TC writes ...
Trying to untangle a Dylan lyric is like trying to decipher a century’s worth of classic literature. It really can’t be done.
Besides, when you find out what an artist really meant by their lyrics, it often reduces it to something far less than you’ve cultivated in your own imagination. And the meaning changes over time, even to the songwriter. How do you think an artist can play the same hit for 30 years? Because they often apply new meanings to it as time passes.
Many times, writers put things on paper that they don’t even understand ‘til many years later. They’re too close to it at the time. They’re still processing it. Or they can’t face their honest feelings and it comes out in weird ways. For instance, do you have any past romantic relationships that were mysterious to you, but in hindsight make perfect sense a decade later. Kinda like that.
I’d also argue that not even Dylan knows the absolute meaning. Sometimes you make choices that sound good, have a visceral quality that sets a mood without having literal meaning, or fit a rhyme scheme. In fact, I bet Dylan never sings the lyrics to this song the same every time he plays it.
Another example: Leonard Cohen wrote 68 verses to “Hallelujah” and often sang it differently than recorded.
You’re better off not trying to discover the artist’s intended meaning on a song. Ultimately, it’ll only lessen its affect on you.
No, I can’t. But I love it. This seems to be one of his most enduring songs in performance, and I recommend that you seek all the alternate renditions you can. There are so many different lyrics to this work from the different periods of his career that often seem to provide additional detail to the initial canvas, while others seem to expand the canvas. For one of many examples:
Blood on the Tracks version:
She was workin’ in a topless place
And I stopped in for a beer
I just kept lookin’ 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
In his Real Live performance from the 1984 album this verse becomes:
She was workin’ at the Blinding Light
And I stopped in for a drink
I just kept lookin’ 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 standin’ there right beside my chair
Said, “What’s that you’ve got up your sleeve?”
I said nothin’ Baby and that’s for sure
As 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 like to think that the 1984 version tells us that the topless bar from the 1974 version was called “The Blinding Light” even though he doesn’t explicitly confirm that. And the line “I could feel the heat and the pulse of her” just stings with presence. You know how it feels when someone to whom you’re deeply attracted brushes by you? Holy cow.
In a similar vein, but I’m stretching for my conclusion, is this alternate version of the living on Montague Street verse. I had read that the “dealing with slaves” was a reference to drug addiction. I could neither confirm nor deny. But putting that idea together with this alternate verse one could make that inference, and again the canvass becomes more detailed:
He was always in a hurry,
too busy or too stoned,
And everything that she ever planned,
just a-had to be postponed.
He thought they were successful,
She thought they were blessed
with objects and material things,
but I never was impressed.
And when it all came crashing down,
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.
I just saw Dylan last year and he had new lyrics again. The final verse went:
Now I’m goin’ back again
I gotta get to them somehow
Yesterday is dead and gone
And tomorrow might as well be now
Some of them are out on the mountain
Some of ‘em down in the ground
Some of their names written in flames
Some of them, well, they just left town
Me, I’m still on the road
Tryin’ to stay out of the joint
Always felt the same depending on your point of view
Tangled up in blue
I don’t know who “them” is. Has it become all his past lovers (from the previous incarnations of “I got to get to her somehow”)? The enormous landscape that follows “Some of them are out on the mountain, Some of ‘em down in the ground” has a personal component to me, like Bob is considering the heights of some men (on Mount Rushmore for example, vs the others whom lay buried and forgotten), and his own place on that infinite axis. Whatever the song means, it continues to be close to Dylan, as he keeps returning to that canvas to scribble something out and replace it, or add shading here or there.
Boy, I love Bob.