A few days ago, a friend and I were discussing the greatest love songs of the modern/rock era. As we were going to see Mark Knopfler later that night, and his song “Romeo and Juliet” was on the radio at the moment this conversation was occurring, it was easy, and correct, to put that song in the top ten. Later that night, Knopfler proved the point at the Chicago Theatre.
Also on the list must be John Lennon’s “In My Life” even though it was inspired by you-know-who (Bring to the fore the importance of not getting confused between art and the object of the art.). David Bowie’s “Heroes” belongs at the top of this list too. But now that I have had the opportunity to think about it some more, and just happened to listen to this song this morning, I have come to realize the greatest love song of the modern era is Bob Dylan’s “Tangled-Up In Blue.” Allow me to explain.
The significance of Bob Dylan to the craft of song writing cannot be overstated. There is before Dylan and after Dylan. The after Dylan is that from this point on, a song, particularly a love song, could be as emotionally complex, as filled with white hot anger, as other forms of art. Dylan will start arguably his most important song with “Once upon a time” and then go on to prove there was never a once upon a time quite like this in any previous song. Previously, white hot anger had been only hinted at and some times hidden. Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” is actually an angry song (written as an angry response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”). But Woody hid that so well, to his regret later in life, that even now people like Glenn Beck are surprised by its real meaning. But all you have to do is read the legendary, and forgotten, fifth and sixth verses, and the meaning is plain as day:
As I was walkin' - I saw a sign there
And that sign said - no tress passin'
But on the other side .... it didn't say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!
In the squares of the city - In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office - I see my people
And some are grumblin' and some are wonderin'
If this land's still made for you and me.
Dylan added and built upon songs like this. One thing that Dylan did was to both obscure and yet deepen meaning, often at the same time. Interestingly, perhaps the best place to find this is in Dylan’s long poem “Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie.” In this poem, Dylan goes on for line after line, something like nine minutes, seemingly at times not making any sense at all, and then he drops the bomb of simplicity and beauty right there at the end:
You can touch and twist
And turn two kinds of doorknobs
You can either go to the church of your choice
Or you can go to Brooklyn State Hospital
You'll find God in the church of your choice
You'll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital
And though it's only my opinion
I may be right or wrong
You'll find them both
In the Grand Canyon
And with these last few lines, you now know that every seemingly senseless line now makes perfect sense. No one in the pop idiom had ever done anything like this before. But Dylan has done it time and time again; just like he does in “Tangled Up In Blue.”
Let’s start with the title. The protagonist(s) isn’t blue, he’s tangled up in blue. As Johnny Slash would put it: “Totally different head, totally.” Delve deeper into the song and you find jumps in time and space. A lack of clarity as to whether there are one or multiple protagonists. Then there is the flood of lyrics and images, my favorite being:
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you
Tangled up in blue
The brilliance of Dylan in this song is while each verse seems to change location, change time, he puts you right there with his images and you don’t know, you feel, exactly what he wants you to feel. And what he wants you to feel is the inevitability of the last verse, that starts out:
So now I’m goin’ back again
I got to get to her somehow
But still, by the end of the song, it isn’t clear whether he will or he won’t. It is also clear it is absolutely meaningless whether he does or doesn’t. Love’s like that. And so is Bob Dylan. No one wrote a love song quite like this before and no one succeeded better. Sounds like a Number 1 to me.
© Copyrighted by James N. Perlman. 2010 All rights reserved.