Idiot Wind was never a simple song. For starters, it was a part of the infamous Blood on the Tracks recordings, while on top of that, it’s noted as being the song that went through the most changes (Heylin). The first recording of the song took place in New York at Columbia Records on September 19, 1974 (Heylin). At first, only the vocals were recorded and then on the 23 and 25, the organ, and over dubs were added. In Dylan’s notebook, his notes on Idiot Wind were unlike the others, divided into three vastly different forms (Heylin). The song stood on its own and Dylan knew it. Dylan performed the song almost acoustically, with minimal instrumentation making the song seem intimate and upped the intensity of the lyrics. The arrangement and content didn’t sit well with him largely in part because of the speculation and attention the song was sure to stir up.
Over the Christmas holiday, Dylan played the song for his brother, David, and expressed his concern for the NewYork cut. David knew of a few musicians in the Twin Cities, bass player Billy Peterson, and drummer Bill Berg who along with a few other men would be available over the next couple of days. A friend of his, Paul Martinson who had previously overseen television commercials was signed on as the engineer (Sounes). On December 27, Bob Dylan entered Sound 80 studios in Minneapolis, Minnesota and re-recorded the entire song three months before the album was to come out (Heylin). The recording process in Minnesota was obscure; Dylan not speaking to the musicians but instead using David as a go-between man to communicate. He was especially reserved during this session, and for the musicians this was far from what they were used to. As they recorded Idiot Wind, Dylan constantly made changes to the song, rewriting lyrics and tucking them into the strings of his guitar so he could read them as he played (Sounes). At the end of the day, Dylan spoke his only words to someone other than this brother saying to Martinson, “You have a nice way of picking things up here”(Sounes).
The Minneapolis version is the one that appears on Blood on the Tracks; the New York version didn’t reappear until 1991 when it closed side two of the Bootleg Series 1-3 (Scobie). The public’s opinion of the recording favor the New York version, and a few of Dylan’s musical colleagues expressed their preference for the original as well. The radical transformation that the song endured when leaving New York for Minneapolis has been accredited to a change in Dylan’s heart, with the original sting of his lyrics undergoing a diffusing.
The difference between the two songs begins with the voice that recorded them. Where the Minnesota version conveys a man who’s very much alive and infuriated, the New York version mirrors a stripped down and broken version with a man “on the verge of complete despair, every word dripping with pain” (Adams). The New York version mood is more of sorrow than anger, with the singer’s admission of shared responsibility of the breakup” (Bauldie). The style was not the only thing that changed, the lyrics did as well. Adams highlighted two particular verses:
We pushed each other a little too far, and one day it just turned into a raging storm.
A hound dog bayed behind your trees as I was packing up my uniform. I figured I’d lost you anyway, Why go on? What’s the use? In order to get in a word with you, I’d have had to come up with some excuse. It just struck me kinda funny. (New York)
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 (Minneapolis)
The first verse, from the New York recording uses the word “we” and the “I” in the song carries some of the weight of blame. The pain is fresh and the lyrics echo the raw impact of heartbreak. In the Minneapolis version, the wounds have begun to heal and the blame has shifted from mutual to exclusively the “you”. The ache is gone, replaced by resentment and scorn, the song becoming a “monumental rage against failure (Sounes). Where the shield had come down in the original version, it had quickly been built back up.
Upon recording the song, Dylan had expressed to David concern over the lyrics being taken literally, as a reference to he and Sara’s looming divorce (Sounes). He “blurred the edges of the song, making it less biographical,” but it seems as if he also took out the part of the song that made him human, and not a scathing ex-lover. Many have wondered if the song was autobiographical, but Dylan denied this in an interview with Flanagan in 1985 saying,
“I came pretty close with that song ‘Idiot Wind,’” Dylan said. “A lot of people thought that song, that album Blood on the Tracks, pertained to me. Because it seemed to at the time. It didn’t pertain to me … I’ve read that that album had to do with my divorce. Well, I didn’t get divorced ’til four years after that. I thought I might have gone a little bit too far with ‘Idiot Wind.’ I might have changed some of it. I didn’t really think I was giving away too much; I thought that it seemed so personal that people would think it was about so-and-so who was close to me. It wasn’t” (HuffingtonPost).
Despite Dylan’s comments, his son, Jakob describes the song as, ‘My parents talking” (Sounes). No matter what the truth behind the subjects of the song are, Bob Dylan produced one of his most well respected and beloved songs. Scobie describes the genius of the song, as Dylan goes from “right on target, so direct into an allusive welding of the microcosmic and macrocosmic” (Scobie). The way he pairs certain words together provoke emotions that otherwise may have gone unnoticed, the obscurity of Dylan’s words being the driving force. Alan Ginsberg recalls,
“ I had dug the great line in the song “Idiot Wind,” which I thought was one of Dylan’s great great prophetic national songs, with one rhyme that took in the whole nation, I said it was a national rhyme. Idiot wind/Blowing like a circle around my skull/ From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol. Dylan told Denise that nobody else had noticed it or mentioned it to him; but that the line had knocked him out, too” (Chowka).
Indeed lyrically the song stands as a masterpiece, no matter which version you’re listening to. “If you’ve heard both versions you realize that there could be a myriad of verses for the thing. It doesn’t stop” (Schlanksy). Even Dylan himself stated in the Flanagan interview that he could still be writing the song, it is a continuing work in progress.
The live version of Idiot Wind appearing on the Bootleg album was taken from the second leg of the Rolling Thunder tour that took place in 1976. Nine shows into an Australian tour, on April 2, 1992, Idiot Wind was played onstage for the first time since the Fort Collins show in 1976. The live versions of the song are especially popular because of the enthusiasm Dylan gives to the song, “he takes a song he hadn’t played for years and attacks it with a fresh energy as if he’d written it yesterday” (Scobie). A performance May 9, 1992 in San Jose, California featured T bone Burnett playing lead guitar on stage with Dylan (Rolling Stone). Another performance that year in California, this time in San Francisco featured the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia playing guitar. Each time Dylan plays the song, lyrics are often altered and the song takes on a different persona.
Only a few covers of the song were recorded professionally, with the most recognizable being Mary Lee Kortes’ version of the album Blood on the Tracks. Dylan’s website even posted her version of his songs (Canosa). The female’s voice had been missing from Dylan’s version of Idiot Wind and Mary Lee’s voice in itself gave the song the “sensitivity” it lacked.
“A key line arrives before the first chorus in two simple words: Sweet lady. Dylan has already established how he feels that the woman—the “you”—has betrayed him, and the next word out of his mouth is “idiot.” There isn’t anything “sweet” about this lady; his very performance of the words sounds as if sung through gritted teeth. But no such sarcasm comes from Kortes. This same line is sung breathily and lightly, almost as an aside to oneself—again a self-justification of the woman’s stance, a bracing of oneself for the attacks to come” (Canosa).
It is incredible how much Dylan’s voice adds to the song. The exact same arrangement, lyrics, and musical style is turned upside down when sung by someone else. Mary Lee singing the word “babe” sounds much more genuine than Dylan’s and there is good reason for that.
“The ensuing insults of “Idiot Wind” are blunt and obvious, but again the sardonic cuts deepest through Dylan’s choice word, “babe,” in his choruses. Dylan popularized the pseudo-endearment a decade earlier in many of his (anti) love songs (“It Ain’t Me, Babe” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”) and its resurfacing here seems only bitterly appropriate, a reminder of arguments past that, nevertheless, worked themselves out” (Sounes).
One of the reasons why Dylan’s songs are as moving as they are, is that his style is something we’ve grown accustomed to, something we can count on. When he uses the word “babe” we don’t assume it is in a loving manner because it often means the exact opposite. When another person is singing the same song, on top of that a woman, the word “babe” sounds completely obsolete from the word Dylan sung. The two versions demonstrate the strength not only in Dylan’s voice, but the impact of the style he’s created for himself throughout his career.
These dylanesque lyrics haven’t suddenly appeared, they’re a part of an intricate web of Dylan’s songs over the years, which is one of the reasons he stands out in the long list of musicians. To create a memorable song is an accomplishment, but to build a career on mastering the art of songwriting in a way that is specifically unique to an individual is something few people will do. Idiot Wind is one of those songs that songwriters envy because of what it represents. Dylan’s use of metaphors, imagery, heartache, raw emotion, cynicism, regret, all thrown together to create one of the most hateful rock songs written, but with an edge that makes it Dylan’s.
The last stanza of the song in the Minneapolis version, famed for being the harsher of the two, Dylan switches from “you” to “we”. “We’re idiots babe, it’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.” It’s in the last line of the song that the singer shows that he is still human. Even in the harshest of times, Dylan doesn’t forget that fact. Eventually, he ends up like the rest of us, even if it takes two different recordings and 11 verses to figure it out.
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