The lyrics and the music: Idiot Wind

by Tony Attwood

If you want an example of Bob fully understanding the power of his lyrics and linking this with music that delivers the same force, all one has to do is listen to the first verse of “Idiot Wind”.  The opening line of “Someone’s got it in for me…” is surely one of the most enigmatic and yet powerful he’s ever written.  On first hearing I took it to be a true reflection of Dylan’s thoughts on the media – and I still wouldn’t be surprised if that were the case.

But with that power in the lyrics there needs to be power in the music – not by having a flowing melody, for that wouldn’t work at all, but by starting unusually on a minor chord (A minor in this case), and then moving totally unexpectedly onto a very unusual chord of Bsus4 (that’s the chord of B with the note E added to it)… and so on until finally we get to the chord of E (indicating that we are indeed in the key of E) at the end of the line at the word “press.”

These unexpected and unusual chords then lead us onto a resolution, with the everyday chord of E giving an absolute sense of edge, or things not being right even if they appear to be so.

And then in the third line the melody changes – in fact we get a melody, which we have hardly had before in the opening lines, and the feeling of which key we are in is resolved as the song moves through the chords of C#m, G#m, A and E.   All are chords normally associated with the key of E – the issue is we simply didn’t know we were actually in the key of E at the start, what with the piece opening on A minor (which has nothing to do with the key of E!)

My point is that through this totally novel chord sequence, through opening without any clarity as to which key we are in, and with there being hardly any melody at all (it is mostly on two notes, with a couple of others in passing) Bob gives us a feeling of uncertainty, openness and indeed darkness, all at the same time, that reflects the opening lyric of “Someone’s got it in for me”, and the second line which makes it clear he has no idea who is doing this, or indeed why they are doing whatever they are doing.

In short, the chaos of the situation as expressed in the lyrics is reflected in the edge within the lack of a distinct melody and the unexpected and unresolved chords behind the lyrical line.

But what really makes this music memorable is that when all the edge is taken out of the music by giving us a clearer melody, and a conventional chord sequence in line three (C#m, G#m, A, E) we get the totally unexpected and really off-the-wall (for a piece of rock music at least) lyrics of

They say I shot a man named Gray and took his wife to Italy, 
She inherited a million bucks and when she died it came to me. 
I can't help it if I'm lucky.

What in fact we have is a song which in one verse has two utterly contrasting situations, musically and lyrically.  And this allows Dylan to write effectively each verse as two parts.

Take the second verse…

I ran into the fortune-tellerWho said, "beware of lightning that might strike"I haven't known peace and quietFor so long I can't remember what it's likeThere's a lone soldier on the crossSmoke pourin' out of a boxcar doorYou didn't know it, you didn't think it could be doneIn the final end he won the warsAfter losin' every battle

Is there a connection between the first four lines and the rest of the verse?  I am not sure there is lyrically, and there certainly isn’t musically.   And the same is true for each verse thereafter.

That disconnect however, resolves itself in the lyrics as the song progresses so that by the time we get to

I can't feel you anymoreI can't even touch the books you've readEvery time I crawl past your doorI been wishin' I was somebody else insteadDown the highway, down the tracksDown the road to ecstasyI followed you beneath the starsHounded by your memoryAnd all your ragin' glory

we do have a sense that all is connected, but the music continues to be of two parts, the first four lines of each verse having those uncertain hanging chords, with the last five lines being more resolved, more melodic…

And thus the contradictions are allowed to exist (just as they so often do in the real world), and in so doing we can get to the final resolution

We're idiots, babeIt's a wonder we can even feed ourselves

It is all told not just with a brilliant set of lyrics, but a brilliant musical composition which allows us to move from contradictions to the final recognition that “You’re an idiot, babe” might be true, but in fact the total reality is that “We’re idiots, babe.”

The lyrics and the music: the series…

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