Dylan, Mary Lee, and the Jack of Hearts: Completing the Break-Up in Blood on the Tracks

Bob Dylan
Blood on the Tracks

Blood on the Tracks is not a break-up album. It’s a getting-dumped album. The winding themes of love and loss throughout the ten songs certainly evoke a sense of a tumultuous end to a long, intense relationship, but the narrator (whom we will call Dylan, for sake of argument) exhibits all the classic symptoms of the one dumped upon: he hopes for a reunion, compromises himself to regain his love, berates the ex-partner, and envisions a story where he comes out on top.

Blood on the Tracks progresses through a very Kübler-Rossian model of grief, following each stage of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and — what should ensue — acceptance, though this last stage never quite seems achieved within the confines of the album.

Jakob Dylan — despite what his father claims to the contrary — has said that “the songs are my parents talking.” But where is the conversation? Any exchange is surely dominated by the male narrator’s bias. Instead of a “he-said/she-said”, there is only “he said that she said”. What’s missing from the equation is the feminine counterpoint, the mother/wife’s half of the story. For the audience to create a full picture of the break-up, both sides need to be felt and heard.

Twenty-seven years after the release of Blood on the Tracks, New York-based band Mary Lee’s Corvette recorded a live performance of the entire album in 2002. The release eventually found its way to critical and popular acclaim; Dylan even featured one of their covers on his website. Here, singer Mary Lee Kortes is the woman’s voice: she and her backup band allow listeners to finally hear that other half of the story, the unique inflections of her feminine tone bringing provocative complexities to the text and texture of Blood on the Tracks.

Technically, there are little changes between Dylan and Mary Lee’s versions; the albums feature the same songs, the same lyrics, in the same musical styles and at roughly the same tempo, but the stylistic differences in voice, male and female, are what make the two versions so distinct.

Paired side by side, Dylan and Kortes’ albums can easily be imagined as that lovers’ conversation Jakob Dylan saw as the premise for Blood on the Tracks but now we hear both sides and the story of the break-up is allowed to unfold in its entirety.

Kortes does not present herself as the woman of Dylan’s woe, of course, but the nuances of her performance in Blood on the Tracks surreptitiously lend themselves to such an interpretation. She does not change any of the many gendered pronouns of the lyrics, nor does she need to; the pain and confusion embedded in Blood’s subject matter allows for a blurring of the boundaries between the self and other, between “I”, “you”, “he”, and “she”.

Within many relationships, the couple can be seen as a cohesive unit — your partner is your “other half”. But as romantic ties begin to break down, so too do the bonds between bodies; the sense of self becomes fragmented, blurred, confused, without the “other” that was previously embedded within one’s “self”.

Such confusion about selfhood begins with Dylan himself, where in songs like “Simple Twist of Fate” the narration oscillates between the third and first person voice. The tale is a seemingly objective telling, that is, until the narrator confounds himself with his subject: “They walked along by the old canal / A little confused, I remember well.” The “he” in the story can be read as the same body as the “I”, nullifying any sense of neutrality. If any doubt remains as to the combined persona of the narrator and the “he”, Dylan concludes in his final verse, “People tell me it’s a sin / to know and feel too much within. / I still believe she was my twin…” Such boundary confusions — the intermingling of the self and other, of past and present — reflect the deep inner turmoil born of separation anxiety.

The first half of the album likewise represents a hodgepodge of conflicting emotions. As Dylan spews from song to song in his original, Kortes must work carefully to simultaneously neutralize each attack and defend the woman’s side of the story in order to convey her own argument.

To kick off Blood on the Tracks, “Tangled Up in Blue” can be seen as a sort of fictionalized overture, where a couple comes together, separates willfully, rejoins by circumstance, but ultimately must part. Notably, the tale is one where the man exercises control and acts as the director of the relationship. He is a restless loner; though he reunites and lives with the woman for a while, he admits, “I became withdrawn/ The only thing I knew how to do / Was to keep on keepin’ on…”

Dylan would like to view the sequence of events in Blood on the Tracks as controllable (and, namely, under his control) even though the rest of the songs challenge such ideas of dominance. Even so, Kortes’ version allows these imaginings, staying wholly true to the song. Instead, she leaves interpretation of the overture to the audience, allowing them to determine the validity of such wistful thoughts as the rest of the story plays itself out.

Despite the perceived empowerment in “Tangled Up in Blue”, “You’re a Big Girl Now” is both a recognition of Dylan’s own emasculation in the face of the woman with the upper-hand, and a malicious attempt to bring her down.

First, consider the song’s title and eponymous refrain: here is a grown man talking to a grown woman — his lover, his wife, and, for all intents and purposes, his equal. “You’re a big girl,” he tells her, a phrase usually reserved for potty-training toddlers, not adult women. Despite all his pleas (“I can change, I swear”), there’s something particularly subversive about Dylan’s suggestions.

From the beginning, we know the woman carries the advantage; “I’m back in the rain/And you are on dry land.” When begging on his knees doesn’t work, Dylan switches to the offensive, stating, “I know where I can find you/ In somebody’s room.” He is at her mercy; if she will not pull him back up, he will bring her down.

Kortes, acting in the role of the song’s “you”, has to hold her ground throughout the varied tries for her sympathy. To her, “you’re a big girl” is a means of self-empowerment and self-confidence. However conniving, Dylan’s cries are both effective and affective, but she remains steadfast and stoic; “See what you can do,” is her most direct response to all of his begging. By telling herself she is “a big girl now,” she can find the strength not to succumb to his bargaining.

“Idiot Wind” predictably embodies the accusatory and abusive strains of the break-up argument, erupting into nothing less than a shouting match between the two voices of Dylan and Kortes.

Arguably one of the angriest songs in rock history, “Idiot Wind” begins on a shaky premise — supposedly misinformed tabloids — that serves more as a catalyst for argument than a legitimate cause for concern. After the first verse-and-a-half, the rest of the nearly eight minute song (or longer, in Mary Lee’s case) spits virulent invectives back-and-forth, each side dishing it out as well as they take it. A key line arrives before the first chorus in two simple words: “Sweet lady.” Dylan has already established how he feels that the woman — the “you” — has betrayed him, and the next word out of his mouth is “idiot.” There isn’t anything “sweet” about this lady; his very performance of the words sounds as if sung through gritted teeth. But no such sarcasm comes from Kortes. This same line is sung breathily and lightly, almost as an aside to oneself—again a self-justification of the woman’s stance, a bracing of oneself for the attacks to come.

The ensuing insults of “Idiot Wind” are blunt and obvious, but again the sardonic cuts deepest through Dylan’s choice word, “babe,” in his choruses. Dylan popularized the pseudo-endearment a decade earlier in many of his (anti) love songs (“It Ain’t Me, Babe”, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”) and its resurfacing here seems only bitterly appropriate, a reminder of arguments past that, nevertheless, worked themselves out.

The resolution of “Idiot Wind” — the concession that “we” are idiots, instead of just “you,” — sounds somewhat harried and superficial through Dylan alone. But as a mutual recognition between the quarreling lovers, the realization becomes more powerful. One can picture man and woman, face-to-face after a fierce rift, simultaneously shouting the lines of the final verse: “You’ll never know the hurt I’ve suffered nor the pain I rise above / And I’ll never know the same about you, your holiness or your kind of love/ And it makes me feel so sorry.” So passes the anger phase of the grieving process.

“You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” is a classic example of a melody too cheerful for its lyrics, but its sunny ambiance evokes a sense of strong hopes for success. Dylan’s reasoning to make his lover stay is exactly what the title implies, but it’s curious that he should so directly state “when you go” as opposed to “if you go.” Still, in the next track, he asks her to “meet me in the morning;” in both cases, he is confident that she will do exactly as he predicts or commands.

While the bluesy “Meet Me in the Morning” is one of Dylan’s strongest vocal performances on the record, it stands out as one of Kortes’ weakest. It takes her a few verses to warm up to the melody, as if she is unsure what the lyrics are asking her to do. Finally, Mary Lee’s strength returns in last two verses, where she “struggle[s] through barbed wire,” only to see “the sun sinkin’ like a ship.” Despair falls heavy upon her, and the effects laid over Kortes’ vocals accentuate her distance from the situation; she sounds far away, obscured, as if her pain prevents her from delivering the commanding performance so characteristic of her other songs.

The lengthy “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” serves two functions in the scope of Blood on the Tracks: first, it separates the initial two-thirds of the album, the mélange of confused emotions and tried and failed tactics, from the mini-narrative trilogy of the final songs; secondly, and perhaps more importantly, “Lily” offers a final strategic coping mechanism: distraction.

Dylan’s story is lengthy and complex, involving a multitude of characters, but mainly revolves around the Jack of Hearts, one of the one-eyed jacks, a wild card, but with an obvious connection to romance and deceit in love. Mary Lee’s Corvette gently mocks the song, asking, “Does anyone here actually know all of (the verses)? Does anyone want to come up and sing one or two?” An audience member is invited on stage, who turns out to be a rather raucous (though not too-far-off) Dylan impersonator. The method of distraction is satirized, albeit good-humoredly, and the female narrator exemplifies, again, that she is the one holding the reigns in the relationship’s destructive course.

After nearly ten minutes of diversion, Dylan promptly returns to the matter at hand in the final trio of songs, “If You See Her, Say Hello”, “Shelter From the Storm”, and “Buckets of Rain”. The first title gestures toward the final Kübler-Rossian stage of acceptance in the separation, though Dylan admits he hasn’t quite fully come to terms with the break-up just yet: “I’ve never gotten used to it, I’ve just learned to turn it off.” He still harbors negative feelings toward the “her” of the song, and “the bitter taste still lingers on from the night I tried to make her stay.” Even as he worries, “She might think I’ve forgotten her,” he asks of anyone who meets her, “don’t tell her it isn’t so.” The curious double negative in this line reveals a sudden, hastily covered dissonance of emotions. His first instinct to admit his loneliness is quickly checked, and he turns the confession on its head to essentially say, “tell her I’ve forgotten her” — tell her that she is disposable, unmemorable, insignificant. But both Dylan and Kortes execute the song with a sincere tenderness, as the mutual realities and initial doubts of splitting begin to sink in. The struggle to move on is trying for both of them, and Dylan ends openly, with Kortes echoing: “Tell her she can look me up if she’s got the time.”

From there, “Shelter From the Storm” envisions one final desire, one lingering dream of coming back together. In contrast to Dylan’s previous entertainments of reunion, “Shelter From the Storm” divulges pure fantasy, occurring “in another lifetime”. When everything is lost, when Dylan is but “a creature void of form,” only then might he reunite with his love, when she will offer him “shelter from the storm.” But the events are so far-off, so unfounded in reality as to never happen. Kortes allows this vision of impossible reunion; she concedes that yes, should it ever come to this, he will be taken in, he will be comforted.

During the last song in the tortuous journey of Blood on the Tracks, we might expect, even hope for, a sense of closure. But the final lines of “Buckets of Rain” end in a question: “I’ll do it for you, honey baby/ Can’t you tell?” In the end, Dylan is still confused, still pained, still looking to make amends, to get out of this hole. But Kortes’ final song differs most from its predecessor; the Corvette arrangement adds drums, giving the song a driving, double-time feel. While Dylan still looks to drop out and disappear, Kortes propels her energetic forces to the very end, driving her points home in an almost-militaristic fashion. She isn’t sorry; she doesn’t forgive. In her plight throughout the album, she has earned her place, maintained her ground, and, set to a final whirlwind of cheers and applause, she is ready to move on.

For over a quarter of a century, Blood on the Tracks stood on its own, marking its place in history as one of Bob Dylan’s finest albums. Unquestionably a story of loss and heartache, the album’s themes have resonated over generations as a soundtrack for the lovesick and the lonely. And now, as Mary Lee’s Corvette’s covers usher the story into a new millennium, Blood on the Track’s powerful themes are embellished and re-formulated for audiences new and old. While Mary Lee’s additions to Dylan’s standard cannot make the emotional album experience any easier, the comfort comes in knowing that our other halves are out there, are listening, and are finally speaking back.