Tangled up in Blue 1974

BY MIKE JOHNSON

Poe had the insight in the 1840s, but it would be seventy years before Einstein formalized the maths, and identified spacetime as a unity for the first time. For a long time writers have played with the variables of distance and duration, duration relating to time and narrative, while distance relates to space and geography. Descriptions of place will slow the pace of narrative; a faster narrative will tend to displace other, non-narrative elements. Space and time come together in consciousness, in point of view.

(Readers interested in the wider issues raised here might like to note my comments on Lyn Hejinian’s My Life in my writing blog, and the section entitled ‘The Collapse of Opposites’ in my book Angel Of Compassion.

 ‘Distance and duration are one.’ Edgar Allen Poe.

‘Distance and duration are one.’ Edgar Allen Poe.

That narrative is constructed out of the raw materials of memory and experience rather than being ‘natural’ or inherent. We create an identity (see ‘Who is Mike Johnson?’) out of these same raw materials, a sense of identity that will shift and change over time. Even a short period of time.

I change during the course of a day. I wake and I’m one person, and when I go to sleep I know for certain I’m somebody else. I don’t know who I am most of the time.
— Bob Dylan

This confession has less to do with what it’s like to be Bob Dylan, a made up character if ever there was one, than the nature of identity itself – the contingent nature of our own self as it fluctuates in the spacetime continuum.

That fluctuation of self is what underlies the construction of ‘Tangled up in Blue’, its replaceable components, its changing moods and shifting verses over time.

‘Desolation Row’, written ten years before, escapes linearity by opening up space. It’s like a slow pan of the camera across the cityscape, noting characters and scenes. ‘Tangled’ does something different, it pretends, at the beginning (early one morning…) to offer a narrative, but what is delivered is a series of events and situations that lie beside each other in time, to be viewed simultaneously within the geography of memory.

And he headed down to New Orleans,
where they treated him like a boy.
He nearly went mad in Baton Rouge,
he nearly drowned in Delacroix

the piling up of place names is indicative. Memory is place; duration contracts; bits of time jostle together like objects in space, or places on a map. The song is viewed as we would a painting, as a whole, a whole which swallows both space and time within an overriding emotional glue: tangled up in blue… Emotion is the context for this non-linearity: its landmarks belong not to time but to feeling. Although its verses must be sung within time, and strung one after the other, outside of time all things are happening at once, at the same time.

And yet we are left with the sense of journey, of being still on the road of lessons learned and boats burned in the jumble of the personal past.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that Mr D has always treated the song as moveable feast, retelling the story in different ways within its emotional parameters. Locations change, pronouns shift about, whole verses are dropped and new ones added. This marks it as a very different song from most the 1960s canon. Just Like a Rolling Stone has its lyrics more or less set in concrete. He might drop the odd verse in performance, but never change or fiddle with those familiar lines. Imagine if the lyrics to Blowing in the Wind changed every time he performed it.

‘Tangled’ is not so much a song as a template. Within that template the elements may vary, just as the mood or spirit of the performances vary. The story changes with each new ‘Bob Dylan’ who performs it, and yet stays the same. Can we even rely on a stable point of view throughout the song? (as in Lyn Hejinian My Life) I, he, she, they, us, you – they’re an illusion to me now… Just shifting identities in the passing parade of memories. This is not one song, but dozens.

I was amazed that I had to assemble eight performances to capture anywhere near the full dimensions of the song. I believe Dylan has performed it over fourteen hundred times. This song, conceived within a context of the most personal songs he ever wrote (the Blood on the Tracks period) became something of a stadium rock anthem. Its catchy, fast driving chords are immediately recognizable, and it can wrack up a crowd.

Enjoy the performances.

1975 ROLLING THUNDER REVIEW VERSION

Perhaps the most famous of all performances with over ten million You Tube hits, and has managed to survive all the Web Sheriff’s purges. But notice that this version is not as buoyant as the album version. It’s a little flatter and harder. A little sharper edged.

Track 1 here.

1978

Four years later, in the big band tour, Dylan completely re-vamped the song, slowing it down to a ballad, sacrificing that forward drive for a more jazzy vocal reflection. This is a pretty poor recording but will give you the idea. Dylan is in excellent voice.


1984

A drastic revision of the song in terms of lyrics, but we’re back to an acoustic presentation. This is a darker and more ragged song than the previous versions. The smooth edges have grown prickly. Buoyancy has given way to bitterness. Sounds more like a hangover jag bad trip:

And it all came crashing down,
I was already south.
I didn’t know whether the world was flat or round,
I had the worst taste in my mouth,
that I ever knew,
Tangled up in blue.


We’re back to the original lyrics. This is a fast, crisp performance with Tom Petty’s band.


1995

The greatest performance ever? A cranked up, scintillating version. This one sparkles. The rapid delivery and echo in the voice makes this one a stand out.


1999

An eleven minute epic, all stops removed version. Mid-paced and hard-driving. Mr D’s voice is a bit scratchy at the start, but the song soon winds up. Fans of Dylan’s percussive guitar style will love his solos here. He can hit the same two or three notes over and over again and still push the song hard – it’s all in the timing. Then a long harmonica solo that builds from quiet beginnings to pounding ecstasy. This is the stadium rock version, template of many a performance. A must for any bobcat!


2009

This one gets my vote for the weirdest performance of all time. A strange, constricted base line, a hoarse end-of-the-night delivery, and a divine harmonica solo that floats above that odd walking baseline like a hawk on the wing. You’ll never hear anything quite like this. I call it the mechanical version. Seriously minimal.


2013

The story should end with the 2009 version, but no, it is reborn in 2013 with a whole set of new lyrics, a gentle delivery and whimsical piano by Mr D. Last verse seems to me at least as good as the original. This 2014 version now sounds like a coda, an epilogue on a lifetime of re-creating the song.

 

Now I’m goin’ back again,I’ve got to get to them somehow
Yesterday is goneand tomorrow might as well be now
Some went up to the mountain
And some they’re down in the ground
Some of their names are written in flames
And some of them just left town
Me, I’m still on the road, tryin’ to stay out of the joint

We always felt the same,depending on your point of view
Tangled up in blue


LYRICS

1984 Variant

Early one morning, the sun was shining. He was laying in bed. wondering if she changed at all, if her hair was still red. Her folks they said that their lives together sure was gonna be rough. They never did like mama’s homemade dress, Papa’s bankbook wasn’t big enough. And he was standing on the side of the road rain falling on his shoes, heading out for the lone east coast, radio blasting the news straight on through Tangled up in blue.

She was married when they first met, to a man four times her age. He left her penniless, in the state of regret, it was time to break out of the cage. They drove that car as far as they could, abandoned it out west. splitting up on a dark, sad night, both agreeing that it was best. And she turned around to look at him as he was walking away. She said I wish I could tell you all the things that I never learned how to say. He said that’s alright babe I love you too, but we were tangled up in blue.

He had a steady job and a pretty face, and everything seemed to fit. One day he could just feel the waste, he put it all down and split. And he headed down to New Orleans, where they treated him like a boy. He nearly went mad in Baton Rouge, he nearly drowned in Delacroix(sp). And all the time he was alone, the past was close behind. he had one too many lovers then, and none of them were too refined, all except for you, but you were tangled up in blue.

She was working in the blinding light, and I stopped in for a drink. I just kept looking at her face so white, I didn’t know what to think. Later on as the crowd thinned out, I was getting ready to leave. She was standing there, beside my chair, saying “What’s that you got up your sleeve?” I said “nothing baby, and that’s for sure” She leaned down into my face. I could feel the heat and the pulse of her as she bent down to tie the laces of my shoe, Tangled up in blue.

I lived with him on Montague street in a basement down the stairs. There was snow all winter and no heat, revolution was in the air. Then one day all his slaves ran free, something inside of him died. The only thing I could do was be me, and get on that train and ride. And it all came crashing down, I was already south. I didn’t know whether the world was flat or round, I had the worst taste in my mouth, that I ever knew, Tangled up in blue.

Now I’m going back again, maybe tomorrow, maybe next year. I’ve got to find someone among the women and men whose destiny is unclear. Some are ministers of illusion, some are masters of the trade. All under strong delusion, all of their beds are unmade. Me I’m heading toward the sun, trying to stay out of the joint. We always did love the very same one. We just saw her from a different point of view, Tangled up in blue.

Original version:

Early one morning the sun was shining

I was laying in bed Wond’ring if she’d changed it all If her hair was still red Her folks they said our lives together Sure was gonna be rough They never did like Mama’s homemade dress Papa’s bankbook wasn’t big enough And I was standing on the side of the road Rain falling on my shoes Heading out for the East Coast Lord knows I’ve paid some dues getting through Tangled up in blue.

She was married when we first meet Soon to be divorced I helped her out of a jam I guess But I used a little too much force We drove that car as far as we could Abandoned it out West Split it up on a dark sad night Both agreeing it was best She turned around to look at me As I was walking away I heard her say over my shoulder “We’ll meet again someday on the avenue” Tangled up in blue.

I had a job in the great north woods Working as a cook for a spell But I never did like it all that much And one day the ax just fell So I drifted down to New Orleans Where I happened to be employed Working for a while on a fishing boat Right outside of Delacroix But all the while I was alone The past was close behind I seen a lot of women But she never escaped my mind my love just grew Tangled up in blue.

She was working in a topless place And I stopped in for a beer I just kept looking at her side of her face In the spotlight so clear And later on as the crowd thinned out I’s just about to do the same She was standing there in back of my chair Saying “Jimmy, Don’t I know your name ?” I muttered something underneath my breath She studied the lines on my face I must admit I felt a little uneasy When she bent down to tie the laces of my shoe Tangled up in blue.

She lit a burner on the stove and offered me a pipe “I thought you’d never say hello” she said “You look like the silent type” Then she opened up a book of poems And handed it to me Written by an Italian poet From the thirteenth century 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 Tangled up in blue

I lived with them on Montague Street In a basement down the stairs There was music in the caf, s at night And revolution in the air Then he started into dealing with slaves And something inside of him died She had to sell everything she owned And froze up inside And when finally the bottom fell out I became withdrawn The only thing I knew how to do Was to keep on keeping on like a bird that flew Tangled up in blue.

So now I’m going back again I got to get her somehow All the people we used to know They’re an illusion to me now Some are mathematicians Some are carpenter’s wives Don’t know how it all got started I don’t what they’re doing with their lives But me I’m still on the road Heading for another joint We always did feel the same We just saw it from a different point of view Tangled up in Blue.

…Splittin’ up on a dark sad night

Somewhere in the wilderness

He turned around to look at her

As she was walkin’ away

Sayin’ over my shoulder

“We’re gonna meet again someday, truckin’ down the avenue”

Tangled up in blue

 

Well, she lit a burner on the stove

And then she swept away the dust

“I thought you looked like someone that I used to know,

You look like someone that I can trust”

Then she opened up a book of poems And then she said, “Just so you’ll know

Memorize these lines, and remember these rhymes

When you’re out there walkin’ to and fro”

And every one of them words rang true

Glowed like burnin’ coal

Pouring off of every pagelike it was written in my soul from me to you

Tangled up in blue

 

Now I’m goin’ back again,I’ve got to get to them somehow

Yesterday is goneand tomorrow might as well be now

Some went up to the mountain

And some they’re down in the ground

Some of their names are written in flames

And some of them just left town

Me, I’m still on the road, tryin’ to stay out of the joint

We always felt the same,depending on your point of view

Tangled up in blue