Never Just One Thing, Part IV: Close Reading "Idiot Wind"

I can't remember when he said it, or where it appears in Clinton Heylin's Double Life, but it was a more-exasperated-than-usual Bob Dylan who felt compelled to underline the main misunderstanding of his songs, saying they are "never about just one thing." Then, as always, Bob himself helped create the very misunderstanding he abhors, in this case when he wrote such eminently didactic protest songs as "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll." And it was his choice, as we discussed earlier in this series, to achieve his initial fame as a "protest singer." So he ran a risk there, because what is more one-dimensional than political protest or activism? After all, it's hard to rouse the masses when you say things like "on the other hand . . ." or "that being said . . ." -- thoughts that occur to any non-fanatical person when pondering social issues. Perhaps this is why Dylan's greatest protest song, "Blowin' in the Wind," isn't a even protest song at all. It lifts up, but can't be pinned down. Another case in point, "Maggie's Farm." It's intensely anti-authoritarian, but in a way that can be customized by each listener according to their circumstances or grievances. Rather like the function of Babylon in reggae music.

For me, the most maddening invocation of the mono-causal interpretation of Dylan's art is in reference to his masterpiece, Blood on the Tracks. This is the result of people reading way too much into a single, tossed-off comment of his. When asked about the popularity of the LP upon its release, Dylan said, “It’s hard for me to relate to that, I mean, people enjoying that kind of pain,” seemingly referring to the difficult end of his marriage to Sara Lownds. Okay he said it, but the fixation by supposedly astute listeners on this comment is truly perplexing. Not only did Dylan go on to vociferously deny that it was divorce album, but the track listing fails to bear out the "divorce album" thesis as well. The most famous song from Blood is "Tangled Up In Blue," which is a story song, a refracted fable that seems to have little about it that is personal. Of the love songs, my favorite is the wistful, lyrical "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go." But, as Heylin explains, a close parsing of the lyrics reveals that this song was written about his affair with Ellen Bernstein, an employee at Columbia Records. The elegant, evocative "Simple Twist of Fate" is like scene-blocking for a film noir set down "by the waterfront docks," with only the last verse hinting at anything personal. The one song that reads like a pure howl of pain over his marriage is "You're a Big Girl Now."

Overall, my biggest gripe is with the contention that "Idiot Wind" is the "nastiest break-up song ever." No. Remember, the songs are never about just one thing. At the very least this one is about two things: one is the break up, but the other is a rant against the myriad ways he has been misrepresented publicly, not least how he was held up as "the voice of his generation." The structure of the lyrics even suggests that this latter "meaning" is coequal with the first. Yet, even within this two-part schema, there are infinite intimations. Big picture, it has to do with the ways all of us misunderstand one another. Lets do a walk-through, verse by verse.

Someone’s got it in for me, they’re planting stories in the press
Whoever it is I wish they’d cut it out but when they will I can only guess
They say I shot a man named Gray and took his wife to Italy
She inherited a million bucks and when she died it came to me
I can’t help it if I’m lucky

Right away with the first couplet he seems to be talking about the fantasies the press has spun about him nonstop since he broke through in the early 60s. The next couplet (with ending tag line), though, seems much less personal, as if it was grafted in from a black and white film featured on TCM's Noir Alley. Still, these lines could read as metaphor for his own rise to Rock God: part amoral Machiavellianism and part simple good fortune.

People see me all the time and they just can’t remember how to act
Their minds are filled with big ideas, images and distorted facts
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
Sweet lady

Now it gets explicit. People are so intoxicated with the notion of Dylan as some sort of oracle they do everything but treat him as an actual person. Let me just stop and give a shout out to that list: "big idea, images, and distorted facts." That nails it, no? Now here is where the theme of personal betrayal gets wedded to the first theme. "Even you yesterday, had to ask me where it was at." Damn. Punctuated with"sweet lady," we can assume that these lines indicate a rupture in his relationship.

Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your mouth
Blowing down the backroads headin’ south
Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth
You’re an idiot, babe
It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe

Here's a good place to note that the use of the word "you" in this song could be and probably is addressed to all sorts of others. Often, I hear the 'you' in this song addressed to the listener. It hardly need be confined to Sara.

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
There’s a lone soldier on the cross, smoke pourin’ out of a boxcar door
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

Now, here is my favorite verse in the song, maybe in all of Dylan, and it seems to speak to a whole other set of concerns. After the plain-spoken admission of not knowing any "peace and quiet," the lines shift to a what amounts to a mission statement for every artist and outsider who ever chose a path outside of the established ones that lead to success, shallowly or uncreatively defined. The invocation of the boxcar clues us in that the "lone soldier on the cross" is no one other than the hobo or drifter that loomed large as both ideal and motivation in the imaginations of early-to-mid century youth like Dylan himself, who bought in big to the mythologies of Woody Guthrie and the Beats and all those who articulated the theology of non-materialistic self and social actualization. And because the lone soldier is on a cross the figure is Christlike. In fact with the last two lines Dylan writes the whole of the Christian ethos in the cleanest, clearest way possible: "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." Recall the Beatitudes. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. So, what does this have to do with the song? Well, when your back is against the wall and the world ain't takin' what what you're offerin', when things just aren't going like they should, you need to return to your original motivation and have faith in the path you have chosen. People, including your spouse, might talk shit about you, but you know in your heart who you are and always will be. You know your cause is just.

I woke up on the roadside, daydreamin’ ’bout the way things sometimes are
Visions of your chestnut mare shoot through my head and are makin’ me see stars
You hurt the ones that I love best and cover up the truth with lies
One day you’ll be in the ditch, flies buzzin’ around your eyes
Blood on your saddle

The first line here would seem to verify my interpretation of the previous verse. What else could "I woke up on the roadside" be except a reference to On the Road, so hugely formative for Dylan? Line two's name check of "the chestnut mare" reads like a potshot at the Byrds, the influential Dylan interpreters who recorded a song of this name later in their career. So far, lines one and two seem discontinuous, and line three continues the trend, now introducing an accusation that surely could be aimed at his wife, but which also describes a universal phenomenon. We all know the feeling. The last lines are a damning prophecy, in this case earning the label of "anger" that is, as we have discussed, erroneously applied to this song and the album as a whole. All in all, this verse is the very embodiment of Dylan's "not just one thing" aesthetic. Because of the collage technique, this verse resists meaning, but hits in a visceral way.

Idiot wind, blowing through the flowers on your tomb
Blowing through the curtains in your room
Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth
You’re an idiot, babe
It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe

It was gravity which pulled us down and destiny which broke us apart
You tamed the lion in my cage but it just wasn’t enough to change my heart
Now everything’s a little upside down, as a matter of fact the wheels have stopped
What’s good is bad, what’s bad is good, you’ll find out when you reach the top
You’re on the bottom

Well, the first couplet is as good a description of why relationships fail as I've seen. The first three, really, with the third line eloquently describing the disorientation following the dissolution of that which was meant to be permanent. Line four continues in this vein, but is it not also an expression of Dylan's stupendous rise to fame? A rise which almost killed him and that sent him fleeing to Woodstock in '66. We also encounter in these last lines another echo of Christ, who asserted that "the first shall be last, and the last shall be first." A cosmic evening of the scales, an instantiation of the justice that eludes us on this physical plane.

I noticed at the ceremony, your corrupt ways had finally made you blind
I can’t remember your face anymore, your mouth has changed, your eyes
    don’t look into mine
The priest wore black on the seventh day and sat stone-faced while the
    building burned
I waited for you on the running boards, near the cypress trees, while the
    springtime turned
Slowly into Autumn

Let's go ahead and say that this one is aimed directly at his ex-wife. The key, however, is that each line, if does indeed have a specific target, is highly resonant on its own terms and can set the mind reeling making associations way beyond whatever "intended" meaning that line might have been created with. In keeping with our "not one thing" theme, we once again see that even though we have a relative thematic unity here, there isn't a strict continuity of tone or imagery. For example, line two flirts with metaphysical perception while line three is utterly surreal and cinematic. You can see it.

Idiot wind, blowing like a circle around my skull
From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol
Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth
You’re an idiot, babe
It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe

One thing that helps the song sustain interest throughout is that each chorus, while built around the same howl of "idiot wind," features unique imagery and associated rhyme scheme. I've always loved this one the most. The pairing of the Grand Coulee Dam and the Capitol gets you thinking about how these are united in their manifestations of the idiot wind. Are they the technological and political manifestations of our illusory sense of power? Structurally speaking, the images need to stretch coast-to-coast, and I know he tried various combinations, but I’m glad he chose these for the record. Consider this Dylan’s slightly cynical take on Woody's "This Land Is Your Land."

I can’t feel you anymore, I can’t even touch the books you’ve read
Every time I crawl past your door, I been wishin’ I was somebody else instead
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

Well, okay. The opening couplet does merit the appellation of bitter diatribe erroneously attributed to the song as a whole. But, holy shit, those lines do stick in your head. Indeed they manifest the lines from "Tangled Up In Blue": And every one of them words rang true / And glowed like burnin’ coal / Pourin’ off of every page. From there, though, the verse shifts to a higher register, gratitude and lament fused in mystic revelation. Remember, not just one thing.

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
You’ll never know the hurt I suffered nor the pain I rise above
And I’ll never know the same about you, your holiness or your kind of love
And it makes me feel so sorry

It's likely that the song really couldn't succeed like it does without this final verse. Now, in his state of liberation, Dylan can move beyond defensiveness of the broken-hearted, to admit the lovely, tragic truth of human relationship. Having listened to this song for decades, I can't think of a time where I didn't hear the last three lines as being addressed to the listener. Not to Sara Lownds, but to all of us, all of humanity. Your holiness, or your kind of love. There is an essential unknowability for all of us incarnated beings. In the end, the best we can do for others is exercise some charity in our dealings and perceptions. And, then, we die alone.

Idiot wind, blowing through the buttons of our coats
Blowing through the letters that we wrote
Idiot wind, blowing through the dust upon our shelves
We’re idiots, babe
It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves 

Of course, the last chorus seals it, shifting from 'you' to 'we'. Yeah, Dylan can come off as not only inscrutable but even nasty. But there's a good heart in there. Otherwise the songs wouldn't have the life they do.


Part I: Dylan’s Mysterious Musical Maturation

Part II: The Nature of Dylan’s Art

Part III: Dylan's Verbosity and the Path to Poetry

Part IV: Close Reading Dylan's "Idiot Wind"

Part V: Don't Overlook Dylan's Musicality

Part VI: On Dylan's Identity Tricksterism

Part VII: What Dylan Knows and Doesn't Know

Part VIII: Dylan, Taylor Swift, and Genius Inflation

Part IX: Close Reading "Simple Twist of Fate"

Part X: The Authentic Zen of "Love Minus Zero/No Limit"   


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