Tangled up in blue

Can white men sing the blues? There’s clearly no point in asking guest contributor Neil Taylor…

I was going to take my small son to the Science Museum to meet up with one of his older siblings and my wife was attempting to dress him for the journey. She called up the stairs to me, asking would I bring down his blue jumper.

I hunted through the mound of clothes in his bedroom in vain and reported that there was no blue jumper to be seen. Irritated by my incompetence, she repeated her request. Irritated by her irritation I informed her that I had spent some time scavenging on the third-world mound and the only jumper that had surfaced was white. Wouldn’t that do? I chucked it down the stairs and ambled after it. ‘But that’s it!’ she said, in irritated astonishment. ‘Why did you say you couldn’t find it?’ ‘What!’ I protested, in disbelief. ‘I thought you asked for a blue jumper. That’s not blue, it’s white.’ ‘No, it’s not, you idiot,’ she in turn protested, in a subtle blend of incredulity and despair. ‘It’s blue.’

I had no-one to back me up (this son hasn’t yet fully mastered the colour chart), so I bit my lip and pushed the buggy into the street. But as we made our way to the station I thought and thought about my wife’s alarming condition. I’d always thought colour-blindness among humans was a matter of an inability to distinguish between red and green. But I dimly remembered men of my father’s generation complaining that women had peculiar notions of colour. I’d always dismissed that as sexist talk, but was there something in it after all? I remembered that she does have a problem with left and right.

When we got to the Museum and had met up with older son, I thought I’d start building up the evidence to convince my wife she needed help. So, straight away, I pointed to the jumper and asked him what colour it was. He looked at me hard for a second or two, as if slightly thrown by my idea of an ice-breaker. Then he replied, his voice almost steady. ‘Blue,’ he said.

It’s at moments like this, that one suddenly remembers that every man is an island.

Art is important to me. Paintings, along with poems — they mean more to me than anything else. How can it be that when I see blue in a great painting it may be that it isn’t blue after all? A week or so ago I was at a poetry reading in the Festival Hall. It was big event – the annual T S Eliot Prize was being competed for. Poetry readings are usually a bad idea because, under these conditions, I usually find it impossible to follow the poet’s train of thought. Most poets write to be read on the page, not read out loud. The language is almost always highly concentrated, obscurely allusive or just clever-clever. About half-way through the evening one of the world-famous poets used the word ‘solipsistic’. To my surprise, the woman next to me leant over and in a whisper asked me what it meant. (She later asked me for my telephone number. She hasn’t rung. ) Oh, I thought, everyone knows that. ‘Extremely self-absorbed,’ I whispered back. But I then began to worry. That didn’t seem quite right. As a result I effectively missed the rest of the poem. At the end of the evening, as we were all leaving, I shuffled up to her and said that I thought it actually meant believing that you are the only person who exists.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only person who doesn’t exist. A lot of poetry, and above all a lot of song lyrics, seem to rule me out from membership of the human race. However hard I try, I just can’t understand certain lines or phrases – lines and phrases which everyone else seems to find quite easy. Bob Dylan’s refrain, ‘Tangled up in blue’, is a prime example. I love the song, but what does ‘tangled up in blue’ mean? It’s driven me mad for years. The metaphor simply defeats me. I can’t make head or tail of it and when I ask Dylan specialists to help they can’t make head or tail of me. To them it’s so obvious they can’t even understand what I’m asking. I’ve read all the books I can find that analyse the oeuvre and while they discuss everything else in the song they don’t even mention the line. I’ve listened to the track again and again. I’ve read and reread the lyrics. I’ve asked my children. All but the youngest.

I haven’t asked my wife. Should I?

Visiting contributor: Neil Taylor, 12th February 2011

Neil Taylor is a recently retired academic, living in West London. He has four sons and five grandchildren; three of his sons are in their thrties but the fourth is a very recent addition  [see Looking ahead – fatherhood at 65, 12th Feb, 2010]

Lyrics: http://www.bobdylan.com/us/songs/tangled-blue

2 comments on “Tangled up in blue
  1. Della Mae Johnston says:

    Dear Neil-

    I’m 67 but missed out on much of the ‘Dylan Era’ as I was immersed in classical music and jazz at that time. Thank you for clearing up something for me. I once met a blue merle Australian Shepherd some whose kennel name was ‘Tangled Up In Blue’. I thought it a very clever name for a mottled blue dog but had a vague, back-of-the-mind inkling that I’d heard the term somewhere, somehow. Now I know where. And its an even cleverer name than I’d imagined.

  2. Jack Humphrys says:

    Dylan reportedly said that ‘this is a song that took me ten years to live and two years to write’.

    This has always seemed to me a wistful song, full of longing and regret; thus the blue… and the entaglement. There are other clues perhaps – a reference to 13C Italian poet Dante (??), who was famously hung up on Beatrice..

    Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tangled_Up_in_Blue) says Dylan told journalist Ron Rosenbaum that he wrote the song after spending a weekend immersed in Joni Mitchell’s album “Blue”.

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