I Wanna Be Bob Dylan

Thoughts on the Man

5/27/20243 min read

I've been listening to Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks for going on 40 years now. In high school, I would write out songs in my Trapper Keeper, using only the first letter of each word in a song. I got bored easily. Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts was in there. Pretty sure Tangled Up in Blue was as well.

I can still listen to that album today and take away something new, something unexpected.

Here's some examples of why I love Dylan.

Let's start with LRATJOH. 75 lines of poetry and by the end of it, he's told an entire story, capturing the hopes and fears and personalities of five different characters. Then there's the way he leaves gaps in the words and lets you fill them in. For instance, Big Jim sees the Jack of Hearts across the cabaret room:

"I know I've seen that face somewhere," Big Jim was thinkin' to himself
"Maybe down in Mexico or a picture up on somebody's shelf."

Maybe on a first listen, we don't know what Jack is up to, but listening again, we can figure out exactly where Big Jim has seen Jack before.

Or take this amazing passage, as Lily talks to Jack:

Lily took her dress off and buried it away
"Has your luck run out?" she laughed at him, "Well, I guess you must
Have known it would someday
Be careful not to touch the wall, there's a brand-new coat of paint
I'm glad to see you're still alive, you're lookin' like a saint."

What have we learned here? Lily and Jack know each other and almost certainly had a relationship. However, things have changed, and Jack needs to watch out for Big Jim (be careful not to touch the wall). It's virtuosic lyric writing.

Or take his masterpiece Tangled Up in Blue (TUIB in my Trapper Keeper). Critics praise how the poem itself is tangled, moving back and forth in time. In the first two stanzas, he's lying in bed thinking about her, then we skip to before he met her (heading east), then when they first meet, then when their relationship ends:

We drove that car as far as we could
Abandoned it out west
Split up on a dark, sad night
Both agreeing it was best

The car and the trip west stand for their entire time together. How long did it last? We have no idea. We get to see various scenes from their lives, and then this:

So now I'm going back again
I got to get her somehow
All the people we used to know
They're an illusion to me now

The regret, the sadness, the vicissitudes of life and memory--they all come through clearly with nothing but descriptions of a few different stages of their relationship.

One more from Blood on the Tracks, because I can't help myself.

Like TUIB, Shelter from the Storm is a song that plays with time, both repeating the moment they meet from different points of view and giving us what happened before and after. But the language... It's all couched in vaguely religious, vaguely dungeons-and-dragons-ish poetry that completely works. Stephen King uses the following quote at the beginning of The Stand and may have been the first Dylan lyrics I encountered:

Well, the deputy walks on hard nails and the preacher rides a mount
But nothing really matters much, it's doom alone that counts
And the one-eyed undertaker, he blows a futile horn
"Come in," she said
"I'll give you shelter from the storm"

What imagery, and what a contrast between the outside world and what she offers him.

Ain't Bobby so cool? Although Mr. Jones wished he was someone just a little more funky.


28 May 2024