snatched it away and demanded Dylan draw it. It was a potent demonstration of the importance, and impermanence, of perception, the first of many revelatory lessons which Dylan would take away from Raeben’s art studio and transpose to his own field of artistic endeavour. Raeben, Dylan said, “taught me how to see. He put my mind and my hand and my eye together in a way that allowed me to do consciously what I unconsciously felt.” (Rolling Stone, November 1978)
“Tangled Up in Blue” plays a number of subtle games with our ability to make sense of what is being said and by whom, deftly juggling aspects of narrative which we normally expect to remain static. Most obviously, there’s the lack of linearity, the ambiguity over how (or even whether) each verse connects with the others. Is the character who begins the song “layin’ in bed” the same one we meet at the end, “still on the road, headin’ for another joint”? And, if so, how does that opening scene relate, chronologically, to the closing verse? Is it later? Or earlier? Or maybe the same scene? We have no way of knowing.
Throughout the song, we are given literally nothing we can use to pin down the narrative. The words are a coherence-defying mix of detailed and vague. The internal logic of the song’s narrative is mercurial and kaleidoscopically diffuse; it is impossible to say whether one, two, or several relationships are being dissected during its verses. Is the ‘I’ who meets the ‘she’ who is working in “a topless place” the same ‘I’ who lived with ‘them’ on “Montague Street”? Is the ‘she’ who hands him the “book of poems” from the “thirteenth century” part of that ‘them’ and, if so, who is the third party? We can make suppositions and educated guesses, but we cannot make definitive statements.
A further, self-referential twist is added by that knowing line in the final verse, “we just saw it from a different point of view”, which could be taken as referring to Bob and Sara Dylan’s relationship (assuming we stick to the most obviously autobiographical interpretation); alternatively, that ‘we’ could just as easily mean all of ‘us’: the audience, the song’s characters, and Dylan himself, all experiencing the narrative from our various points of view. This offers a paradoxical combination of communality and alienation.
That last verse also contains an important shift in tenses. Throughout the preceding verses, the past tense has been used exclusively: “I stopped in for a beer”, “I became withdrawn”, etc. Of course, each instance may be looking back from any given point in time to any other given time which precedes it; nevertheless, there’s a prevailing sense of retrospection. Now, in the final verse, the tense shifts: “now I’m goin’ back again, I got to get to her somehow”.
Dylan described these techniques in terms of “the break-up of time, where there is no time, trying to make the focus as strong as a magnifying glass under the sun, you know.” (Circus Weekly, December 1979) The song’s subversion of conventional conceptions of narrative time amounts to an attempt to “defy” time: “there’s no respect for it: you’ve got yesterday, today, and tomorrow all in the same room, and there’s very little that you can’t imagine not happening.” (Rolling Stone, November 1978) Thus, even within the final verse’s swing from the past to the present, there is a subtle sense of vacillating tenses; we are now in the present, but the words refer to “goin’ back”: “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.”
As usual with Dylan, what he’s saying is not nearly so important as how he’s saying it. What’s really striking is not the plain fact that Dylan is switching back and forth between tenses, but the sheer artistry in the way he weaves these modulations into the fabric of the song. The listener could very easily be excused for not consciously noticing them; instead, they filter through subconsciously to form part of your overall sense of the song on a less tangible level. Dylan’s extraordinary vocal performance—- lithe, nuanced, utterly mesmerising—- distracts us from the fact that we are being pulled through a rapid succession of alternating senses of past and present: now he’s going back again, the people he used to know, they’re an illusion to him now.