The last couple of days I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks while I work out. Almost every song on it begs for interpretation. It is Dylan at his most gothic. It is also probably my favorite album of his, although I probably listen more to his more fun albums like Highway 61 Revisited. But there is a reason I’ve been pushing Blood on the Tracks on myself: I’m trying to figure it out!
For some time, I’ve been wanting to write an article about the meaning of “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.” But I must admit that certain parts of the song elude me. Admittedly, they are details. What is most important is the thematic arc of the song. It is about Rosemary and her quest for redemption. And most of what I’ve read about the song is just nonsense. But I dare say that Dylan wrote the song explicitly to bring out the crazy theories. Much of it is left intentionally vague. But I can explain the basic story and perhaps I will do that some day soon.
Right now, I want to discuss another song on the album, “Tangled Up in Blue.” That’s another mysterious song. Or at least, the version on that album is mysterious. I don’t think he’s ever done the song the same way twice. You can see the various versions of the lyrics on Other Versions Of Tangled Up In Blue. It contains four different versions. I can’t say that they clear things up. He’s playing around with perspective and it is never clear if there are two or three characters. He says, “I lived with them on Montague Street…” Is “them” the woman and the man she was married to or the women and the man who helped her out of a jam? I could argue both cases.
The most evocative part of the song is the verse in the strip club:
And I stopped in for a beer
I just kept looking at the side of her face
In the spotlight so clear
And later on when the crowd thinned out
I was just about to do the same
She was standing there in back of my chair
Said to me, “Don’t I know your name?”
I muttered something underneath my breath
She studied the lines on my face
I must admit I felt a little uneasy
When she bent down to tie the laces… of my shoe
Tangled up in blue
I love those first four lines: they are so sweet. He is love. He’s in a strip club, yet it is her face that that he is focused on. Again, it isn’t clear in the song whether this is because he has known her or it is just love at first sight. She says, “Don’t I know your name?” This could mean she recognizes him, or it is just a pickup line. In other versions, she says, “What’s your name?” and “It ain’t no accident that you came” and even “What’s that you got up your sleeve?” So it’s hard to argue one way or the other. But I like to think that she approaches him because he’s different: he wasn’t checking out her curves.
The last four lines before the refrain are just plain funny. You can just imagine a bare chested woman bending down in front of the flustered narrator. But it too is rather sweet, indicating more maternal feelings than anything. This is, in fact, the verse that makes me think the whole song is about a love triangle of the kind in Sophie’s Choice — with the narrator silently pining for the heroine. That may be giving the story too much credit, but it is what works for me.
The remainder of the verse consists of two lines that I just love, “And later on when the crowd thinned out; I was just about to do the same.” He takes a macro-scale metaphor of a crowd as a liquid and applies it to the micro-scale. And thematically it is very strong, implying that the narrator might just fade away. Of course, we know what he means: he was just about to leave. But it is a wonderful way to say it.
The great thing about songs is that you really can make them your own. When I analyze them, I normally find much more positive meanings than most people. That’s true of “Ode to Billie Joe” and “Marlene on the Wall” and even “Rapture.” Although I don’t think I’m inclined to take as many liberties with most songwriters. But Bob Dylan begs for it. It is a big part of his genius.