clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

An Ode to the Greatest Bob Dylan Song You Haven’t Heard

A new box set reveals several versions of one of Dylan’s lost classics. Now’s the time to dive in with the Dylanologists.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Last month, a long-gestating film adaptation of Bob Dylan’s 1975 masterpiece Blood on the Tracks appeared to finally have some forward momentum. “Bringing this project to life is a dream to me,” said Rodrigo Teixeira of RT Features, which originally acquired the rights to the album six years ago. Now Call Me by Your Name director Luca Guadagnino and venerated screenwriter Richard LaGravenese (best known for writing The Fisher King) are attached, setting up a potential prestige picture.

Teixiera’s commitment to his passion project speaks to the deep connection that fans have with Dylan’s “divorce album” classic, as does the recent release of More Blood, More Tracks: The Bootleg Series Vol. 14, a box set that compiles 87 different versions of songs like “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Idiot Wind.” (More on that in a moment.) But what would a movie version look like? Blood on the Tracks is not a rock opera, or even a concept record. It has no existing “story,” exactly.

Here’s my best take on a potential narrative arc for the album: A lovelorn protagonist decides to seek out an old flame (“Tangled Up in Blue”), who we learn about via a series of flashbacks to their ill-fated romance (“Simple Twist of Fate” and “You’re a Big Girl Now”). These memories inspire rage (“Idiot Wind”), melancholy (“You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”), lust (“Meet Me in the Morning”), and an allegorical dream sequence within another dream sequence set in the Wild West (“Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts”). Finally, the protagonist achieves a measure of wisdom and perspective, leading to acceptance (“If You See Her, Say Hello”), genuine affection (“Shelter From the Storm”), and potential redemption (“Buckets of Rain”).

“I wanted to defy time,” Dylan once said of “Tangled Up in Blue,” a song that brazenly switches perspectives and timelines throughout, often in the space of a single verse. Before writing Blood on the Tracks, Dylan took classes from the painter Norman Raeben, which gave him a different view of storytelling. “When you look at a painting, you can see any part of it, or see all of it together. I wanted that song to be like a painting.”

That’s what an album can do that a film can’t: exist in the past, present, and future tenses simultaneously.

You can imagine how facile a Blood on the Tracks movie would be in comparison: Adam Driver, decked out in a curly wig and omnipresent cigarette, plays Bob, a man struggling to connect with his glamorous, smothered-in-scarves-and-dark-glasses spouse, Sara (Emma Stone), amid an expressive tableau of dark Gordon Willis–style shadows.

Driver: “I’m going out of my mind, with a pain that stops and starts.”

Stone: “You’re an idiot, babe. It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.”

There is, however, one way that a movie version of Blood on the Tracks could actually improve upon the album: by restoring “Up to Me” as the proper ending.

Unless you’re a Dylan fanatic, you’ve probably never heard of “Up to Me,” an outtake that Dylan recorded for Blood on the Tracks but opted to leave off the album. I first heard it in the late ’90s, when I was in college and in the full bloom of my first flash of “intense young man” Dylan fandom. “Up to Me” was first released on the 1985 box set Biograph, with only minimal background provided in the Cameron Crowe–penned liner notes. (For years, the only version in circulation was a cover by Roger McGuinn from his 1976 album Cardiff Rose.) While Crowe referred to “Up to Me” as “one of the treasures of the set,” Dylan was typically cryptic about the song’s 12th and final verse, in which he engages in some seemingly straight-forward self-mythology: “If we never meet again, baby, remember me / How my lone guitar played sweet for you that old-time melody / And the harmonica around my neck, I blew it for you, free / No one else could play that tune, you know it was up to me.”

“I don’t think of myself as Bob Dylan,” the artist formerly known as Robert Zimmerman told Crowe when pressed for comment on “Up to Me.” “It’s like Rimbaud said: ‘I is another.’”

Ever since I first heard it, I’ve been obsessed with “Up to Me.” It’s one of my favorite songs by my all-time favorite songwriter, even though it’s had a fraction of the cultural impact of “Like a Rolling Stone” or “Blowin’ in the Wind.” In fact, the lack of cultural impact is precisely part of the appeal. “Up to Me” should be more famous, even if I’m among a small cadre of Dylan nerds who believe that.

I guess you could argue that “Up to Me” is a little too musically similar to “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Shelter From the Storm,” though all of the songs on Tracks kind of sound the same, due to being mostly written in open E tuning. In his book Still on the Road: The Songs of Bob Dylan: 1974-2006, noted Dylanologist Clinton Heylin theorizes that Dylan was worried about Blood on the Tracks being too long. (All of the songs on the final album were slightly sped up, a common studio trick to make dirges seem more commercial.) The more melodic “Buckets of Rain,” which Dylan chose over “Up to Me,” is about three minutes shorter.

No matter its epic length, “Up to Me” has several lines—and even entire verses—that are burned permanently in my memory: “Everything went from bad to worse, money never changed a thing”; “I was just too stubborn to ever be governed by enforced insanity”; “She’s everything I need and love but I can’t be swayed by that”; “When you bite off more than you can chew you’ve got to pay the penalty.” It’s the kind of song that you can go for years without hearing and still feel floating around in your head constantly, because daily life keeps reminding you of its truisms.

I find myself referencing “Up to Me” semi-regularly in conversation, even though there’s next-to-zero chance that anyone will know what the hell I’m talking about. I recently fired off a snarky tweet about Saturday Night Live that claimed “in 14 months I’ve only smiled once and I didn’t do it consciously.” Many years ago, I made a mix CD for a woman that was titled “The Only Decent Thing I Did When I Worked As a Postal Clerk.” (Unsurprisingly, I lost touch with her soon after.) This song is an inside joke that I share with only myself.

Like any good, overthinking Dylan fan, I have my own theory as to why Dylan chose not to put “Up to Me” on Blood on the Tracks, and it (of course) involves some dime-store psychology. Along with being prettier and more succinct, “Buckets of Rain” ends the album on a relatively upbeat note. If the guy we’ve been following on this record hasn’t quite patched up his busted-up love life, at least there’s a possibility that he won’t end up alone. “Life is sad / Life is a bust / All ya can do is do what you must / You do what you must do and ya do it well / I’ll do it for you, honey baby / Can’t you tell?”

“Up to Me,” meanwhile, is a loner’s lament. The bravado of the final verse tends to tilt how the song overall is perceived; Heylin for one notes its “devil may care insouciance.” I’ve never read “Up to Me” that way, though. The words and the way Dylan sings them leave a lasting impression of indelible sadness that nonetheless has been successfully managed, in part because the protagonist has found a way to compartmentalize, and even sentimentalize, his pain. While the title phrase is a mantra that starts out boastful, it resolves as bitterly ironic—all that transpires is “up to me,” because ultimately there’s no one else left. It’s a tough reflection on what it means to finally grow up and choose to take responsibility for your own decisions, no matter how self-destructive.

Dylan writes beautifully about love and the absence of love throughout Tracks, but his characters are always passive observers. Heartbreak happens to them. But “Up to Me” is not a passive song. The guy can’t get what he wants because he needs to be alone.

Forget that self-referential flex in the final verse. The most crucial part of “Up to Me” comes right before that:

So go on, boys, and play your hands, life is a pantomime
The ringleaders from the county seat say you don’t have all that much time
And the girl with me behind the shades, she ain’t my property
One of us has got to hit the road, I guess it must be up to me

If Dylan had put “Up to Me” at the end of Blood on the Tracks, it would have changed how every other song comes across. “Tangled Up in Blue” suddenly sounds doomed, “If You See Her, Say Hello” seems a touch too self-pitying, and “Shelter From the Storm” takes on a poignantly tragic edge. “Up to Me” is the downer ’70s ending that Blood on the Tracks deserves, the equivalent of Jack Nicholson abandoning his pregnant girlfriend and hitching a ride with a truck driver as the credits roll on Five Easy Pieces.

Bob Dylan was 33 when Blood on the Tracks was released. Sara Dylan didn’t file for divorce until two years later. “One of us has got to hit the road” must have been awfully hard to accept at that point in his life. Forty-three years later, with another round of dates in his 30-year Never Ending Tour commencing this week, I suspect he feels differently. Now that he’s much further down the road, “Up to Me” is self-fulfilling prophecy.

If you think you might be interested in More Blood, More Tracks, you probably already own it. Compared with other volumes of Dylan’s long-running Bootleg Series, there’s not exactly a wealth of wide-ranging material in Vol. 14. It’s mostly just Dylan working through the same dozen or so songs—often by himself or with bassist Tony Brown—over the course of three September days in a downtown Manhattan recording studio, plus two more days in December in Minnesota.

The lore of those New York sessions is that Dylan left with a stripped-down, emotionally ravaged album that his label, Columbia, expected to release as is. However, Dylan decided otherwise after he played the sonically monochromatic masters for trusted confidants, including his brother, David, who argued that the album would be more commercial if he re-recorded several songs with a band. A couple of ad-hoc sessions in Minneapolis were thrown together a few days after Christmas, and Dylan put out Blood on the Tracks the following month with five songs each from New York and Minnesota.

Over time, the NYC version of Blood on the Tracks became one of Dylan’s most popular bootlegs, the go-to example of his “how could he not put this out?” perversity. I’m not a member of that camp, exactly. I think the NYC version of “You’re a Big Girl Now” is clearly superior, but I prefer the conviction of Dylan’s performances on the full-band versions of “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Idiot Wind,” which presage his forthcoming Rolling Thunder era. But for the truly committed Dylan acolytes, it is fun to trace his steps—and attempt to make sense of his decision-making—while listening to More Blood, More Tracks, which dwells mostly on the New York sessions. (Apparently not much in the way of outtakes survived from Minneapolis.)

One of the most illuminating curios from the box set are the re-created pages from Dylan’s hallowed red notebook, in which he dictated the songs from Blood on the Tracks in neat handwritten penmanship during a retreat to a Minnesota farm house in the summer of 1974. You see rock’s poet laureate spitballing, crossing out lines and reconsidering rhymes, for some of his celebrated compositions.

“Up to Me” was one of the songs he worked on during that time. In the second verse, instead of “I was just too stubborn to ever be governed by enforced insanity,” he writes, “But I made the trade with an ounce of jade and gave up my vanity.” In the verse about the postal clerk, he ponders the value of “taking” a picture versus “hauling” one. In both instances, he made the right call.

In Manhattan’s A & R Studios, he attempted “Up to Me” six times—once on the first day, September 16, and five times on September 19, the final day in New York, when Mick Jagger stopped by to hang out and swill champagne from the bottle while Dylan poured his heart out.

Over the course of those takes, you witness him trying to find the song. The first take is all rapid strums and flat vocals, like he’s singing to get it over with. A few days later, he alternates between playing it too fast and too slow, all while trying to land on the right mix of bravado, tenderness, and resigned sorrow. He struggles for a while. Occasionally, you hear the guitar clank against the buttons on his coat.

Dylan doesn’t nail it until he’s been singing for a few hours. He’s hoarse. Tired. He has to fight a little to stand his ground. It’s exactly what “Up to Me” needs.

Only it wasn’t what Blood on the Tracks needed, apparently. At least not in Dylan’s mind.

About 10 years ago, I read an interview in which Dylan called Jimmy Buffett one of his favorite songwriters. Immediately, I went into “psychoanalyze Bob” mode. Was this him trolling us? Or did he fantasize about a different sort of career for himself, a path that was more direct and less fraught with the expectations of his fan base? Did Jimmy Buffett, somehow, signify a less complicated life?

“No,” said a small but rational voice inside my head. “He likes Jimmy Buffett because he’s an old white man from the Midwest.”

I get it now. I is another.

About my grand theory regarding why “Up to Me” was left off of Blood on the Tracks: I will always believe that I’m right, while also acknowledging that I am, almost certainly, full of shit. I have no clue what goes on in Dylan’s head, though I also think he more or less reveals himself in his songs. He’s hidden in plain sight. Maybe.

And yet people who know better can’t resist playing guessing games with Dylan. In the liner notes of More Blood, More Tracks, journalist Jeff Slate quotes Dylan’s friend and sparring partner Larry “Ratso” Sloman, who relates a story from the Infidels sessions, when Dylan recorded his greatest song of the ’80s, “Blind Willie McTell,” and inexplicably didn’t put it on the album.

“I asked him, ‘What gives, Bob? Where’s “Blind Willie McTell”?’” Sloman recalls. “And, without missing a beat, he goes, ‘It’s no big deal, Ratso. It’s just an album. I’ve made twenty-two. And I’ll make more.’”

With Dylan, I’ve come to accept that the simplest answer is usually the right one. He probably really did think that “Up to Me” was too long, so it had to go. He’s an unrivaled genius, and also kind of basic.