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Between the Grooves

Between the Grooves offers our writers' individual, incisive insights into the cloaked, mercurial music and history that permeates the mysterious and allegorical littered world of Blood on the Tracks.

"Tangled Up in Blue"

A poor young man, a redhead, a married woman, a topless dancer, a cook, two lovers of poetry, a slave owner and a mathematician.

It sounds like a list that should be followed by the phrase "walk into a bar..." However, as created by the pen of Bob Dylan, they are not a joke at all; they are the seemingly disparate pieces of one of Dylan's most amazing compositions, "Tangled Up in Blue".

Opening up an album with a timeless tale of lost love is a strong statement for any musician to make, but with Blood on the Tracks Bob Dylan chose a statement that was much stronger.

He opened it with "Tangled Up in Blue", a timeless tale of lost love.

He opened it with "Tangled Up in Blue", two timeless tales of lost love.

He opened it with "Tangled Up in Blue", several tales of lost love presented by various narrators about any number of women.

Devoid of all linear storytelling, "Tangled Up in Blue" is a far departure from any average love song released before or since.

It starts simply enough, in the morning. "Early one mornin' the sun was shinin' / I was layin' in bed / Wond'rin' if she'd change at all / If her hair was still red" Dylan sings matter-of-factly in first person narration. He mentions that her parents didn't like his parents because they were too poor before ending the first verse on the side of the road proclaiming, "Lord knows I've paid some dues getting' through / Tangled up in blue."

Through the course of one 13-line verse, Dylan introduces two young lovers, offers a glimpse of conflict and leaves the impression that they're not going to last. Then? Well then he moves on.

He begins the second verse in the voice of a new narrator, possibly, and sings of his love for a married woman in the midst of a divorce, a woman that doesn't seem to have any relation to the redhead at all. Once again he sings of love and the loss of love. By the time he begins the third verse, he's a cook that gets fired and travels to New Orleans alone: "... seen a lot of women / But she never escaped my mind, and I just grew / Tangled up in blue."

The "she" that is in such strong possession of his affection could be the redhead or it could be the married woman, but in order for it to be either it means that the cook has to be the narrator from either the first or second verse. The "she" in question might be both the redhead and the married woman, but that would mean that they have to be the same woman.

Dylan never gives any answers; he never connects any dots. He simply continues to introduce a new coupling in each verse (possibly a threesome in the sixth) that can function as a story all on its own but can just as easily be linked to one or more of its counterparts.

That's how exhilarating a jigsaw puzzle "Tangled Up in Blue" is. It is a masterpiece that never ceases to be organic, the pop equivalent of an E. E. Cummings poem. The verses are interchangeable and any path a listener chooses still leads them to write part of each story themselves. Any attempt to make the story linear yields a musical mobius strip that continues to flip itself inside out. The ambiguity is the cornerstone of "Tangled Up in Blue"'s genius. It is what has kept listeners tangled up in it for 35 years. Gregg Lipkin


"Simple Twist of Fate"

On an album of captivating story-songs and crushing ballads, “Simple Twist of Fate” is unique. Unlike Blood on the Tracks' epics, “Simple Twist of Fate” is the story of a single night; unlike most of the ballads, which tend to move around time and space in a near-stream of consciousness, “Simple Twist of Fate” concentrates everything -- meeting, interaction, parting, aftermath -- into one focused, linear narrative.

Softly emerging from the silence following the full-band “Tangled Up in Blue”, the quiet of Dylan's strum emphasizes the solitude of the narrator, a man relating the story of a couple who meet, hook up, and separate by morning. The woman disappears, and the man is left wandering around dazed, wondering what happened and whether he'll see her again. In the last of “Simple Twist of Fate”'s six verses, the narrative shifts from third person to first, and the singer relates his own situation to the story he's just told us, without explicitly saying, “Yes, I was that man.” But what else are we to make of the stray first-person phrase, “I remember well,” sung in the second verse in a way that actually sounds like a reminiscence, like a slip-up that betrays the identity of the man we aren't supposed to think is the singer himself? Despite Dylan's own protestations to the contrary, it's easy to read “Simple Twist of Fate” as being a confessional song, autobiographical in attitude or emotion if not in fact.

One of the hallmarks of a great Bob Dylan performance, I think, is an abundance of little moments -- not hooks, exactly, because these wonderful moments typically only happen once -- but accidents, a stray note, or just the way a word escapes his lips. “Simple Twist of Fate” is a great Bob Dylan performance. The way he comes in a fraction too early with the phrase “of a blind man at the gate” -- so that we hear the first word as something like “above” -- is one of those tiny flaws that anyone else would've edited out in the name of perfection, or the way he sings “twist” in the final line, as a two-syllable word.

We can't ignore the hooks, though, and there are a couple of brilliant ones here, in the tension-building chord Dylan hits in the fourth line of each verse, and the way that line builds to a scream (“straaaaaaaight,” “laaaaaaaaaate”) before resolving with the title phrase.

Somewhere between the hook and the happy little moment is Tony Brown's wonderfully imaginative bass playing. Listen to the very beginning of the song, which is simply a run through a vocal-less verse: the open E tuning that Dylan uses makes for some very subtle chord changes over the first three lines; it's Brown who carries the instrumental melody here, and it bears little resemblance to the vocal melody Dylan introduces soon after. Of the four Dylan-and-Brown numbers on Blood on the Tracks, “Simple Twist of Fate” seems, to these ears, to have the richest sound. It's one of Dylan's best performances, and Brown's contribution is integral to the song's success.

The sound achieved during the New York sessions -- largely the result of putting Dylan in a big, echoey room with tech-savvy and hands-off studio personnel -- is especially effective at conveying the emptiness and sadness of “Simple Twist of Fate”. The “scream” lines hit hard; you believe Dylan when he sings “the room was bare". Even the sound of Dylan's cufflinks hitting his guitar -- very audible during the first harmonica solo -- adds something intangible to the performance.

And, oh yes, there's the lyrics. Possibly the most poetically perfect set on the album, its five-line verses burst with an inventive rhyme scheme: AAABBCC, with the final A and second B occurring mid-line. The only line that doesn't really work as an image is the parrot line in the fifth verse, which Dylan would replace within a matter of months when he performed "Simple Twist of Fate" on a TV tribute to John Hammond. And even that one still sounds great. Surrounding it, though, are images and phrases that rank among Dylan's best: “The light bust through a beat-up shade”; “He felt the heat of the night hit him like a freight train”; or the final couplet, “She was born in spring, but I was born too late / Blame it on a simple twist of fate.” After that our singer leaves us, with a final sigh of the harmonica, and goes on waiting. Tom Useted

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