Every One of Them Words Rang True

The Defiance of Time in "Tangled Up in Blue"

by John Carvill

5 May 2010


"Tangled Up in Blue" is all about movement

Despite the title, which suggest stasis, “Tangled Up in Blue” is all about movement. Pretty much everything in the song involves, implies, or relates to some sort of motion: spatial, temporal, metaphorical, or even metaphysical. At the most literal level, the song is full of action; the lyrics are jam-packed with verbs, and the protagonist is almost invariably portrayed as on the move, from one place (and/or state) to another: ‘standing on the side of the road’, ‘heading for another joint’, ‘drifted down to New Orleans’, ‘I became withdrawn’, etc.

Like showers of soil kicked up by the hooves of a galloping horse, all sorts of post-modern questions about identity, perception, and the purpose of storytelling are scattered across the listener’s consciousness.

“Tangled Up in Blue” presents a complex blend of themes, each of which on their own would make for a fascinating piece of work: the portrayal of constant change, the feeling of temporal simultaneity, and the correspondingly conflicted sense of physical and sensual directionality:

“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 is walking away from the narrator, but turns to look back at him. He is walking away from her, moving in the opposite direction, yet her view is towards him. On top of that, his sense of her, hearing her “over my shoulder”, points in the opposite direction to the one he’s moving in. They are physically moving away from one another, but their senses (of sight and sound) are focused towards each other. It’s a microcosm for the whole song. 

Dylan spent several months working on the lyrics for Blood on the Tracks, writing and editing the songs in a little red notebook, which was eventually donated to the Morgan Library in New York, where it is held in trust and restricted from view until after Dylan’s death. Having spent so long working on the songs, Dylan recorded them quickly, not even stopping to correct mistakes such as the very audible rattling of his cuff buttons on the face of his acoustic guitar. Dylan re-recorded several of the album’s songs over Christmas in Minnesota, with the help of a bunch of session musicians rounded up by Dylan’s brother David. These later sessions produced the take of “Tangled Up in Blue” which eventually appeared on the finished album.

The original, New York, recordings of “Tangled Up in Blue” actually featured an even more elusive sense of narratorial identity, with the protagonist being described in the third person from the first verse—- “he was layin’ in bed”—all the way through to the fourth verse, when it suddenly changed to the first person: “I stopped in for a beer.” One of the New York takes, recorded in New York in September 1974, was eventually released on the Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare and Unreleased) box set, in 1991. It’s a beautiful, reflective performance, but is itself an inferior alternative to the New York take which was originally slated for inclusion on the album, and has yet to be officially released.

It’s fitting, perhaps, that not only is the released version of “Tangled Up in Blue” an alternative to the original version, but there is also more than one version of the original version itself. This complicated set of song versions suggests itself as a parallel for the song’s deliberate blurring of first, second, and third persons, what Dylan called the “the he and the she and the I and the you, and the we and the us”.  (New Music Express,1978) When you refer to “Tangled Up in Blue”, you are making reference to a very specific recording; the Minnesota take which was released on the Blood on the Tracks album and which has been played millions of times by music fans all over the world; but you are also (intentionally or otherwise) alluding to a sort of Venn diagram of song versions, making it hard to say which is the ‘definitive’ one. All of this gels nicely with the questions of conflicted and indistinct identity relating to Dylan himself—we don’t know who “the real Bob Dylan” is, and, as he has often said himself, neither does he.

Again, this works on a similar level to a cubist painting, and, just as the shuffling of tenses may not be immediately apparent when hearing the song for the first time, listening to one of the New York takes, you may not notice, first time round, that the pronoun switches from ‘he’ to ‘I’. As Dylan himself said to music journalist and film-maker Cameron Crowe in the liner notes for the Biograph boxed set in 1975, he was trying to make the song work like a painting, “where you can see the different parts but then you also see the whole of it”, and the first-time listener usually hears only the “whole of it”, rather than zeroing in on “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.” The crucial point, though, is that “as you look at the whole thing, it really doesn’t matter.”

The New York and Minnesota recordings of “Tangled Up in Blue” are not, of course, the only versions. Dylan has performed the song hundreds of times in concert, and has made a number of attempts at reworking the lyrics, the most substantial alterations being made on his 1984 tour, documented on the Real Live album. Some of these rewritten lyrics (and their enunciations) offer a wonderful, spine-tingling frisson: “And he was standing on the side of the road / Rain falling on his shoes / Heading out for the old East coast / Radio blasting the news / Straight on through / Tangled Up in Blue.”

The solo acoustic version he performed on the Rolling Thunder tour, which can be heard on the album Bob Dylan Live 1975 (The Bootleg Series Volume 5) is sprightly and powerful, and must have been electrifying to witness live. It’s also about a minute shorter than the released version, which was itself a full minute shorter than the original New York take. Also worth mentioning here is the long, slow, saxophone-heavy, ‘grand ballad’ version, performed on Dylan’s 1978 tour, which is more noteworthy for its unusual musical arrangement than for any significant lyrical reinventions.

What all of these later versions have in common is that they are hugely enjoyable riffs on an existing template, but they never threaten to overshadow the “official”, album version. Dylan claimed that the Real Live version came closer to what he was originally trying to achieve, whereas many critics regard the New York takes are “superior” to the Minnesota version. Yet the fact remains that the version we hear on the Blood on the Tracks album remains the most important and, yes, the best version of the song. We enjoy the alternative versions, but we can never seriously suggest that, were we given the chance to compile a definitive track-listing of Blood on the Tracks, we would opt to include any other version of “Tangled Up in Blue” in place of the one that was originally released. That version is so cohesive, so marvellously accordant, that it is now impossible to think of it being replaced by one of the New York takes, whatever their undoubted merits.

More pertinently, given the song’s crucial album-opening position, the fact that this is the most propulsive take is in keeping with its role as the linchpin of Blood on the Tracks, the driving force for the album and, by extension, the next phase of Dylan’s career. It is, arguably, the single most astonishing achievement on the album. It is, undoubtedly, the most important song on Blood on the Tracks. So striking an opener is it, in fact, that it recalls another key Dylan song that opened a classic album, “Like a Rolling Stone”. Its first line even resembles the fairy-tale wording of that first track on Highway 61 Revisited: “Once upon a time” versus “Early one morning”.

“Tangled Up in Blue” doesn’t really tell a story, per se. Instead, it presents a series of ineffably evocative vignettes. Just as a movie consists of a series of still images, flashed onto the screen in sufficiently rapid succession to trick the eye into perceiving motion where none actually exists, the listener is seduced into filling in the blanks, becoming an active participant in the construction of the narrative. In acquiring the techniques which allowed him to write “Tangled Up in Blue”, Dylan became such a passionate disciple of Raeben’s teachings that it alienated him from his wife, Sara, as he explained to Pete Oppel of the Dallas Morning News in 1978:

“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.”

Raeben gave (or assisted Dylan in finding) the techniques that would allow him to write the songs which would rejuvenate his career, songs which were overwhelmingly concerned with the breakup of his marriage to Sara. And the extent of Dylan’s involvement with Raeben became a further contributory factor to the problems which ultimately led to Dylan’s divorce from Sara. The final irony was that the ‘friends’ who Dylan recalled discussing their definitions of ‘truth’ and ‘beauty’, who led him to seek out Norman Raeben, weren’t really friends of his at all. They were actually friends of Sara’s.

In an interview he gave to Rolling Stone magazine in 1977, Dylan once again discussed themes of splintered identity, and the use of cubist techniques, in relation to his seldom-seen film, Renaldo and Clara, pointing out that when “you look at a painting by Cezanne, you get lost in that painting for that period of time. And you breathe, yet time is going by and you wouldn’t know it, you’re spell-bound.” That’s exactly the experience most people have of listening to “Tangled Up in Blue” for the first time: you would be hard-pressed to accurately guess how long the song had lasted. You survey the canvas of the song, perhaps noting details, maybe just letting the whole thing wash over you. You breathe. Time passes. Yet you would never know it—you’re spell-bound.

John Carvill is a UK-based freelance reviewer, and the Editor of oomska, an online arts & pop culture magazine.

Topics: bob dylan
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