In my second year of university, I became tight with a group of older friends from school. We bonded over shared aspirations to become musicians; I’d just started writing songs and playing open mic nights around London. One of the group lived on a houseboat in Oxfordshire. Every weekend, we gathered there to drink, listen to music and talk about musicians we loved, heroes whose examples we would follow into new lives. Dylan was our ultimate figurehead. At the end of the night, we would stand around a squat, upright piano and raucously sing “Tangled Up in Blue”.
That was my introduction to Dylan, and his presence immediately informed the fledgling steps I was taking as a musician. My tastes hovered around Desire and Blood on the Tracks, towards the songs with lots and lots of verses. I loved the span of his songwriting – the sweeping, epic lives, with all their lost loves and regrets, located between refrains. Lying on futons, the roar of the A40 in the distance, my friends and I shared instructive Dylan lore. Did you know he replaced the lyrics of old folk songs to teach himself songwriting? Did you know he sometimes wrote hundreds of verses and whittled them down?
“Tangled Up in Blue” benefits from that technique. It’s a song that seems to jump backwards and forwards through the ages, in keeping with our experience of time. Dylan, who wrote it at the end of his marriage to Sara, said it took “ten years to live and two years to write”. Listening to it, you feel not only a sense of the pain that is inevitable over the long thread of a life, but also the release that comes with every new chapter. Tangled, yes, but also free.
That freedom spoke to me as a young almost-musician. No, I wasn’t picking up my life after a doomed marriage and heading down Highway 61. But I was out of school, and had valid ID, a MySpace profile and a pay-to-play slot at the Camden Barfly. Dylan’s story gave me permission to start from scratch, knowing that, with dedication and a fierce heart, I too might one day transcend my birth name. A few years later, I released my first album as Emmy the Great (OK, I took it too far). It featured a song called “Dylan”, a tribute not only to Bob but the conversations I’d had about him, and those friends who had since scattered.
It’s been more than a decade since I first heard “Tangled Up in Blue”. These days, especially having lived through this pandemic year, what stands out to me about that song is how well it reflects the quality of memories, how the past can come careening into the present, triggered by sensations. Since those evenings on my friend’s boat, I’ve never known a feeling like that sense of limitless possibility. But, like a voice behind you calling “Don’t I know your name?”, it’s always on the verge of returning. All it takes is one flatly sung syllable, the in-breath of a harmonica or the sweet resolution of a final chord, and he’s there – Dylan the teacher, not just reminding you that the past exists, but also that your life goes on, and on.
This article appears in the 19 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, In defence of meritocracy