id·i·ot | \ ˈi-dē-ət \
Definition of idiot
1: a foolish or stupid person
“… Idiot that I am to wear my heart on my sleeve! …”
— George Bernard Shaw
2: dated, now offensive: a person affected with extreme intellectual disability
As Merriam-Webster says, there are two definitions to the word “idiot,” the second of which has rightfully fallen out of favor. The first usage cites an example from George Bernard Shaw that Bob Dylan may have written out and tacked up on a wall during the writing of “Idiot Wind” off of 1975’s Blood on the Tracks:
There’s no musical intro when the song starts. The first thing we hear is Dylan’s especially nasal vocal as if the musicians were assembled to record the song and Dylan immediately started singing into the mic with no warning. It sounds as if he’s in such a rush to record and get this song down because there’s a lot to say. What is the first line sung by Dylan? “Someone’s got it in for me.” That’s quite a thesis statement! The kind of thing you’d hear in a film noir, the line thrusts the listeners into a world of suspicion and paranoia. It only continues with the rest of the verse:
They’re planting stories in the press
Whoever it is I wish they’d cut it out quick but when they will I can only guess
These lines establish the narrator as a public figure, famous enough that a newspaper would want any story, even a false story, knowing that their readers would have interest in reading about the narrator. Regardless, the narrator has no agency in this situation. He’s helpless and left to the mercy of this nameless and unknown person. What is the story that’s been leaked and spread around in the press?
They say I shot a man named Gray and took his wife to Italy
She inherited a million bucks and when she died it came to me
We are certainly in the world of noir as this story sounds as though it should be shot in black and white with lots of shots of people standing in shadows and light jutting through venetian blinds. The story is certainly one which would interest the media. How does the narrator respond to this story?
I can’t help it if I’m lucky
Huh. Okay, this changes things. The narrator has hinted that this is a false story, but the implication of this line is that the story planted in the press is indeed true. Furthermore, the narrator has a strange idea of what luck is, getting a million bucks but the woman who he took to Italy has immediately died. Are we in the world of noir anymore? The true story of “Idiot Wind” begins with “I can’t help it if I’m lucky.” The song is a type of movie that we as an audience never really see, one which depicts the events after the plot of a film noir has come to a conclusion. What happens after the end of a film noir? Nothing pretty.
Confusion, anger, bitterness, helplessness are at the core of “Idiot Wind” as expressed in the next verse:
People see me all the time and they just can’t remember how to act
Their minds are filled with big ideas, images and distorted facts
The next lines shift the song from a description of how the narrator feels that he is viewed publicly to directly addressing the woman at the center of the relationship with the narrator. It starts with an accusation: “Even you.” Those words are sung by Dylan with such bitterness. It feels as though we are hearing one end of an argument. Those two words together are an accusation and betrayal in one. The ugliness of “Idiot Wind” deepens.
The narrator goes on to say: “You had to ask me where it was at.” This line echoes another line written by Dylan 10 years previously in the song “Positively 4th Street”: “You say you lost your faith / But that’s not where it’s at.” Like “Idiot Wind,” “Positively 4th Street” is another song filled with accusations of betrayal and dripping with bitterness. “Where it’s at” is such a vague generalization, but perhaps in writing “Idiot Wind,” Dylan consciously utilizes the same phrase as a way to connect the two songs. Or perhaps it was a subconscious choice on Dylan’s part when he is writing in this particular songwriting tone.
The narrator continues his accusations: “I couldn’t believe after all these years, you didn’t know me any better than that / Sweet lady.” Addressing the song’s target as “sweet lady” is irony at its most pure, especially with the harsh language about the song’s subject as seen in the first chorus:
Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your mouth
Blowing down the backroads headin’ south
Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth
You’re an idiot, babe
It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe
Recalling the definition of “idiot” at the beginning of the post, the song’s message is primarily about the foolishness of love, or, at least, of this particular relationship. The last line of the first chorus is especially severe and fits more into the second definition of “idiot,” the outdated usage of a physical deformity. The narrator is indeed in a dark place in this song.
It’s in this first chorus, we also hear Dylan’s pronunciation of the word “idiot.” Instead of the standard way of saying the word with three syllables, he includes an extra syllable in the first “i” when singing the word. This could be an attempt on Dylan’s part to make the word more singable or even melodic, but this isn’t a particularly beautiful melody to hear. Or, maybe this is a case of affected speech as in an old Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracey movie, which forces us to ask: “Why are they talking in this way? Did people really talk this way in the 1940s or is it a false reality created by Hollywood?”
Skipping ahead, Dylan sings the line: “Visions of your chestnut mare shoot through my head and are makin’ me see stars.” The “chestnut mare” is most certainly a reference to The Byrds’ song “Chestnut Mare.” Co-written by Dylan’s old friend Roger McGuinn and Dylan’s eventual co-writer for the album Desire Jacques Levy, it’s a loopy 60s cowboy song with the song’s titular chestnut mare as a stand-in for a woman. Like most loopy 60s cowboy songs, it’s a not-too-hard-to-see metaphor for freedom, maaaaan. In “Idiot Wind,” Dylan instead has the song’s subject – the woman in the relationship – owning a chestnut mare, and, in what seems like a tweak to McGuinn and Levy, it makes the narrator see stars like he’s the Coyote in the Looney Tunes cartoons, dizzy after being hit over the head with an anvil.
Unfortunately, this fun connection to a cartoon is immediately forgotten as the narrator starts slinging daggers:
You hurt the ones that I love best and cover up the truth with lies
One day you’ll be in the ditch, flies buzzin’ around your eyes
Blood on your saddle
From this point on, the accusations by the narrator are even more grisly and the metaphorical imagery becomes starker and violent. Examples include:
Idiot wind, blowing through the flowers on your tomb
The priest wore black on the seventh day and sat stone-faced while the building burned
I waited for you on the running boards, near the cypress trees, while the springtime turned
Slowly into Autumn
I kissed goodbye the howling beast on the borderline which separated you from me.
The images are so striking, magnifying Dylan’s choice of words and description. The severe yet potent imagery also combines with a self pity that verges on nihilism. For example, see:
You’ll never know the hurt I suffered nor the pain I rise above
I can’t feel you anymore, I can’t even touch the books you’ve read
Every time I crawl past your door, I been wishin’ I was somebody else instead.
As described in a previous post on Recliner Notes, Dylan presents in “I and I” a sense of divided self, one in battle with the other. In “Idiot Wind,” the narrator is seeking escape. “Get me out of here,” he is saying, “I’m willing to be anyone else.”
The musical accompaniment of “Idiot Wind” is not what we would call tight. At one point, the band screws up the chord change. We can hear the fumbling of the player or players trying to find the correct chord. But no matter, they keep playing, trying to keep up with Dylan, who, by midpoint in the song, is so incensed, he sounds like he’s a smoldering branch on an electrical power line. There’s no subtlety in his vocal delivery. He sings, “Your corrupt ways had finally made you BLIND,” outright yelling the last word in the line. More sing-yelling happens in the line: “I been double-crossed now for the very last time and now I’m finally FREE.” The rage in the music isn’t only limited to Dylan’s vocals. Have you ever heard an angry harmonica? If not, then listen to Dylan’s harmonica solo that ends “Idiot Wind.”
The song tracks the extreme lows of the relationship, exhibited through the narrator’s angry accusations. Yet, he also ensures that we understand why the pain is so sharp through the heights their relationship reached as seen in this verse:
Down the highway, down the tracks, down the road to ecstasy
I followed you beneath the stars, hounded by your memory
And all your ragin’ glory.
The pair reached ecstasy during their journey together, and “Idiot Wind” is a reflection of the idea of the words “ragin’ glory.” It captures the spectrum of the relationship and serves as a stand-in for the entire makeup of the song: the severe imagery of the writing and the musical delivery of the song. Dylan later commented on this aspect of “Idiot Wind” in his conversation with Paul Zolol in SongTalk in 1991:
“Anger and sentimentality go right next to each other, and they’re both superficial. Chagall made a lot of sentimental paintings. And Voltaire wrote a lot of angry books. [Idiot Wind is] a little bit of both because it uses all the textures of strict philosophy, but basically it’s a shattered philosophy that doesn’t have a title, and it’s driven across with will power. Will power is what you’re responding to.”
In the final chorus, the narrator widens the focus of the idea of idiocy to finally include himself:
Idiot wind, blowing through the buttons of our coats
Blowing through the letters that we wrote
Idiot wind, blowing through the dust upon our shelves
We’re idiots, babe
It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves
The “idiot” designation of a foolish or stupid person is no longer being hurled at the other person in the relationship. The foolishness is no longer about “you” but rather “we.” It’s “our coats” and it’s the “letters that we wrote.” Together, as a pair, we are idiots.
The final line of the final chorus of the song is “We’re idiots, babe / It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.” In Luc Sante’s essay about Dylan called “I Is Someone Else” included in the 2004 collection Kill All Your Darlings, he says about this last line: “And that…is a great line from a note left on a pillow at dawn.” It’s the way the narrator is able to conclude the relationship and walk away, mind filled with that extreme mixture of emotions ranging from heartbreak to anger.
In depicting the mental state of the narrator and thinking about a grander sense of the “we” in “Idiot Wind,” Dylan cites an important inspiration for his own songwriting with a reference to the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River in the state of Washington. In 1941, Woody Guthrie wrote and recorded the song “Grand Coulee Dam”:
This song was included as part of a larger project called the Columbia River Ballads in which Guthrie was commissioned as a songwriter for a bit of federal government propaganda. According to the biography on Guthrie’s website, “The Bonneville Power Administration placed Woody on the Federal payroll for a month” and he composed “Grand Coulee Dam” and other songs.
As a Woody Guthrie acolyte in his earlier days, Dylan certainly knew this song as a young folksinger. “Grand Coulee Dam” was not forgotten by Dylan as it was one of four songs that he performed at A Musical Tribute to Woody Guthrie on January 20, 1968 in Carnegie Hall.
The tribute was performed three months after Guthrie’s death and was Dylan’s first public musical performance after the crazed 1966 world tour and his retreat from public life after his motorcycle accident. Dylan sounds energized singing these Guthrie tunes with The Band and the songs they performed – especially “I Ain’t Got No Home” and “Grand Coulee Dam” – fit nicely alongside The Basement Tapes period that Dylan and The Band were just finishing at this time.
Moving back to “Idiot Wind,” Dylan sings in the chorus:
Idiot wind, blowing like a circle around my skull
From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol
Dylan utilizes the Grand Coulee Dam – envisioned by his hero Woody Guthrie – as one powerful national symbol to sweep across the entire country to the Capitol Building. Choosing these potent totems are not accidental as both are located in places named after the nation’s first president; the state of Washington in the extreme western part of the country all the way over to Washington D.C. on the east coast. Dylan is ensuring that we know that the song’s idiot wind not only blows “a circle around my skull,” but also encapsulates the entire country. The poet Allen Ginsberg called that line “the great disillusioned national rhyme” in his liner notes for 1976’s Desire. We are all idiots, in our relationships in love and with one another as citizens and participants in the democracy of the United States.
This is the version of “Idiot Wind” that appeared on Blood on the Tracks when the album was released in January 1975. The first sessions for the album began in New York City in September 1974. Those sessions had minimal musical accompaniment, centered mainly on Dylan’s acoustic guitar and harmonica. After listening to initial test pressings with his brother David Zimmerman, Dylan decided to rethink the album’s approach as David feared that the album did not have enough commercial appeal. So Dylan rushed into a Minneapolis studio in December 1974 and re-recorded about half of the album with a hastily assembled band made up of musicians he had never met before. The version of “Idiot Wind” discussed above is from the Minneapolis sessions. We can travel back in time and hear a previous version of “Idiot Wind” from the New York City sessions as released on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991:
This version begins with a quiet, almost whispery acoustic guitar along a subtle bass. At times, we can hear a little bit of organ. Dylan’s guitar is gorgeously captured in the recording, despite – or maybe because of – occasionally hearing the buttons of Dylan’s jacket scrape against the side of the guitar while he strums.
There are some lyrical changes between the two versions, but the largest difference is the tone of the performances. Rather than the paranoid, vengeful, and accusatory nature of the Minneapolis version, the New York City performance is full of wistful regret. In the Minneapolis version, we hear an angry harmonica; here we can ask, “Have you ever heard a regretful harmonica?”
The same emotion can be heard in Dylan’s delivery of the line: “Now everything’s a little upside-down. As a matter of fact the wheels have stopped.” Dylan sings “the wheels have stopped” with a shrug of his shoulders. The performance is an act of somber contemplation about the relationship.
The key verse that we discussed above which includes the line “Down the highway, down the tracks, down the road to ecstasy” is not included in the earlier New York City version. Instead, Dylan sings:
We pushed each other a little too far, and one day it just jumped into a raging storm
The hound dog bayed behind your trees, while I was packing up my uniform.
I figured I’d lost you anyway; why go on? What’s the use?
In order to get in a word with you I’d have had to come up with some kind of excuse.
And it just struck me kind of funny.
Dylan’s voice cracks a bit as he sings the words “What’s the use?” He’s not angry at all; it’s a melancholic performance, reinforced with the last line “And it just struck me kind of funny.” Even though the New York City version still contains many of the same kiss-off lines from the Minneapolis version, this performance is an act of contrition, the narrator recognizing his own role and place in the demise of the relationship.
In comparing the two performances, it’s hard to imagine the Minneapolis version as commercially viable. Sure, the tempo is faster and features a full band sound rather than a stark acoustic setting. But did both brothers actually think the Minneapolis version would work on the radio? It’s an unsettling experience and would have sounded wildly out of place on the radio next to “Mandy” by Barry Manilow, which was the number one single in the country the week before Blood on the Tracks was released.
Dylan relished the writing of “Idiot Wind.” A few years after the song’s release in January 1978, he told the following to Jonathan Cott of Rolling Stone:
“Obviously, if you’ve heard both versions you realize, of course, that there could be a myriad of verses for the thing. It doesn’t stop. It wouldn’t stop. Where do you end? You could still be writing it, really. It’s something that could be a work continually in progress.”
The song “Idiot Wind” is still being written and the idiot wind itself unceasingly blows on and on for all of us, continually through the button of our coats, the letters that we wrote, and the dust on our shelves.
Image: Charles A. Libby & Son, C. C., Charles A. Libby & Son, photographer. (1942) Grand Coulee Dam, Washington. United States Washington Mason City, 1942. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2007663008/.