Time & Memory in Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks

Bob DylanTime is a jet plane, it moves too fast”

“What’s the sense of changing horses in midstream?”

“When somethin’s not right it’s wrong”

“They say the darkest hour is right before the dawn”

These lines, taken at random from Bob Dylan’s 1975 album Blood on the Tracks, have a common quality; they are either proverbial sayings or are pithy enough to sound like one, yet they are sung with a heartfelt intensity that seems to come from bitter personal experience. As I have got to know this album, each of these lines has resonated with me through the years. Taken out of context they can refer to any number of different situations, yet they work because they are taken from one man’s puzzled attempt to understand his relationship with women. It’s this sense of Dylan the steadfast troubadour of the 60s counterculture suddenly revealing his vulnerability and painful lack of self-knowledge that I find so affecting in this album. In his attempt to understand himself we find him, as early as the first song, ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, attempting to spin a yarn, to tell the story of his relationship with a woman.

Yet in this narrative setting nothing truly makes sense. Tenses slip, perspectives shift so that we are being told a story now from a first person, now a third person perspective. Other characters intrude; his former friends? People who have crossed his path? “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.” Whoever these people are, they reflect the way in which memories of one person often bring to mind other people who formed part of our lives at the time. An intense affair can even have a flashlight effect, fixing people and places we knew into an indelible mental image. Yet when we try to recall this image, it begins to crumble, breaking up into irreconcilable facets, like a cubist painting. Hence we find ourselves trying to reassemble the fragments, jigsaw-fashion, trying now this piece, now that, until a complete picture emerges. This is exactly Dylan’s procedure in the first song of Blood on the Tracks and it’s something he will return to with varying degrees of complexity in every subsequent track.

The storytelling continues in the second track, ‘Simple Twist of Fate’, only now the mood has darkened. No longer is the heartache played out against a bouncy, major-key melody but against a slow, throbbing lament that takes the singer back to the sultry night when he realised his love was lost. Here once again perspectives shift, switching from third to first person narrative as the force of the memory hits: “They walked along by the old canal /A little confused, I remember well”. Then it’s back to the third person as the narrator turns novelist, describing how they: “…stopped into a strange hotel with a neon burnin’ bright”. Yet whether told in the third or first person, the story contains such raw emotional honesty that the listener is put though the mill as Dylan manages to convey a painful experience of self-deception: “He woke up, the room was bare /He didn’t see her anywhere /He told himself he didn’t care, pushed the window open wide /Felt an emptiness inside to which he just could not relate.”

As a general rule, the songs on Blood on the Tracks can be divided into three categories. There are those which describe a situation of emotional complexity from multiple perspectives, such as ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, ‘Simple Twist of Fate’, ‘Idiot Wind’ and ‘Shelter from the Storm.’ Then there are those which are told from a simpler perspective, describing a facet of the emotional gamut contained in the previous songs, such as ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go’, ‘Meet Me in the Morning’ and ‘If You See Her, Say Hello.’ Finally, ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ is in a category of its own, acting as a sort of cinematic intermission and moderating the intensity of the surrounding songs with its dryly-sung narrative. This reprises the themes of thwarted love, abusive relationships and multiple narrative perspectives as a sort of silent film, where half the reels are missing and the others played in the wrong order. Dylan’s filmic genius in this song, and his sympathy for the tough-yet-fragile Lily, brings to mind that other great chronicler of the distance between human desires and merciless reality, Woody Allen.

Some of the most moving songs on Blood on the Tracks belong to the second category, where Dylan abandons his usual ambiguity to nakedly reveal his vulnerability in lyrics which describe his capacity for self-deception and for replaying the movie of his past relationships in his head until it makes some kind of sense. ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’ is the song where Dylan’s self-deception is laid bare most explicitly. Here he appears to be criticizing a lover, before admitting his own weakness and fragility, in lines which come as a shock to those who know only the infallible Dylan of the early 60s, full of rock-like self-belief and moral righteousness: “I can change, I swear, oh, oh /See what you can do /I can make it through /You can make it too.” This is a theme he returns to in ‘Idiot Wind’, which starts off by tearing into a lover in the manner of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ from 1965’s Highway 61 Revisited, but ends up with the singer confessing his own part in the breakdown of their relationship: “We’re idiots, babe /It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.”

‘If You See Her, Say Hello’ pursues a different tack, reprising the cinematic feel of ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ only this time the cinema is in the singer’s head: “Sundown, yellow moon, I replay the past /I know every scene by heart, they all went by so fast.”

At first hearing one of the simplest songs on Blood on the Tracks, this track emerges as an oblique commentary on the ‘unreliable narrator’ trope already encountered. From the blur of events, the singer distils a narrative reduced to the bare essentials wherein, like an over-precious movie director, his main concern seems to be to get the quality of the lighting right, rather than with telling a coherent story. This mirrors the effect of emotionally significant events on our memory after the passage of years, where a complex narrative can be whittled down to a single, poignant image; a loved one’s face, some choice parting words or a midsummer moon hanging low on the horizon.

An urge to re-tell an old story is behind the penultimate song of Blood on the Tracks, ‘Shelter From the Storm’. Here the narrative seemingly sets itself in some distant past: “‘Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood /When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud.” The narrator seems some almost prehistoric figure, a “creature void of form” who can only be given shape by the woman who takes him in. It is almost as if he can only begin to tell the tale when the events he sings of have become part of a time irretrievably lost. This sense of distance is reinforced by Dylan’s several references to Jesus (“took my crown of thorns”) and the timeless, legendary feel of the lyrics. Incidentally I used to think I could detect another reference to the past in the line referring to a “one-eyed undertaker” who “blows a feudal horn”. Sadly this proved to be a misreading, as all printed editions of the lyrics refer to a “futile horn”. This joins the many misreadings that listeners have heard in the album, the most famous being in ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ when many hear Dylan singing “Split up on the docks last night /Both agreeing it was best” rather than, as the lyrics state “Split up on a dark sad night”. It is testament to the multi-faceted nature of Blood on the Tracks that these misheard lyrics often seem more fitting than the actual ones.

The need to tell a personal story from multiple perspectives is, lyrically speaking, what gives this album its unique emotional potency compared with Dylan’s other albums, even 1997’s much-lauded Time Out of Mind, which records the singer’s brush with death. Dylan himself denied on several occasions that Blood on the Tracks derived from personal experience, even claiming in Chronicles that he had once written an album based on Chekhov short stories which critics had assumed was autobiographical. The reference is widely thought to be to this album. Yet the songs contain enough ambiguity that listeners can identify emotionally with the lyrics even when individual details differ. With this album Dylan joins the rank of such soul-baring artists as Phil Collins or the French singer Barbara. Feeling their pain, we feel relieved of a portion of our own emotional heartache.

I first encountered this album as a university student. Flush with a new-found feeling of independence and eager for experience, I felt I had reached the stage when I could understand relationships as a story with a beginning, middle and end. Like Dylan I consoled myself for my failed relationships by constructing a story in which I was a victim of a simple twist of fate. As someone once said, it’s the stories we tell about ourselves that make us who we are. Yet there is more to this album for me than a record of failed relationships. Within the lyrics, like a secret code, is a sense of lessons learnt, a conviction that inner resilience and integrity can be salvaged from the remains of his emotional shipwrecks. Dylan the moralist seems to apply a moral lesson to himself, refusing to allow his integrity to be trounced by the inevitable deception and self-deception involved in propping up a failing relationship. As ever with this artist, it is hard to say how genuine he is here. A clue might be found in the aphoristic sayings with which I began, and which puncture the album’s narrative at various points. Dylan doesn’t always take these sayings on trust. At times he mercilessly undercuts them, or turns them into empty bromides with no real relevance to his situation. Yet their presence suggests he is constantly reaching out to draw some moral lesson from his emotional morass. We get a sense of what this lesson might be in these lines from ‘Tangled Up in Blue’: “The only thing I knew how to do /Was to keep on keepin’ on like a bird that flew /Tangled up in Blue.” By the last song, ‘Buckets of Rain’ this has become: “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’ll do it for you, honey baby /Can’t you tell?”

I hear this as an assertion of commitment from Dylan, a statement of his willingness to dedicate himself to a relationship even though it is destined to fail and fade. Yet it also stands for the emotional commitment of the artist as he makes this album, whose force derives from his dedication to telling a story, and telling it well.