Bob Dylan has a lot of “hits,” three records worth if you go by his Greatest Hits output. But when it comes down to songs that are stuck in the global collective unconscious, he really has far less. “Tangled Up in Blue” is one of them.
You can hear it in the coffeehouses, on the corner coming from the street busker, on classic rock radio, and from Dylan himself, who’s made it an important part of his live repertoire. “What’s different about it is that there’s a code in the lyrics, and there’s also no sense of time,” Dylan has said. “There’s no respect for it. You’ve got yesterday, today and tomorrow all in the same room, and there’s very little you can’t imagine not happening.” He also hinted to journalist Ron Rosenblaum that he wrote the song after repeated listens to Joni Mitchell’s Blue, which would give new meaning to the title.
It begins with a verse that could launch a thousand songs:
Early one mornin’ the sun was shinin’,
I was layin’ in bed
Wond’rin’ if she’d changed at all
If her hair was still red
Much has been made of the song’s switches between first and third person — to Dylan’s credit, they hardly seem intrusive. The verse about meeting the familiar-looking stripper who hands him the book of poems is one of the most cherished among fans. “‘I though you’d never say hello,’ she said, ‘you look like the silent type.'” While the lyrics are by default, non-autobiographical, you can imagine this being the real ballad of Bob Dylan, “still on the road, heading for another joint,” a beautiful woman behind him, and another waiting to greet him like a ghost.
Like most of the songs on Blood on the Tracks, “Tangled Up in Blue” has been subject to lyrical tinkering, some which make the perspective shifts more noticeable.
In 1984, the song went like this:
“She was married when they first met,
to a man four times her age.
He left her penniless, in the state of regret,
it was time to bust out of the cage.
…and she turned around to look at him
as he was walking away.
She said I wish I could tell you all the things
that I never learned how to say.
He said thats alright babe I love you too,
but we were tangled up in blue.
…and all the time he was alone,
the past was close behind.
he had one too many lovers then,
and none of them were too refined,
all except for you,
but you were tangled up in blue.
….and when it all came crashing down,
I was already south.
I didn’t know whether the world was flat or round,
I had the worst taste in my mouth,
that I ever knew,
tangled up in blue.
…some are masters of illusion,
some are ministers of the trade.
All under strong delusion,
all of their beds unmade.
Me I’m heading toward the sun,
trying to stay out of the joint.
We always did love the very same one.
We just saw her from a different point
tangled up in blue”
The Indigo Girls do a surprisingly great cover of “Tangled Up in Blue” on their live album 12,00 Curfews. Other artists who have tackled the tune include Great White, Jerry Garcia, KT Tunstall and the String Cheese Incident. In 2001, Joan De Vinge wrote a sci-fi novel called “Tangled Up in Blue,” which Robert J. Sawyer, Nebula Award-winning author of “Calculating God,” deemed “impossible to put down.” So don’t pick it up.