50 Reasons To Love Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks

by ttucker23 on February 2, 2007

  1. ‘I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail, poisoned in the bushes, blown out on the trail, hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn’ (Shelter From The Storm) – Dylan’s use of symbolic language here is perfect, reflecting back to the ‘creature void of form’ who comes in from the wilderness. It tells us that the narrator has suffered, but he’s not defenseless, that he’s thick skinned, that he may be wounded but he’s still strong.
  2. ‘There was music in the cafés at night and revolution in the air’ (Tangled Up In Blue) – one of those lines that transports the listener to another time and place in an instant.
  3. ‘Later on when the crowd thinned out, I’s just about to do the same’ (Tangled Up In Blue) – hip, clever and what Michael Gray calls ‘agile’ use of language.
  4. ‘Idiot wind circling ’round your skull, from the grand coulee dam to the capitol’ (Idiot Wind) – capturing all that raw fury in one rhyme. And what a rhyme. Allen Ginsberg professed it an amazing rhyme and an amazaing image. ‘No one else, Dylan writes [to] Ginsberg, had noticed that rhyme, a rhyme which is very dear to Dylan.’ (Rolling Stone, quoted by Christopher Ricks in Dylan’s Visions of Sin.) Ricks goes on to say: ‘And it’s a true rhyme because of the metaphorical relation, because of what a head of state is, and the body politic, and because of the relation of the Capitol to the skull (another of those white domes), with which it disconcertingly rhymes. An imperfect rhyme, perfectly judged.’
  5. ‘Relationships have all been bad, mine have been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud’ (You’re Going To Make Me Lonesome When You Go) – raising a weary smile whilst looking back on what Joni Mitchell called ‘the petty wars’ of love.
  6. ‘The light bust through a beat up shade’ (Simple Twist Of Fate) – makes that strange, bare hotel room agonisingly vivid.
  7. ‘Someone’s got it in for me, they’re planting stories in the press. Whoever it is I wish they’d cut it out quick, but when they will I can only guess. They say I shot a man named Gray and took his wife to Italy, she inherited a million bucks and when she died it came to me – I can’t help it if I’m lucky.’ (Idiot Wind) – a colourful story, painted with minimal brush strokes, and ending with a humorous twist – and that’s before the song has even got started.
  8. ‘I’ve heard newborn babies wailin’ like a mournin’ dove, and old men with broken teeth stranded without love’ (Shelter From The Storm) – an entire lifetime of lost love right there, from cradle to grave – and the pronouncement of mournin’ as moanin’ adds delicious ambiguity (and is that a nod to the moaning doves of Tennyson’s In Memoriam?)
  9. ‘He hears the ticking of the clocks, and walks along with a parrot that talks, hunts her down by the waterfront docks where the sailers all come in. Maybe she’ll pick him out again, how long must he wait, once more for a simple twist of fate.’ (Simple Twist Of Fate) – clocks/talks is a wonderful rhyme, and the scene depicted is just so haunting.
  10. ‘In the final end he won the war, after losin’ every battle’ (Idiot Wind) – a highly poetic tautology – ‘final end’ – like the ‘rich wealthy parents’ of The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll (see Christopher Ricks’ Cambridge Forum lecture).
  11. ‘Time is a jet plane, it moves too fast, oh, but what a shame if all we’ve shared can’t last, I can change I swear…’ (You’re A Big Girl Now) – starts like a cliché you’ve never heard before, ends in a moment of raw emotional honesty.
  12. ‘I’ll look for you in old Honolulu, San Francisco, Ashtabulu’ (You’re Going To Make Me Lonesome When You Go) – it just sounds great.
  13. ‘I couldn’t believe you didn’t know me better than that… sweet lady’ (Idiot Wind) – deep despair and regret, and yet somehow avoiding condescension.
  14. ‘A pain that stops and starts, like a corkscrew to my heart’ (You’re A Big Girl Now) – ouch!
  15. ‘There’s a lone soldier on the cross, smoke pourin’ out of a box-car door’ (Idiot Wind) – no-one does rejected-lover-as-Christ-figure better than Dylan.
  16. ‘I’ve only known careless love’ (You’re Going To Make Me Lonesome When You Go) – good enough to name an album after.
  17. ‘Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood, when blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud, I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form. “Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm.”’ (Shelter From The Storm) – Dylan masters a broad range of language, and in this song he adopts the idiom of the medieval epic to create a startlingly fresh perspective on lost love, re-found love, and love as salvation.
  18. ‘As the leading actor hurried past in the costume of a monk’ (Lily, Rosemary And The Jack of Hearts) – a character wanders from the set of Desolation Row and scurries onto the set of this one.
  19. ‘I woke up on the roadside, daydreaming about the way things sometimes are’ (Idiot Wind) – lover as Camus-like ‘outsider’.
  20. ‘I’ll see you in the sky above, in the tall grass, in the ones I love’ (You’re Going To Make Me Lonesome When You Go) – the most touching farewell on the album, and in Dylan’s entire career for that matter.
  21. A 1934 Martin 00-42 guitar. Dylan had to search hard to find this beautiful instrument – and it was worth it; heard best on Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts and You’re A Big Girl Now.
  22. ‘People tell me it’s a sin, to know and feel too much within’ (Simple Twist Of Fate) – some good old fashioned original sin – if it ain’t sinful, it’s certainly painful.
  23. ‘One day you’ll be in the ditch, flies buzzin’ around your eyes, blood on your saddle’ (Idiot Wind) – Dylan once said in an interview (1985) ‘Sometimes the “you” in my songs is me talking to me’. Let’s hope that’s the case in this bitter line.
  24. ‘A world of steel-eyed death and men fighting to be warm’ (Shelter From The Storm) – love’s battleground re-conceived as something like a scene from Braveheart.
  25. ‘I must admit I felt a little uneasy when she bent down to tie the laces of my shoes’ (Tangled Up In Blue) – and so would you if a topless dancer bent down to tie your laces.
  26. ‘You’re an idiot babe, it’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe’ (Idiot Wind) – unsettling and cathartic, to dredge up the worst things we think and say in the heat of emotional battle.
  27. ‘She opened up a book of poems and handed it to me, written by an Italian poet from the 13th century’ (Tangled Up In Blue) – Dante’s Beatrice, no doubt.
  28. ‘In a little hilltop village, they gambled for my clothes, I bargained for salvation an’ they gave me a lethal dose’ (Shelter From The Storm) – the biblical allusion could have weighed this line down, but it’s redeemed by the in-joke; imagine, if you will, a lethal dose of salvation.
  29. ‘You find out when you reach the top, you’re on the bottom’ (Idiot Wind) – and who doesn’t recognise that feeling?
  30. ‘We had a falling out, like lovers often will’ (If You See Her Say Hello) – note, not ‘how lovers often do’ but ‘how lovers often will’.
  31. ‘Look at the sun sinkin’ like a ship, ain’t that just like my heart, babe when you kissed my lips?’ (Meet Me In The Morning) – Dylan perfectly captures the haiku-like lyricism of the pre-war blues here. And what a wonderful dodge of the expected ‘sinking like a stone’ to provide the infinitely more dramatic ‘sinking like a ship’; a Titanic love.
  32. ‘The priest wore black on the seventh day, and sat stone-faced while a building burned’ (Idiot Wind) – there’s trouble in this relationship.
  33. ‘The hanging judge was sober, he hadn’t had a drink’ (Rosemary, Lily and the Jack of Hearts) – any writing class would make you take the second half of that line out as tautologous, but Dylan was absolutely right to keep it in. It always makes me smile.
  34. ‘Well, I’m livin’ in a foreign country but I’m bound to cross the line, beauty walks a razor’s edge, someday I’ll make it mine. If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born’ (Shelter From The Storm) – so distanced in time and place, this love-life-as-legend.
  35. ‘I waited for you on the running boards, near the Cypress tree while the spring time turned… slowly to autumn’ (Idiot Wind) – the chord change to an A minor 7 (for the only time during the song) on ‘slowly to autumn’ perfectly emotes the anguish of an agonising summer that’s not even mentioned, but rather reconceived as nothing but a transition from spring to autumn, from hope to despair.
  36. ‘Crickets talkin’ back and forth in rhyme’ (You’re Going To Make Me Lonesome When You Go) – back and forth, back and forth, just like crickets’ legs. And always nice to see a rhyme on ‘rhyme’ (with ‘time’ later in the stanza – thanks to Christopher Ricks for this point).
  37. ‘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.’ (Tangled Up In Blue) – evidence here of the tangled personalities of this song representing aspects of the protagonist’s psyche (consider that he has been known to sing ‘we always did feel the same, we just saw her from a different point of view’). Compare also with the last verse of Desolation Row: ‘All these people that you mention, yes, I know them, they’re quite lame. I had to rearrange their faces and give them all another name.’
  38. ‘I followed you beneath the stars, hounded by your memory and all your raging glory’ (Idiot Wind) – a one-line summary of the emotional bearing of the entire album.
  39. ‘I’m glad to see you still alive, you looking like a saint’ (Rosemary, Lily and the Jack of Hearts) – the way Dylan sings this is total characterisation; there’s no actor anywhere better than the Jack of Hearts.
  40. ‘She left here last early spring’ (If You See Her, Say Hello) – that exquisite detail – last early spring – lifts this ballad into the ‘actual’.
  41. ‘Idiot wind blowing through the buttons of our coat, blowing through the letters that we wrote’ (Idiot Wind) – our hero is finally able to accept that there are two people at fault here.
  42. ‘They say the darkest hour is right before the dawn, but you wouldn’t know it by me, every day’s been darkness since you been gone’ (Meet Me In The Morning) – brings to mind what Bob said about the blues in the sleevenotes to the album Freewheelin’ (1962): ‘What made the real blues singers so great is that they were able to state all of the problems they had; but at the same time they were standing outside of them and could look at them. And in that way, they had them beat. What’s depressing today is that many young singers are trying to get inside the blues, forgetting that those older singers used them to get outside their troubles.’
  43. ‘If you see her, say hello, she might be in Tangier’ (If You See Her, Say Hello) – that sure is a long way away.
  44. ‘Like your smile and your fingertips, like the way that you move your hips, I like the cool way you look at me, everything about you is bringing me misery’ (Buckets Of Rain) – ah, sweet misery.
  45. ‘And the one-eyed undertaker, he blows a futile horn’ (Shelter From The Storm) – a character wanders from the set of Ballad Of A Thin Man and shuffles onto the set of this one.
  46. ‘The only thing I knew how to do was to keep on keepin’ on like a bird that flew’ (Tangled Up In Blue) – over enthusiastic analysts have tried to claim that this refers to Keats’s nightingale, but those in the know have clocked it as the Road Runner from Junior Walker’s song of the same name, which features the lyric ‘Just got to keep on keepin’ on’.
  47. ‘Well, I struggled through barbed wire, felt the hail fall from above, well, you know I even outran the hound dogs, honey, you know I’ve earned your love’ (Meet Me In The Morning) – it’s that old ‘love as jailbreak’ metaphor… again.
  48. The harmonica playing on Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts – the studio only had an A major harmonica to hand, and the song is in D major. Any other artist would have got the correct instrument, but Dylan adds a questing urgency to the song as he gropes for the right notes. Every time you hear it you think it’s not going to make it, and every time it just about does.
  49. ‘Suddenly I turned around and she was standin’ there, silver bracelets on her wrists and flowers in her hair’ (Shelter From The Storm) – just the sort of person you want to see after getting ravaged in the corn.
  50. ‘Life is sad, life is a bust, all ya can do is do what you must. You do what you must do and ya do it well, I do it for you, honey baby, can’t you tell?’ (Buckets Of Rain) – last line of the album tells us everything – all that pain, yes, but he’ll do it all again.

You can find the lyrics to all of Bob Dylan’s published songs at BobDylan.com

Blood On The Tracks is available at Amazon and many other stores.

Other posts on Culture Club about Bob Dylan:

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