A number of Dylan songs – ‘Hurricane’, ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’, ‘Brownsville Girl’ – are feats of narrative brilliance, but this is my favourite. It’s a song of close encounters and miscommunication set against a backdrop of impending apocalypse. If you doubt Dylan deserved his Nobel, try listening to (and reading) the opening verse, with its bravura lyrical scene-setting:
Up on the white veranda
She wears a necktie and a
Her passport shows a face
From another time and place
She looks nothing like that
And all of the remnant of her recent past
Are scattered in the wild wind
She walks across a marble floor
Where a voice from the gambling room
Is calling her to come on in
She smiles, walks the other way
And then there’s the final verse, which casts the action in bathetic relief, like one of Munro’s telescopic epilogues. No other writer has ever made storytelling sing like this.
First released on Desire, Columbia, 1976
When I was a kid, my dad had this beat up leather case he stored his albums and 7” singles in which I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere near (which obviously meant that all I wanted to do was see what was inside!) One day, when I was about 11, I sneaked it into my room and was flicking through the records when the title of a song caught my eye – Tangled Up in Blue. I had no clue what it meant so I took the single out and played it on my cheap little record player. From that first verse – “Early one morning, the sun was shining, I was laying in bed, wondering if she’d changed at all, if her hair was still red” – I was intrigued. I didn’t know songs could be life stories like that, I was totally immersed in the lyrics and invested in this relationship with the singer and the redhead who worked in a “topless place” who gifts him a book of poems written by “an Italian poet from the thirteenth century”. I played it over and over. Some of the language was confusing, his phrasing too clever for my youthful mind, and it felt like a riddle I had to solve, or hieroglyphics on a tomb I needed to decipher, but it definitely made me feel something. A connection. A sensation of words transporting you someplace else. I never had that with a song before. ‘Tangled…’ feels like poetry because it is.
From Blood on the Tracks, 1975, Columbia Records