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.
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