Up to Me

On September 19, 1974, Bob Dylan recorded the song “Up to Me”:

It was the last day of the New York sessions for what would become the 1975 album Blood on the Tracks. Dylan, aiming for a more commercial sound, re-recorded some of the songs captured in New York before the release of the album. “Up to Me” was not cut again and subsequently left off of the final sequencing of the album.

The song features Dylan on acoustic guitar and harmonica, accompanied only by bass player Tony Brown. The sparse sound provides the ideal setting for Dylan’s pained yet wry vocals. The heartache heard in Dylan’s vocal delivery in “Up to Me” is a manifestation of the lyrics which tell the story of a relationship in real time. Other songs from Blood on the Tracks illustrate a relationship from the past as in “Simple Twist of Fate”; or bend time to consider the past, present, and future at once as in “Tangled Up in Blue,” whereas “Up to Me” is all present. This can be seen in the song’s opening line: “Everything went from bad to worse, money never changed a thing.” It shows the ill-fated state of the relationship right at the beginning of the song. Even the pressures of money — whether having too little or too much — which can often doom an affair, isn’t the problem. What is the source of their conflict? Dylan sings, “Now somebody’s got to show their hand, time is an enemy.” The couple is feeling an extreme sense of urgency to such an extent that time itself is what they are fighting against. The affair has a deadline and the imperative nature of the situation is forcing the narrator to take action. This realization by the narrator is the crux of the song. Each verse ends with a different revelation:

I know you’re long gone, I guess it must be up to me

and

Someone had to reach for the risin’ star, I guess it was up to me

and

Somebody’s got to find your trail, I guess it must be up to me

and

You looked a little burned out, my friend, I thought it might be up to me

and

But you ain’t a-gonna cross the line, I guess it must be up to me

and

Somebody’s got to cry some tears, I guess it must be up to me

and

One of us has got to hit the road, I guess it must be up to me.

Each of these moments of recognition tracks the gradual understanding of the state of the affair for the narrator to the point that the entire relationship is untenable. It’s time for a separation.

The English romantic poet William Wordsworth in his autobiographical poem The Prelude famously introduced his concept of “spots of time.” Wordsworth wrote:

There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue, whence–depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse–our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
A virtue, by which pleasure is enhanced,
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.
This efficacious spirit chiefly lurks
Among those passages of life that give
Profoundest knowledge to what point, and how,
The mind is lord and master–outward sense
The obedient servant of her will. Such moments
Are scattered everywhere.

For Wordsworth, these spots of time are “nourishing” and the source from which he gained inspiration for his poetry. Reflecting on his own spots of time are an important part of the creative process for Wordsworth; it enables him to entire a realm of the imagination in which to compose. Within “Up to Me,” we see Dylan recognizing certain spots of time that are incorporated into the text of the song by the song’s narrator reflecting on the relationship. They are the telling moments, encounters, and exchanges that we replay over and over in our heads. Within “Up to Me,” it’s as if the narrator is asking himself, “How did we get to this point?” Dylan catalogs those spots of time to answer that question:

I’ve only got me one good shirt left and it smells of stale perfume

and

In fourteen months I’ve only smiled once and I didn’t do it consciously

and

There’s a note left in the bottle, you can give it to Estelle
She’s the one you been wond’rin’ about, but there’s really nothin’ much to tell

and

The girl with me behind the shades, she ain’t my property.

Each of these lines are tiny gems, intricate and forceful. Many could be the beginnings of their own song as if Dylan had an overwhelming number of song ideas and decided to put them into one single song.

“Up to Me” can also be read as Dylan addressing the idea of songwriting itself in the composition of the song. One example is when Dylan sings:

The old Rounder in the iron mask slipped me the master key
Somebody had to unlock your heart, he said it was up to me.

A rounder is another word for hobo and is a commonly found word in old timey music. It inspired the naming of Rounder Records, which is primarily known for folk and bluegrass recordings. The “iron mask” allusion could refer to “the man in the iron mask,” a mysterious figure from 17th century France that was the subject of speculation by Voltaire and a novel by Alexander Dumas. By combining these two references, Dylan creates a singular image associated with secrecy and creativity. This character presents the narrator with a “master key” — a unique key that can open countless numbers of locks — with which he is told by the Old Rounder in the Iron Mask to “unlock” her heart. This master key image is a stand-in for the idea of inspiration itself. The only way to solve the puzzle that is the love of the woman is for the narrator to use the “master key” bestowed to him for the singular purpose of composing a song.

Another verse from “Up to Me” also could be seen as a metaphor for songwriting. Dylan sings:

We heard the Sermon on the Mount and I knew it was too complex
It didn’t amount to anything more than what the broken glass reflects
When you bite off more than you can chew you pay the penalty
Somebody’s got to tell the tale, I guess it must be up to me.

The “Sermon on the Mount” refers to a collection of Jesus’ teachings from the Gospel of Matthew, commonly thought of as the basis for Christian ethics and morality. For Dylan to say that the Sermon on the Mount “didn’t amount to anything more than what the broken glass reflects” is a bit bold, brazen, and even disrespectful. Dylan is minimizing a significant portion of Christian theology as simple and even obvious. Somewhat sacrilegiously, Dylan writes that “somebody’s got to tell the tale” as an option to the Sermon on the Mount. The narrator shrugs and says that it is “up to me.” Of course, it is Dylan singing those words as if Dylan himself is taking up the challenge to offer a Sermon on the Mount alternative. Dylan nods to this seemingly impossible task saying that it is biting “off more than you can chew.” Once again the words tell us that Dylan is trying to share the immensity of attempting to capture the multitudes contained in the relationship depicted in “Up to Me.”

In the final verse, Dylan confronts this entire notion head-on:

And if we never meet again, baby, remember me
How my lone guitar played sweet for you that old-time melody
And the harmonica around my neck, I blew it for you, free
No one else could play that tune, you know it was up to me.

Though this could be the song’s narrator singing to the woman in the relationship, it’s hard not to assume this is Dylan himself addressing his audience and commenting on his image. He charmingly asks that we remember him for the performances he presented, the harmonica played “for free,” and, of course, the countless number of songs written and shared represented by “that old-time melody.” Once again within the song Dylan takes a boastful approach as he proclaims that there was “no one else” who could do any of this; it’s up to him. Despite this bit of pride, the last verse is a sweet acknowledgement of Dylan’s devotion to his audience. It’s as if he is removing his (iron) mask, and saying that all of these songs and all of the performances are for his fans. He recognizes the love that they have shown for him and he acknowledges that his calling is in service to them. After these words of revelation, Dylan proceeds to play a harmonica solo accompanied by his “lone guitar,” as he has done countless times before. It’s a lovely conclusion to a generous affirmation on Dylan’s part.

This last verse and acknowledgement by Dylan would have made “Up to Me” a natural closing song for Blood on the Tracks. As noted above, “Up to Me” would not be released publicly until 10 years later for the 1985 box set Biograph. It’s confounding that “Up to Me” sat unreleased for so long and was not performed live at all. Perhaps disclosing so much about both the relationship at the heart of the song as well as the devotion to his audience made Dylan uncomfortable. One hopes that if Dylan is able to choose the time and place for his last performance that he closes that concert with this song and he is able to sing this last verse as the final lyrics he shares with his audience.

Image: Amadeu de Souza-Cardoso, c.1915-1916, Windows and Hatches, via Pedro Ribeiro Simões from Lisboa, Portugal, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

7 thoughts on “Up to Me

  1. It would be lovely if it were his last tune played live, but since he’s never played it, not even once, and no longer plays that “lone guitar,” such an ending would not appear to be in the cards.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Good article, it’s one of Bob’s best songs, I believe. I’d have to disagree on the Sermon on the Mount verse. He says, “I knew it was too complex,” which is hardly a dismissal of it – rather, it’s the opposite. He’s saying it’s multifaceted wisdom. That plays into “it didn’t amount to anything more than what the broken glass reflects,” which sounds disrespectful, but I would say it’s not – it sounds more like he’s saying trying to see yourself in a broken mirror is as complex as the sermon. In other words, he’s got no answer for his dilemma in this relationship. He doesn’t really say what it is, rather he shows the results of whatever happened. And when he says, “someone had to tell the tale,” that seems to be going back to the tale of the song, not some new sermon on the mount. In defense of this, Dylan has said time and again that he never intended to be a leader or savior, in fact, he’s 100% opposed to that idea. He just wants to write songs.

    Liked by 1 person

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