Song of the Day #650: ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ – Bob Dylan

In 1975, nine years had passed since the release of Bob Dylan’s last undisputed masterpiece, Blonde on Blonde. During those nine years he had released seven studio albums, two greatest hits collections and a live album.

He had matched his pre-1966 output but it would be hard to argue that any of those seven albums were equal to his first seven. Could it be his best days were behind him?

The answer, which came in the form of Blood on the Tracks, was a resounding no.

Many critics and fans, myself included, consider this 1975 album Dylan’s finest. It was certainly his most personal, and the raw emotion that he poured into every track was tangible. Dylan has been coy over the years about the degree to which his dissolving marriage contributed to these songs, claiming several times that the tracks are not autobiographical.

And maybe that’s true, literally. The characters in these songs might not be Bob and Sara Dylan. But I have trouble believing the turmoil he describes wasn’t his own. Dylan’s son, Jakob, once said of Blood on the Tracks that “the songs are my parents talking.”

Blood on the Tracks starts with what might be my very favorite Bob Dylan song, ‘Tangled Up in Blue.’ It’s a relatively straight-forward track, lyrically, in that it forgoes a lot of the abstract language Dylan was known for in favor of poignant, descriptive phrases.

But the song’s narrative is rather complex, skipping around in time and occasionally flipping from first to third person. In live and alternate takes of ‘Tangled Up in Blue,’ Dylan reworks things entirely, replacing all the I’s with he’s and rewording whole verses. He pointed to an interest in Cubist paintings which employ multiple perspectives in a single image and said he wanted to try the same thing in a song.

Early one mornin’ the sun was shinin’,
I was layin’ in bed
Wond’rin’ if she’d changed at 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 standin’ on the side of the road
Rain fallin’ on my shoes
Heading out for the East Coast
Lord knows I’ve paid some dues gettin’ through,
Tangled up in blue.

She was married when we first met
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 up on a dark sad night
Both agreeing it was best.
She turned around to look at me
As I was walkin’ 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
Workin’ for a while on a fishin’ 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, and I just grew
Tangled up in blue.

She was workin’ in a topless place
And I stopped in for a beer,
I just kept lookin’ at the 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
Said to me, “Don’t I know your name?”
I muttered somethin’ 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 burnin’ coal
Pourin’ 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 cafés 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 keepin’ on like a bird that flew,
Tangled up in blue.

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

5 thoughts on “Song of the Day #650: ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ – Bob Dylan

  1. Dana says:

    I couldn’t agree more with your opinion of this song and this album. To me, it is Dylan’s best work. Period. And if I were compiling my top 10 favorite albums of all artists, this one would have to be put in there.

    Please make “Idiot Wind” tomorrow’s song of the day:)

  2. Amy says:

    I’m a bit embarrased (but only a bit) to say that I only ever sought out this album (or – more to the point – this song) because of Darius Rucker. Had I never heard “Only Wanna Be With You” (the unofficial song of my brother and his wife), and found it so incredibly cool the way Darius weaved a line from “Tangled Up in Blue” into his song, only to conclude “Ain’t Bobby so cool,” I’m not sure when I would have happened upon it.

    To Dylan fans, I’m sure such an confession is sacrilege, but I’ve always loved how one artist can lead you to another. I’m sure many Dylan fans found their way to Woody Guthrie, and Guthrie’s fans were probably just as dismissive and incredulous.

    As for the song itself, I’m fascinated by Dylan’s professed admiration of the cubist movement. I wonder if he was/is also a fan of Gertrude Stein, who often tried to incorporate those same concepts into her writing. I wouldn’t be surprised.

    This is a truly great song, so I offer an unabashed thanks to Hootie and his blowfish for paying homage to it 🙂

  3. Clay says:

    Actually, Rucker weaved in a line from ‘Idiot Wind’ (“they say I shot a man named Gray…”), though he does say “I’m tangled up in blue” at the end of that verse.

    Dana, I already featured ‘Idiot Wind’ on the blog (although in bootleg format) so tomorrow it will not be the SOTD, alas.

    But rest assured it will be a good one.

  4. Amy says:

    yeah, well, that’s what I meant 😉 and do you like the fact that he does so?

  5. Clay says:

    Yes, that’s definitely one of the things that made me love that Hootie song (along with the Miami Dolphins references).

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