‘That Wild Mercury Sound': Tangled Up in Bob Again

So the other day I get a call from Munich–a guy from the Sunday magazine of the Süddeutsche Zeitung , the big South German daily. He was inquiring about the rights to translate and reprint the Bob Dylan interview I did back in 1978, for Playboy , in time for Mr. Dylan’s 60th birthday on May 24.

The call brought it all back: the strange moment in my life (and the strained moment in Mr. Dylan’s life) when I spent a week talking to him in a windowless bungalow on the back lot of the Burbank studios, where he was trying to edit his mad, brilliant, autobiographical film epic Renaldo and Clara down from a 26-hour-long rough cut to its slim, compressed four-hour release time. All the while going through the shattering divorce and custody battle that would leave him wounded and vulnerable to the New Age Jesus freaks who gave him shelter from the storm.

What a strange experience that interview was. A dream, in theory, for a longtime Dylan obsessive whose life was changed by the triad of “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Desolation Row” (and later ruined by the lovelorn self-laceration of Blood on the Tracks ).

A dream in theory that turned into a nightmare in practice, as I tied myself in knots over the course of a week trying to draw out the famously media-averse Mr. Dylan about the music that had meant so much to me.

Suddenly, because of his 60th birthday and a slew of new books, Bob Dylan is in the air again. The subject of my Dylan interview came up again during a phone call on another matter with David Remnick. He was preparing to host The New Yorker ‘s Dylan tribute and P.E.N. benefit at Town Hall. (Three high points of that night: 1) My forever-goddess, Rickie Lee Jones, doing a killer version of one of my all-time Dylan faves, “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.” Please , Rickie Lee; do an album of Dylan covers. 2) Christopher Ricks goes electric! The brilliant Oxbridge-bred Milton, Keats and Dylan scholar transformed his rap on Mr. Dylan’s rhymes into an incantatory rhapsody that wowed the crowd with its revelatory musicality. 3) Rick Moody’s remarkable ode to Blood on the Tracks , more on which later.)

Anyway, I was trying to describe to Mr. Remnick what for me was the high point of my tortured Dylan interview: the moment when Mr. Dylan began to speak, in an unusually expressive way, about the sound he’d been searching for.

Was that the interview, Mr. Remnick asked, where he’d spoken of “that thin, that wild mercury sound”? He said he’d seen that quote on the cover of some Dylan bootleg recently.

Yes, I said–pleased but slightly bitter that the quote on the bootleg hadn’t been attributed to my interview.

Then, a few days later, I found that same quote about “that thin, that wild mercury sound” referred to repeatedly in the massive new version of Clinton Heylin’s Bob Dylan Behind the Shades , a comprehensive and down-to-earth account of Mr. Dylan’s career that, unlike one recent Dylan book, focuses on the music rather than the girlfriends.

I suddenly decided that I needed to reinvestigate the meaning of “that wild mercury sound,” and when I couldn’t locate the interview in my super-efficient filing system, I got Playboy to fax me a copy–and discovered something remarkable in the “wild mercury” passage that I hadn’t paid attention to before … probably because the interview itself was such a harrowing experience.

I’ve written before about the Test Mr. Dylan had put me through to see if my understanding of Renaldo and Clara ‘s symbolism was “deep” enough to make conversation with me worth his time. How, before going to see him in Burbank, I’d subjected my notes on the five-hour version of Renaldo and Clara I’d seen to intensive English-major exegesis. How, when I’d presented my insights on such subjects as the iconography of the transparent mask in the movie to Mr. Dylan, he’d responded with a classic, sneering Dylanesque put-down–”You been talkin’ to Ginsberg ?”–as if I’d cribbed my precious insights from his Beat-poet friend.

Anyway, by the time Mr. Dylan and I went into the tiny back-lot bungalow to begin a weeklong series of conversations, I was in such a state of I-am-not-worthy agitation that I had to bring a pint of Jose Cuervo–my nerve tonic of choice at the time–into the interview and swallow a shot now and then to steady my focus. (Mr. Dylan declined my offer of a swig, but seemed to view my imbibing with a bemused tolerance. Hey, it was the 70’s.)

Still, a lot of what happened is a bit hazy in my memory, although it’s all there in the transcripts–and I do recall that there were moments where Mr. Dylan said things I’d never heard him say before.

Consider that “wild mercury” passage. What I realized on rereading it was that it was more than a local statement about a kind of sound he favored on his albums. It was also a disclosure of the unusual source of his creativity: the inspiration, the compulsion he felt to make music rather than just write songs.

It wasn’t the words that drove him, he said; it wasn’t the melody, it wasn’t the ideas, it wasn’t self-expression. Rather, it was a sound in his mind. “The sound I’m trying to get across, I’m not just up there recreating old blues tunes or trying to invent some surrealistic rhapsody … I’m not doing it to see how good I can sound, or how perfect the melody can be, or how intricate the details can be woven or how perfectly written something can be. I don’t care about those things.”

“The sound is that compelling to you?” I asked.

“Mmm-hnh,” he said.

It wasn’t just the voice, it was the entire fabric of sound on a track:

“I always hear other instruments, how they should sound. The closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind was on individual bands in the Blonde on Blonde album. It’s that thin, that wild mercury sound. It’s metallic and bright gold with whatever that conjures up. That’s my particular sound. I haven’t been able to succeed in getting it all the time. Mostly I’ve been driving at a combination of guitar, harmonica and organ, but now I find myself going into territory that has more percussion in it and [pause] rhythms of the soul.”

Me: “Was that wild mercury sound in ‘I Want You’?”

Dylan: “Yeah, it was in ‘I Want You,’ it was in the album before that too ….”

Me: ” Highway 61 Revisited ?”

Dylan: “Yeah. Also in Bringing It Back Home . That’s the sound I’ve always heard.”

The sound he’s “always heard”: It suggests a kind of visionary experience (well, auditory vision, if you will)–a Muse-like musical visitation , almost, that came to him as sound rather than song.

What I’d forgotten, what I rediscovered rereading the interview, was that Mr. Dylan goes on to elaborate upon that sound, to give it a local habitation and a name. And to describe it with the kind of synesthesia characteristic of visionary experiences. Synesthesia because he begins by defining that sound he was searching for as a kind of light :

“It was the sound of the streets,” he said. “That ethereal twilight light, you know. It’s the sound of the street with the sunrays, the light shining down at a particular time, on a particular type of building. A particular type of people on a particular type of street. It’s an outdoor sound that drifts even into open windows …. The sound of bells and distant railroad trains and arguments in apartments and the clinking of silverware and knives and forks … usually it’s the crack of dawn. Music filters out to me in the crack of dawn.”

“The jingle-jangle morning?” I ventured, quoting the phrase from “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

“Right,” he said.

So that’s the jingle-jangle in “the jingle-jangle morning”: the clink and ring of silverware drifting out the windows of kitchens as one trips and staggers home after a long night’s journey into day.

Perhaps it’s worth considering further, that “wild mercury” sound, “metallic and gold with whatever that conjures up.”

What the wild mercury sound conjures up for me, in addition to its most emblematic songs (“I Want You,” “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” and “Visions of Johanna” are my faves on Blonde on Blonde ), is what you find when you ring the changes on “mercury.”

The word itself offers up some peculiarly Dylanesque allusions. His talent is nothing if not mercurial, his wit quicksilver (those who don’t get Dylan usually don’t get his wicked sense of humor, which in many cases reflects an absence of one in themselves). Quicksilver, slippery bright, gleaming and protean, Dylan’s genius is more difficult to nail down with a definition than the proverbial ball of mercury.

Mercury, of course, is the swift-footed messenger god. Less well-known is Mercury’s role as the patron saint of quick-witted con artists, such as Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale , the con man who (among other things) peddles ballads and boasts that he was “litter’d under Mercury.” Mercury is, as well, the patron saint of wintry satire in Shakespeare: “The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo” is the final line of that “great feast of languages,” Love’s Labor’s Lost (almost all of Mr. Dylan’s ballads are about love’s labors lost).

And then, of course, there is that great embodiment of the mercurial temperament, of quicksilver word-drunk wit and verbal intoxication: Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet .

I bring up these Shakespearean references not to suggest a comparison between Mr. Dylan and Shakespeare, but rather between him and one particular character in Shakespeare: the Mercutio whose “surrealistic rhapsody” to Queen Mab, the dreammaker in Romeo and Juliet , is nothing if not Dylanesque.

“True, I talk of dreams,” Mercutio concludes, after his wild, hyperbolic invocation to Queen Mab. And dreams, he says, “are the children of an idle brain / Begot of nothing but vain fantasy / which is as thin of substance as the air …. “

There’s that word “thin” in Mercutio’s speech (as in “that thin, that wild mercury sound”). Not “thin” for undernourished so much as for ethereal, evanescent. Forgive me if I bring up one further unusual (if coincidental) allusion in Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech: It contains one of the earliest appearances in the English language of the phrase “time out o’ mind.” A phrase which, 400 years later, turns up as the title of Bob Dylan’s remarkable post-heart-infection album, Time Out of Mind . Go figure.

Of course, there is that line from “Stuck Inside of Mobile … “: “Shakespeare, he’s in the alley / With his pointed shoes and his bells / Speaking to some French girl / Who says she knows me well.” Maybe Mr. Dylan got “time out of mind” from that French girl … which reminds me of another French girl, legendary in the lore of New York Dylanology, a woman I used to know in Soho who may qualify as the most dedicated Bob Dylan fan in history: She claimed (and, alas, I believe her) that she had seen the four-hour version of Renaldo and Clara when it first opened in 1978, 26 straight times. The gold standard of Dylan fanaticism.

But there was another enigma, another hazy memory, that I wanted to explore in reliving that interview experience, and it has to do with “Tangled Up in Blue”–specifically with the source of the title of that song, an iconic work that opens Blood on the Tracks and signaled a new direction in songwriting for Mr. Dylan.

I can’t tell you how many people have told me that they’ve experienced their most searing and scarring love tragedies to the often-obsessive replay accompaniment of Blood on the Tracks –an album that seems to serve for many people as a means of catharsis and exorcism of love’s lost labors (and for others as a self-lacerating, self-destructive compulsion).

I thought Rick Moody’s prose-poem tribute to Blood on the Tracks at the New Yorker -P.E.N. evening perfectly captured what it has become, in the emotional life of American culture: the national anthem of the Republic of Sorrow.

Indeed, Mr. Moody’s prose poem began “Of thee I sing … ,” and it went on for stanza after stanza of right-on-the-money meditation upon the album’s insidious, dangerous, radioactive emotional power. Making a convincing argument that it can be seen as an arc that tells the tale of a single doomed love affair, and about the way those who are the most intense believers in love become the most intense disbelievers .

Anyway, for many Blood on the Tracks freaks, the song that is the best and bloodiest track is “Tangled Up in Blue.” Although it should be said that among Blood on the Tracks freaks, there are those who argue that the original New York session recordings of “Tangled Up in Blue” (and four other tracks on the album, including “Idiot Wind” and “If You See Her Say Hello”), available on bootleg, blow away the subsequent Minnesota session recordings that are on the official release.

Not being a bootleg type myself, I only recently was able to borrow (from my friend David Samuels) a copy of the New York version, which to some Dylan fans has the treasured status of the director’s cut of Blade Runner . (I actually like the original cut of Blade Runner , with the Chandleresque voice-over, better than the director’s cut, and I had to admit that, after a few initial listenings, I’m not convinced the New York versions of those Blood on the Tracks songs are necessarily superior to the official release.)

And then I got even more tangled up in “Tangled Up in Blue” when my friend Emily Gordon printed out for me comparative transcripts of the lyrics of not two but four different versions of the song: the two from 1974 I’d known about, plus one from Mr. Dylan’s unfortunate Christian period (which throws in references to passages in Jeremiah), and finally the version that he rewrote in Amsterdam in 1984 when, he said, he didn’t think the original version was “filled in enough.” Clearly Bob Dylan, too, is tangled up in “Tangled Up in Blue.”

My question about the song’s title might seem superficial, with so much comparative exegesis to be done on the four extant versions of the lyrics. And believe me, I’ll get to that in a subsequent column. But I think the title question is important. It has to do with something I think Mr. Dylan said to me in the course of that 1978 interview: I think he told me that he got the title of the song from a lost weekend he spent listening to Joni Mitchell’s classic Blue album, which predated Blood on the Tracks by three years. In effect, Mr. Dylan had been tangled up in Blue before writing “Tangled Up in Blue.”

I say I think Mr. Dylan said this to me because:

1) It’s possible I recall it from reading someone else’s interview with him, and

2) I was unable to verify it, because the fax copy of the interview Playboy sent me was missing some pages, and it turns out the only copy of that issue (March 1978) in the Playboy archives had some pages from the interview torn out of it . So that Joni Mitchell quote might be in the missing section, or it might have been in the 10 hours of outtakes, the transcripts of which I think I may have lost in storage somewhere.

And then there’s the question of whether, even if he said it, he meant it. I don’t know, it makes sense to me: There’s a new kind of Dylan songwriting on Blood on the Tracks , one that he’s described as a shift from the kind of “unconscious” songwriting of the Blonde on Blonde period to the more conscious artistry of “Tangled Up in Blue,” which plays with time schemes and rhyme schemes in a way Joni Mitchell does quite artfully when she doesn’t tip over into self-parody. I’m not a big fan of “Blue,” the Joni Mitchell song (my all-time Joni Mitchell fave is “Amelia”). Nonetheless, I could see Mr. Dylan getting rapt or wrapped up in Blue .

But the redoubtable Clinton Heylin speaks skeptically of the Dylan- Blue entanglement, classing it with Mr. Dylan’s remark that “Mr. Tambourine Man” was inspired by a friend named Bruce who “had this gigantic tambourine … big as a wagon wheel.” (A story that turns out to be true!)

“My initial response on reading [the tambourine story],” Mr. Heylin writes, “was to place [it] alongside the one that ‘Tangled up in Blue’ was inspired by Joni Mitchell’s … album Blue –one more for the ‘Sure, Bob’ file.”

Well, I think it was ; I think it’s at least in part true, even if Mr. Dylan didn’t say it to me. But I’d be grateful if whoever he did say it to would step forward so I can give credit where credit is due. And as long as we’re talking about obsessive entanglements, I began to wonder, as I was inexorably sucked into the bloody vortex of Blood on the Tracks : Is there anywhere in Dylan a more powerful and beautiful quatrain about lost love (or about anything ) than the one in “If You See Her Say Hello,” the one that goes:

And though our separation,

It pierced me to the heart,

She still lives inside of me;

We’ve never been apart .

I’d like to ask readers: If you feel you can name a more powerful Dylan passage (up to four lines), send your nominations for a follow-up column on the question c/o The Edgy Alliance, 577 Second Avenue, Box 105, New York, N.Y., 10016.

Meanwhile, I’m going to go back and study the four versions of “Tangled Up in Blue” and, if I ever get untangled, report back with my analysis.

Happy birthday, Bob.