The 30 Greatest Bob Dylan Songs: #16, “Idiot Wind”

“Someone’s got it in for me, they’re planting stories in the press…”

With these enigmatic words, Bob Dylan sets up 7 minutes and 47 seconds of one of rock music’s holy grails — “Idiot Wind.” For true Dylan fans, it contains everything we love about him: brilliant, mystical lyrics, wildcat singing, and that signature, spontaneous Bob Dylan “sound” that only his records possess. The electric imagery swirls with venom, bile, heartache, catharsis and hurt feelings.

This ain’t no “Blowin’ in the Wind.” It’s a putdown, an embrace, a farewell and a musical mugging.

The chorus comes from a place where you’re so emotionally worn down there’s no filters or niceness left. It’s down to insults and raw emotion — “you’re an idiot babe, it’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.” Many have likened the song to a modern day “Like a Rolling Stone.” Before, he asked how does it feel. Now he can’t feel you anymore.

But in “Idiot Wind,” every one is guilty, no one gets away. Nor is the song devoid of empathy. “You’ll never know the hurt I suffered, nor the pain I rise above,” Dylan sings, then counters with “I’ll never know the same about you, your holiness or your kind of love,” before capping it off with a spine-tingling “and it makes me feel so sorry.”

Listening to the song is like watching a building burn down, or a relationship collapse. The fire is hypnotic. Quotable passages come in wholesale chunks — nearly every line feels like a classic.

Even you, yesterday you had to ask me where it was at,
I couldn’t believe after all these years, you didn’t know me better than that

I ran into the fortune-teller, who said beware of lightning that might strike
I haven’t known peace and quiet for so long I can’t remember what it’s like.

You didn’t know it, you didn’t think it could be done, in the final end he won the wars
After losin’ every battle.

I woke up on the roadside, daydreamin’ ’bout the way things sometimes are….

Down the highway, down the tracks, down the road to ecstasy,
I followed you beneath the stars, hounded by your memory
And all your ragin’ glory.

I been double-crossed now for the very last time and now I’m finally free,
I kissed goodbye the howling beast on the borderline which separated you from me.

Another factor that gives “Idiot Wind” its weight is the exotic Cm chord the song builds itself around. The heart-punch vocal leap at the end of each line of the verses is vintage Dylan. If “Idiot Wind” isn’t his masterpiece, it sure sounds like the blueprint.

“That was a song I wanted to make as a painting,” Dylan has said of “Idiot Wind.” “A lot of people thought that song, that album Blood on the Tracks, pertained to me. Because it seemed to at the time. It didn’t pertain to me. It was just a concept of putting in images that defy time – yesterday, today, and tomorrow. I wanted to make them all connect in some kind of strange way. I’ve read that that album had to do with my divorce. Well, I didn’t get divorced till four years after that.

“I thought I might have gone a little bit too far with ‘Idiot Wind.’ I might have changed some of it. I didn’t really think I was giving away too much; I thought that it seemed so personal that people would think it was about so-and-so who was close to me. it wasn’t. But you can put all these words together and that’s where it falls. You can’t help where it falls.

“I didn’t feel that one was too personal, but I felt it ‘seemed’ too personal. Which might be the same thing. I don’t know. But it never was ‘painful.’ ‘Cause usually with those kinds of things, if you think you’re too close to something, you’re giving away too much of your feelings, well, your feelings are going to change a month later and you’re going to look back and say, “‘What did I do that for?”

There are two distinct versions of “Idiot Wind” (double the pleasure for Dylan lovers), and more than that if you surf around the Internet. In September 1974 he recorded a sublime take with just acoustic guitar and bass, which can be heard on the Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3. That December in Minnesota he changed the lyrics and recut it with a band who had never heard the song before. That’s the version that ended up on side one of Blood On The Tracks.

“Yeah, you know, obviously, if you’ve heard both versions you realize, of course, that there could be a myriad of verses for the thing. It doesn’t stop,” Dylan said in an interview with Bill Flanagan. “It wouldn’t stop. Where do you end? You could still be writing it, really. It’s something that could be a work continually in progress. Although, on saying that, let me say that my lyrics, to my way of thinking, are better for my songs than anybody else’s. People have felt about my songs sometimes the same way as me. And they say to me, your songs are so opaque that, people tell me, they have feelings they’d like to express within the same framework. My response, always, is go ahead, do it, if you feel like it. But it never comes off. They’re not as good as my lyrics. There’s just something about my lyrics that just have a gallantry to them. And that might be all they have going for them. However, it’s no small thing.”

No one famous has ever covered the song, but Hootie and The Blowfish quote a couple of lines from the song in the lyrics to “I Only Wanna Be With You.”

Thanks to Toby Croswell’s book “1,000 Songs” for the quotes.