Rolling stone: Bob Dylan performing at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco in1979. Photo: Larry Hulst/Getty Images
The famous and long-lasting BBC music programme Desert Island Discs lets you choose eight pieces of music to take with you when you are lost on a desert island. Eight pieces. That is hard. Imagine just taking one. How hard would that be?
But, you know, I think I could do it. So — and this is going to be controversial — I think the song would be Tangled up in Blue by Bob Dylan.
Disagree? I understand. For god’s sake, it’s impossible. Music, almost by definition, is massive and various. Just the idea of choosing 10, 20, 300 pieces is an affront. It seems like a crime against music. But say you had to choose one — just one song — what would it be?
Hear me out. First, it would have to be Dylan; he is just a quantifiable step above everything else that has happened over the past 60 years or so since the notion of the recorded single was invented.
It’s not an accident he was the one who got the Nobel Prize. Yes, of course, there have been other greats, but we are looking for one song, remember?
But saying it has to be Dylan doesn’t actually help you that much. Because his repertoire is so huge, you are still making choices against the enormous weight of alternative brilliance.
When Rolling Stone magazine — which is itself in some ways an extended Bob Dylan tribute blog, so good judgment applicable here — chose its 100 best Dylan songs, it put Like a Rolling Stone at the top. A fine choice, although you can’t help feeling the name overlap might have had something to do with it! In second place was Tangled up in Blue.
Most Dylanographers rank the song just outside the top 10. Guardian critic Alexis Petridis ranks it 12th in his 2020 list of Dylan songs, and influential songwriter and critic Jim Beviglia ranks it 14th in his book on Dylan’s top 100. Petridis also put Like a Rolling Stone at number one (a mistake, frankly — the song is a confused love-sick contortion), followed by Visions of Johanna (great choice — who other than Dylan would take you on a spaced-out trip to an art gallery?), Idiot Wind (bad choice — too mean and sad), Subterranean Homesick Blues (fun and important because of electrification but really not much else), Desolation Row (kinda endless and aimless — a better song in this genre would be Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues).
But, these are all great songs, so why, at least in the eyes of one long-time fan, does Tangled up in Blue take the cake (although, of course, I’m going to change my mind in a few minutes’ time)?
Dylan’s great strength as a songwriter has always been a combination of vivid imagery, huge emotional depth and a beautiful sense of the world and its people, coupled with a courageous, enigmatic, wondrous world view. He is just insanely interesting, enigmatic and varied, which is why he has so many followers and interpreters.
Tangled up in Blue is the best choice because it combines all of Dylan’s gazillion great qualities and minimises his very few bad ones.
Dylan famously writes songs amazingly fast. You can hear him on one of The Basement Tapes stand up and write a brand-new song, with lyrics and verses and melody, in five minutes without sitting down. The result is that often his songs are lyrically messy and musically basic. But Tangled up in Blue is different. Dylan himself said it took 10 years to live and two years to write.
Historically, it’s also interesting because of the time period it was written, after the bitter breakup with his wife Sara Lownds, in the middle of his career in the mid-seventies, when new kinds of music were just about to start popping up everywhere: rap, punk, disco, new wave.
It’s interesting because we know how it changed, between the initial recording in New York and the final version in Minneapolis, from a soft ballad to the thumping, frantic travelogue.
And, of course, there is this wonderful record from the tour The Rolling Thunder Revue, which Dylan said afterwards would mean “absolutely nothing” and would never last. However, it did. It’s still in his top 10 most popular songs on Spotify.
But, most of all, it’s a magical balance between the very specific and the phantasmagorical. You travel down this concrete, rollicking road from the great north woods to a fishing boat in Delacroix, to a basement Montague Street, wherever that is. All of this is overlaid on a love story about a couple painfully parting (as he was), meeting again later in life and how things change.
And yet, the speed with which you move down this road is bewildering. It has echoes of that other great spaced-out travelogue of its day, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by another stoned poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Why are you suddenly in the topless joint? Why is she bending down to tie the laces of your shoe? Why is she giving you a pipe by the stove and reading you Petrarch (another sonnet writer)?
Asked about the song in an interview, Dylan said the songwriting style was to show 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.”
Yet it is a travelogue, pinpointed by extraordinary, poignant moments, like sitting in front of a fire as she reads that poetry.
“And every one of them words rang true/ And glowed like burning coal/ Pouring off of every page/ Like it was written in my soul, from me to you/ Tangled up in blue …”
The structure of the piece is very disciplined and specific: seven stanzas of 12 lines, followed by a volta in the 13th line — that curious twist at the end that happens in sonnets.
The lyrics are just poured into these concrete blocks, and even at medium pace, it’s difficult to enunciate them all because the song is so compact.
The musical progression, at least in the final version, rollicks along just like the song: fast and furious; regular, quick changes, up and down the fretboard. You are on a bewildering journey that is intense and hard to understand. You are tangled up not in a place, or a relationship but in a colour!
What I like most of all about the song is that it finishes on this note of endurance and perseverance — that’s a rare topic in Dylan’s songs, and, in fact, in modern music. After the confused and crazy journey, our protagonist does the only thing he knows how to do — he keeps on keeping on, “like a bird that flew” despite being “tangled up in blue”.
The song ended up being not only a cinematographic travelogue, but an entire modus operandi for Dylan himself. The Rolling Thunder Revue, the tour that started later in 1975, the year Blood on the Tracks was released, continued for two years solid, with concerts every other day, on average, and another great album Desire culminating in the middle of it.
After having taken breaks in the past, Dylan never did so again; an album practically every year ever since.
As he says: “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.”