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

By Tony Attwood

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.

You’ll find some notes about our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

The index to all the 594 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found on the A to Z page.

We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with over 2000 active members.  (Try imagining a place where it is always safe and warm).  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

If you are interested in Dylan’s work from a particular year or era, your best place to start is Bob Dylan year by year.

On the other hand if you would like to write for this website, please do drop me a line with details of your idea, or if you prefer, a whole article.  Email Tony@schools.co.uk

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, links back to our reviews

 

 

This entry was posted in Blood on the Tracks, Bootleg Series volume 3, The Songs. Bookmark the permalink.

8 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.

  3. collin butt says:

    why we dont realise its all abut Sara and the pain of the divorce

  4. Jesús López-Peláez says:

    This song may well be -as C. Butt argues- about Sara (after all, that’s what Jakob Dylan said, didn’t he?), but truly great art does this: trascend the immediate and -while focussing on sth very small, personal- appeal to all of us (or at least to those of us willing to listen). And this is -we will all agree o0n that- a truly great song.

  5. DP says:

    I see a struggle of the masculine and feminine spirits they’re separate but in us are made one. Provoking strong passions that can easily turn to violent+torturous actions causing scarring that my take a lifetime to heal if ever but forever changing us and even crippling.

  6. Nick says:

    “It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe”. I’m often surprised that I still know how to breathe. Knocked around at the whim of any and everything. Personality only a smear of factory margarine on white bread. I’m 61 and can’t see how Ive lasted this long. My breath ain’t mine, the messages in my blood ain’t mine, I’m not allowed and have no privacy whatsoever. For thirty years I’ve been a wind up clockwork goldfish bending its back swimming round and round the bowl while they all watch and laugh.

  7. Marie Fabyancich says:

    Well, the line ‘Even you yesterday had to ask me where it was at’ is a shot at Robbie Robertson for his infamous question to Bob about ‘where (he) was taking music next’ and the ‘Chestnut Mare’ line is directed at Roger McQuinn.

    As, for the album being about the Dylans’ divorce, in ‘Chronicles’ Bob denies it and says the songs are based on stories by a Russian writer.

  8. wanda g says:

    I think Dylan is directing a good bit of this song to the press, “Idiot Wind”, and how distorted the press can make people seem. He certainly seems angered with them in this song.
    I feel he is singing about misconceptions that many have of him, and they really do not know him at all.
    ‘The long soldier on the hill’ seems to be Dylan’s reflection toward war..and how the solder only wins a war when it is over.
    Lots of sarcasm here in this sad song, but only Bob Dylan could pull off this genius song.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *