by Mike Mahone
This is a (very slightly) edited version of an article that appeared initially on theHITCH website, and is reprinted here with kind permission of the author.
About 12 years ago after a particular night of lamenting about my lousy lot in love and in life, and a steady diet of Lone Star beer I happened to hear a song that spoke to the exact nature of what I was feeling. That song was Tangled up In Blue, by Bob Dylan.
Now, I had heard this song before, had in fact heard many Dylan songs before, and at the time I laughed them off, criticized his crappy singing voice, and dreaded anytime my buddies would pop in a Dylan CD.
To say that listening to this song on this particular night was an epiphany would be an understatement. I immediately developed a passion for this song, it was a compulsion. I listened to it at least 30 times that night, sometimes with tears in my eyes, other times with laughter at the absurdity of love. The obsession did not stop there, I listened to the song over and over again in the coming weeks, I graffitied a door in my apartment with the words “Tangled up in Blue”. It became my anthem, the ode of my broken heart.
After listening to Tangled up in Blue hundreds of times, I decided to branch out a bit and bought the album, Blood on the Tracks, and damn, I was hooked, if Tangled up in Blue was my heart’s ode, then Blood on the Tracks was my soul’s anthem.
I will attempt to do justice to my review of this album, which has helped me in dark periods of my life, but I would like to set some tone for how my review of this album will be. I will, for example, not be delving into any of his literary references, and I may miss some obvious symbolism, but this is not really my goal anyways. I suppose that I could go on Google and look up some of these references, but that would be dishonest and I want to give you what these songs mean to me, not to some literary douche. Dylan does do some interesting things with time, as in switching up tenses and pro-nouns, which can give these songs multiple meanings. I will talk about these as they come up, other times I may miss them, but oh well.
Also, I like to think of art as something to be enjoyed, who is to say how someone should enjoy it? I would like to think that the artist creates for their enjoyment and for the enjoyment of others, telling someone that they did not understand the meaning takes away from that enjoyment. For me, art is about the emotions it incites in you, how it makes you feel, whether it be laughter or sadness that feeling is pure and real, much more real than any symbolism you may have missed. So if this does not jive with your take or these songs have a different meaning to you then do not feel dismayed.
You will see in my interpretation of these songs that I am a very literal reader and listener. I take things as they are and how they make me feel. I do not go searching for hidden meanings, this also helps to explain some of my favorite choices of writers; Hemingway, Harrison, Steinbeck, King. I can read these books straight up, not having to stop and re-read to see if I missed something or feel dumb because I did not understand some symbolism (Talking to you Faulkner).
It is worth noting that this is NOT a happy album. While I have proclaimed this to be the greatest love ballad of all time, it by no means deals with the happy parts of love. That said, I feel better when I hear this album, it does not make me sad because I believe it to be a great Blues album. The blues are almost always sad songs, but the point is you know you are not alone. You can take solace in knowing that others out there are sharing the same pain as you, so for me, the blues and Blood on the Tracks in particular are a kind of therapy for when I am feeling down.
So it is with this backdrop that I will present to you, faithful reader, just in time for Valentines Day, my personal review of the greatest album of love ever created, Blood on the Tracks.
1. Tangled Up In Blue
This is such an interesting song, Dylan masterfully creates an ambiguous tone for this piece by switching pronouns (I, me, he) and switching tenses, it should be noted that there are other times in this album which he will repeat this technique. What he accomplished by doing so is to create a couple of different ways in which this song can be viewed. Personally, I have gone back in forth in the ways in which I view this song.
At first, I viewed this as a song about a girl who was always out of reach, so 1 girl and 1 guy being sung about the entire time. When viewed this way, the song is a ballad for unrequited love, it reminds me of Forrest Gump and how despite loving Jenny with all his heart and being a great guy, Jenny was always out of reach of Forrest, who had to watch as the woman he loved made mistake after mistake and went around with awful men who treated her poorly (btw, isn’t it weird that Jenny had AIDS, how come that wasn’t addressed more in the movie? Did the Sixth Sense kid have AIDS as well?) The following line reminds me of Forrest watching Jenny self-destruct;
“She was workin’ in a topless place
And I stopped in for a beer
I just kept lookin’ at the side of her face
In the spotlight so clear”
I wrote earlier about how this song really spoke to me at the time, and ignited a fire of emotions within me, the following line best sums up that emotion
“And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burning coal
Pouring off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you”
Damn, this line always reminds me of the night I binge listened to this song, feeling like it was written from my soul, describing my frustration with women who would not love me back.
So that is one way to look at this song, as a guy following around a woman he loves only to have his heart broken at every meeting, always winding up “Tangled up in Blue” This guy was laying in bed one mornin’, wondering about the girl he loves and what she is up to, he then proceeds to reminisce about all of their previous encounters.
The other way this song can be viewed is that of many different characters describing their own particular “Tangled up in Blue” situation, which as I explained earlier is the feeling that you get when you love someone who will never love you equally in return. I still listen to the song and imagine the solitary character describing his quest for a woman since it still rings true for me, but every now and then it is fun to mix it up and listen to the song as several different characters. I mean, I think Dylan intentionally wrote the song this way, and it would be a shame not to give them both a try.
2. Simple Twist of Fate
This song has always reminded me of a one night stand, a casual encounter between a man and a woman in San Francisco. I have always thought of the female in this song as a prostitute, I am probably wrong on this assumption but a couple of lines in the song leads me to believe this:
“Stopped into a strange hotel, with the neon burnin bright”
“Hunts her down by the waterfront docks
Where the sailors all come in
Maybe she’ll pick him out again”
“She dropped a coin into the cup
Of a blind man at the gate
And forgot about a simple twist of fate”
So to crudely sum up, man meets woman, man takes woman to hotel, they have sex, man wakes up in the morning madly in love and proceeds to try and find this woman again. I particularly like the last line I quoted, it shows that for this woman the act of love they had just participated in was nothing more than dropping a coin into the cup of a beggar. She moves on, forgetting about this chance encounter that has left a man wounded in love. Like I said, this is not a happy song, but any person who has fallen madly in love and has had his heart broken can totally relate to this.
This is another song where Dylan plays with time and pronouns quite a bit, we could view this as a narrator recounting a chance encounter between a woman and a man that leads to a one night stand. The next morning the man appears to try and shrug off the encounter “he told himself he didn’t care” but the truth is he has fallen madly in love with this woman who seems to have no interest in him. The last line in the song shows the pronoun play that I was talking about earlier. The song starts off with lines of he, him, her etc… Leading the listener to believe that this is a detached individual narrating an encounter that he witnessed, but the last line in the song betrays this fact;
“People tell me it’s a sin
To know and feel too much within
I still believe she was my twin
But I lost the ring
She was born in spring
But I was born too late
Blame it on a simple twist of fate”
This line adds another element to the song, instead of viewing this as a detached narrator we can listen to the song again and view it as a man trying desperately to detach himself from this encounter with a woman who has taken so much from him. It is also an example of time play, the song starts off in the past being narrated by the singer and then at the end switches to the present as it is revealed that the narrator is the afflicted man still on a mission to recreate a simple twist of fate.
“Simple twist of fate” is such a great line, think about the people we meet, the friends we have, and the loves we have taken, think about the millions of previous decisions that have led to the meeting and acquaintance of you and this person, how much is chance, how much is destiny, fuck it just a simple twist of fate.
This song reminds me of the Beatles song Norwegian Wood it also reminds me of the movie True Romance. Listen to the first and then watch the other and let me know what you think about the parallel.
3. You’re a Big Girl Now
To be honest, this is one of my least favorite songs on the album, maybe it is because it follows two of my favorite songs, but I also just do not like the main line “You’re a Big Girl Now”. I don’t know, I am just not a fan of referring to women as “Big Girls” unless it is meant in a derogatory fashion.
I also do not like the wailing style of Dylan’s singing in this song, it kinda slows down the album in my opinion. That said, the lyrics and tone of the song fit well into the theme of heartbreak of the album. The wailing and guitar work definitely makes the song much more melancholy than the previous two songs, which I suppose is fitting given the song is about a man being in denial that the woman he loves has let him. The song is the classic example of a man who can not accept that a relationship has ended so he makes promises to the woman he loves, swearing that he will change. There are a couple great lines in this song:
“Bird on the horizon, sittin’ on a fence
He’s singin’ his song for me at his own expense
And I’m just like that bird, oh
Singin’ just for you”
Any guy who has been through a hard breakup can understand the feeling of being a bird singing a song just for his love. Another line really personifies one of the toughest aspects of going through a breakup, which is the difficulty of moving on with your life as easily as the woman is. Here you are heartbroken and depressed about losing the love of your life (at the time), stalking your ex on Facebook, seeing pictures of her with another man knowing that she is sharing with him something that was once shared with you. The ripping sensation in the heart is real, and I guess makes the wailing more understandable.
“Oh, I know where I can find you, oh
In somebody’s room
It’s a price I have to pay
You’re a big girl all the way”
4. Idiot Wind
Idiot Wind is an angry song. The singing style, word choice, and composition of the piece have an accusatory tone throughout the piece. I love listening to Dylan sing in this song, it really shows the range he had at the time of the album, compared to the raspy, wet fart sound of his later singing voice. I guess the reason why I really dislike “Big Girl” is because the singing in Idiot Wind is more my style. Angry, shouting, full of violent emotion, you can really hear the emotions coming through in this song. Whenever I hear this song I am reminded of the opening line of The Beatles Across the Universe:
“Words are flowing out like
Endless rain into a paper cup
They slither wildly as they slip away across the universe.”
Idiot Wind to me are the words that come out of your mouth in anger. Those words that as soon as you said them you wish you had them back. It always amazes me how much the ones you love can truly hurt you with their words. The Idiot Wind flows out of our mouths like endless rain into a paper cup, cutting and tearing as they make their way across the universe. That is the difficult part of committing to a relationship, you open yourself up to someone as you have never done before, when that relationship ends badly, those same feelings and secrets you shared can be used against you. The words cut deep.
Honestly, I have no idea what the first part of the song (before the first Idiot Wind) is about. My best guess is that it is the man in this song talking about accusations from his ex. That is the best I can do as to deciphering the first part of the song, in all honestly it almost feels like two separate songs every time I listen to it. Maybe Dylan had some sweet lines that he wanted to use, but not enough to make a full song so he just slapped them onto the beginning of Idiot Wind (The Beatles did that with A Day in the Life) There are a couple good lines in this song that I would like examine:
“One day you’ll be in the ditch
Flies buzzin’ around your eyes
Blood on your saddle”
DAAAYYYYUMMM Dylan!!! Straight Fire! Seriously, this is the epitome of being pissed at someone after a breakup, you loved them so deeply, the depression is so great (anger is depression turned outward) that you come to the point where you are wishing death on the other person. Sadly, history has shown that sometimes people do not stop at wishing, I wonder how many murders have been committed as a result of love?
5. You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go
This is a truly beautiful song, it is pure classic Dylan and harkens back to his roots as a guitar and harmonica player. The base of this song is true blues, I can imagine this song being sung by an old black guy, slowed down quite a bit of course. The song is another interesting play on time and words with multiple ways of viewing the song and its meaning. My personal preference is to think of this song as a man who has been spurned in love many times before, he meets another woman that he has fallen in love with but is skeptical that it will last given his previous experiences. With this view the song is about the difficulty of being able to trust another person after having your heart broken from the perspective of the cynic.
“Situations have ended sad
Relationships have all been bad”
Another way to view this is the more literal sense, of a man and woman who are approaching an upcoming separation (long distance relationship) The man is talking about how lonesome he will be when she is gone. Yet another perspective of this song is of a Man whose wife has died, he is lamenting the loss, yet he has not fully accepted that she is truly gone. Taken this way the song reminds me of Last Kiss by The Cavaliers
“You’re gonna have to leave me now, I know
But I’ll see you in the sky above
In the tall grass, in the ones I love
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go”
Again, this is the greatness of the album, that a lot of these songs can have many different meanings. I am not saying there is a right way to interpret these songs, and there may even be more interpretations which I would be happy to hear about.
6. Meet Me In The Morning
Another great song in the style of the blues here from Dylan. I especially like the guitar work in this song, It is crisp and reflects the tone of the song very well.
“Little rooster crowin’
There must be something on his mind”
When Dylan sings this part of the song, he mimics a rooster crowing on his guitar. I don’t know what it is about that part, but it is always such a treat for me to hear that sweet guitar play that accompanies the music so well. Not much more to say about this song, it is another song about unrequited love, and honestly it has taken me about a month to write this much and I am beginning to realize that at this pace I will not be done until next Valentines Day.
7. Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts
Ok, I feel that this song needs a character list to provide some clarity:
Jack of Hearts- Leader of a bank robbing gang, also a possible former love interest of Lily
Lily (Queen of Hearts)- Cabaret dancer at Big Jim’s casino and Big Jim’s mistress
Big Jim (King of Diamonds)- Owner of the cabaret and diamond mine
Rosemary (Queen of Diamonds)- Wife of Big Jim
The Monks- Members of the Jack of Heart’s gang
This is such an awesome song, and really there are too many literary tools at use here that I am woefully ignorant on. I am sure someone much smarter has already done a breakdown of all the symbology (pronounced symbolism) so I will not go into much detail on that, but I will try and do this song some justice by providing my own rudimentary interpretation.
The song taken at face value is about a robbery of Big Jim’s cabaret by the Jack of Hearts which takes place in the Old West. Along the way we are introduced to the different characters who get wrapped up in the robbery and who subsequently have life altering experiences. Our lives are made up of numerous interactions on a daily basis, I feel that this song eloquently sums up how much can change as a result of one of these chance encounters. The same goes with love, love won or lost has a profound effect on us and can come in an instant.
The song itself is pretty straightforward, I added which cards I believed each player represents based off of the lyrics. I think it is a great example of the power of Dylan’s storytelling, pure folk.
“The only person on the scene missin’ was the Jack of Hearts”
What a cool line here from Dylan. I really enjoy this line because it shows how even after the characters in our lives have moved on or left they will continue to have a presence as a result of the impact.
I always wondered whether Dylan wrote this song as a nod of the head to Don Maclean and his song American Pie, in which Maclean refers to Dylan as “The Jester”. If so, then the song about cards, being sung by the narrator who is “The Joker” is a pretty cool way to think of this song.
The song reminds me of another song by a Dylan contemporary, Townes Van Zandt (Country Dylan) who sang his own card song Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold . Cards are a game of chance, much like life, it is a fitting motif for a song about chance encounters that can make or break us.
8. If You See Her Say Hello
I really dislike this song, it is super depressing and goes back to the wailing style of singing like You’re a Big Girl Now. Maybe it is just the theme of the song which makes it so unlistenable to me. Out of all the songs, this song, sung by a guy who has to come to terms seeing the woman he loves move on to other men is the one that annoys me the most. Anyways, the song is bumming me out just writing it so I am gonna move on.
9. Shelter From The Storm
This song gets the bad taste of the previous song out of my ears. This song to me has always been about a one night stand, again, kinda like Simple Twist of Fate, but instead of focusing on love lost, “Shelter” focuses on how the love of a woman can remove the burdens of a man. Sex is really great, maybe the best, the stereotype of the athlete abstaining from sex is an accurate one. For men, sex lowers testosterone levels, and can take the most macho and violent of men and turn them into gentle babies. This is the power of woman over man, and it is what I think is being portrayed in this song. A man who is getting shelter from the storms of life in the comfort of a woman’s arms.
“Not a word was spoke between us, there was little risk involved
Everything up to that point had been left unresolved
Try imagining a place where it’s always safe and warm”
“I bargained for salvation and she gave me a lethal dose”
“If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm”
This is another song that does not follow a linear timeline, I do not fully understand the use of time play in this song, so I will not delve into it on this song. That said, I feel that this song truly captures the way a man feels after sex, burdens removed, comforted, like a child.
10. Buckets of Rain
This is another one of my lesser liked songs on this album, mainly because of the first line where he says “Got all these buckets comin’ out of my ears”. I just do not get that line, it sounds cheesy coming from Dylan and is more suited for a Neil Diamond song in my opinion. That said, there are some pretty great lines in this song.
“Everything about you is bringing me misery”
“Life is sad
Life is a bust
All ya can do is do what you must
You do what you must do and ya do it well”
I see this song as acceptance of the situation, understanding that heartbreak is a part of life and moving on appropriately.
*** Boots of Spanish Leather ***
This is not included on Blood on the Tracks, but I think this song fits well with the theme of the album. The song was written by Dylan in 1964, and is a great story of a man and a woman who are going through the trials of a long distance relationship, and the growing distance between the two. I really wish Dylan had gotten a woman to sing opposite of him on this song because I really feel that a duet is the most appropriate way for this song to be sung. Anyways, it is a cool little song, and worth listening to in conjunction with this album.
Well, I hope whoever reads this little review can get something out of it. If there are any alternate takes or views on any of these songs I would love to hear them.
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/ It is also a simple way of staying in touch with the latest reviews on this site and day to day news about Dylan.
The Chronology Files
These files put Dylan’s work in the order written. You can link to the files here
- Dylan songs of the 1960s
- Dylan songs of the 1970s
- Dylan songs of the 1980s
- Dylan songs of the 1990s
- Dylan songs of the 21st century