Prodigal Bob Dylan

Dylan’s Never Ending Tour

at the Beacon Theatre, New York City, December 1–6, 2014

The Lyrics: Bob Dylan

edited by Christopher Ricks, Lisa Nemrow, and Julie Nemrow
Simon and Schuster, 960 pp., $299.00
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Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images
Bob Dylan at the Olympia, Paris, May 1966

1.

The opening verses of “Tangled Up in Blue” are among the most famous in Bob Dylan’s repertoire. Readers who know them will find themselves singing along: “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.” Pronouns matter in Dylan, especially his “I” and “you,” whose limitless friction, wearing each other away year after year, Dylan’s songs have often so beautifully expressed. But there’s no “you” in “Tangled Up in Blue,” which is, in a way, the point: the unnamed “she” is lost, out of earshot, beyond conjuring, a creature who haunts Dylan’s dreams.

Otherwise these pronouns have been treated, over the years, as though they were interchangeable: the “I” has frequently turned into a “he,” and, at least once—in a performance from 1975 captured on The Bootleg Series, Volume V—a “she,” “wondering” about her own changes as well as, weirdly, the color of her own hair (“Early one morning the sun was shining, she was laying in bed,/Wondering if she’d changed at all, if her hair was still red”). One minute Dylan is building his usual fortifications around an “I” whose position he appears ready to defend unto the death; the next, he transfers all that subjectivity into another vessel. The emotions have been leached somehow from lover to beloved, from self to stranger, from hero to antagonist.

“Tangled Up in Blue” is considered an autobiographical song, the biggest hit from Dylan’s most candid album, his “divorce album,” 1975’s Blood on the Tracks. It is among only a handful of his older songs that he still plays in concert, though on a recent evening at the Beacon Theatre in Manhattan it had been rendered lyrically unintelligible and melodically alien. A song I’ve sung along to countless times, which taught me about heartbreak before I’d suffered any, sung by Dylan, now seventy- three, not thirty feet from where I sat, was unrecognizable through half its length.

It was the 1,400th or so time Dylan had performed the song live, according to BobDylan.com, which keeps meticulous record of such things. You could see people in the seats around me latching onto a phrase, any phrase, they recognized—for me it was “point of view”—and jumping in eagerly to harmonize, only to have those small holds disintegrate inside their grasp.

Dylan has treated his songs, from the start, almost like a Mad Libs game, swapping out one lyric for another, switching emotional teams, altering his arrangements so as nearly to undermine the meaning of the original song. At the Beacon, Dylan did a rather louche “Blowin’ in the Wind” as an encore (his encores, like his set lists as a whole, are almost entirely standardized these days; most everyone in the audience knew the song was coming next).…


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