Tangled Up in Blue

The artist Jasper Johns wrote the following in his “Sketchbook Notes”:

“Make something, a kind of object that as it changes or falls apart (dies as it were) or increases in its parts (grows as it were) offers no clue as to what its state or form or nature was at any previous time. Physical or metaphysical obstinacy. Could this be a useful object?”

Johns wrote this note as a prompt and challenge to himself. This directive presents a mode for an artist with which to create. Bob Dylan’s ongoing, life-life long undertaking called “Tangled Up in Blue” is one way for an artist to take on this approach:

The recording presented in the video above is the first release of the song and the first track off of 1975’s Blood on the Tracks. As with other songs on the album, “Tangled Up in Blue” is another experiment by Dylan as he attempts to tell the story of certain characters while discarding the linear nature of time traditionally used in straight-forward songwriting. As Dylan told Bill Flanagan in a 1985 interview:

“[The songs on Blood on the Tracks] didn’t pertain to me. It was just a concept of putting in images that defy time – yesterday, today and tomorrow. I wanted to make them all connect in some kind of a strange way.”

The separate scenes depicted within the song are presented in a linear fashion as with any other song, one verse followed by another, but the sense of when each scene happens in relation to another is not apparent. As Dylan says in the quote about, time has been removed. The narrator wakes up wondering if her “hair was still red.” That is followed by another verse in which the narrator is standing on the side of the road, meeting a woman who was married and soon to be divorced. They split up on a “dark, sad night,” and as the narrator is walking away, she says to him, “We’ll meet again someday on the avenue.” Suddenly, the narrator is in a topless place staring at the “at the side of her face / In the spotlight so clear.” Is this the same woman with whom he split up on the “dark, side night”? Is this the couple’s promised meeting as foretold by the woman? Jump cut to the narrator in an apartment with a woman, smoking a pipe and reading the lines of a 13th century Italian poet. Is this the same woman from the topless place? Or is this a different woman? Then we fast forward — or backwards — to the narrator who lives with a couple in a basement apartment “on Montague Street.” It’s unclear if the “she” in this verse refers to any of the other women from the previous verses. In the final verse, Dylan sings:

So now I’m goin’ back again
I got to get to her somehow.

Dylan has removed time when connecting the different scenes in the previous verses, but, in the last verse, time is specifically stated. The narrator needs to get back to her. Is this a matter of seeking her out and trying the relationship over again? Or perhaps the narrator wants to actually turn back time, forcing it to bend to his will like Superman reversing the Earth’s rotation to move time backwards.

Many of the songs on Blood on the Tracks rely on a shifting of perspective (as seen in this Recliner Notes post). “Tangled Up in Blue” is no different as Dylan actually embeds that notion into the text of the song by singing “We just saw it from a different point of view” in the final verse. As Dylan removes time in the song that also results in the loss of any sense of perspective. The always-helpful Dylan provided the following insight to an Australian interviewer in 1978:

“The he and the she and the I and the you, and the we and the us — I figured it was all the same anyway — I could throw them all in where they floated right — and it works on that level.”

The idea of floating in this quote provides a connection between “Tangled Up in Blue” and the Johns quote above. When an object is floating, it is not on a solid plane. There’s no weight underneath, no foundation, allowing the object — in this case time and perspective within the song — to always be shifting “its state or form or nature” as if floating on the water or in the air. The alteration of perspective is even more pronounced when comparing this version of “Tangled Up in Blue” to an earlier one:

Dylan recorded this take in New York in September 1974. He decided not to release the New York City version for what would become Blood on the Tracks, opting instead for the performance recorded in Minneapolis in December 1974 linked at the beginning of the post. In the New York City “Tangled Up in Blue,” there’s a regretful, almost wistful feel to Dylan’s performance. It’s not as engaging as the Minneapolis version; there’s almost a remove to the story for the listener. That sense of being one-step-away may be because of being familiar with the famous first-person opening of the Minneapolis version: “Early one mornin’ the sun was shinin’ / I was layin’ in bed.” Instead in the New York City version, Dylan opens the song in a third-person perspective with “He was layin’ in bed.” Dylan eventually brings the song back to the first-person later in the song, but this means there’s less narrative reliance on the couple, opening up perspective possibilities within the song. Dylan hints at alternative interpretations of the viewpoints within the song when he introduced “Tangled Up in Blue” in 1978 by saying:

“It’s a love ballad about three people in love.”

In the last verse in both 1974 versions, Dylan sings:

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.

With the opening up of possible points of view within the song, the professors of mathematics and the “carpenters’ wives” in these lines could be referring to different any of the “hes,” “shes,” or “Is” in the song. Most importantly, the narrator says these people are all illusions to him. An illusion is defined as “something that looks or seems different from what it is; something that is false or not real but that seems to be true or real.” With Dylan’s use of the word “illusion” in the text of the song, the floating sense of perspective is even more pronounced. The narrator himself is unclear as to what is real and what is false. The word “illusion” contributes further to the elimination of perspective and the further loosening of the songs’ “state or form or nature.”

The removal of self within “Tangled Up in Blue” recalls the famous statement by the poet Arthur Rimbaud, one of Dylan’s heroes, that he wrote in a letter in May 1871: “Je est un autre.” The best English translation of the purposefully ungrammatical statement is: “I is another.” Rimbaud’s statement has been explained as “in the act of introspection we objectify the self, we experience our self as if it belongs to another person.” Dylan quotes “I is another” to Cameron Crowe in the Biograph liner notes, so we know that the concept behind the statement resonates with him as an artist and a public figure. The acceptance of “I is another” provides an opening to a different self, a secret self, or even multiple lives. Dylan’s act of changing pronouns within the lyrics for “Tangled Up in Blue” resulting in a wide range of possible perspectives could be sourced back to Rimbaud’s “I is another.”

That Rimbaud is in play within the song is supported by another reference in the lyrics. In the Minneapolis version, Dylan sings the following lines:

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.

The idea of “dealing with slaves” works on a metaphorical basis as a way to demonstrate the worst of human behavior and thus affirming the loss of self (“something inside of him died”). But for Dylan, the line can also work as an allusion to Rimbaud. After Rimbaud ended his ill-fated relationship with Paul Verlaine, he left poetry and France behind to travel the world. Along with what we know about Rimbaud’s post-poetry life as an explorer and a merchant, rumors abound that Rimbaud was also a gun-runner and even a slave dealer. Though that rumor has been heavily discredited, Dylan must have been drawn to the idea of an ex-poet turned slave dealer as the correct metaphor for one who has truly crossed a line into complete moral degradation.

Another reason we know that Rimbaud was at the forefront of Dylan’s mind during the creation of “Tangled Up in Blue” is from another song from Blood on the Tracks, “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.” Dylan sings:

Situations have ended sad
Relationships have all been bad
Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud
But there’s no way I can compare
All those scenes to this affair
Yer gonna make me lonesome when you go.

This song is much more straight-forward and less complex than “Tangled Up in Blue,” but the direct reference of Rimbaud in the song supports the idea that he was a source of inspiration for Dylan during the composition of the songs on Blood on the Tracks, especially the embrace of “I is another” for the inconstant sense of perspective within “Tangled Up in Blue.”

As Dylan performed the song in concert, it began to change, not only in musical approach — as can be heard in this performance in Fort Collins, CO, on May 23, 1976 or with the “torch song” era of the song during the 1978 tour — but especially in lyrical content. After his embrace of Jesus in late 1978, Dylan adjusted lines in the song to represent this transition in his life as seen in a performance in Charlotte, NC, on December 12, 1978:

Then she opened up the Bible
And she started quotin’ it to me
Jeremiah chapter seventeen
From verses 21 and 33.

Dylan often introduced the song by saying that it “took me 10 years to live, and two years to write.” Here he is in 1978 more than four years after the initial recording of the song making major adjustments to the lyrics. Does he start to add years to each of those totals every time he rewrites the song? Perhaps math isn’t Dylan’s strongest subject.

The year 1984 saw further changes in the ongoing evolution of “Tangled Up in Blue” in concert. The new version of the song can be heard best on Dylan’s otherwise inessential live album Real Live:

In the liner notes for the Biograph box set, Dylan specifically talked about the Real Live version from the year before:

“On Real Live it’s more like [how] it should have been. I was never really happy with it. I guess I was trying to make it like a painting where you can see the different parts but then you also see the whole of it. With that particular song, that’s what I was trying to do…with the concept of time, and the way the characters change from the first person to the third person, and you’re never quite sure if the third person is talking or the first person is talking. But as you look at the whole thing it really doesn’t matter. On Real Live, the imagery is better and more the way I would have liked it than on the original recording.”

Leave it to Dylan to come out and say that he is unsatisfied with one of his most well-received songs. For the performance captured on Real Live, gone are the radical musical arrangements of the song as Dylan returns to its original solo acoustic form. We can hear him playing to the crowd, even laughing slightly at one point as he sings a new line. The response of the crowd moves from screams of “I can’t believe we are hearing Bob Dylan play the famous harmonica solo for ‘Tangled Up in Blue’” to a respectful silence as they comprehend the new words. At times it seems as though the crowd is asking, “Wait, is he still singing ‘Tangled Up in Blue’?”

The basic superstructure of the song is in place, but the new words for the song sees both subtle shifts in the language as well as completely re-written verses. There is a reliance on cliché on Dylan’s part with some of the lines, but, in one instance, the cliché is used for humorous effect. When the narrator stops into “The Blinding Light” for a drink and encounters the woman standing next to his chair. She says to him, “What’s that you got up your sleeve?” Though flirtatious, it’s an old line and not particularly insightful. Immediately after, the narrator says that he can “feel the heat and the pulse of her” as she ties the laces of his shoes. This shifts the emphasis away from the cliché as the narrator’s clothing has now become the vehicle by which their dalliance deepens.

The most fascinating part of the Real Live “Tangled Up in Blue” is the last verse:

So now I’m going on back again
Maybe tomorrow maybe next year
I gotta find someone among the women and men
Whose destiny is unclear
Some were masters of illusion
Some were ministers of the trade
All in the strong delusion
All of the beds are unmade
Me I’m still headin’ towards the sun
Tryin’ 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.

Dylan uses the word “illusion” as in the original version — “All the people we used to know / They’re an illusion to me now” — but transfers it to the next line. Instead of “Some are mathematicians / Some are carpenter’s wives,” the examples are, “Some were masters of illusions, some were ministers of the trade.” The floating, unsettled theme of “illusion” remains in the text of the song, but utilized in an entirely different way in the songwriting. It’s a masterful piece of re-writing on Dylan’s part as he connects the different versions of the song with the same word.

The penultimate line of the final verse of the 1984 version is where Dylan solidifies his conceptual goal for the song that one can see “the different parts but then you also see the whole of it.” Dylan shifts perspective from “I” to “we” by saying, “We always did love the very same one, we just saw her from a different point of view.” This transforms the outlook of the song to the universal. It’s no longer a question of “he” or “I” in the song, but all of us. In the original version, Dylan embeds the notion of perspective into the text of the song — “We just saw it from a different point of view” — but in this version “it” becomes “her,” transforming this woman from not only the third part of a love triangle, but rather to something greater, a Jungian archetype or even a deity of some sort. Performing these lines in 1984 after his disillusionment with the church, these words could be interpreted as Dylan adopting a “many roads to the mountain” stance to how to achieve love, truth, and enlightenment. “We always did love the very same one, we just saw her from a different point of view” accepts the various religions as paths to a single destination. Whether it is a stance on religion, the absolute nature of a romantic union, or just the story of two (or three) people in love, these lines reflect Dylan’s desire to create a piece, like a painting, in which “you can see the different parts but then you also see the whole of it.” This version of “Tangled Up in Blue” presents the minute and the universal all at once.

In the 1985 interview with Bill Flanagan, Dylan further commented on his process in rewriting “Tangled Up in Blue” as presented on Real Live:

“I rewrote it in a hotel room somewhere. I think it was Amsterdam. I wanted to sing that song so I looked at it again, and I changed it. When I sang it the next night I knew it was right. It was right enough so that I wanted to put it down and wipe the old one out. That was another of those songs where you’re writing and you’ve got it, you know what it’s about, but half of it you just don’t get the way you wanted to. Then I fixed it up, and now I know it’s where it should be. I think it makes a big difference, too.”

There’s a finality to this quote about the song as Dylan seems to be saying that the song is finally settled and complete after wiping “the old one out.” But that’s not the case as Dylan continues to tinker with “Tangled Up in Blue,” especially as he starts the so-called Never Ending Tour in the late 80s. There is a high volume of concerts during this ongoing tour, and Dylan takes advantage of practically every opportunity to play with the song. These seemingly endless adjustments inspired the Twitter account @dylyricus and his accompanying website, which tracks lyric variations presented by Dylan for all of his songs. He has reserved special attention for “Tangled Up in Blue,” launching #ProjectTangled. In an interview for Ray Padgett’s Flagging Down the Double E’s newsletter, he says the plan is to “map out not just random lyric changes but the complete historic evolution of a single song’s lyric over its entire life to date.” One particular instance that @dylyricus highlights in the interview is from Toronto in 2004:

“Bob starts out the performance singing the standard lyric, with the first inkling of what is to come being a small lyric stumble, which he handles valiantly: ‘All the while he was alone, the time was slipping away / All the while he was alone, you know the past was close behind’). But it’s after the instrumental break that the train completely runs off the tracks and Dylan is throwing out lines like, ‘I don’t even drink beer here!’ ‘I know you’re mine!’ and, incredibly, ‘Some are mathematicians; I’m a truck driver’s wife.’”

There’s plenty of material to work with for #ProjectTangled as Dylan can’t leave the song alone. There are examples of Dylan writing out the lyrics with slight alterations, such as this from 2013:

Another instance is from 2018 when the Halycon Gallery presented an exhibition of Dylan’s “most renowned lyrics, each handwritten by him in pen on paper and accompanied by an original pencil drawing.” Specifically for this exhibition, Dylan can’t help but rewrite the lyrics for “Tangled Up in Blue” once again:

It’s unclear if Dylan performed this specific version of the lyrics onstage, but the final verse has another startling update:

Now I’m going back again
Got to get back to them somehow
Yesterday is dead and gone
Tomorrow might as well be now
Some of ‘em went up the mountain
Some of ‘em down on the ground
Some of them names written in flames
Some of ‘em just left town
Me I’m still on the road
Trying to stay out of the joint
We always did feel the same
Depending on your point of view
Tangled up in blue.

As we can see, time is emphasized in the 2018 version as it was in its original 1974 form, if not even more so. Lines such as “Yesterday is dead and gone / Tomorrow might as well be now” shows that Dylan is still playing with the merging of time in the song, so that it lives outside of time. Yesterday, tomorrow, now – all shaken up and dropped at one’s feet.

Bob Dylan’s website says that he has played “Tangled Up in Blue” in concert 1,685 times between 1975 and 2018. It’s unclear how many alterations he made to the lyrics for each of those performances, but it varies from using the original set of lyrics to slight shifts in phrasing to wholesale revisions. This ongoing commitment to changing the words to the song can feel like a parlor game on Dylan’s part, but also because he can’t help himself. Not only do we have all of the revisions to the song, but this post itself can attest to the commentary he has offered on “Tangled Up in Blue” to interviewers over the years. Dylan is endlessly fascinated by the song. 

The Jasper Johns directive to himself that was included at the beginning of this post was featured as part of a piece by the art critic Jerry Saltz, who took advantage of two simultaneous Johns retrospectives to write a personal reflection on Johns’s work and life. In the piece, Saltz writes that the Johns directive makes him think of a 1982 painting by Johns called “Usuyuki.” The following is an excerpt of Saltz’s response to the painting:

“Somehow you glean that while all these patterns have been cooked up by Johns, nevertheless there’s structure ‘the mind already knows’ here. Everything you’re seeing conforms to some complex, correlated, schematic unitary whole. He’s splitting the tissues of seeing, naming, and knowing, as you annex deep philosophical and architectural structures at work. Study the painting, drift over it, zero in, and space out. Soon you sense repeating shapes, configurations, and patterns. Each of these orders presents itself one at a time, in turn, one then another, never all at once. The same way we can’t see both versions of an optical illusion at once. It’s in our biology not to be able to…I thought I saw how sand dunes form and dissolve, solar flares. ‘Usuyuki’ brings the possible and the necessary together and can make you the pattern-recognition machine that you are.“

It’s an extraordinary example of art criticism, bringing together the personal response with the universal, so please read the entire piece. Saltz’s thoughts on “Usuyuki” reflect Dylan’s own goals for “Tangled Up in Blue,” the ability to see the minute and the whole at once, to recognize patterns, but then realize those patterns lead to blank spots on a map. Dylan’s constant reworking of the song over his career are a true embrace of changing, falling apart, and “offering no clue” to its previous “state or form.” Johns’ goal for this prompt to himself is to result in an object, “a useful object.” For Dylan’s artistic expression, the result is a song, without the same permanence as a painting or sculpture. So when Dylan performs “Tangled Up in Blue,” there is a recognizable structure in place from the Minneapolis 1974 recording, namely verses, lines, melody, but each can change on any given night. At one performance, Dylan can change  a verse. The next night, that verse can revert back to its original form and other components have undergone a transformation. The object-ness of the song is subject to an infinite number of possible changes as in the forming and dissolving of sand dunes, to use Saltz’s analogy. Dylan’s intention for the object/song is plasticity . As a listener, we become a “pattern-recognition machine” who is subjected to an ongoing recreation of love and life through time and perspective. This perpetual renewal for listeners to “Tangled Up in Blue” is represented within the song itself. We listen to it and “feel the same way” but Dylan forces us to continually see the song “from a different point of view.” We all remain tangled. 

Image: Carol M. Highsmith, 2006, Abandoned cars, Route 66, Arizona. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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