Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Bob Dylan – "Tangled Up in Blue" (1975)


Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century


In the 1973 movie, Bang the Drum Slowly, a veteran major-league pitcher (Michael Moriarty) learns that an inarticulate and marginally talented young catcher (played by a very young Robert DeNiro) has Hodgkin's disease.  The pitcher transforms himself from a selfish diva concerned mostly about his salary to a devoted and compassionate friend of the dying man.

After the catcher dies, the pitcher makes a solemn pledge never to tease or ridicule fellow players who aren't as smart or successful as he is:  "From here on, I rag nobody."


Unlike the pitcher, 2 or 3 lines rags everybody – even legendary musicians like Bruce Springsteen, the Grateful Dead, and . . . Bob Dylan?  

I've got a lot of nerve to rag on Bob Dylan, the acknowledged genius singer-songwriter whose "Like A Rolling Stone" ranks #1 on Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time" list.  (Believe it or not, I'm planning to rag a little on THE BEATLES in the near future.) 

But you know what they say.  Those who can, do – those who can't, write blogs ragging on those who can.

Let the ragging begin . . .   

Last year, a British music critic chose "Tangled Up In Blue" as the greatest song Bob Dylan ever wrote, describing it as having

[t]he most dazzling lyric ever written, an abstract narrative of relationships told in an amorphous blend of first and third person, rolling past, present and future together, spilling out in tripping cadences and audacious internal rhymes, ripe with sharply turned images and observations and filled with a painfully desperate longing.

Today, a wildly popular music blog chose "Tangled Up in Blue" as the phoniest song Bob Dylan ever wrote.

Bob Dylan in 1975
The hero of "Tangled Up In Blue" is a man who drifts from town to town, working a succession of menial jobs despite being a terrifically well-educated man with a terrifically sensitive soul.  Think Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces, where he portrays an ex-classical pianist who has rejected his wealthy, artsy family and gone to work in the Oklahoma oil fields.  

The Nicholson character deserts the dopey but sweet Karen Black character after he knocks her up, which is something no self-respecting Bob Dylan hero would do, of course.

Why does our hero choose to cook for North Woods lumberjacks and work on a Gulf of Mexico fishing boat instead of teaching literature at a genteel New England college, where he spends his spare time writing poetry and nailing hot coeds?


Because he's a total cliché, and because his creator – Robert Allen Zimmerman of Hibbing, Minnesota (a/k/a/ "Bob Dylan") – is so full of you-know-what that his eyes are brown.

Let's begin with that "Italian poet/From the thirteenth century" who is mentioned in the lines quoted above.

I'm assuming that Dylan was referring to Dante because he's the only Italian poet from that era who anyone cares about today.

But while Dante was born in the thirteenth century, he wrote Divine Comedy in the early fourteenth century.  So strike him off the list of possibles.

Giacomo Da Lentini
I suppose you could make a case for the song being about Giacomo Da Lentini, a thirteenth-century Italian poet who is credited with inventing the sonnet.  But Da Lentini wrote in literary Sicilian, although his work survives only in Tuscan translation.  Do you think Bobby D really expects us to believe that his lumber-camp cook cum Gulf shrimper's girlfriend reads Tuscan?

The girlfriend in "Tangled Up In Blue" is even a bigger cliché than the guy is.  She's equally well-educated and sensitive, but instead of joining her old boyfriend on the faculty of that genteel New England college, she has moved to Louisiana to pursue a career as a dancer at a t*tty bar.

Our heroine's place of work?
I think Dylan is hoping that if he shovels enough pseudointellectual horsesh*t, we won't notice how clichéd his characters are.  How else do you explain these lines, which follow the lines quoted at the beginning of the post and refer to that damned ol' thirteenth-century Italian's poetry:

And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul 

(Spare me.)

There are plenty of other clichés in this song.  For example, how many old movies have you seen where a working-class character lights a cigarette by turning on the burner of a gas stove?  Here, the topless-dancer-with-a-heart-of-gold uses the burner on her stove to light her boyfriend's pipe.  (Could someone please explain to me exactly how the hell that would work?)

You readers who don't have room-temperature IQs may wonder why the two main characters "drove that car as far as we could/Abandoned it out west" in the second verse, while in the sixth verse they are living with a guy who "started dealing in slaves/And something inside of him died."  

The last time I checked, slavery was outlawed in this country a long time before cars were invented.  (I don't remember seeing a single picture of a plantation owner driving a Matador, a Maverick, a Mustang, a Montego, a Mercury Montclair, a Mark IV, a Meteor, a Mercedes, an MG, a Malibu, a Maserati, a Mack truck, a Mazda, or a Monza.) 

1964 Mercury Montclair
Heaven help anyone who is so naive as to think that Dylan had his characters driving a car in one verse and living in New Orleans with a slave dealer in another verse because he simply screwed up.

To the contrary!  It was part of the Zimmer's master plan!  

In a 1978 interview, Dylan said that "there's also no sense of time" in "Tangled Up In Blue":

There's no respect for [time].  You've got yesterday, today and tomorrow all in the same room, and there's very little you can't imagine not happening."

According to one source, "Dylan was influenced by his recent study of painting and the Cubists . . . who sought to incorporate multiple perspectives within a single plane of view."


Another critic called the song "[a] truly extraordinary epic of the personal, an unreliable narrative carved out of shifting memories like a five-and-a-half-minute musical Proust."

But I think the critic who put his arrow closest to the bullseye was the one who said that the lyrics to "Tangled Up In Blue" are "at times opaque."  

Either that's the understatement of the year or you can smack my ass and call me Sally.

Thomas Pynchon, Cornell undergraduate
I can only think of two other writers who are more opaque than Dylan – James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon.  Of course, it's easier to be opaque in an 800-page novel than it is in a five-minute song.  

By the way, are you sure that the middle sections of Ulysses and Gravity's Rainbow don't consist of  hundreds of blank pages?  Have you really read either book all the way from beginning to end?

If so, you're as better man than I am, Gunga Din – especially if you're a woman.

Here's "Tangled Up In Blue":




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