Bob Dylan’s Best Songs: Tangled Up In Blue





This is a song that took ten years to live and ten years to write.
~Bob Dylan (Special Events Arena, El Paso, Texas – November 21, 1978)

I was trying to do something that I don’t know if I was prepared to do. I wanted to defy time, so that the story took place in the present and past at the same time. When you look at a painting, you can see any part of it or see all of it together. I wanted that song to be like a painting.
~Bob Dylan (to Bill Flanagan, March 1985)

Joni Mitchell had an album out called Blue. And it affected me, I couldn’t get it out of my head. And it just stayed in my head and when I wrote that song I wondered, what’s that mean? And then I figured that it was just there, and I guess that’s what happened, y’know.
~Bob Dylan (to Craig McGregor, March 1978)

TOC

  1. Facts
  2. Quotes
  3. Lyrics
  4. Live versions
  5. Cover versions

@#3 on my list of Bob Dylan’s top 200 songs.

We allow our past to exist. Our credibility is based on our past. But deep in our soul we have no past. I don’t think we have a past anymore than we have a name. You can say we have a past if we have a future. Do we have a future? No. So how can our past exist if the future doesn’t exist?
~Bob Dylan (to Jonathan Cott, Dec 1977)

But we’re only dealing with the past in terms of being able to be healed by it. We can communicate only because we both agree that this is a glass and this is a bowl and that’s a candle and there’s a window here and there are lights out in the city. Now I might not agree with that. Turn this glass around and it’s something else. Now I’m hiding it in a napkin. Watch it now. Now you don’t even know it’s there. It’s the past… I don’t even deal with it. I don’t think seriously about the past, the present or the future. I’ve spent enough time thinking about these things and have gotten nowhere.
~Bob Dylan (to Jonathan Cott, Dec 1977)

Facts

Wikipedia:

It appeared on his album Blood on the Tracks in 1975. Released as a single, it reached #31 on the Billboard Hot 100. Rolling Stone ranked it #68 on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

“Tangled Up in Blue” is one of five songs on Blood on the Tracks that Dylan initially recorded in New York City in September 1974 and then re-recorded in Minneapolis in December that year; the later recording became the album track and single. One of the September 1974 outtakes was released in 1991 on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991. The New York version of this song is in open E tuning.

On “Blood On The Tracks”, Dylan was (among other things)  inspired by:

  • his art-teacher (Norman Raeben)

    More powerful than any magician
    ~Bob Dylan (about Raeben)

    “[Raeben] though me how to see… in a way that allowed me to do consciously what I unconsciously felt”
    ~Bob Dylan
    – 
  • his broken heart (which fueled a burst of creative energy – only comparable to his mid 60’s trilogy)
  • his new found interest in “open tuning” (inspired by Joni Mitchell)

According to novelist Ron Rosenbaum, Bob Dylan once told him that he’d written “Tangled up in Blue”, after spending a weekend immersed in Joni Mitchell’s 1971 album Blue.
-Wikipedia

Known studio recordings:

A & R Studios
New York City, New York

September 16, 1974
1st Blood On The Tracks recording session, produced by Bob Dylan.

1 take – released on THE BOOTLEG SERIES (RARE & UNRELEASED) 1961-1991, VOLUME 2,  March 26, 1991.

September 17, 1974
2nd Blood On The Tracks recording session, produced by Bob Dylan.

1 take – not released (yet, but soon..)

September 19, 1974
4th Blood On The Tracks recording session, produced by Bob Dylan.

6 takes

Take 2 or 3 released on the test pressing of BLOOD ON THE TRACKS, COLUMBIA PC-33235, November, 1974.

Sound 80 Studio
Minneapolis, Minnesota
December 30, 1974

6th and last Blood On The Tracks recording session, produced by Bob Dylan.

No record of how many takes were done.

Released on BLOOD ON THE TRACKS, January 20, 1975.

Live:

  • First known performance: Veterans Memorial Coliseum, New Haven, Connecticut – November 13, 1975
  • It has been performed 1685 times live – last performance: Christchurch, New Zealand – Horncastle Arena – August 28, 2018
  • Top year was 1999 with 114 performances




Quotes

Although the second album printing reveals a mottle-hued Dylan contemplating a blood-red backdrop, the predominant color is blue. The blues can be sprightly, and the album takes off with a sense of motion. There is a wistful searching, the quest myth again, but perhaps he always looks for the same thing in a lot of people, and always ends up contemplating the mirror of his self. Dylan puns, as the “day the axe just fell”20 in the woods; a phrase out of common parlance, “keep on keepin’ on,”21 is returned, renewed, to the language. The Dante allusion remains ambiguous. In the New York tape and the folio, the poet dates from the thirteenth century, while the record makes it the fifteenth. (Dante’s work spanned the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.) Wallace Fowlie reportedly thinks Dylan echoes a poet friend of Dante, Guido Cavalcanti. A new sort of road song, in which a dried-out spirit, not dusty boots, recalls his long march. Did he take the right turns? Dylan prefers the Real Live version.
Robert Shelton (No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan)

“Tangled Up in Blue” is so beguiling in its language and story-technique, and so richly and lovingly sung, we may find ourselves overlooking another aspect of its power: its extraordinary rhythmic core. This song pulses. Its six minutes pass in a flash and you want to hear it again. As an album-opener, it propels us forward into the rest of the music. It is a love song, and a song about how it feels to have a personal history (the story of the story of our lives), but it is also a great road song, filled with the essential energy of the American highway. The Minnesota musicians Dylan performs with here achieve an unforgettable groove, bass and drums and acoustic guitars (one a twelve-string, it sounds almost like a harpsichord at times) totally blended into a new and different wild mercury sound.
Paul Williams (Bob Dylan: Performing Artist, Vol 2: The Middle Years 1974-1986)

Beyond that wonderful use of a formal, limiting shape and structure to yield scintillating leaps of feeling and expression, ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ contains a whole assortment of verbal spikes and explosions that all operate not as distractions from the main body of feeling in the song but as ways of evoking the emotional complexity and urgency of it all. That Dylan can make time, in the course of what is delivered as a fast, breathless narrative, for flashes like this—‘I had a job in the Great North Woods…/But I never did like it all that much/ And one day the axe just fell’—shows an alertness and mental dexterity that augments the emotional seriousness and depth of the song. And there is an accompanying dexterity of sketching in, quick as a flash, a whole range of universally recognisable moments in fresh, intensely accurate strokes of language, from the evoked dialogue with inbuilt self-mockery here—‘She lit a burner on the stove / And offered me a pipe / ‘‘I thought you’d never say hello,’’ she said / ‘‘You look like the silent type’’’—to the very funny sureness of touch in this summary of that common feeling of what- ever-happened-to-those people: ‘Some are mathematicians / Some are carpenters’ wives / Dunno how it all got started / I dunno what they’re doin’ with their lives’, where that last line communicates the inevitable ambiguity of feeling—sadness at time’s destruction of friendships and at the same time, truly, an indifference to where or what those people are now.
– Michael Gray (Bob Dylan Encyclopedia)

“Tangled Up in Blue” characterizes the return of the great Bob Dylan, the author of the trilogy Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde, all written under the influence of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. The song shares the desire for journeys to far-off places (see the reference to slave traders in the sixth verse). This banal tale of a love that has ended takes on an epic dimension. Dylan continuously reworked the lyrics during the recordings, mostly telling the story in the third person singular, probably to signify that the narrator was a witness, not an actor. In the official version, however, he sings in the first person singular, as if he wants to indicate a personal involvement.
Margotin, Philippe; Guesdon, Jean-Michel (Bob Dylan All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Track)

The 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.
The Daily Telegraph (Bob Dylan: 30 greatest songs)

The received wisdom is that the Blood On The Tracks songs were wrung from an anguished Dylan during the collapse of his marriage to Sara Lowndes, which is probably an over-simplification. In any event, “Tangled Up In Blue” – the album’s opening track – found Dylan essaying a mythic reinterpretation of his whole life, a metaphorical death and transfiguration. As the narrative sweeps from his Minnesota upbringing, through the coffee house days in New York, down to New Orleans and then out west, the singer’s quest is haunted by fateful visions of a female soulmate, and littered with biblical allusions (he temporarily works as a fisherman, and friends become “carpenters’ wives”). It was a dazzling curtain raiser for an album riddled with symbols, signs and coincidences.
Adam Sweetning (Uncut Magazine – Bob Dylan 40 Greatest Songs)

It might be possible (and somebody may have done it already) to write a doctoral thesis on Bob Dylan’s use of pronouns. If such a study were attempted, a great deal of space could be taken up with a discussion of “Tangled Up in Blue,” a song Dylan wrote in 1974 that became the leadoff track of one of his greatest albums, Blood on the Tracks. The grand subject of Blood on the Tracks was the ups and downs of mature romantic relationships, and “Tangled Up in Blue” served as a masterful introduction, a seven-verse narrative about a couple or about a romantic triangle, or perhaps about several different couples. The ambiguity is increased by the different versions of the song that exist.
William Ruhlmann (allmusic.com)

“[This song] took me 10 years to live, and two years to write,” Dylan often said before playing “Tangled Up in Blue” in concert. His marriage was crumbling in 1974 as he wrote what would become the opener on Blood on the Tracks and his most personal examination of hurt and nostalgia. Dylan’s lyrical shifts in perspective, between confession and critique, and his acute references to the Sixties experience evoked a decade of utopian dreams and broken promise. His plaintive vocal and the fresh-air picking of the Minneapolis session players hearkened to an earlier pathos: the frank heartbreak and spiritual restoration in Appalachian balladry. Dylan has played this song many different ways live but rarely strays from the perfect crossroads of this recording, where emotional truths meet the everlasting comfort of the American folk song.
RollingStone Magazine – 100 Greatest Bob Dylan Songs

Lyrics

<original>

Early one mornin’ the sun was shinin’,
I was layin’ in bed
Wond’rin’ if she’d changed at all
If her hair was still red.
Her folks they said our lives together
Sure was gonna be rough
They never did like Mama’s homemade dress
Papa’s bankbook wasn’t big enough.
And I was standin’ on the side of the road
Rain fallin’ on my shoes
Heading out for the East Coast
Lord knows I paid some dues gettin’ through,
Tangled up in blue.

She was married when we first met
Soon to be divorced
I helped her out of a jam, I guess,
But I used a little too much force.
We drove that car as far as we could
Abandoned it out West
Split up on a dark sad night
Both agreeing it was best.
She turned around to look at me
As I was walkin’ away
I heard her say over my shoulder,
“We’ll meet again someday on the avenue,”
Tangled up in blue.

I had a job in the great north woods
Working as a cook for a spell
But I never did like it all that much
And one day the ax just fell.
So I drifted down to New Orleans
Where I happened to be employed
Workin’ for a while on a fishin’ boat
Right outside of Delacroix.
But all the while I was alone
The past was close behind,
I seen a lot of women
But she never escaped my mind, and I just grew
Tangled up in blue.

She was workin’ in a topless place
And I stopped in for a beer,
I just kept looking’ at the side of her face
In the spotlight so clear.
And later on as the crowd thinned out
I’s just about to do the same,
She was standing there in back of my chair
Said to me, “Don’t I know your name?”
I muttered somethin’ underneath my breath,
She studied the lines on my face.
I must admit I felt a little uneasy
When she bent down to tie the laces of my shoe,
Tangled up in blue.

She lit a burner on the stove and offered me a pipe
“I thought you’d never say hello,” she said
“You look like the silent type.”
Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century.
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 from me to you,
Tangled up in blue,

I lived with them on Montague Street
In a basement down the stairs,
There was music in the cafes 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.
And when finally the bottom fell out I became withdrawn,
The only thing I knew how to do
Was to keep on keepin’ on
Like a bird that flew
Tangled up in blue.

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 carpenter’s 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
Headin’ for another joint
We always did feel the same,
We just saw it from a different point of view,
Tangled up in blue.

I always wanted it to be the way I recorded it on Real Live, but there was no particular reason for it to be that way, because I’d already made the record. .. 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.
– Bob Dylan (to Bill Flanagan, March 1985)

<1984 (Real Live) version> – completely re-written

Early one morning the sun was shining
And he was laying in bed
Wondering if she’d changed at all
If her hair was still red
Her folks they said that their lives together
Sure was gonna be rough
They never did like mama’s home-made dress,
Papa’s bank book wasn’t big enough
He was standing at the side of the road
Rain falling on his shoes
Heading out for the old East coast
Radio blasting the news
Straight on through
Tangled up in blue.

She was married when they first met
To a man four times her age
He left her penniless in a state of regret
It was time to bust out of the cage
And they drove that car as far as they could
Abandoned it out west
Splitting up on a dark sad night
Both agreeing it was best
She turned around to look at him
As he was walking away
Saying “I wish I could tell you all the things”
“That I never learned to say”
He said “That’s alright, baby, I love you too”
But we were tangled up in blue

He had a steady job and a pretty face
And everything seemed to fit
One day he could just feel the waste
He put it all down and split
And he drifted down to New Orleans
Where they treated him like a boy
He nearly went mad in Baton Rouge
He nearly drowned in Delacroix
But all the while he was alone
The past was close behind
He had one too many lovers and
None of them were too refined
All except for you
But you were tangled up in blue

She was working in the blinding light
And I stopped in for a drink
I just kept looking at her face so white
I didn’t know what to think
Later on when the crowd thinned out
I was getting ready to leave
She was standing there right beside my chair
Saying “What’s that you got up your sleeve?”
I said “Nothing baby, and that’s for sure”
She leaned down into my face
I could feel the heat and the pulse of her
As she bent down to tie the laces
Of my shoe
Tangled up in blue

I lived with them on Montague Street
In a basement down the stairs
There was snow all winter and no heat
Revolution was in the air
And one day all of his slaves ran free
Something inside of him died
The only thing I could do was be me
And get on that train and ride
And when it all came crashing down
I was already south
I didn’t know whether the world was flat or round
I had the worst taste in my mouth
That I ever knew
Tangled up in blue

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

Well, here’s the thing. There might be some little part of me which is confessing something which I’ve experienced and I know, but it is not definitely the total me confessing anything. I mean, when Mick Jagger sings Beast Of Burden, you know what I mean, there’s something in there that’s in him confessing, but you just do that
~Bob Dylan (to Matt Damsker, Sept 1978)

I once read a book of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s letters to some girl, and they were extremely private and personal, and I didn’t feel there was any of myself in those letters, but I could identify with what he was saying. A lot of myself crosses over into my songs. I’ll write something and say to myself, I can change this, I can make this not so personal, and at other times I’ll say, I think I’ll leave this on a personal level, and if somebody wants to peek at it and make up their own minds about what kind of character I am, that’s up to them. Other times I might say, well, it’s too personal, I think I’ll turn the corner on it, because why do I want somebody thinking about what I’m thinking about, especially if it’s not to their benefit.
~Bob Dylan (to Scott Cohen, Sept 1985)

Live versions

Boston Music Hall
Boston, Massachusetts
21 November 1975 – Evening

He had a job in Santa Fe
Working in an old hotel
But he never did like it all that much
and one day it just went to hell….

Hughes Stadium
Colorado State University
Fort Collins, Colorado
23 May 1976

Charlotte Coliseum
Charlotte, North Carolina
December 12, 1978

Dylan re-wrote the ‘She opened up a book of poems’ verse towards the end of his 1978 world tour, changing it to ‘She opened up the Bible and started quotin’ it to me’, so that it became, thereby, one of his first public suggestions of having converted to Christ; then he re-wrote the song wholesale for the 1984 tour of Europe, not merely rewriting lines of lyric but restructuring the whole song (a braggadocio version of the re-write is on the album Real Live); but ever afterwards Dylan reverted to the earlier structure and the original lyric (with minor variations), and devoted himself to making it one of his most over-performed repertoire items.
~Michael Gray (The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia)

Sportpaleis Ahoy
Rotterdam, The Netherlands
4/6 June 1984

Area Ex Autodromo
Modena, Italy
12 September 1987

Roseland Ballroom
New York City, New York
19 October 1994

The Theater
Madison Square Garden
New York City, New York
21 January 1998

Globe Arena
Stockholm, Sweden
9 June 1998


Continental Airlines Arena
East Rutherford, New Jersey
13 November 1999

Shepherds Bush Empire Theatre
London, England
23 November 2003

Braehead Arena
Glasgow, Scotland
9 October 2011

North Charleston, South Carolina
North Charleston Performing Arts Center
April 17, 2015

Cover Versions

Jerry Garcia Band

KT Tunstall

Avett Brothers

Sources

-Egil

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