Since the release of Blood on the Tracks in 1975, it has been one of Dylan’s most acclaimed and loved albums. Detailing the ins and outs of a relationship, many critics and fans thought that Dylan was embracing the California confessional singer/songwriter style and musical approach, exhibited most beautifully and successfully on Joni Mitchell’s 1971 album Blue.
The story of the relationship at the center of Blood on the Tracks captures the full spectrum of love, tracking the highest highs and the lowest lows of emotions. Anger and heartbreak are on full display as we discussed in the “Idiot Wind” post. With the album’s release, many speculated about Dylan’s marriage and if it was not going well. This sentiment seemed to be confirmed with Dylan’s divorce two years later.
Over the years, Dylan has pushed back against the assumption that Blood on the Tracks was about his marriage and even against an autobiographical interpretation of the album. In a 1985 interview with Bill Flanagan (collected in Written in My Soul: Conversations with Rock’s Great Songwriters), Dylan said:
”A lot of people thought that album pertained to me. It didn’t pertain to me … I’m not going to make an album and lean on a marriage relationship.”
When discussing a different Blood on the Tracks song with Camerone Crowe for the liner notes of the 1985 box set Biograph, Dylan said:
“Blood on the Tracks was another one of those records we went in and did in three or four days [in New York City]. I had the acetate and I hadn’t listened to it for a couple of months….I thought the songs could have sounded differently, better so I went in and re-recorded them [in Minneapolis]. ‘You’re A Big Girl Now,’ well, I read that this was supposed to be about my wife. I wish somebody would ask me first before they go ahead and print stuff like that. I mean it couldn’t be about anybody else but my wife, right? Stupid and misleading jerks.”
In his 2001 book Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan wrote the following:
“Eventually I would even record an entire album based on Chekhov short stories—critics though it was autobiographical.”
While Blood on the Tracks is not specifically named by Dylan, it must be the album he is referring to in the context of the narrative of Chronicles.
Why is he pushing back in this way? One theory could be that he doesn’t want to be pigeonholed by critics and lumped in with the California School of Confessional Singer-Songwriters. We know that Dylan is not always to be trusted when commenting on his work and his life because he likes to be the trickster and play with expectations and the prevailing consensus of his work. He doesn’t want to be defined or categorized in any way.
The idea of autobiography in Dylan’s music is tantalizing, even as he rejects that interpretation many times in considering Blood on the Tracks. How can we say this? Because Dylan told us himself! When asked in an interview with Mikal Gilmore for Rolling Stone in December 2001 if his album “Love and Theft” was autobiographical, Dylan’s insistence was evident in his response:
“Oh, absolutely. It would be autobiographical on every front. It obviously plays by its own set of rules, but a listener wouldn’t really have to be aware of those rules when hearing it. But absolutely. It’s not like the songs were written by some kind of Socrates, you know, some kind of buffoon, the man about town pretending to be happy [laughs].”
Dylan laughs at the idea that his life experience is not in his songs in some way. If this contradiction were to be pointed out to Dylan, he would probably say that Blood on the Tracks and “Love and Theft” should be considered differently. Dylan may be more comfortable with a quotation included in Luc Sante’s essay about Dylan called “I Is Someone Else” collected in 2004’s Kill All Your Darlings. This line is commonly attributed to the 19th century writer Stephen Crane:
“An artist, I think, is nothing but a powerful memory that can move itself through certain experiences sideways and every artist must be in some things powerless as a dead snake.”
Dylan’s contradictions about whether or not there is autobiography in his work are summarized here; his life stories are expressed through his music and writing in a “sideways” angle while also recognizing that sometimes there is no angle, the song is as true as it can be.
The idea of autobiography in Dylan’s songwriting is good context to consider his song “If You See Her, Say Hello,” especially comparing the lyric changes he made to the song during a short amount of time in his career. The song was originally released on Blood on the Tracks, and there were two versions considered for the album release. The first set of recordings for the album happened in September 1974 in New York City. The New York City version of “If You See Her, Say Hello” was released on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991.
It is a powerful and heartfelt performance, recorded solo with Dylan on acoustic guitar and harmonica. The opening line establishes the tone of the song: “If you see her, say hello, she might be in Tangiers / She left here last early spring, is livin’ there, i hear.” As a lover of the Beat poets and writers, Tangiers is a deliberate location for Dylan to choose as it’s where Williams S. Burroughs resided for years. Burroughs was forced to live overseas after receiving a two-year suspended sentence after being convicted of homicide for killing his wife in a drunken attempt to shoot a highball glass off her head à la William Tell. Burroughs settled in Tangiers, where he was able to find his literary voice. The female character in “If You Say Her, Say Hello” has gone into self-exile, and, by choosing Tangier as the location, Dylan is implying that the reason for that banishment is because of an unmentioned and unforgivable act.
As outlined above, Dylan rejects the autobiographical reading of this song and others from Blood on the Tracks, but many times he says that the album is not about his wife and the reason why he responds in this way is because that reading is too literal. Dylan biographer Clinton Heylin in his 2011 book titled Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades has stated that, in 1974, “Dylan began a relationship with a Columbia Records employee, Ellen Bernstein.” According to Heylin, the songs of Blood on the Tracks were inspired by Dylan’s relationship with Bernstein. The idea of exile in the reference to Tangiers is further underlined knowing that the song is describing an affair outside of the marriage, as both the lover and the narrator are both feeling a sense of banishment.
Dylan goes on to sing, “Say for me that I’m alright though new things come and go / She might think that i’ve forgotten her, don’t tell her it isn’t so.” There are so many negatives in the end of that line that it’s hard to keep track of what the narrator is actually asking the other person in the song – the “you” in the title of the song – to communicate to this ex-lover. For Dylan, the negativity of what’s being conveyed is the emphasis.
After singing that the couple’s separation was a “pierce to the heart” and that “she still lives inside of me,” the narrator says to the intended audience of the song, “If you’re making love to her, kiss her for the kid.” Suddenly with the use of the word “if” once again, the song opens up to other possibilities. The narrator is either imagining that the person he is communicating to – the “you” in the title – is in a relationship with the narrator’s ex-lover, or that the narrator is imagining such a relationship. Either way, the line is a gut punch in the way Dylan sings the “kiss her for the kid” line. The heartbreak is evident.
In the next verse, Dylan sings:
I see a lot of people as I make the rounds
And I hear her name here and there as i go from town to town
And I’ve never got used to it, I’ve just learned to turn it off
Either I’m too sensitive or else I’m gettin’ soft.
The last line is another punch to the solar plexus and this time the narrator is punching himself. He is berating himself for allowing these thoughts to continue, he can’t even hear her name. He feels he needs to find a place he used to have where lost relationships would roll off of him, but now he can’t forget her at all. Despite the self admonishment, the pain of the relationship and the self-doubt continues. The narrator tells this other person. “If she’s passin’ back this way, I’m not that hard to find / Tell her she can look me up if she’s got the time.” The last words convey how uncertain and small the narrator feels. He’s certainly wounded, but he has no idea how she feels about him.
“If You See Her, Say Hello” has an entirely different feel from “Idiot Wind.” The previous song expresses a range of intense emotions in Dylan’s performance, using heightened language and extended metaphors to convey those emotions. In the writing for “If You See Her, Say Hello,” Dylan strips aways anything unnecessary, using much more common, colloquial expressions that you might hear someone say when remembering a lost love to another in a bar over drinks.
Neil Young attempted to find the same sound as Dylan created in the New York City Blood on the Tracks sessions when he recorded an entire solo album in one night on August 11,1976. Neil intended for that single night session to be released as a standalone record, but the results were rejected by his record company as they viewed the recordings as demos. Some of the individual recordings were used in subsequent albums or were re-recorded with a full band accompaniment, but Neil eventually fulfilled the original vision of the recording sessions when Hitchhiker was released in 2017. The New York City version of “If You See Here, Say Hello” has the same feel of Hitchhiker and fits comfortably alongside those recordings.
Dylan was unsatisfied with many of the songs cut during the New York City sessions and re-recorded some in Minneapolis a few months later to achieve a more commercial sound. “If You See Her, Say Hello” was one:
This is the version of the song that was released on Blood on the Tracks, and the album suffers for it as I believe this is inferior to the New York City cut. There is much more instrumentation accompanying Dylan: an organ, two guitars, percussion which builds as the song goes on, and even a mandolin joins the band. Dylan’s vocals are much more careful and considered here, not wanting to make any mistakes. The language is even softened as the line “If you’re making love to her, kiss her for the kid” is changed to “If you get close to her, kiss her once for me.” The rewrite lacks the bite of the original.
The one lyric change that is better in the new version is the shift to: “Though the bitter taste still lingers on from the night I tried to make her stay.” That line hints at the high drama of their separation. It connects directly to “Idiot Wind,” which reads as a depiction of the events, the words spoken between the couple, and accusations hurled on the “night I tried to make her stay.”
“If You See Her, Say Hello” changes even more as Dylan begins to perform the song in public and as the circumstances of his life changes. A year after the release of Blood on the Tracks, Dylan returned to the road and assembled a large carnivalesque touring show called the Rolling Thunder Revue. Dylan was the lead performer, but was also joined as part of the concert package by Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Roger McGuinn, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and others. They were all backed by an eclectic band, which included Mick Ronson from David Bowie’s band The Spiders, future music producer luminary T Bone Burnett, and Scarlet Rivera, whose violin soon would be the central musical element on Dylan’s album Desire.
Larry “Ratso” Sloman, a journalist embedded on the Rolling Thunder Revue tour for Rolling Stone magazine, later published a book about his experiences on the tour called On the Road With Bob Dylan. In reading Sloman’s account, Dylan and his wife Sara had reconciled and their relationship at that point was quite strong. Sara joined Dylan for most of the tour and even acted in Renaldo and Clara, the movie that Dylan was writing and directing during Rolling Thunder Revue.
Before the tour launched, Dylan and the whole Rolling Thunder Revue crew conducted a series of rehearsals and Dylan and the band ran through a number of different songs – both Dylan originals as well as cover songs. The rehearsals were released in 2019 as part of Bob Dylan – The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings. One of the rehearsals included a performance of “If You See Her, Say Hello” with a completely new set of lyrics. In his book, Sloman recounts an exchange with Dylan in which Dylan is excited about the rewritten lyrics, and Dylan teases Sloman by singing only a line or two. This website has a transcription of the lyrics of the Rolling Thunder Revue version.
Scarlet Rivera’s violin is the lead instrument in this version of “If You See Her, Say Hello,” and, with the new chords in the re-arrangement, the song now feels to be in the same mysterious, gypsy world as the songs from Desire. The opening lines of the new set of lyrics fit this musical setting: “If you see her, say hello, she might be in Babylon.”
Immediately, there is a shift in perspective as well as attitude in these lines. Gone is the sense of exile with the use of Tangiers in the opening line, and, instead, the woman at the center of the song is actually in Babylon. According to Wikipedia, Babylon was the capital of the ancient Babylonian empire, and thought to be “the largest city in the world c. 1770 – c. 1670 BC, and again c. 612 – c. 320 BC. It was perhaps the first city to reach a population above 200,000.” To place this ex-lover in Babylon is to put her into the world of myth and legend. There’s a distancing in this act of artistic editing, which is also reflected in the next line: “She left here last early spring, took a while to know that she was gone.” Now, we see a different mindset in the narrator’s feelings towards the ex-lover: a jaded indifference.
A mixture of emotions can be seen in the third verse:
I see a lot of people as I took a ride
But I only think her name at night as the sunlight has died
And I’ve never really swallowed it, I’ve kept it in my mouth
As she’ll bid hello and leave up north, most likely I’ll go south.
The reference to “I’ve never really swallowed it” is a reference to a bitter taste of the ending of the affair from the previous verse, but in this version of the song, the narrator isn’t willing to accept the ending. He’s holding on to the bitterness by not swallowing. This bitterness is made explicit in the last line in the verse. The narrator knows that he will keep his distance from her, deliberately staying as far away as possible by going in the opposite direction.
The last verse further emphasizes these emotions:
Sundown yellow moon, I replay the past
I know every scene by heart, they all went by so fast
If she’s passin’ back this way, most likely I’ll be gone
But if she’s not, just don’t let me know, she best keep movin’ on.
The transcription says “rovin’” in the last line, but I hear “movin’” in the recording. That line especially cements the feelings that, whatever happened in this affair, the narrator is ensuring that he is staying far away from his former lover. He is attempting to keep the entire relationship in the past, careful not to see her so as not to disrupt the peace that he has found in his current life. This act of artistic editing could be a reflection of Dylan’s own relationship with his wife Sara. Perhaps their reconciliation includes a careful detente with the understanding that any affair that occurred would be left in the past as reflected in this set of lyrics of “If You See Her, Say Hello.”
Moving forward to spring 1976, the Rolling Thunder Revue resumed playing concerts in the American Southeast and West as discussed in a previous post. The mood of this leg of the tour was decidedly different from the fall 1975 version, and it started with Dylan. Here are a few quotes about the spring 1976 tour collected from an oral history compiled by Ray Padgett in his invaluable substack Flagging Down the Double E’s:
“The first part of the tour was unbelievable. It was idyllic. It was romantic. We were all having a wonderful time, and Bob was very happy. The second part of the tour, he was like a different person. I mean, he was great on stage. There was no point in time that he wasn’t really good. But he wasn’t a happy camper. You know, everything starts at the top, and it filters through. And that was the case on the second tour.”Claudia Levy, tour director Jacques Levy’s partner (source)
“There was a magic to the first leg of the tour. There was a great sense of harmony amongst all the players. Although the music was as good on the second leg, I think it was a little bit less harmonious. Some element of tension wove itself in that wasn’t there in the first one. Perhaps it was because Bob was going through his divorce or maybe there was some more tension with the guitar players and the band. I don’t know. There was a little bit less of that magic fairydust glow on the second one for me.”Scarlet Rivera, violin (source)
“I knew that Bob kind of had a black cloud over his head during that  tour and that infected everything.”David Mansfield, multi-instrumentalist (source)
As these witnesses attest, Dylan’s mood was sour and the situation with his wife must have changed. Their divorce would become final the next year after the tour. This autobiographical shift for Dylan is reflected in yet another rewrite of “If You See Her, Say Hello.” Here he is performing the song on the opening night of the spring leg of Rolling Thunder Revue, April 18, 1976:
Dylan is by himself for this rendition with only an acoustic guitar and harmonica providing the musical accompaniment. The melody and Dylan’s vocal delivery of the song has changed. He sings in a similar way to the song “Drifter’s Escape” off of John Wesley Harding with a trill in his voice, giving it almost a mariachi feel at times during the performance.
Listening to the performance and reading the transcription of the rewritten lyrics, Dylan once again changes the location of where the ex-lover might be, establishing a new perspective in “If You See Her, Say Hello.” This time, it’s North Saigon, where, only a year before the performance, the last Americans remaining in Vietnam were airlifted out of the country as the city fell to communist forces. The war in Vietnam resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths of Americans and Vietnamese and tore the United States in half with hostile arguments about whether or not the country should be fighting this war. The significance of “North Saigon” sets the emotional tone for the song: conflict, bitterness, and retreat.
Dylan then sings: “She left here in a hurry, I don’t know what she was on.” This statement is an offhand accusation, implying that the woman in the song might have been on drugs, but the narrator can’t swear to it. Regardless, it’s a nasty thing to suggest. The verse continues with the following:
You might say that I’m in disarray and for me time’s standing still
Oh I’ve never gotten over her, I don’t think I ever will.
The narrator is a mess, and he can’t move forward with his life. He admits that he hasn’t gotten over the ex-lover and claims that he never will. The desperation is plain in the words being sung and in Dylan’s performance of these words.
In the third verse, Dylan rewrites the original “If you’re making love to her, kiss her for the kid” line with the following:
If you’re making love to her, watch it from the rear
You’ll never know when i’ll be back or liable to reappear
Oh boy! Gone is the respect that the narrator had in earlier versions of the song. Instead, the narrator is threatening the unnamed third person who he is addressing the song to. The narrator is saying that he should watch his back because the narrator might show up EVEN DURING SEX. This is truly ugly stuff.
The desperation continues in the next line: “For it’s natural to dream of peace as it is for rules to break.” Again, the theme of conflict and war is evident in this line. The narrator goes on to say: “And right now I’ve got not much to lose, so you’d better stay away.” More harsh threats from the narrator. In this verse, the narrator is less concerned about his ex-lover than with the man he is addressing in the song. The intimidation is clear, and the narrator is in a dangerous state of mind in this world of conflict.
In the final verse, the narrator returns to thinking about his ex-lover and finalizes his feelings:
Sundown, silver moon, hitting on the days
My head can’t stand no more what my heart don’t tolerate
Well i know she’ll be back someday of that there is no doubt
And when that moment comes, lord give me the strength to keep her out.
The narrator’s head and heart are unified in not wanting to be with the ex-lover anymore. He knows that he will be forced into a decision in taking her back at some point, and he calls on a higher power to help him stay unified. That’s how strong her allure is to him and he asks for God’s strength in this conflict. Dylan uses the words “give me strength,” which echoes the title of a song that Neil Young would record on the aforementioned Hitchhiker album: “Give Me Strength.” Hitchhiker would be recorded only a few months after this Dylan rendition of “If You See Her, Say Hello.” Both artists are asking for strength for similar reasons, but the levels of their emotions are quite different as Neil is expressing a profound sadness, whereas Dylan is writing from a much more nasty and perilous perspective.
Each performance of “If You See Her, Say Hello” retains the original conceit and basic structure of the song, even as Dylan adjusts the chords and melody and plays with the details. As these shifts happen as the song evolves, Dylan himself is the only constant. The time period that we are discussing is only a matter of a year and a half from the first recording of “If You See Her, Say Hello” in September 1974 to the live performance in Florida in April 1976. There is a lot of speculation in this post about Dylan’s state of mind, but it is well established that Dylan went through a number of changes in his life during this time. He, as an artist, is processing the upheaval in his life, driving revisions and inspiring new work.
Image: Rudolf Ernst, Young ladies on a terrace in Tangiers, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons