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Sooner Or Later One of Us Must Know: In Defense of Bob Dylan

[Sady is going through some boy troubles. She has good timing. In honor of this, and of the Most Terrible Week of the Year, Tiger Beatdown will be here to hold your hand through the weekend, with a star-studded series of posts on break-up songs. Let’s hang out and hate this bullshit together, everybody.]

The heartbreak of an inveterately verbose asshole is a hard thing to understand. If, for example, I told you about my heartbreak! Who would believe me, or care, really? There is something about people who seem powerful only when they’re speaking – people who construct massive fortifications of verbiage and argument and rhetoric in order to safeguard themselves, who have the mastery of conscious thought that language implies so concretely down, who are so good at relaying their version of things that you doubt there can be any other – that prohibits empathy, though it may very well encourage identification. You might want to have that power, but you don’t necessarily want to be around it; there’s too much chance that you will wind up on its receiving end.

All of this is a way of telling you that, as a verbose asshole myself, when I break up with someone, the only music I can really listen to is Bob Dylan’s.

I know! I know! Dylan is, among other things, a gigantic douche on occasion; very specifically, he would seem to be a misogynist of the old school, a member of the Grand Old Boner Party, the sort of man who can only deal with women – at least rhetorically – if they are childlike and precious, or strangely exotic objects on which he looks with fear, admiration, and deep distrust. We can debate whether this is just something that happens in his writing, or whether it carries over into his life, but if you doubt that Bob is capable of shitty behavior to – well, to most people actually, but specifically to women, or that his shitty behavior to those women can be fairly predictably sexist, I suggest that you ask Joan Baez about it. Or just listen to that one song of hers, about how, when they were dating and she was promoting her relatively unknown boyfriend out of the goodness of her heart, giving his scrappy little nothing projects her own by-then-substantial cred, he used to casually insult her writing. My poetry was lousy, you said, the girl says; don’t let on that you knew me when I was hungry and it was your world, the boy says, the breakup still fresh and already glorying in the fact that he no longer has a more successful girlfriend.

It’s such a bullshit cop-out, that line; it’s a put-down disguised as a plea, a confession of vulnerability designed to hit precisely where it hurts. It’s a masterpiece of passive-aggression. It was your world; don’t let on that you knew me when. And yet, though the specific song in which that line happens – the one about the lady who does pretty much everything like a woman, except for break, which she does in a far more immature fashion – has been railed against by so many feminists, held up as an exemplar of Bob Dylan’s legendary lady issues, when it is literally true about you specifically, it doesn’t quite sting so much. Although it does sting. Your long-time curse hurts, but what’s worse is all this pain in here. I can’t stay in here. Ain’t it clear? These are some lines, assuming that you read the song as about you, that will suck the breath from your lungs. And they are human. You have no choice but to accept them, and to understand.

But tell me every key stroke doesn’t hit you with the force of a blow. Look at his turned back for me and tell me what it means. Tell me you don’t see the circles under that girl’s eyes.

Or, “You’re a Big Girl Now.” Obviously, the feminist objections to this one start in the title. And yet it was the only thing that got me through my last break-up, with a man I met at age nineteen and stayed with until age twenty-five; my decision to leave this man was, among other things, a decision to murder my last gasp of childhood or innocence, a decision to leave being young – and all the things you think when you are young in love, like the idea that you only ever have one true love, or that if you really love someone you will be with him forever, or the idea of destiny as a force in romantic relationships – definitively behind. You made it there somehow; you’re a big girl now. Where do you get angry with this one? On some abstract, rhetorical level; maybe “you have attained a painful level of maturity, which I myself struggle for, and of which I might not have believed you capable in the past” is a more admirable political statement, but it’s not the one that’s true enough to punch you in the chest. It’s not the one with real love in it.

For some time, I have been telling you, Bob Dylan was a surrogate for all the men I have been in love with, and all of the men I was in love with were in some ways surrogates for or damaged copies of Bob Dylan; withdrawn, sarcastic, verbal types who also knew the damaging powers of silence when employed correctly, a coolness that edged into cold, a certain brilliance to them, and a certain gorgeous cruelty that always made you feel that whoever wound up on the losing end must have deserved it. They were him, or I wanted them to be. And he said the things to me that they could never manage. I didn’t mean to treat you so bad; you shouldn’t take it so personal. I didn’t mean to make you so sad; you just happened to be there, that’s all. But it is with some deep regret that I now realize I could repeat those same lines to the men, that everything I described above is also a description of myself. There comes a time when a girl has to be her own Bob Dylan.

As it happens, I saw “I’m Not There” with the man I am currently breaking up with, on our second date. And I saw it for no other reason than this: that I needed to see a girl Dylan. I think Todd Haynes is often a little clumsy, precious in a way that wrecks the nuance of what he’s saying. But I needed a girl Dylan, or the fact of a girl underlying the fact of Dylan, profoundly.

If you’ve ever heard me complain about the feminist blogosphere, you can see why I might need to see a woman – or a woman playing a man, anyway – saying all this stuff.

Right now, it’s “Idiot Wind” that matters. Not so much for anything it says, but for the way it moves, all of the positions it tries to cover in the same raging and inexhaustible statement. “There could be a myriad of verses for the thing. It doesn’t stop. It wouldn’t stop. Where do you end? You could still be writing it, really,” Dylan said of it, and he’s right. “Idiot Wind” sounds not like a man making a statement, but like a man wearing himself out with statements, saying everything he can until finally he’s not so much at peace as he is unable to fight.

Bob is a victim: someone’s got it in for me, they’re planting stories in the press. Bob is a victimizer: when she died, it came to me. I can’t help it if I’m lucky. That is the last time you get to hear the vaunted ironic distance of Bob Dylan in the song, by the way; it disappears in the first verse, in that one little sneer, that one dark joke. And then he is barrelling into something so raw you can hear his voice unravelling and breaking over the course of the song – things that might have been jokes, or cool statements, subsumed into some authorial construction, just come out as raw fury, shocking and terrible anger that continually jolts you out of the song and makes you question the man singing it in a way you can normally avoid. Someday you’ll be in the ditch, flies buzzing around your eyes, blood on your saddle: I mean, who says that? Who says that to anyone, particularly a current or former lover? Who is, nominally, the subject of the song: we can say it’s about the media, or the myth of Bob Dylan, or about words and their many terrible uses, and it is in part about that, but there is also a lover at the core of it, and I maintain she is not in any way a metaphor. She’s the one he calls “sweet lady,” right before he calls her an idiot for the first time. His voice, on that word, stretches out in even longer and even more bizarre ways than you can attribute to typical Dylan: it’s pronounced “eeeeeyaaeeeeeeeedeeeeeeeeot,” as if he just can’t put enough venom into the word.

And yet it’s an impotent fury: she’s already gone. Her being gone is the reason for it all. So he just keeps ranting and breaking down and detailing precisely how he feels and how little you will ever even possibly come close to getting it, working through  the panting, frantic speech rhythms of it and the end-of-line all-caps hollers, through heights of baroque Dylanism (I saw it at the ceremony, your corrupt ways have finally made you blind) and direct and gut-wrenching statements of grief (I can’t feel you any more, I can’t even touch the books you’ve read) and finally, in what might be the saddest moment in the song, into just plain awful writing.

I mean, if you have ever doubted that Dylan can write really bad song lyrics, check out “Idiot Wind.” Nobody is saying that it’s not a great song – I’m not, anyway – but nobody could reasonably argue that it does not contain some moments that are just full-on Livejournal: You’ll never know the pain I suffered! Or the hurt I rise above! I mean, come ON, dude. Although, as a statement, it is true enough: if they could understand what they were doing to you, they wouldn’t be doing it. Or maybe it’s easier to tell yourself that than to believe that they know, and still don’t care. But still: it is so petulant, this statement, so ungraceful, so childish. It’s how you know the precise intensity of his hurt: Dylan, the verbose asshole, the man who is all words and sometimes nothing but words, master of rhetoric, is losing control of his language. Even that has been stripped away.

But it’s that moment, the moment where he’s brought to his knees even rhetorically, that he has to reach before he can get back up. The lyrics that precede this one, as it happens, came in at least two separate drafts, and we have both of them – one on bootleg, one on the album. You have this line: I kissed goodbye the howling beast on the borderline that separated you from me. Or, you have this line: We pushed each other a little too far and one day it just turned into a raging storm. The raging storm, the howling beast – “Idiot Wind” is not only a song on which Dylan is most clearly an asshole, it is a song in which he is painfully aware of himself as an asshole. He has to put the beast in the song in order to kill it, has to recognize this as the song he could never stop writing and then stop writing it, before he can even come close to redemption. Because, right after he tells you about all the pain you’ve caused and will never comprehend, right after he reaches the bottom of this pit of self-pity and anger, he picks himself back up again: And I’ll never know the same about you, your holiness or your kind of love, and it makes me feel so sorry. He gets pain and hurt, she gets holiness and love. He gets Livejournal poetry, she gets something beautiful. He says he’s sorry. And he calls himself an idiot, too, finally.

A song is an act of personal conscience. We all have different definitions of those words, “care” and “people.” And “Idiot Wind” matters, because, I would argue, it’s the moment where Dylan the writer tells Dylan the person how to act. Finish the song, make the twist, turn it around, give it an ending that is at least beautiful: that’s how you do this. It doesn’t make it better, it just makes it stop.

“People have felt about my songs sometimes the same way as me,” Dylan said, of this song. “And they say to me, your songs are so opaque that, people tell me, they have feelings they’d like to express within the same framework. My response, always, is go ahead, do it, if you feel like it. But it never comes off. They’re not as good as my lyrics. There’s just something about my lyrics that just have a gallantry to them. And that might be all they have going for them… However, it’s no small thing.”

In this, as in most things, Bob Dylan is right.


  1. Natasha wrote:

    Bob Dylan should be our icon over at Break Up Song.

    Wednesday, February 10, 2010 at 12:10 pm | Permalink
  2. DB wrote:

    I wonder if you know the song “Most of the Time” from Oh Mercy? Maybe my favorite Dylan breakup song…
    It seems like a truer vulnerability than early Dylan but still definitely readable in the same way, a bravado that exists entirely in the lyrics and not in the attitude they’re reflecting.

    Wednesday, February 10, 2010 at 12:17 pm | Permalink
  3. Sady wrote:

    @DB: Love that one, too, as it happens!

    Wednesday, February 10, 2010 at 12:48 pm | Permalink
  4. PilgrimSoul wrote:

    Aw, Sady, I’m sorry to hear that.

    I like Paul Simon’s “Hearts and Bones” myself.

    But I can give you a run for your money on the bad 2010 department! I’m getting kicked out of the country! 😉

    Wednesday, February 10, 2010 at 12:17 pm | Permalink
  5. Samantha b. wrote:

    My boyfriend died two weeks and two days ago, which is in a bit of a different category, so instead I listen to gospel on repeat, in particular Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Up Above My Head I Hear Music in the Air:”
    Not because I’m convinced there’s much going on up above my head, in the air, but because it integrates death so joyfully and unabashedly. Also, Sister Rosetta Tharpe happens to be, if style says anything at all, a women you don’t fuck around with much; there’s just plain resilience in her voice. I think that maybe at difficult times music can make sense and not sense just enough? It integrates the rational and the irrational, maybe in a way that feels especially appropriate at difficult times. At any rate, it *is* tonic when very little else is.

    Wednesday, February 10, 2010 at 1:45 pm | Permalink
  6. Isabel wrote:

    On the level of the post – one of the things I actually like about Dylan’s songs about women (one of the things that lets me like them?) is that they always feel, to me, very specific. Specific enough that they reflect on him basically being unable to deal with women, generally speaking. But also specific enough that I never feel like they’re about anything but one specific person. And I mean – who doesn’t break like a little girl or boy? Isn’t that kind of what breaking is? there’s a reason people say “cry like a baby.”

    On the level of since we’re sharing favorite break-up songs: mine + too many words about why.

    On the level of Things: I am really, really sorry. Not that it helps, I know, but it’s true anyway.

    Wednesday, February 10, 2010 at 2:23 pm | Permalink
  7. Vee wrote:

    Dylan, oh Dylan. Ani DiFranco’s version of “Most of the Time” got me through the breakup with the girl that built me a whole world and then took it away. “I don’t even notice she’s gone…most of the time.”

    I don’t know how to respond to this except to say yes, exactly, and god, did I ever need to read this tonight. Thank you. (And I’m sorry, too.)

    Wednesday, February 10, 2010 at 3:22 pm | Permalink
  8. Tavi wrote:

    Thank you for this post for so many reasons which I can’t articulate because they actually would sound like bad LiveJournal.

    Wednesday, February 10, 2010 at 4:19 pm | Permalink
  9. Molly wrote:

    This is so well written! Thank you for this. It puts many of my feelings about his art and his personal life into thoughtfully constructed analysis. I am sorry to hear about your breakup. I listened to Bob more than ever when I had that experience. His lyrics are so easy to relate to for me, and I think for many other people as well.

    Wednesday, February 10, 2010 at 4:26 pm | Permalink
  10. vertigo29 wrote:

    I am not familiar with Dylan’s music, I guess it has more to do with my background. The only song that I know is the cover Ani DiFranco did of ‘most of the time’ which is lovely and sad. I listen to it all the time.

    Wednesday, February 10, 2010 at 4:48 pm | Permalink
  11. Alicia wrote:

    The very first time I got my heart broken was also the very same moment I was moving into my own place for the first time. This was a terribly lonely combination, and the only thing that helped was Al Green’s version of “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.” I’d still cry, but it felt like the good kind of crying.

    Wednesday, February 10, 2010 at 7:04 pm | Permalink
  12. minniethemoocha wrote:

    This is a hell of a post. Sometimes the most personal things can be expressed best by way of a cultural critique brought home.

    Wednesday, February 10, 2010 at 7:53 pm | Permalink
  13. Adrianna wrote:

    My last break up I put a “Rilo Kiley” CD on loop, turned the lights off, and sobbed until I dehydrated myself. I remember calling my best friend (who was a bit more experienced in the realm of romance) and begging to know when the pain stopped.
    My break ups are all like that…it’s when I discover most of my female artists (Charlotte Sometimes is another one like that)
    For me there is something incredibly soothing about a woman’s voice in a time of emotional crisis.
    Any way, good luck to you, and congrats on obtaining emotional clarity in the middle of man-trouble. It’s more my style to just lose my brain, but to each her own 🙂

    Wednesday, February 10, 2010 at 9:42 pm | Permalink
  14. BMICHAEL wrote:

    Regarding NATASHA’s comment: Why don’t you watch Woman is a Woman before you go selling out the current favicon/avator, eh?

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 3:42 am | Permalink
  15. radsaq wrote:

    Breakup music for me is Redemption. Something like or … but of course I’m a huge sucker for progressive rock/metal.

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 6:29 am | Permalink
  16. Rikibeth wrote:

    Beautifully said, Sady. And I’m sorry about the boy trouble.

    My most painful breakup song wasn’t Dylan, it was Suzanne Vega’s “Undertow.”

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 6:42 am | Permalink
  17. gatecrewgirl wrote:

    Sady – awesome post and great video linkage! You are right. Every stroke of the typewriter just killed me.

    My preferred breakup song is Led Zeppelin’s In My Time of Dying. I like the melodramatic and Led Zeppelin is awesome. And of course Both Sides Now. Because no breakup is complete without Joni Mitchell making an appearance.

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 9:42 am | Permalink
  18. Natasha wrote:

    REGARDING BMichael’s comment: why don’t you stop up your face?

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 11:53 am | Permalink
  19. Brimstone wrote:

    what about ‘Don’t Think Twice (It’s Alright)’? more wistful then his usual bitter breakup songs… and he’s written some of the best and bitterist
    I’ve been a Dylan fan my whole life

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 8:14 pm | Permalink
  20. DB wrote:

    I just checked out the Ani DiFranco cover of “Most of the Time.” it’s pretty impressive–there’s another great cover of that song by Sophie Zelmani that is on youtube. and it’s sort of surprising how effectively women sing Dylan (Joan Baez obviously) when you think about how misogynist–and also just masculinist–his songs often are.
    I guess that as much as Dylan may hate women he hates himself more and that makes the love songs so great…

    Friday, February 12, 2010 at 11:34 am | Permalink
  21. DB wrote:

    meant to mention Nina Simone also, because she owns absolutely every Dylan song she’s covered. it’s weird to hear her OWNING Just Like a Woman, but she really does!

    Friday, February 12, 2010 at 11:40 am | Permalink
  22. Carl Wilson wrote:

    Sady, this is a terrific, moving, perceptive piece – I just dropped a note to the editor of the annual Best Music Writing anthology to let them know about it.

    Friday, February 12, 2010 at 1:04 pm | Permalink
  23. Sady wrote:

    @Carl: Wow, that’s an honor! I mean, even just to hear it. I can even envision a future where this piece is not formatted in such a way as to rely on the viewing of YouTube clips!

    Friday, February 12, 2010 at 3:45 pm | Permalink
  24. anon wrote:

    God, my ex-boyfriend was very much like Dylan. After we broke up he gave me one of Dylan’s songs, “I’ll Remember You”.

    I think that was his way of singing “Idiot Wind”.

    Friday, February 12, 2010 at 7:56 pm | Permalink
  25. ebbflow wrote:

    I found Tiger Beatdown recently and have been reading my way through some old(er) posts tonight. Thank you for all of them, but for this one in particular. I missed it when it was shiny and new, but it says so many things I’ve tried to articulate about Bob Dylan. Which are many and complicated. So thank you. Plus, now is when I needed to hear One of Us Must Know, anyway.

    Friday, March 26, 2010 at 11:37 pm | Permalink

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  2. links for 2010-02-11 « Embololalia on Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 11:06 am

    […] Tiger Beatdown › Sooner Or Later One of Us Must Know: In Defense of Bob Dylan It’s a masterpiece of passive-aggression. It was your world; don’t let on that you knew me when. And yet, though the specific song in which that line happens – the one about the lady who does pretty much everything like a woman, except for break, which she does in a far more immature fashion – has been railed against by so many feminists, held up as an exemplar of Bob Dylan’s legendary lady issues, when it is literally true about you specifically, it doesn’t quite sting so much. Although it does sting. Your long-time curse hurts, but what’s worse is all this pain in here. I can’t stay in here. Ain’t it clear? These are some lines, assuming that you read the song as about you, that will suck the breath from your lungs. And they are human. You have no choice but to accept them, and to understand. (tags: dylan music gender sadydoyle) […]