Tangled Up in “Tangled Up in Blue”
“Tangled Up in Blue” is surely one of Bob Dylan’s most durable and fascinating songs. Released as part of the Blood on the Tracks set in 1974, it has been resurrected many times onstage, with widely different lyrics, arrangements and interpretations.
My iTunes lists eighteen different adaptations, including the one from Blood and many onstage performances (Real Live, Rolling Thunder tour (he was already changing the words and locales in this early live take), Garcia Plays Dylan, various bootlegs). Billie and I heard an especially stirring live version at New York’s Felt Forum in January 1998. That one, a high-stepping acoustic hoedown, is familiar to anybody who has seen Dylan onstage in the last decade and a half.
But one interpretation has eluded me. We saw Dylan in November of 1978 in Kemper Arena in Kansas City. This was near the end of the year-long world tour with a large band that included T Bone Burnett and David Mansfield, a horn section and several back-up singers. Although Billie stood in line for hours, our tickets were in the nosebleed section, and we spent the night mostly trying to figure out what song he was playing.
I couldn’t make out the words, but I do recall one distinctive song that night: “Tangled Up in Blue.” I have labored over the years to find a similar version. It wasn’t on the live album recorded earlier in the year in Japan. It wasn’t on an expensive bootleg of another Los Angeles show. More than thirty years later, my patience has been rewarded with an audience tape recorded about five weeks after the Kansas City show, on December 10, 1978, at the Charlotte Coliseum in North Carolina. (The YouTube video incorrectly lists it as October 10. More interesting videos from the same source here.)
This is definitely close to what I remember. I have always described it as a cabaret ballad. Especially in concert, Dylan has a habit of letting his voice slide up to the end of phrases, emphasizing the last syllable, ie. “tangled up in BLUE.” This time he crescendos downward, accentuating “TANGLED UP in blue.”
I had no way of knowing what was happening in his private life. According to his biographers, Dylan began attending services at a fundamentalist church in California in early 1980, soon after this tour ended. His next album would be Slow Train Coming, and by the time we saw him perform again in January 1980, he sang only songs from Slow Train and Saved, the second of his religious/gospel albums, and his audience had dwindled away to nothing.
At the end of each verse, the organ and horns wheeze out the melody line like a tired and sad clown. It sounds like it was recorded from inside a calliope.
I don’t like to read things into lyrics, but the changes he makes here seem to offer a bit of insight into his state of mind at the time. In this version, the woman who bent down to tie the laces of his shoes is wearing a dress made out of stars and stripes, and instead of offering him a pipe and reading from a “book of poems,” the woman quotes from the Bible, specifically Jeremiah 13, verses 21 and 33.
For the record, the thirteenth chapter of Jeremiah in my King James Version is some kind of weird prophecy that involves burying a linen cloth and the coming destruction of Jerusalem. Jeremiah 13:21 reads: “What wilt thou say when he shall punish thee? for thou hast taught them to be captains, and as chief over thee: shall not sorrows take thee, as a woman in travail?”
As for verse 33, well, there are only 27 verses in Jeremiah 13. But you can’t deny that Dylan sings the lines “and everyone of those words rang true, and glowed like burning coals, pouring off of every page like it was written in my soul from me to you” like he just discovered what they really meant.
And, like all Dylan phases, the colorful, mysterious woman of “Tangled Up in Blue” passed into history, and the song became a bluegrass romp.