Bob Dylan’s “Idiot Wind”: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

There can be few opening chord sequences as distinctive as Dylan’s minor-4th, 5th, Tonic sequence which opens “Idiot Wind”. And there can be few opening lines to a song as distinctive as “Someone’s got it in for me, they’re printing stories in the press.”

Within those six bars – and that is another distinctive factor, for it is only six bars – we have the landscape set out. There is a coldness about that minor fourth, like a cliff face with the wind howling, which tells us this is not going to be an easy ride. There is a coldness about the words – the mere fact that it is “someone” not an identified person who is doing the mischief makes it even more chilling.

And now looking back on it, how well we know that this is not an easy rise, for this is “Like a rolling stone” part 2. Of course there are differences – here in Idiot Wind, the guilt is at least partially shared. In Like a Rolling Stone there is only blame and finger pointing. In Idiot Wind there is uncertainty which was never there in the earlier song – but maybe that’s what getting older brings.

Just compare the openings…

“Someone’s got it in for me, they’re printing stories in the press”

“Once upon a time you dressed so fine, threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?”

Equally bleak but in different ways.

And when we turn back to the musical structure we find more similarity, because both these great songs are in 2/4 (rather than the conventional 4/4) and both work in six bar phrases. It is rare in Dylan – indeed it is rare in the world of pop and rock – and he reserves it for masterpieces of anguish and annoyance.

Pete Hamill’s notes to the album veer (at least to my eye) between insight and portentous wordiness. He suggests Idiot Wind is personal – I can’t see it myself, but then obviously Mr Hamill has access to Dylan that I can only dream about. If the bit about the shooting and the inheritance is real, then so be it, but it seems more like part of the painting of an imagined landscape – the background like the windmill in the Dutch masterpiece – from where I sit. But where he does strike the mark, I feel, is with the comment that “The idiot wind trivializes lives into gossip.” This is a theme of the sleeve notes essay – for earlier he says, “And through the fog of the plague, most art withered into journalism,” the plague being the descent of America from its high ideals into the politics of the 1970s.

 Perhaps that points us to the biggest difference between Rolling Stone and Idiot Wind. In the latter Dylan says, “you are talking nonsense,” in the former he says, “you are nonsense.”

Much of its history pop and rock has been about love, lost love and dance. The lost love sub-genre has generally been of sadness and wanting the lover back. Dylan singlehandedly invented a completely new sub-genre: despair, disgust and dismay. “Like a rolling stone” was the first high mark of this style of writing, “Idiot Wind” the second. It may be extremely uncomfortable, but it is the ultimate antithesis of relativism. Every approach to life is not equally valid, equally understandable and equally excusable. There are people of whom we must say, “You are utterly wrong.” And that’s what he says here, even where he says, “yes I got it wrong sometimes too.” The latter does not excuse the former.

The Discussion Group

We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase in, on your Facebook page or go to https://www.facebook.com/groups/254617038225146/

The Chronology Files

There are reviews of Dylan’s compositions from all parts of his life, up to the most recent writings, but of late I have been trying to put these into chronological order, and fill in the gaps as I work.

All the songs reviewed on this site are also listed on the home page in alphabetical order – just scroll down a bit once you get there

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2 Responses to Bob Dylan’s “Idiot Wind”: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

  1. Thank you for a great piece of interesting and informative writing. This link is included in The Bob Dylan Project at: http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/286/Idiot-Wind (Additional Information)
    Bob Dylan’s Music Box.

  2. Larry Fyffe says:

    Dylan is consistent in his inconsistency: nothing is absolute; times they are achanging even in one’s personal life as one moves from the age of innocence to that of experience, from springtime of life onward to summer, autumn, and winter.
    The Owl of Minerva flies at twilight.
    Though Dylan into the depth of depravity does not enter, from the art of those who have, lessons of life can be learned, and though the help of insight
    comes, it often comes too late:

    ‘I managed to make every trace of human hope vanish/
    ….And Spring brought the frightening laugh of The Idiot’
    (Arthur Rimbaud: A Season In Hell)

    ‘I waited for you on the running boards/
    Near the cypress trees, while the springtime turned slowly into summer/
    …..Idiot wind
    Blowing through the buttons on our coat/
    ….Blowing through the dust upon our shelves/
    We’re idiots babe/
    It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves”
    (Dylan: Idiot Wind)
    The induvidual struggle is not between goodness and sin, but between love, and human kindness
    verses idiocy and downright stupidy.

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