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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.

"You're a Big Girl Now" and "Idiot Wind"

"You're a Big Girl Now"

Love is so simple, to quote a phrase

You’ve known it all the time, I’m learnin’ it these days

A few years ago I was watching, again, the great French film Les Enfants du Paradis(The Children of Paradise). About an hour into the first act, Baptiste has introduced himself to Garance, the woman he has loved at a distance, and is escorting her home. They share pertinent details of past experiences and how it has shaped their inner lives. He confesses his love for her. She cannot reciprocate the sentiment, but still embraces him and they kiss. She pulls back. Baptiste, cloudy and lovestruck, murmurs her name. Garance, holding eye contact, smiles and says softly, "Love is so simple." I looked up from the screen and thought of "You're a Big Girl Now", surprised I hadn't noticed it before.

Baptiste's flood of feelings and confession of love for Garance springs from his own inner conflation of dreams and reality. Garance, for her part, understands love more as an affectionate game, a reflection of her independence. The narrator of the song, like Baptiste, expresses romantic idealization. The beloved of the song, like Garance, is independent and self-reliant. The narrator of the song, like the men in the movie, holds no rancor for his beloved. Her independence is a feature of her attraction, it is her knowledge, which he is now coming to understand, even as he holds out the hope that through his understanding she may yet be possessed.

It is not that this is a song about the characters in Les Enfants du Paradis, but a response to the film is informing the narrator's understanding of the woman in question, I am surmising, as it informed Dylan's construction of the lyric. Dylan had definitely seen the film during this period, and spoke of it in several interviews. Les Enfants du Paradis is, in its way, wrapped into Dylan's work in the 1974-1977 period. He admired it as a film that "stopped time", an interest evident in Blood on the Tracks and Renaldo and Clara, conceptually and materially.

In the liner notes for the Biograph box set, Dylan had this to say about the song: "I read that this was supposed to be about my wife. I wish somebody would ask me first before they go ahead and print stuff like that. I mean it couldn't be about anybody else but my wife, right?" That is, don't misread the songs on Blood on the Tracks as exclusively autobiographical or confessional. Bob Dylan as an artist exhibits a great curiosity and an actor's capacity for projection and empathy. The album is filled with indirect references to other works.

It is the ache of the song which is so present in every listen. The plaintive cries mid-verse still cut; this is a sensitive soul in pain. The lyrics provide simple, precise images. The bird on the horizon both establishes an open, empty and spatial landscape, and that there is a currency to love and a price to pay even in reflection and articulation. In the last verse, in lines that border on banal, the narrator notes that great change is afoot, that he is reluctant to change, that it is causing him severe pain. But, as he has acknowledged, this is the hard road to maturity. Few love songs have realized or expressed such understanding. Jeff Carter


"Idiot Wind"

"Idiot Wind" has anger issues. It opens on a note of paranoia, its chorus a remorseless string of insults. Over its seven-plus minutes, it levels accusation after accusation at someone who is powerless to respond, and ends with a patronizing attempt at pity. The song has a well-deserved reputation for raw, intemperate vitriol, which makes it particularly suitable for painful breakups. It's at once a postmortem of a failed relationship and a profound denial of such a failure, an anguished demand for explanations that can't possibly satisfy. When my friend's wife left him, he told me he listened to nothing but "Idiot Wind" for weeks, and I believed him.

For the recently rejected, "Idiot Wind" offers emotional triage, giving urgent voice to pressing feelings of disbelief and devastation over a love abruptly revealed as irreparably broken: "Your eyes don’t look into mine." "The wheels have stopped." "I can't feel you anymore." "You'll never know the hurt I suffered." "I'll never know … your kind of love, and it makes me feel so sorry." But the stark epiphanies are scattered among inscrutable fragments of narrative that render the jilted lover's confusion both grandiose and a little absurd. There's a dead wife, an inheritance, a fortune teller, a chestnut mare, soldiers and corpses, boxcars and buildings on fire while a priest watches impassively. It's fitting that the fragments don't add up and have multiple, contradictory meanings. Only momentum holds them together.

In his vocal delivery, Dylan sustains a level of defiant intensity that begins to seem unrelenting and a little scary. (This is even more pronounced on the live version on Hard Rain.) The reservoir of spite seems bottomless, powering his own tellingly idiotic-sounding yodel on the chorus. He relishes each ambiguous punchline at the end of every verse -- the "sweet lady" and the "you're on the bottom" and the "blood on your saddle" -- even as they begin to cut both ways. It's as though he's willing himself toward catharsis, even though the words won't cooperate. His ferocity doesn't sap itself; he refuses to sound a conciliatory note even when the lyrics seem to demand it. It's always a shock when the song suddenly ends, as there's so much palpable, untapped energy left in Dylan's performance. He's on the cusp of the catharsis that won't come.

It makes sense to turn to "Idiot Wind" with undressed emotional wounds, but not because the song serves as a salve. Instead, it seems to refresh the wound, keeping the flame of anger alive, urging fresh fantasies of vengeance: "I haven’t known peace and quiet for so long, I can’t remember what it’s like," Dylan sings, and he sounds almost pleased. After all, anger in some ways is preferable to facing what's beyond it, the recognition that betrayal is irreversible and fury is impotent.

But "Idiot Wind" also shows how anger finally abandons us to a more unsettling emptiness: "One day you’ll be in the ditch," Dylan sings, "flies buzzin’ around your eyes". The lines are hurled with contempt at a faithless lover, but they resonate, haunting everything that follows. One day, the flies will be buzzing around his eyes, and ours too. Is that what it means to "win the war after losing every battle"? Is that what it will take to be "double-crossed for the very last time," to be "finally free"? Maybe it's best not to be free; maybe it's better to go back to the beginning, listen to the song one more time, go through it all again. Rob Horning

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