Listening to Every "Tangled Up in Blue" in Chronological Order

1993-02-17, Muziekcentrum Frits Philips, Eindhoven, Netherlands

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Those of you who inhabit what’s colloquially known as “Dylan Twitter” will surely have encountered @dylyricus. As you might guess from the username, the pseudonymous tweeter is focused on Dylan lyrics. Really, really focused.

In particular, he meticulously tracks word changes to songs in concert. His website is fun to poke around, letting you easily see songs where words, lines, entire verses have come and gone.

One longterm project he’s working on, he dubbed Project Tangled. He is endeavoring to listen to every single live performance of “Tangled Up in Blue” - a song whose words change more than most - and track the changes, both lyrically and in singing style. He’s heard over 700 “Tangled Up in Blue”s so far, in chronological order, and isn’t even halfway through the list. It’s the sort of obsessive listening project I can appreciate, like the guy listening to every 1991 show.

Even though he’s got a long ways to go (and if Bob brings “Tangled” back next month, the finish line will move out even further), I shot him a few questions to find out what you learn where you listen to 700 “Tangled Up in Blue”s in chronological order.

Why this project?

Many of us love to put our favorite Dylan song on repeat, but just imagine if Bob created a fresh performance for you every time you hit "play." This is what it feels like to be working my way through listening to every single “Tangled Up In Blue” performance. I had a taste of this while following some concerts in a row on tour, the longest run for me being 13 shows in 1999. You hear variations in creativity in vocals and instrumentation as the song evolves each night and, if you're especially lucky, you'll hear a new lyric. It's these lyric changes that have fascinated and excited me for almost 30 years.

Last year, after hearing the 2016 “Tangled” line, "He helped her out of a jam, I guess / Then he let the law take its course" it occurred to me out of the blue to figure out when he first sang it. So I backtracked through the versions and figured it out. It was then that I thought: how great would it be to map out not just random lyric changes but the complete historic evolution of a single song's lyric over its entire life to date? When did each change originate? Would this provide any insight into the creative process? How long does a certain new lyric hold up before being abandoned? Will I uncover little noticed lyric changes, perhaps even one-time improvisations?

I already had done something similar, but on a much smaller scale, when I logged the 30 different one-time lyric changes to “Long and Wasted Years” on the 2015 tour. But “Tangled Up In Blue” would be a massive undertaking.

How big exactly? There have been around 1,700 performances from 1974 through to the present. My music app tells me the first 40 years of recordings are more than 175 hours long! Incidentally, since the Never Ending Tour began in 1988, there has been just one year when Dylan did not sing “Tangled Up In Blue” at all. It was missing throughout 2019, and I await its possible return on the Rough and Rowdy Ways tour.

From a completeness perspective, I have already encountered some gaps where no recordings are available, at least not on the internet. I also am including written variations in the project, although not all the manuscripts have been published, so that will also be a challenge. I certainly would welcome any help filling these holes.

Why “Tangled Up In Blue”?

This was an obvious pick for me given the well-known and radical changes from the early years (i.e., 1978 and 1984), but also because of its continued lyrical reinvention in recent decades. The first version I ever heard was the Bootleg Series Vol 1-3 early outtake, and so in a way I've never really been stuck on the official album version being the definitive one.

Favorite version/year so far?

I have made it up to the 21st Century on the Never Ending Tour and, far and away, it's 1993 that does it for it for me. Dylan has the rock'n'roll growl in his voice and I really enjoy the long instrumentals. The year 2000 struck me as a real return to form for this song, with solid intensity and great engagement from Bob and the band.

How has listening to 700 versions changed your feelings about the song? Seems like it could make you hate it…

I still love and appreciate the song as much as I always have done, but I do need to take care not to max out on it (I took a monthlong break in May, for instance). Don't ask me whether my understanding of it has grown, though!

Any other initial impressions?

An intriguing by-product of the project has been hearing Dylan's constant creativity in performance, especially in his vocal. I started a Twitter thread of the different vocal styles he's used on the Never Ending Tour. So far I've posted almost 20 of the most notably different approaches he's used, out of more than a hundred I've logged.

Anything else?

While I am far from ready to reveal results from my project at this early stage, I do want to share one of the craziest “Tangled” lyric improvisations I have heard. One of the perks of sharing lyrics on the web and on Twitter is that sometimes people send me some that they themselves have found. And so it was that a Twitter user named George directed me to Toronto March 20, 2004, which I have not yet made it up to on my own. Bob starts out the performance singing the standard lyric, with the first inkling of what is to come being a small lyric stumble, which he handles valiantly: "All the while he was alone, the time was slipping away / All the while he was alone, you know the past was close behind"). But it's after the instrumental break that the train completely runs off the tracks and Dylan is throwing out lines like, "I don't even drink beer here!" "I know you're mine!" and, incredibly, "Some are mathematicians; I'm a truck driver's wife."

It's this kind of lyric creativity that gets me excited and motivated to stay on the hunt for every new lyric I can find!

Thanks @dylyricus! Follow him on Twitter and subscribe to his website’s notifications, where he occasionally will send something out. Here’s a 1993 show he picked out with one of those great “Tangled”s:

1993-02-17, Muziekcentrum Frits Philips, Eindhoven, Netherlands