Chapter 19 Tangled Up In Blue – Bob Dylan in Marlboro (I mean Raleigh) Country

The first commercial cigarettes were made in 1865 by Washington Duke on his farm in Raleigh, North Carolina, but the graveyards that house the unlucky consumers of his product are still referred to, throughout the Carolinas, as Marlboro Country. Raleighs were a nasty cigarette, right up there with Pall Malls.  My grand daddy always said that as long as you stayed away from Pall Malls you didn’t have to worry about catching any of them cigarette-related diseases. If you compared cigarettes with soft drinks, your Raleigh would be the equivalent of a Diet Pepsi. I once heard tell of a country store outside of Raleigh getting robbed by some high school kids.  When the owner of the story checked over his inventory with the police, he found the only thing missing was a case of Diet Pepsi.  The cops asked if he wanted to prosecute and the old guy replied, “Hell no.  If they drank that Diet Pepsi, they’ve already been punished enough.  That crap is the sorriest drink ever poured beneath God’s sweet heavens.”

When Jerry Garcia died in August 1995, Dylan picked up the torch and became a surrogate Jerry for kids who needed a band to follow around the world. His guitar noodling stretched songs out to twice the necessary length and his difficulty cueing endings kept things sputtering along for an extra minute or two beyond that.

By 1997, he had learned to be a decent band leader, and the closing jams on the Dead’s “Alabama Getaway” provided a heartfelt tribute to the much-loved guitarist, as did his acoustic version of “Friend of the Devil,” which he  had been performing sporadically since 1990.  He only played it once in 1995, one month after Jerry died.  The song was then played with some regularity from 1996 through 1999.

“Tangled Up in Blue” was among the top ten songs in Dylan’s set lists from 1993-2001. It was the most played song in 1998, 1999, and 2000.  It went out of favor in 2003, and wasn’t played again with any regularity until 2006.  It was played only five times in 2005, then became a regular fixture in 2010 and has been getting more plays with each subsequent year. Dylan has sung more variations in his performances of this song than of any other, with Europe’s  acoustic sets in the summer of 1998 featuring new melodic inventions nearly every night. The 1999 versions on the tour with Paul Simon were possibly his best since 1976 and 1984. And his new 2013 version is his best since 1999.

Although historians are bound to cite “Like a Rolling Stone” as Dylan’s most well-known song, I would claim that “Tangled up in Blue” is the one that most fans will remember him for.  While “Like a Rolling Stone” was certainly important in the development of rock and roll songs as a minor art form, not that many people at the time of its release had the slightest clue as to what it was all about. It was just a gush of words set to the chord changes of “La Bamba.”  It was significant in that nobody had ever heard anything quite like it before, and certainly there has been nothing like it since, but despite a chorus that invites a response from the audience, few of its listeners had much in common with the poor little rich girl to whom the song is addressed.

“Tangled up in Blue,” on the other hand, is a true anthem that resonated with the nomadic, neo-hippies of the eighties and nineties who were a growing part of Dylan’s faithful fan base.  They followed him around just as their parents had followed around The Dead.  Much as Dylan is pigeon-holed as a spokesman of the sixties, it wasn’t until 1988, when he undertook his Neverending tour, that he bent the nation’s collective ear. I am not saying that he went about misunderstood for the first 25 years of his career.  Plenty of individuals heard what he was singing about.  But check the average record collection in 1969 and you are more likely to find a copy of “Nashville Skyline” than “Highway 61 Revisited.”

I remember the day “Blood on the Tracks” was released.  I can’t say I was too impressed on the first listen. The verses of “Tangled Up in Blue” were pretty good, but the tag-line embarrassed me.  Next came the simplistic rhymes of “Simple Twist of Fate,” followed by a pretty decent break-up song.  Then came the centerpiece of the album, “Idiot Wind,” which I loved. But it was followed by the honky tonk triviality of “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When you Go.” I flipped the record over and couldn’t wait until “Meet me in the Morning,” a throwaway blues if ever there was one, ended, and then enjoyed the tale of “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts.” I loved “Shelter from the Storm,” but thought “If You See Her Say Hello” sounded like a Gordon Lightfoot song and “Buckets of Rain” was a laundry list. The album grew on me after a few more listens, mostly because Dylan was singing so well, but I still think “Desire” and “Street Legal” are better albums.

Right from the start, Dylan was taking “Tangled up in Blue” apart and investigating the many ways he could put it back together.  His flawless delivery in the whiteface scene from “Renaldo and Clara” should be studied by every actor who is confronted with a large body of text that is filled with challenges.  The 1978 version finds Dylan in his Edith Piaf mode, a melodramatic street singer inviting all of Parisian society to hear his woeful tale.  The drastic rewrite from the 1984 tour demolishes the BOTT version, and Dylan started picking up the debris in 1990 and spent the next ten years making different songs out of what remained. Now, in 2013, he has put his humpty dumpty of a song back together and it is a thing of beauty to behold.