By Tony Attwood
This is part 28 of Bob Dylan: Moving All Directions at Once. An index to the series is available here.
(The previous episode is at If you see her, you’ll be twisted by fate, moving in All Directions at Once)
In this series of articles I have been tracing Dylan’s career as a composer as a wave form – noting that the songs which are considered by many to be of the highest quality don’t come at random throughout his life, but in groups, interspersed by periods of little writing and songs which are less readily remembered. Looking at the list of songs in the order he wrote them we can see the wave of his creativity rising and falling through the years.
In terms of the early to mid-1970s Dylan clearly had difficulty finding his muse but in the latter part of 1973 he began to come back with some songs of extraordinary power, even if they were not commercial successful or liked by the fans. And this led into the writing in 1974 of the songs that became “Blood on the Tracks”. As ever in this series, I consider the songs in the order they were written, not in the order that they appeared on the album.
So far I’ve considered seven songs, all of which except one (“Call Letter Blues”) made it onto the album, and I can’t imagine there is any Dylan fan who would suggest that any of the six covered that did make it onto the album were anything less than masterpieces.
The last song I considered was “Simple Twist of Fate” which continues the theme that no matter how much we try and plot and plan our existence, fate – or if you prefer chance – can always come along and throw us off course.
Indeed chance, or fate, has clearly been part of Dylan’s songwriting life. Hardly any musicians have been able to keep the flow of brilliant masterwork songs running all the way through their careers, and so Dylan’s dip into non-writing and writing works which although of note, were not at the high level of earlier songs.
And it seems to me that no one in the field of pop and rock has been able to do it, as far as I can think. And the very title “Idiot Wind” always makes me think of chance, of fate, or things just happening. The wind just blows, it is answerable to nothing except chance changes in atmospheric pressure. It is the very embodiment of chance.
Dylan himself has been very clear that “Blood on the Tracks” was not autobiographical, and as he said in an interview, “It was just a concept of putting in images that defy time – yesterday, today, and tomorrow. I wanted to make them all connect in some kind of a strange way. I’ve read that that album had to do with my divorce. Well, I didn’t get divorced till four years after that.”
And surely no one thinks that the “Jack of Hearts” had anything to do with reality.
As for “Idiot Wind” if that is autobiographical, then clearly in my reading about Bob Dylan I’ve missed the bit pertaining to his shooing of Mr Gray, travelling to Europe with his wife who gets one million dollars, dies and leaves it to Bob. I think if that had been real it would have made the news.
So in reality to make the song be autobiographical one has to be selective and inventive, and really that’s cheating. It either is autobiographical or it isn’t.
But this debate is something of a shame because this song has so many amazing elements that we be focusing on rather than on the issue of its possible autobiographical content. I mean what other song starts with a chord sequence anything remotely like A minor, B suspended 4, B6, E? That is total novelty. I’ve never come across it, and if you know of such a piece, I do wish you’d tell me.
Or what about the number of beats in each line? For clarity, I’ve written them out below
Someone’s got it in for me, they’re planting stories in the press (12) Whoever it is I wish they’d cut it out but when they will I can only guess (12) They say I shot a man named Gray and took his wife to Italy (8) She inherited a million bucks and when she died it came to me (8) I can’t help it if I’m lucky (4)
Or counting bars instead of beats we have 3 – 3 – 4 – 2- 2- 1. A song with a verse made up of 15 bars! The second section (“People see me….”) follows the same pattern and then the chorus give us 11 bars. The norm – more than that, the absolute rule – is for four and eight bar phrases in popular music. Hence we have the “12 bar blues” – the basic form of the blues from which everything else emerges. (Think “Hound Dog” by Elvis Presley; the classic 12 bar pop song).
This approach by Dylan is completely new. But instead of noting that, the impact is always the lyrics. And here Dylan has been clear. When asked if the song was autobiographical he said, “I came pretty close with that song ‘Idiot Wind.’ That was a song I wanted to make as a painting. A lot of people thought that song, that album “Blood on the Tracks”, pertained to me. Because it seemed to at the time. It didn’t pertain to me. It was just a concept of putting in images that defy time – yesterday, today, and tomorrow. I wanted to make them all connect in some kind of a strange way.”
And indeed that is exactly the concept with which we started this series of articles on “Blood on the Tracks”. “Rosemary Lilly and the Jack” doesn’t make sense which is why the missing verse doesn’t matter. Nor does “Tangled up in Blue” which is why the lyrics can be re-written so often. Time and people are distorted and moved around, all the way through the album. And nowhere more so than here.
As people we are programmed to make sense. The phrase “It doesn’t make any sense” is generally used as an equivalent to, “It must be wrong.” Even though we are emotional and not logical creatures, we strive for logic, the logic that religious creeds, musicians, poets and painters have spent eternity seeking to undermine. And it is hardly Bob’s fault that the writers of pop lyrics have failed to follow that lead.
And yet rock musicians have been aware, even if their fans might have missed it. Justin Hayward’s line “Just what the truth is, I can’t say anymore” touches on it, as did Dylan in a different way with “Times they are a changin” which tells us that the future is always different from the past, no matter what we do, which is of course the obvious message of all history. I live in a village listed in the Domesday book of 1086 as consisting of 36 free people and four slaves. Times have changed. It’s population is now 2,248, and given that slavery was made illegal in 1833 in England, I suspect the slavery number is zero. Times change as Bob said.
So yes we can imagine that people don’t know how to act when they meet Bob. I wouldn’t have a clue what to say, and would probably make a total idiot of myself and spend the rest of my life berating myself for not handling the situation better, if I met him.
But no, the song is not intended as the telling of a coherent story (or at least if it is, it is a total failure). The clue to the meaning in this and many Dylan compositions are the random lines, such as, “I ran into the fortune-teller, who said beware of lightning that might strike.” It’s a line from the Tarot and Dylan places it amidst a jumble of disconnected lines including a lone soldier on a cross, a railway carriage (boxcar) on fire, the chance of winning, day dreams, a horse, feeling bemused, “you always hurt the one you love,” and he who is first being last.
There are indeed so many clues to the fact that this is a jumbled collection of ideas that one could begin to wonder if the “idiot” of the piece is not the person who tries to make sense of it all. Being this stupid, yes perhaps it is strange that as a race we have actually survived and are still breathing.
Of course it is possible that when Dylan wrote
I can’t feel you anymore, I can’t even touch the books you’ve read Every time I crawl past your door, I been wishin’ I was somebody else instead Down the highway, down the tracks, down the road to ecstasy I followed you beneath the stars, hounded by your memory And all your ragin’ glory
he was looking back at his past career and speaking of himself. Or of a writer he admires. It is possible, but unless he clearly tells us that is so, we’ll never know.
But it does seem to me that this insistence on making sense of these works in which time and people are not fixed, is to go against the essence of the works themselves. We can all do it – I can argue that the verse above refers to Bob’s annoyance that “Times they are a changin” was interpreted as a call to action, when in fact it clearly says, “stuff happens, things change”. And that he was an idiot for ever thinking people would understand.
I been double-crossed now for the very last time and now I’m finally free I kissed goodbye the howling beast on the borderline which separated you from me You’ll never know the hurt I 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 Idiot wind, blowing through the buttons of our coats Blowing through the letters that we wrote Idiot wind, blowing through the dust upon our shelves We’re idiots, babe It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves
That line of thought would still fit with Dylan’s answer to the question, “Have you ever put something in a song that was too personal? Ever had it come out and then said, ‘Hmm, gave away too much of myself there’?”
He replied, “I came pretty close with that song “Idiot Wind.” That was a song I wanted to make as a painting. A lot of people thought that song, that album “Blood on the Tracks”, pertained to me. Because it seemed to at the time. It didn’t pertain to me. It was just a concept of putting in images that defy time – yesterday, today, and tomorrow. I wanted to make them all connect in some kind of a strange way.”
So yes, maybe this is a slightly confusing lost-love song, one of Bob’s two favourite themes. But maybe not.
But to try and resolve this issue of what the song is about let’s look at the sequence of song that led up to this… and I’ll leave out “Call letter” as it didn’t make the album…
- Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts: a love quartet adventure
- Tangled up in blue: ever changing visions
- You’re a big girl now: lost love
- Shelter from the storm: a one night stand affects him forever
- If you see her say hello: thoughts on being alone
- Simple Twist of Fate : a chance meeting, a one night stand, confusion
- Idiot Wind: Being lost, remembering bad times past.
That sort of meaning, which is of course hopelessly incomplete, does fit with the ever shifting sands of the songs that have gone before. But more than this, seeing the songs in the order in which they were written, if we run from “You’re a big girl now” through to “Idiot Wind”, we have a story of sorts.
He’s lost his love, and recognises she’s gone, he takes refuge in a one-night stand, he is finding being alone difficult, there’s a chance meeting but it’s hardly satisfying, and he now fully acknowledges he’s lost. That gives me a feeling of progression which (and this is a very personal thing) helps me make a bit more sense of the whole thing.
Now I do know that just a few lines back I wrote “it does seem to me that this insistence on making sense of these works in which time and people are not fixed, is to go against the essence of the works themselves.” And I still hold to that. I would prefer not to make sense out of anything here but accept the words and images as I accept abstract paintings.
But as Dylan is writing these songs one after another (and again I stress, we are taking them in the order of composition) it is quite possible that the images and background thoughts of one song play into the creation of the next. And that perhaps explains how each song emerged, and also why in the end Bob didn’t feel the order of composition was at all important when it came to putting the album together.