“Tangled Up in Blue” is not Bob Dylan’s most convoluted song; “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” with its references to eleven-dollar bills and hanging around in ink wells, probably wins that title. It is not even the most confusing ballad on Blood on the Tracks; Wendy Lesser is right on in her analysis of “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts”: “There are these huge gaps…what [Dylan] leaves out is more interesting in some ways than what he puts in.” Compared with these two songs-plus countless others in the Dylan songbook-“Tangled Up in Blue” is a straightforward narrative ruminating on love, loss, and whether you really can go back again.
But “Tangled Up in Blue” is not completely transparent, either. Dylan’s mumbling of crucial lines-Does the narrator lay in bed “wondrin’ if she’d changed at all” or “it all”? Do they break up “on a dark, sad night” or “on the docks that night”?-forces the listener to wonder if Dylan isn’t trying to hide the true meaning of one of his most personal songs. The characters have no names; we are never sure if the time structure is linear or circular; it is unclear how many people are involved in the narrative.
Perhaps because “Tangled Up in Blue” seems decipherable (as opposed to “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts,” which are willingly and cheerfully incomprehensible), I have long been fixated on figuring out what exactly is going on in the song. What follows is a detail of my attempts to untangle “Tangled Up in Blue.”
Backstory (1970-1974): Dylan’s work in the early 1970’s disappoints fans and critics alike. The first half of the decade produces Dylan’s first two albums-Self Portrait in 1970 and Dylan in 1973-to earn one-star reviews from Rolling Stone; the lowest rating a Dylan album received in the 1960’s was four stars. Greil Marcus opens his review of Self Portrait with the now-legendary question, “What is this shit?” and goes on to quote a radio DJ’s reaction to playing the album for the first time: “I don’t know if I should keep playing this.”
Marcus, like nearly all of his fellow critics, cannot not resist comparing Dylan’s work of the 1970’s to that of the 1960’s and finding it depressingly inferior. In his Rolling Stone review, Marcus expresses the sentiments of most Dylan fans: “Our fate is bound up with Dylan’s whether we like it or not. Because Highway 61 Revisited changed the world, the albums that follow it must-but not in the same way, of course.”
September 16, 17, 19, and 24, 1974: Dylan records ten tracks for the album that will become Blood on the Tracks at New York City’s A&R Recording Studios. Slow and rambling, nearly seven minutes long, the version of “Tangled Up in Blue” that Dylan records in these sessions is reminiscent of his earlier folk ballads such as “Girl of the North Country” and “A Man of Constant Sorrow.”
Lyrically, “Tangled Up in Blue” chronicles the rise and fall of two relationships: between an unnamed “he” and “she” and between a first-person narrator (also unnamed) and the same “she.” For the first three verses, Dylan tells the story of “he” and “she.” They meet while she is married (“soon to be divorced”) and begin a love affair that ends “on a dark, sad night” after a road trip out West. He hitchhikes back East, gets a few unsatisfying jobs (“In the great north woods/Working as a cook for a spell/” and “Workin’ for a while in an airplane plant” back West again, in Los Angeles), and misses “her” terribly: “All the while he was alone/The past was far behind,/He’d seen a lot of women/But she never escaped his mind,” declare the last lines of the third verse.
As the relationship between “he” and “she” ends, the narrator’s love affair with “she” begins. The narrator enters in the fourth verse as “her” rebound relationship. “She” and “I” meet when she approaches him in the topless bar where she works. They return to her apartment, where she reads him a book of poems, and they establish an intellectual connection: “Every one of them words rang true/And glowed like burning coal/Pouring off of every page like it was written on my soul from me to you.” Soon enough, as with her previous relationships, this one, too comes “crashing down.” The narrator, like the original “he,” heads for the road, still hoping “to get to her somehow.” While it contains a few confusing lines-why does “she” tell “him” that they will “meet again someday on the avenue,” if they never do reunite?-the narrative of the New York “Tangled” is relatively simple. It tells the tale of two men’s similar relationships with the same woman.
November 21, 1974: A Rolling Stone article about the New York recording sessions, aptly titled “Blood on the Tracks: Dylan Looks Back” anticipates the album as Dylan’s big comeback. “It was almost as if Dylan were consciously conjuring up the ambiance of the early Sixties,” writes the article’s author, Larry Sloman. “It appears he has reimmsersed himself in the world of carnival people, energy vampires, and karmas hustlers and they’re all out there, back on Highway 61.” The session’s musicians perpetuate the idea of Blood on the Tracks as a return to the past. Guitarist Barry Kornfeld tells Sloman, “This is his first definitive LP in a long time, it’s a return to 1965.” Eric Weissberg, another guitarist, concurs. “Lyrically, he’s writing stories again, little vignettes about himself.”
December 1974: Dylan returns home to Minnesota for Christmas and plays the tape of the New York sessions for his brother David. Despite the positive press that the New York sessions has attracted, David tells him that the album is not sufficiently commercially appealing. He recommends that Dylan gather local musicians to rework some of the songs.
December 27 and 30, 1974: Accompanied by commercial jingle musicians, Dylan re-records half of the songs from the New York sessions: “You’re a Big Girl Now,” “Idiot Wind,” “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” “If You See Her, Say Hello,” and “Tangled Up in Blue.”
Of all the songs Dylan reworks in the Minnesota sessions, “Tangled Up in Blue” receives the most dramatic makeover. The Minnesota retake is poppier and faster-paced than its New York counterpart; Dylan raises the song’s pitch from the key of E, in which he played New York version, to the key of A. Though containing the same number of verses, the Minnesota version runs over a minute shorter than the New York “Tangled.” These changes transform “Tangled Up in Blue” from a tired, pokey folk song to emotionally intense rock and roll hit.
More striking than the key shift are the lyrical changes Dylan makes to “Tangled Up in Blue,” particularly his alteration of the song’s narrative perspective. The New York version opens with the third person: “Early one mornin’ the sun was shinin’,/He was layin’ in bed.” The song continues in this voice for the first three verses. In the fourth verse, the narrator enters the story with the words, “She was workin’ in a topless place/And I stopped in for a beer.” From then on, the story is told entirely in the first person. The Minnesota version, however, begins in the first person-“Early one mornin’ the sun was shinin’/I was layin’ in bed,” with a nice down-beat emphasis on the “I”-and remains in the first person for the rest of the song.
In many ways, this pronoun change serves the same purpose as Dylan’s changes to “Tangled”’s tempo and key: increasing the song’s commercial appeal. The first-person perspective of the Minnesota “Tangled” contributes to the overall “confessional” tone of the album. Eight of the ten songs that end up on Blood on the Tracks when it is released the following month are in the first person. Two of them-“You’re a Big Girl” and “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”-begin with the word “I.”
The preponderance of first-person narratives on Blood on the Tracks is no accident. Bob Dylan is one of rock’s most frustratingly elusive figures; any of his first-person songs is bound to be more intriguing than one in the third-person because of the possibility of autobiography. A first-person Dylan song lets the listener imagine that he is catching a glimpse of the artist’s inner mind and soul.
And indeed, the Minnesota “Tangled” does include several details that could fit nicely into Dylan’s biography. Dylan is from Minnesota, an area he refers to as “the North country” in both his music-“Girl from the North Country” on Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and Nashville Skyline-and in his 2004 memoir, Chronicles. It seems very likely, therefore, that Dylan himself could have had “a job in the great North woods, working as a cook for a spell,” as does the “Tangled” narrator.
Furthermore, in a later verse (which does not appear in the New York version), the narrator speaks of living on Montague Street with a couple that eventually breaks up because “he started into dealing with slaves/And something inside of him died.” In Chronicles, Dylan remembers living with a couple in New York City, the home of Montague Street; the man in the couple, Ray, had a fixation on the Civil War: “He was a nonconformist, a nonintegrator and a Southern nationalist.”
Most significantly, “Tangled”’s overall themes of love and loss echo Dylan’s recent breakup with his wife, Sara Lowndes Dylan, a model and Playboy bunny (remember the “topless place”?) who, like the song’s heroine, was married before she met Dylan. Dylan would later call “Tangled Up in Blue” “a song it took me ten years to live and two years to write,” a possible allusion to the Dylans’ twelve-year marriage.
But for all the superficial changes that make the Minnesota “Tangled” appear more accessible than the New York version, a closer analysis of the Minnesota “Tangled”’s lyrics reveal them to be much more complicated than those of the original. Both versions chronicle the rise and fall of two relationships: one between “he” and “she”; the other between “I,” the song’s narrator, and “she.” In the New York version, these two narratives are easily divided by the switch in narrative voice; Dylan talks about “he” and “she” for three verses, then about “she” and “I” for the last four. Despite the frustrating namelessness of the song’s characters, we always know which couple he is talking about.
The Minnesota “Tangled,” however, lives up to its name. It is a veritable tangle of people, places, and chronology. Paradoxically, this confusion results from the same change that contributed to the song’s increased commercial viability: the first three verses’ switch from third to first person. At first, it seems as though the Minnesota “Tangled” simply converges the New York version’s two relationships into one. Like New York’s “he” and “she,” Minnesota’s “we” meet when “she” is on the verge of divorce. “We”, too, take a long drive out West and break up “on a dark sad night,” prompting the narrator drift from job to job. The narrator also finds his past “close behind,” but unlike New York’s “he,” he does something about it. The narrator goes to the topless bar where “she” works, causing “her” to come up to him and ask “Don’t I know your name?” This question, as distinct from the similar one she asks in the New York version (“What’s your name”), indicates that they have met before.
It becomes clear in the next verse, however, that the Minnesota “Tangled” does not simply tell the combined story of the two relationships chronicled in the New York version. “I lived with them on Montague Street/In a basement down the stairs,” declares the opening line of this sixth verse. Who is “them”? The simplest way to interpret “them” is to see it as “she” and her new lover, someone “she” has takes up with while the narrator is working in Delacroix. This interpretation carries on the linear chronology of the song. The narrator and the woman get together, then break up; he returns to find her in a new relationship, but they reconnect nonetheless, and he lives with them for a while. This sort of threesome cannot last for long, however. Eventually, “the bottom fell out,” and the narrator finds himself on the road again.
But perhaps the “they” in verse six does not refer to “she” and a new lover. Perhaps “them” refers back to “she” and the man to whom she was married, “soon to be divorced.” If so, the actions in the sixth verse must have occurred chronologically before the actions in the third, fourth, and fifth verses, as well as parts of the first and second. The narrator meets “her” when she is still married and lives with “her” and her soon-to-be-ex-husband. Then, “we” embark on the road trip and break up on a “dark sad night.” In that case, the moment at the beginning of the song-“I was standin’ on the side of the road/Rain fallin’ on my shoes”-is the same at the one at the song’s closing: “So now I’m goin’ back again,/I got to get to her somehow”. Thus the song takes on a circular quality, ending where it began.
March 13, 1975: Rolling Stone reserves its record section entirely for critical reactions to Blood on the Tracks. In the opening pages of the magazine, the editors explain: “We found the album so striking-and so much more interesting than nearly everything else released this year-that we devoted an entire record section to it.”
Despite the editors’ rave review of the album, the reviewers are less sanguine. In his review, Jon Landau allows that Blood on the Tracks is “[Dylan’s] best album since Blonde on Blonde”. In the same breath as he compares the album to Blonde on Blonde, however, Landau proclaims the ridiculousness of making such a comparison. “To compare the new album to Blonde on Blonde at all is to imply that people will treasure it as deeply and for as long. They won’t,” he determines before adding, “Blood on the Tracks will only sound like a great album for a little while.”
At least Dylan’s pronoun-switching strategy for “Tangled” appears to have worked. Landau calls Blood on the Tracks “confessional and narrative,” adding, “there are times where [Dylan] sounds closer, more intimate, and more real than anyone else.”
Jonathan Cott makes some incomprehensible comments about the album’s treatment of time: “When we feel removed from the present, we can either remember and recollect the spaces of memory.” He sees “Tangled Up in Blue” as Dylan’s comment on the lost spirit of the 1960’s and his own musical failures in its wake. He labels “Tangled” “a song of longing for the vanishing beloved, as well as for the lost spirit of the Sixties.” The narrator sings of his period living on Montague Street, “There was music in the cafes at night/And revolution in the air.” These lines seem to allude to the musical and social upheaval that occurred in the previous decade. The reference to “dealing with slaves” could be Dylan’s indictment of his fellow musicians’ “selling out” to the excess and drugs of the “Me Decade”. The narrator’s response to the collapse of the Montague Street idyll also sounds suspiciously like Dylan’s own retreat into domesticity after his near-fatal motorcycle crash in 1966: “And when finally the bottom fell out/I became withdrawn,/The only thing I knew how to do/Was to keep in keepin’ on like a bird that flew.”