Mike Johnson's Blogs

Song 13 - All Along the Watchtower

One of Dylan’s most famous songs made popular by Jimmi Hendrix also from the John Wesley Harding album 1967.
This is an example of Dylan’s ecstatic swirling violin, flute and horns from 1978 tour.

Just good as Hendrix if not better.  

All Along The Watchtower
------------------------


"There must be some way out of here" said the joker to the thief
"There's too much confusion", I can't get no relief
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.


"No reason to get excited", the thief he kindly spoke
"There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I, we've been through that, and this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late".


All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.


Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.

Song 12 - You're a Big Girl Now

How did this acoustic lament for lost love turn into this raunchy pacing blues?

From Blood on the Tracks 1974 performance 1978.

You’re A Big Girl Now

Our conversation was short and sweet

It nearly swept me off-a my feet

And I’m back in the rain, oh, oh

And you are on dry land

You made it there somehow

You’re a big girl now

Bird on the horizon, sittin’ on a fence

He’s singin’ his song for me at his own expense

And I’m just like that bird, oh, oh

Singin’ just for you

I hope that you can hear

Hear me singin’ through these tears

Time is a jet plane, it moves too fast

Oh, but what a shame if all we’ve shared can’t last

I can change, I swear, oh, oh

See what you can do

I can make it through

You can make it too

Love is so simple, to quote a phrase

You’ve known it all the time, I’m learnin’ it these days

Oh, I know where I can find you, oh, oh

In somebody’s room

It’s a price I have to pay

You’re a big girl all the way

A change in the weather is known to be extreme

But what’s the sense of changing horses in midstream?

I’m going out of my mind, oh, oh

With a pain that stops and starts

Like a corkscrew to my heart

Ever since we’ve been apart

Song 11 - Drifter's Escape

This little moral fable from the album John Wesley Harding 1967 here gets the full rock treatment with rollicking harmonica. Performance date: 1996

Dylan's ability to put conversations into his songs are evident here. 

Did God save the Drifter? 

Drifter’s Escape

“Oh, help me in my weakness”

I heard the drifter say

As they carried him from the courtroom

And were taking him away

“My trip hasn’t been a pleasant one

And my time it isn’t long

And I still do not know

What it was that I’ve done wrong”

Well, the judge, he cast his robe aside

A tear came to his eye

“You fail to understand,” he said

“Why must you even try?”

Outside, the crowd was stirring

You could hear it from the door

Inside, the judge was stepping down

While the jury cried for more

“Oh, stop that cursed jury”

Cried the attendant and the nurse

“The trial was bad enough

But this is ten times worse”

Just then a bolt of lightning

Struck the courthouse out of shape

And while ev’rybody knelt to pray

The drifter did escape

Song 10 - Pay in Blood.

BY MIKE JOHNSON

Off the 2013 album Tempest, Pay in Blood is one of the most violent and sinister of all his songs. The question it generates is: who is talking? ‘In one of his most vicious songs ever, Dylan conjures a demonic figure—military brass, politician, CEO, pick your poison’ says Rolling Stone magazine.

I got something in my pocket make your eyeballs swim
I got dogs could tear you limb from limb

A relentless, chilling song. Again there are smoother versions, but this harsh, overwhelming version from 2016 best captures the evil mood of the song.

The lyrics below are what he sings in this performance. Some lines are at variance with the official version. (link) I see the rhyming trickster at work here. Another politician coming out (of) the abyss turns by some trickery of sound into: Another Politician pumping out his piss. Excuse me, did I hear that correctly? Perhaps Dylan lyrics should never be written down; what you hear is not always what you read.

Pay In Blood:

Well I'm grinding my life out, steady but sure
Nothing more wretched than what I must endure
I'm drenched in the light that shines from the sun
I could stone you to death for the wrongs that you've done

Sooner or later you make a mistake,
I'll put you in a chain that you never will break
Legs and arms and body and bone
I pay in blood, but not my own

Night after night, day after day
They strip your useless thoughts away
The more I take the more I give
The more I die the more I live

I got something in my pocket make your eyeballs swim
I got dogs could tear you limb from limb
I'm circlin' around in the southern zone
I pay in blood, but not my own

Low cards are what I've got
But I'll play this hand whether I like it or not
I'm sworn to uphold the laws of God
You could put me out in front of a firing squad

I've been out and around with the rising men
Just like you, my handsome friend
My head's so hard, must be made of stone
I pay in blood, but not my own

Another politician pumping out his piss
Another ragged beggar blowing you a kiss
Life is short and it don’t last long

They’ll hang you in the morning then sing you a song

Someone must of slipped a drug in your wine
You gulped it down and you've crossed the line
My head’s so hard it must be made of stone
I pay in blood, but not my own

How I made it back home, nobody knows
Or how I survived so many blows
I've been through Hell, What good did it do?
My conscience is clear, what about you?

I'll give you justice, I'll fathom your purse
Show me your moral that you reversed
Hear me holler, hear me moan
I pay in blood but not my own

You get your lover in the bed
Come here I'll break your lousy head
Our nation must be saved and freed
You've been accused of murder, how do you plead?

This is how I spend my days
I came to bury, not to raise
I'll drink my fill and sleep alone
I play in blood, but not my own

Song 9 - Mississippi

BY MIKE JOHNSON

 

A major track from the 2001 album Love and Theft.

In song after song in his late period Dylan gives voice to how it feels to be separate, isolated, ‘got no future, got no past’. This is a powerful expression of rootlessness and regret.

Walking through the leaves, falling from the trees
Feeling like a stranger nobody sees

This solid, evenly paced version from 2002 kicks along with Dylan in powerful voice. Sorry for the few seconds lost in the middle of the song!

Next week: the mysterious and sinister Pay In Blood

Mississippi:

Every step of the way we walk the line
Your days are numbered, so are mine
Time is pilin' up, we struggle and we scrape
We're all boxed in, nowhere to escape

City's just a jungle, more games to play
Trapped in the heart of it, trying to get away
I was raised in the country, I been workin' in the town
I been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down

Got nothing for you, I had nothing before
Don't even have anything for myself anymore
Sky full of fire, pain pourin' down
Nothing you can sell me, I'll see you around

All my powers of expression and thoughts so sublime
Could never do you justice in reason or rhyme
Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long

Well, the devil's in the alley, mule's in the stall
Say anything you want to, I have heard it all
I was thinkin' about the things that Rosie said
I was dreaming I was sleeping in Rosie's bed

Walking through the leaves, falling from the trees
Feeling like a stranger nobody sees
So many things that we never will undo
I know you're sorry, I'm sorry too

Some people will offer you their hand and some won't
Last night I knew you, tonight I don't
I need somethin' strong to distract my mind
I'm gonna look at you 'til my eyes go blind

Well, I got here following the southern star
I crossed that river just to be where you are
Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long

Well my ship's been split to splinters and it's sinking fast
I'm drownin' in the poison, got no future, got no past
But my heart is not weary, it's light and it's free
I've got nothin' but affection for all those who've sailed with me

Everybody movin' if they ain't already there
Everybody got to move somewhere
Stick with me baby, stick with me anyhow
Things should start to get interesting right about now

My clothes are wet, tight on my skin
Not as tight as the corner that I painted myself in
I know that fortune is waitin' to be kind
So give me your hand and say you'll be mine

Well, the emptiness is endless, cold as the clay
You can always come back, but you can't come back all the way
Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long

Song 8 - Blowin' in the Wind.

BY MIKE JOHNSON

Off The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album, 1962! One of his most famous songs, so famous it’s hard to think of life without it. This skinny twenty-one year old kid standing up bravely and singing sensitively about man’s inequality. Man, alone on the guitar and harmonica, taking on the conscience of America. Asking those simple, childlike questions that cut to the heart of racial issues.

Yes, and how many deaths will it take 'till he knows
That too many people have died?

 

But how to perform that song over fifty years later! No longer a young kid challenging the establishment but a well worn performer. Answer: rock it, turn it into a rocking celebration. Get up and dance to it. Dylan roaring on the organ with a swinging harmonica break.

Next week: the mortality soaked Mississippi.

Blowin’ in the Wind:

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, and how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they're forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind

Yes, and how many years can a mountain exist
Before it's washed to the sea?
Yes, and how many years can some people exist
Before they're allowed to be free?
Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn't see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind

Yes, and how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
Yes, and how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, and how many deaths will it take 'till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind

Song 7 - Po' Boy.

BY MIKE JOHNSON

Off the innovative 2001 album Love and Theft, the song casts a wide net from humour to sharp social commentary. The racial issue, always near the surface of American popular music, partly thanks to Bob Dylan’s early songs like Blowin’ in the Wind, is handled here quite playfully, but the intent is the same.

Time and love has branded me with its claws
Had to go to Florida, dodgin' them Georgia laws
Poor boy, in the hotel called the Palace of Gloom
Calls down to room service, says, "Send up a room"

This jazzy, minimal backing version from 2009 does justice to the song, as does Dylan’s weather-beaten voice, perfect for bringing out the world-weary ironies of the song. Dylan plays the stilted little organ riff and a fine, whimsical harmonica solo.

Next week: a rockin’ out version of Blowin’ in the Wind.

Po’ boy:

Man came to the door I say, "For whom are you looking?"
He says, "Your wife", I say, "She's busy in the kitchen cookin'"
Poor boy where you been?
I already tol' you won't tell you again

I say, "How much you want for that?", I go into the store
The man says, "Three dollars", "All right", I say, "Will you take four?"
Poor boy - never say die
Things will be all right by and by

Workin' like on the mainline, workin' like the devil
The game is the same it's just up on a different level
Poor boy, dressed in black
Police at your back

Poor boy in a red hot town
Out beyond the twinklin' stars
Ridin' first class trains making the rounds
Tryin' to keep from fallin' between the cars

Othello told Desdemona, "I'm cold, cover me with a blanket
By the way, what happened to that poison wine?"
She says, "I gave it to you, you drank it"
Poor boy, layin' 'em straight pickin' up the cherries fallin' off the plate

Time and love has branded me with its claws
Had to go to Florida, dodgin' them Georgia laws
Poor boy, in the hotel called the Palace of Gloom
Calls down to room service, says, "Send up a room"

My mother was a daughter of a wealthy farmer
My father was a traveling salesman, I never met him
When my mother died, my uncle took me in, he ran a funeral parlor
He did a lot of nice things for me and I won't forget him

All I know is that I'm thrilled by your kiss
I don't know any more than this
Poor boy, dressed in black
Police at your back

Knockin' on the door, I say, "Who is it and where are you from?"
Man says, "Freddy!" I say, "Freddy who?" He says, "Freddy or not here I come."
Poor boy 'neath the stars that shine
Washin' them dishes, feedin' them swine

 

 

 

Song 6 - Can't Wait.

BY MIKE JOHNSON

Like Cold Irons Bound, this comes from the 1997 Time Out of Mind album. This is a kick-arse, bluesy, prowling song. An end of the line song.

Well I'm strollin' through the lonely graveyard of my mind
I left my life with you
Somewhere back there along the line

Very slinky 2010 version here. No harmonica solo, but note how he breathes through it at times, brief punctuations in the flow.

Next week: the jazzy Po’ Boy.

Can’t wait:

I can't wait
Wait for you to change your mind


It's late
I'm tryin' to walk the line

Well, it's way past midnight
And there's some people all around
Some on their way up
Some on their way down

The air burns and I'm tryin to think straight
And I don't know how much longer I can wait


I'm your man
I've tried to recover the sweet love that we knew

You understand
That my heart can't go on beating without you


Well your loveliness has wounded me
I'm reeling from the blow

I wish I knew what it was that keeps me loving you so
I'm breathin' hard standin' at the gate
Oh, but I don't know how much longer I can wait


Skies are gray

I'm looking for anything that will bring a happy glow


Night or day
It doesn't matter where I go anymore I just go


If I ever saw you comin' I don't know what I might do

I'd like to think I could control myself
But it isn't true
That's how it is
When things disintegrate

And I don't know how much longer I can wait


I'm doomed to love you
I been rollin' through stormy weather


I'm thinkin' of you

And all the places we could roam together


It's mighty funny
The end of time has just begun


Oh honey, after all these years you're still the one

Well I'm strollin' through the lonely graveyard of my mind
I left my life with you
Somewhere back there along the line
I thought somehow that I would be spared this fate

I don't know how much longer I can wait

 

 

Song 5 - Cold Irons Bound.

BY MIKE JOHNSON

Another song off the seminal 1997 Time Out of Mind album, and this song is a winner of a Grammy award. I never much liked it because the clashing guitar seemed to overwhelm Dylan’s voice and create a mashed effect. Here, in this relentless 2009 performance, the music is stripped down to a single sinister, pulsing beat. It’s a prison song, but what is the prison?

The winds in Chicago are tearing me to shreds

Reality as always has too many heads

Incidentally, I don’t think it’s always correct to assume the ‘you’ of a Dylan song is a woman. Here, the woman is referred to as ‘she’. ‘You’ could be God, or Christ, or his audience or all or none of those. Indeterminate pronouns have been a feature of Dylan’s art from early on. Note some lines are cut out of the performance version.

Next week: On the desperate edge, Can’t Wait.

Cold Irons Bound:

I’m beginning to hear voices and there’s no one around
Well, I’m all used up and the fields have turned brown
I went to church on Sunday and she passed by
My love for her is taking such a long time to die

I’m waist deep, waist deep in the mist
It’s almost like, almost like I don’t exist
I’m twenty miles out of town in cold irons bound

The walls of pride are high and wide
Can’t see over to the other side
It’s such a sad thing to see beauty decay
It’s sadder still to feel your heart torn away

One look at you and I’m out of control
Like the universe has swallowed me whole
I’m twenty miles out of town in cold irons bound

There’s too many people, too many to recall
I thought some of ’m were friends of mine, I was wrong about ’m all
Well, the road is rocky and the hillside’s mud
Up over my head nothing but clouds of blood

I found my world, found my world in you
But your love just hasn’t proved true
I’m twenty miles out of town in cold irons bound
Twenty miles out of town in cold irons bound

Oh, the winds in Chicago have torn me to shreds
Reality has always had too many heads
Some things last longer than you think they will
There are some kind of things you can never kill

It’s you and you only I been thinking about
But you can’t see in and it’s hard lookin’ out
I’m twenty miles out of town in cold irons bound

Well the fat’s in the fire and the water’s in the tank
The whiskey’s in the jar and the money’s in the bank
I tried to love and protect you because I cared
I’m gonna remember forever the joy that we shared

Looking at you and I’m on my bended knee
You have no idea what you do to me
I’m twenty miles out of town in cold irons bound
Twenty miles out of town in cold irons bound

Song 4 - Love Minus Zero / No Limit.

BY MIKE JOHNSON

Broken my pattern here with a love song from the sixties, 1964 album Bringing It All Back Home. It is the powerful 2002 performance that got me. Makes the song seem much more mature, a performance full of passion. This was the year Dylan abandoned the guitar and took up keyboards. His piano in the background.

Next week: the hard driving Cold Irons Bound.

Love Minus Zero:

My love, she speaks like silence
Without ideals or violence
She doesn't have to say she's faithful
Yet she's true like ice, like fire
People carry roses
And make promises by the hour
My love she laughs like the flowers
Valentines can't buy her

In the dime stores and bus stations
People talk of situations
Read books, repeat quotations
Draw conclusions on the wall
Some speak of the future
My love, she speaks softly
She knows there's no success like failure
And that failure's no success at all

The cloak and dagger dangles
Madams light the candles
In ceremonies of the horsemen
Even the pawn must hold a grudge
Statues made of matchsticks
Crumble into one another
My love winks she does not bother
She knows too much to argue or to judge

The bridge at midnight trembles
The country doctor rambles
Bankers' nieces seek perfection
Expecting all the gifts that wise men bring
The wind howls like a hammer
The night wind blows cold n' rainy
My love, she's like some raven
At my window with a broken wing.

Song 3 - Not Dark Yet.

BY MIKE JOHNSON

A twilight song if ever there was one. From the 1997 album Time Out Of Mind. A complex mix of regret, acceptance and rebellion in the face of aging and mortality.

Every nerve in my body is so naked and numb
I can't even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don't even hear the murmur of a prayer
It's not dark yet, but it's getting there

There are smoother, gentler versions than this rough-voiced 2011 performance, but to my mind the song suits a less polished approach. More blues blasts on the harmonica.

Next week: the hard driving Love Minus Zero / No Limit.

Not Dark Yet:

Shadows are falling and I been here all day
It's too hot to sleep and time is running away
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I've still got the scars that the sun didn't let me heal

There's not even room enough to be anywhere
It's not dark yet, but it's getting there
Well my sense of humanity is going down the drain
Behind every beautiful thing, there's been some kind of pain

She wrote me a letter and she wrote it so kind
She put down in writin' what was in her mind
I just don't see why I should even care
It's not dark yet, but it's getting there

Well I been to London and I been to gay Paree
I followed the river and I got to the sea
I've been down to the bottom of a whirlpool of lies
I ain't lookin' for nothin' in anyone's eyes

Sometimes my burden is more than I can bear
It's not dark yet, but it's getting there

I was born here and I'll die here, against my will
I know it looks like I'm movin' but I'm standin' still

Every nerve in my body is so naked and numb
I can't even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don't even hear the murmur of a prayer
It's not dark yet, but it's getting there

Song 2 - Forgetful Heart.

BY MIKE JOHNSON

An exquisite little ballad off the 2009 album, Together Through Life. It is a melancholy ode to the heart and to forgetfulness, to love and impossibility of love. And those devastating last two lines:

The door is closed forevermore

If indeed, there ever was a door.

In this 2011 version, note not just the world-weariness, but piercing, protesting cries of the harmonica that belie the apparent resignation of the song.

Next week the funereal Not Dark Yet.

Forgetful Heart:

Forgetful heart
Lost your power of recall
Every little detail
You don't remember at all
The times we knew
Who would remember better than you?

Forgetful heart
We laughed and had a good time, you and I
It's been so long
Now you're content to let the days go by
When you were there
You were the answer to my prayer

Forgetful heart
We loved with all the love that life can give
What can I say?
Without you it's so hard to live
Can't take much more
Why can't we love like we did before?

Forgetful heart
Like a walking shadow in my brain
All night long
I lay awake and listen to the sound of pain
The door has closed forevermore
If indeed there ever was a door

Confessions of a Bobcat lives again.

BY MIKE JOHNSON

In 2015 I began my Bobcat blog to share with interested readers some of my Dylan collection. I discontinued the blog in 2015 due to pressures of work, and because the blogs were getting longer and too ambitious, involving the collating of many different performances of one song, and long comments.

Now, with Dylan having won the Nobel Prize for Literature, I have decided to re-open the blog with more limited objective. I will upload only one live performance, a song, one per week, with a brief comment. Dylan’s prize was greeted with sighs of satisfaction from bobcats everywhere (we knew it all along!) to howls of outrage from detractors and Leonard Cohen advocates. I have been guided in my weekly choices by picking those songs and performances I think make Dylan worthy of the prize. I deliberately focus on the post 1987 period, when the Never Ending Tour began, for the performances, and on his later material for the songs. Excessive focus on Dylan’s sixties work distorts our view of his achievements. Some of his greatest songs were written after 1997, when the album Time Out of Mind appeared.

To my mind, Dylan has created a new art form: his songs exist in their own space between song and poetry, while his performances similarly create their own space between reciting and singing. His vocal performances are more like nuanced reciting than singing; the songs derive from both song and poetry but are neither. They are something different.

  Dylan, Nobel Laurette of Literature, 1966.

Dylan, Nobel Laurette of Literature, 1966.

Song 1 — Ain’t Talking

The closing song on Modern Times, 2006. This version from 2007. This journey through ‘the mystic garden’ is evocative and puzzling, the landscape morally dark:

They say prayer has the power to heal
So pray from the mother
In the human heart an evil spirit can dwell
I am a-tryin' to love my neighbor and do good unto others
But oh, mother, things ain't going well

Great vocal, though the audience recording is a bit echoey. This is great example of what I mean by the performance hovering between song and poetry recitation.

Next week: the heart-rending Forgetful Heart.

Ain’t talkin’:

As I walked out tonight in the mystic garden
The wounded flowers were dangling from the vine
I was passing by yon cool crystal fountain
Someone hit me from behind

Ain't talkin', just walkin'
Through this weary world of woe
Heart burnin', still yearnin'
No one on earth would ever know

They say prayer has the power to heal
So pray from the mother
In the human heart an evil spirit can dwell
I am a-tryin' to love my neighbor and do good unto others
But oh, mother, things ain't going well

Ain't talkin', just walkin'
I'll burn that bridge before you can cross
Heart burnin', still yearnin'
There'll be no mercy for you once you've lost

Now I'm all worn down by weeping
My eyes are filled with tears, my lips are dry
If I catch my opponents ever sleeping
I'll just slaughter 'em where they lie

Ain't talkin', just walkin'
Through the world mysterious and vague
Heart burnin', still yearnin'
Walkin' through the cities of the plague

Well, the whole world is filled with speculation
The whole wide world which people say is round
They will tear your mind away from contemplation
They will jump on your misfortune when you're down

Ain't talkin', just walkin'
Eatin' hog-eyed grease in a hog-eyed town
Heart burnin', still yearnin'

Some day you'll be glad to have me around

They will crush you with wealth and power
Every waking moment you could crack
I'll make the most of one last extra hour
I'll avenge my father's death then I'll step back

Ain't talkin', just walkin'
Hand me down my walkin' cane
Heart burnin', still yearnin'
Got to get you out of my miserable brain

All my loyal and my much-loved companions
They approve of me and share my code
I practice a faith that's been long abandoned
Ain't no altars on this long and lonesome road

Ain't talkin', just walkin'
My mule is sick, my horse is blind
Heart burnin', still yearnin'
Thinkin' 'bout that gal I left behind

Well, it's bright in the heavens and the wheels are flyin'
Fame and honor never seem to fade
The fire gone out but the light is never dyin'
Who says I can't get heavenly aid?

Ain't talkin', just walkin'
Carryin' a dead man's shield
Heart burnin', still yearnin'
Walkin' with a toothache in my heel

The sufferin' is unending
Every nook and cranny has its tears
I'm not playing, I'm not pretending
I'm not nursin' any superfluous fears

Ain't talkin', just walkin'
Walkin' ever since the other night
Heart burnin', still yearnin'
Walkin' 'til I'm clean out of sight

As I walked out in the mystic garden
On a hot summer day, a hot summer lawn
Excuse me, ma'am, I beg your pardon
There's no one here, the gardener is gone

Ain't talkin', just walkin'
Up the road, around the bend
Heart burnin', still yearnin'
In the last outback at the world's end

 

 

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

 

When He Returns, 1979

By Mike Johnson

Question: Do you have to be a Christian to enjoy Mr D’s Christian songs?

 Preacher Bob, 1980 Photo by Rolling Stone.

Preacher Bob, 1980 Photo by Rolling Stone.

Answer: Not if I can help it.

I can enjoy these three magnificent recordings of this most Christian song the same way I can enjoy Mahalia Jackson. These performances are a bit like cathedrals; they can take my breath away even if I don’t subscribe exactly to that faith. I can stand in awe before the passionate expressions of that faith, which is what we find in these recordings.

These performances, so passionate they border on the hysterical, are, in my humble opinion, the best Dylan ever did. It’s an irony for the atheists that Dylan was at this best as a performer during his gospel years.

He was forty, his voice had lost its adolescent whine, he was clean – and had a lot to prove.

Surrender your crown on this blood-stained ground, take off your mask

If you don’t believe me, listen to these three performances of ‘When He Returns’ from the 1979-80 period

The first features Preacher Bob on piano doing some simple gospel chords, focusing on his vocal. It’s a rich, warm recording, full of power. Nice organ back up.

His next one features Preacher Bob on the guitar, another magnificent vocal performance, beautifully timed.

This last is maybe the best of the lot. Impeccably recorded. Bob back on Piano. A heartfelt delivery to end all heartfelt deliveries. Turn up the volume and enjoy.

  Mahalia Jackson, 1962   photo Wikipedia

Mahalia Jackson, 1962
photo Wikipedia

“When He Returns”

The iron hand it ain’t no match for the iron rod
The strongest wall will crumble and fall to a mighty God
For all those who have eyes and all those who have ears
It is only He who can reduce me to tears
Don’t you cry and don’t you die and don’t you burn
Like a thief in the night, he’ll replace wrong with right
When he returns.

Truth is an arrow and the gate is narrow that is passes through
He unreleased His power at an unknown hour that no one knew
How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice ?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness ?
Can I cast it aside, all this loyalty and this pride ?
Will I ever learn that there’ll be no peace, that the war won’t cease
Until He returns ?

Surrender your crown on this blood-stained ground, take off your mask
He sees your deeds, He knows your needs even before you ask
How long can you falsify and deny what is real ?
How long can you hate yourself for the weakness you conceal ?
Of every earthly plan that be known to man, He is unconcerned
He’s got plans of his own to set up His throne
When He return.

Gates of Eden, 1964

By Mike Johnson

Notes towards and understanding ‘Gates of Eden’

 Goya: All Will Fall Dylan ‘All in all will only fall…

Goya: All Will Fall
Dylan ‘All in all will only fall…

… on an emotional level, this song haunts. There’s a touch of Celtic ghostliness here. Mr D can be spooky. Think of ‘Man in the Long Black Coat’, ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ and ‘Visions of Johanna’. These songs give you the shivers...

… on the intellectual level, we need a theological lens to appreciate Mr D’s early, ‘difficult’ songs. They are not political, or a social critique, or left wing songs, as we used to think. Rather they are a vision of a fallen world. A world on its side. A world this side of redemption.

At the time, 1964, people thought the song was mystical in a sort of hippy way. Not quite. Them old Gates of Eden are none other than the Pearly Gates in drag disguise, bobcats. It’s all sin and death and delusion on this side of the Gates; redemption, sweetness and light on the other.

….

The theology is late medieval, which is why I have linked some of the images to Goya. It’s that ineluctable sense of a fallen world that links them.

 Goya: The Fates. Dylan: ‘As friends and other strangers from their Fates try to resign…’

Goya: The Fates.
Dylan: ‘As friends and other strangers from their Fates try to resign…’

This fallen world is a grim and foreboding place:

The lamppost stands with folded arms its iron claws attached
To curbs ‘neath holes where babies wail
Though it shadows metal badge

The world of politics and philosophy, our whole human experience, is nothing more than Vanity Vanity Vanity.Read Ecclesiastes and you will understand…

 Goya: Women. Dylan: ‘While paupers change possessions, each one wishing for what the other has got…’

Goya: Women. Dylan: ‘While paupers change possessions, each one wishing for what the other has got…’

The kingdoms of experience
In the precious wind they rot
While paupers change possessions
Each one wishing for what the other has got
And the princess and the prince discuss
what’s real and what is not –
It doesn’t matter inside the Gates of Eden.

Who is might be the ‘motorcycle black madonna two-wheeled gypsy queen’ of the sixth verse?

If I were a betting man I’d put my money on Bridget Bardot (Bardo?) in this photo, which was up on the wall of every student flat and dive in Christendom at the time:

 Bridget Bardot. Dylan: The motorcycle black Madonna two-wheeled gypsy queen

Bridget Bardot. Dylan: The motorcycle black Madonna two-wheeled gypsy queen

Anyway, her ‘silver studded phantom’ makes the ‘grey flannel dwarf’ scream as ‘wicked birds of prey pick up on his breadcrumb sins.’

I will give thee unto ravenous birds of every sort:
— Ezekiel 39:4

The poor old ‘grey flannel dwarf,’ (probably a cousin of Mr Jones in ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’) only merits breadcrumb sins!

  Goya: The sleep of dreams creates monsters.   Dylan: ‘two wicked birds of prey that pick up on his breadcrumb sins..

Goya: The sleep of dreams creates monsters.
Dylan: ‘two wicked birds of prey that pick up on his breadcrumb sins..

When all is said and done, there remains something mysterious, ethereal and unapproachable about the song, like the Gates of Eden themselves.

  Goya: Truth has died.   Dylan: Sometimes I think there are no words but these to tell what’s true…

Goya: Truth has died.
Dylan: Sometimes I think there are no words but these to tell what’s true…

While it is possible, although not necessarily advisable, to analyze the lyrics of the song, it is much harder to account for it effect. The true affective center of the song lies between the haunted and haunting melody, with its Celtic echo, and the mysterious lyrics. And a certain ghostliness to the best performances. The emotion conveyed is that of overwhelming loss. Yearning and sorrow. Yearning for a lost world that lies beyond the Gates of Eden, sorrow for the fallen world in which we live our lives.

The experience of living in that fallen world is one of alienation, separation and profound Otherness. There is no salvation in earthly love. Existentially we are free of fate, perhaps, but we are doomed to live, nevertheless:

The foreign sun, it squints upon
A bed that is never mine
As friends and other strangers
From their fates try to resign
Leaving men wholly totally free
To do anything they wish to do but die

Those lines remind me of these from a much later song, one from the Christian period (1979 – 81), ‘Precious Angel’

My so-called friends, have fallen under a spell
They look me squarely in the eye and they say, “All is well”
Can they imagine the darkness, that will fall from on high
When men will beg God to kill them and they won’t be able to die?

It’s a frightful vision, courtesy once more of the Bible. Here it is in Revelation 9: 6.

During those days people will seek death but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will elude them.

But, to say it once more, the song itself cannot be nailed down as easily as its references. The stress is on how it feels to stand in the fallen world abject before the Gates of Eden, behind which, ‘there are no words but these to tell what’s true.’ Beyond the words there is the music, and the music cues our feelings.

In the 2000 version, it is the harmonica that carries that feeling, that sense of loss and lostness. That harmonica wails for the fallen in the fallen times, How it aches! In the 1999 version it is the guitar that carries the burden of feeling, beating against the walls of them pearly Gates…

 

Enjoy the performances:

1964Close to the date of composition and found in the official bootleg series:

1974 The declaimed version. Not so much a song as a shouted poem.

1988: What I call the angry version. Song torn from the rough throat of chaos… 

 1996:  Passionate vocal, lovely guitar work.

1999: Powerful vocal, with Dylan’s guitar carrying the tears. Strong momentum

2000: The Ultimate version? With wailing harmonica and perfect pacing. Heartrending.


“GATES OF EDEN”

Of war and peace the truth just twists

Its curfew gull just glides

Upon four-legged forest clouds

The cowboy angel rides

With his candle lit into the sun

Though its glow is waxed in black

All except when ‘neath the trees of Eden.

 

The lamppost stands with folded arms

Its iron claws attached

To curbs ‘neath holes where babies wail

Though it shadows metal badge

All and all can only fall

With a crashing but meaningless blow

No sound ever comes from the Gates of Eden.

 

The savage soldiers sticks his head in sand

And then complains

Unto the shoeless hunter who’s gone deaf

But still remains

Upon the beach where hound dogs bay

At ships with tatooed sails

Heading for the Gates of Eden.

 

With a time-rusted compass blade

Aladdin and his lamp

Sits with Utopian hermit monks

Side saddle on the Golden Calf

And on their promises of paradise

You will not hear a laugh

All except inside the Gates of Eden.

 

Relationships of ownership

They whisper in the wings

To those condemned to act accordingly

And wait for succeeding kings

And I will try to harmonize with songs

The lonesome sparrow sings

There are no kings inside the Gates of Eden.

 

The motorcycle black madonna

Two-wheeled gypsy queen

And her silver-studded phantom cause

The gray flannel dwarf to scream

As he weeps to wicked birds of prey

Who pick up on his bread crumb sins

And there are no sins inside the Gates of Eden.

 

The kingdoms of Experience

In the precious wind they rot

While paupers change possessions

Each one wishing for what the other has got

And the princess and the prince

Discuss what’s real and what is not

It doesn’t matter inside the Gates of Eden.

 

The foreign sun, it squints upon

A bed that is never mine

As friends and other strangers

From their fates try to resign

Leaving men wholly totally free

To do anything they wish to do but die

And there are no trials inside the Gates of Eden.

 

At dawn my lower comes to me

And tells me of her dreams

With no attempts to shovel the glimpse

Into the ditch of what each one means

At times I think there are no words

But these to tell what’s true

And there are no truths outside the Gates of Eden.