The Defiance of Time in Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue”

As usual with Dylan, what he’s saying in “Tangled Up in Blue” is not nearly so important as how he’s saying it

Bob Dylan
Blood on the Tracks

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.

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.

“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 when listening to “Tangled Up in Blue” for the first time: you would be hard-pressed to accurately guess how long the song 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.