Fair Warning: I don't know how to write this without it seeming like one large hyperbolic exhale.
If you are in any way familiar with the work of Bob Dylan, and were a fan, you would probably not think it overwrought to state that he has at least ten masterpieces (at least!). I can name ten now without pausing: "Like A Rolling Stone"; "Don't Think Twice, It's alright"; "It's Alright, Ma (I'm only Bleeding)"; "Mr Tambourine Man"; "Every Grain of Sand"; "Not Dark Yet"; "Mississippi"; "Boots of Spanish Leather;" "Shelter from the Storm"; "Blind Willie McTell". That was just off the top of my head. Of course, there is no real objective way to measure this; however, were I to put that list in front of, let's say, a "songwriting scholar", I don't think I'd get a lot of argument. If you did a quick inventory, you will find that five are from the 60s, one from the 70s, two from the 80s (yes, even that bleak Dylan period had incredible gems), one from the 90s and one from the 2000s. It is worth pausing and noting the enormity of that achievement: The earliest was released in this list, "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright", was released in 1963; the latest, "Mississippi", was released in 2001. 38 years between the two. That's something you cannot say for pretty much any other working recording artist.
I deliberately omitted "Tangled Up in Blue" from my list. It was released in early 1975 on the seminal Dylan release, Blood on the Tracks. Often referred to as the divorce album, it is my favorite album of all time; not because my parents are divorced or I like to lionize divorce, or even heartbreak, but because never has a set of songs felt so cohesive and true while also speaking to really what it means to be a person. It is unvarnished and personal, telling story after story about people who come together and break apart; who break each other and then turn inward and fuel their own destruction; who, even in all of this, have love that remains and new love on the horizon. In short, it is an encapsulation of the human yearning to not be alone; and when left alone, what is broken and how it can be rebuilt.
I have spent so much time in my life dealing with my own sadness. I tend to gravitate to sadness in art. It seems truer to me, somehow; if we take away the happy ending, isn't that what life really is like. This is cynical, to be sure, and not totally representative of my thinking, but sadness in art gets me. Not Emo sadness. Not James Blunt sadness. Certainly not Evanescence sadness (whatever the fuck that is). Actual, real, wisdom producing sadness. Blood on the Tracks is full of sadness; but also, buoyant hope, rage, longing, desperation, Manifest Destiny, Delta Blues, epic storytelling and maybe the best lyric about a blow job ever written ("I must admit I felt a little uneasy when she bent down to tie the laces of my shoe", from this essay's titular song). There are numerous books written about this album; just to my left that is full length treatise on the making of the record. I will leave most of the history of this album out, except to remind the reader that parts of Blood on the Tracks were recorded twice, including "Tangled Up in Blue". There is the original, "bootleg" recording and the album recording that most people know. The original is extremely intimate. You can hear the buttons on his jacket hit his guitar as he strums. It is more plaintive, seems more lost, and while still a story, is also a scar. The album version is more upbeat and full sounding, more guarded and even hints at optimism; while the former was recorded in New York City, the later recorded in Minnesota with a band. As with many Dylan tunes, lyrics change between versions. He still performs this song live today and is still changing lyrics.
At a number of shows in 1978, Dylan introduced this as "a song it took me ten years to live and two years to write." Should you want to do the math--and who doesn't like math?--this would basically cover the whole of his marriage to Sara up to the release of BOTT. Not to say this is what he was referring to--Dylan does love his red herrings--but it is coincidental and worth pointing out. In regards to the two years it took him to write, this always strikes me as astonishing: this, coming from the man who, when Leonard Cohen asked him how long it took to write "Blowin' in the Wind", had mumbled, "15 minutes." Dylan is an artist that speaks of songs just coming to him, making him feel as if he was just there as a conduit for the words. This theory is held up when one thinks of the ease which he produced his masterful albums in the 1960s--six seminal albums in three years. Even with the release of the 12th Bootleg Series, The Cutting Edge--which, in its full, 18 disc form, consists of every take Dylan put on tape in 1965 and 1966-- some songs seem fully formed even as he works through them in the studio. If "Tangled Up in Blue" did take him two years to write, it would be an exception to the rule.
I believe "Tangled Up in Blue" to be the most perfect song that Dylan ever wrote. Were I to be given one song--not one record, but one single song--to take to a desert island, I would choose this one. Every time I listen to this, I am amazed by the ease with which it flows all the while telling a complete and complex story with shifts in points of view (the album version's point of view does not change as much as the original, but knowing the original, the lyrical shifts haunt the more upbeat album version).
The song begins with the singer in bed; before the song ends, we will find him heading out to the East Coast, abandoning a car out west, employed as a cook in the great north woods, working on a fishing boat in New Orleans, stopping in a topless place, a woman's apartment (with it's stove burner and pipes and ancient poetry), a basement apartment on Montague street, and finally, still on the road. Like the song, his movements seem to be both linear and layered on themselves; in one way, this song is a man laying in bed telling himself the story of his greatest love; in another, it is a time hopping adventure; most of all, it is the story of two people and love, the eternal theme of most art, across space and time; but also connection and loneliness and youth and the acceptance of the death of our dreams. I'm just saying, there are dimensions to this song.
Of the Blood on the Tracks songs, Dylan said, "It's like they are paintings, those songs, or they appeared to be...They're more like a painter would paint a song as [opposed] to compose it." I have rarely painted in my life. When I have, there is a calm that comes to the front of my mind, something akin to how I feel right after I've had an orgasm--a dancing, ebullient stillness. I don't get this with other forms of creation, but it has always been there when painting. My best friend is an amazing painter. Each time I've looked at his paintings, I see so much more than the picture. When I was visiting him in St Louis, I wandered into the sun room at the end of his apartment and saw canvases leaning against each other and tarps on the ground. One canvas was turned outward. It was of a boy with a startling blue background. I remember his cheeks, the colors blended to make his skin, the blue behind him. I stared at that painting for sometime and took away a bit of weariness. I suppose that's the point. It is a multi dimensional reflection of life on canvas. And so, too, it is with this song: it goes places, stands still, crests hills, creates perspective and seems like it could never end.
It is a song that can root you where you are and make you aware of your surroundings. I was finishing up three months in Chennai, India and there was a talent show the last day in the office. I hadn't played guitar at all since coming to India, but my friend Asif had brought his guitar in and goaded me to play it. I sat at my desk and worked through some chords; I could feel that my calluses were all but depleted. But my fingers were still swift. Often that summer. I had worn a T Shirt with Dylan on the front of it. In India, people seem fascinated by anything from the west and I felt a strange pride each time I wore that shirt. I decided I was going to do "Tangled Up in Blue"--but only the first and last verse. I was introduced and I came up and the whole office looked back at me. I smiled, strummed the guitar a tad and mentioned my Dylan shirt. I often become a bit inwardly shy when I am revealing how passionate I am about a certain thing. I looked down and cleared my throat and looked back up. "So, yea, you've seen that shirt. I'm going to do something a bit different. I'm going to play only the first and last verse of a song called 'Tangled Up in Blue'. The reason I'm only going to play the first and last verse is because I want each of you to please go listen to the song when we are all done here and find out what happened and hear the story. You'll be better for it. Alright." I strummed the first A chord.
Another: my sophomore year of college. My future roommate Damon was having a party at his apartment (which would soon become my apartment) and my friend Ben had come down for the weekend. Ben and I weren't always particularly close--although I did cry in sixth grade because of something he did and he really let me have it for the tears--so I can't remember what brought him down for the weekend. I brought him to the cast party for the show that was just closing on the main stage, The Beaux Strategem. It was April, a lovely evening and the party spilled to the outside. There were parked cars in the gravel around the stand alone building. People leaned into each other, sipping beers, smoking cigarettes and laughing. It was loud enough outside that you couldn't hear what was going on inside. So, it was a surprise when I walked in to find "Tangled Up in Blue" blaring. Just next to the stereo was Damon along with my friends Marcum and Andrew. Marcum was the tallest, holding a beer with one hand and leaning on Andrew with the other. Andrew was sitting on the edge of the sofa, playing an unplugged electric guitar along. Damon was hunched over, feet moving, hand up pulling his hair. All three of them were singing every word of the song. I stopped just inside the door at first, took stock of this scene, smiled and then walked over to them. It was as if we were standing around a camp fire somewhere out west (having just abandoned a car nearby), feeling we could reach out and touch the horizon. It was warm and real. This memory is emblazoned on my mind because I can think of so few songs that have produced scenes like that. As humans, we were gathered at the foot of the storyteller, listening as he spun his tale and waiting to find out what it meant to be alive.
My favorite verse is the final verse of the song. It is strident and true, poetic and expansive, offers little closure; it reminds us that as we go on, we learn, we lose people we love and lose the things we thought we loved; that our relationships, both past and present live within us, that we reach out to our pasts in order to understand our future. The song is eternal, like our lives, like this world.
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
Heading for another joint
We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point of view
Tangled Up in Blue.