Song: ‘Idiot Wind’- Bob Dylan
‘Idiot Wind’ is a song that often plays in the juke joint of my soul. I figure either the Wurlitzer is busted or my subconscious is feeding it quarters in my sleep. It may disappear for a time, but it always returns with another riddle to chew on. I’ve ended up so close to the lyrics that I can’t even see certain things without looking through them first: Every running board alongside every pickup truck makes me think of waiting for someone “while the springtime turned slowly into Autumn.” The one time I saw “smoke pourin’ out of a boxcar door,” I was compelled to mouth the words in an effort to pinch myself.
I get the feeling I’m forever catching up with ‘Idiot Wind’- as if its images were waiting for me to finally see them with my own eyes, out there in the streets or apartments or backseats of my life. Sometimes, it’s almost as if the world seems to point to the song, and not the other way around.
And this song, in particular, is twice blessed. Two very distinct studio recordings exist. I have a love affair with the original version recorded at A&R Recording, in New York City – before the rewrite, before the new band in Minnesota made it sound as brash and cutting as the lyrics. The original has a lonelier but more composed Dylan. It’s the one I hear on the jukebox. And yet the two versions talk to each other, and the space between them is now part of the song itself.
The priest always “wore black on the seventh day,” but in New York, he “waltzed around while the building burned.” In Minneapolis, he just “sat stone faced,” watching. Both scenes are essentially the same, though the craziness plays out differently. Like he handed the script over to a different director.
And there are other changes in direction: At first, the ‘Idiot Wind’ blows “from the Grand Coulee Dam to the Mardi Gras” but a few months later, the air is blowing instead “to the Capitol.” Perhaps Nixon’s resignation had sunk in. Maybe rhyming Gras and jaw just couldn’t compete with the pairing of the capitol and my skull – the heads of state.
And then you realize this is the same air Woody Guthrie used to breathe. He not only wrote a song called ‘Grand Coulee Dam,’ but in ‘This Land Is Your Land,’ he drags his finger across the same map: “From California to the New York island / From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters / This land was made for you and Me.” And Dylan names other song titles, too, when he sings about how there’s ‘Blood On The Saddle’ (a Tex Ritter tune) of a ‘Chestnut Mare’ (The Byrds).*
There’s a lot of tipping of the hat. Some say it’s stealing. I don’t see it that way. I’ve borrowed the hat myself and tried it on for size. It allowed me to stop caring about where one song ends and where another begins. It allows oneself to be imbued by song. And that frees you up in all kinds of ways. It makes you realize even just the feeling of a song can be lent out.
A few years ago, I hit a wall in the studio. I had a song that was full of hurt and so I sang it full of hurt but I couldn’t get the right take. Then one morning, before going back to the studio to do some other song, I listened to the New York version of ‘Idiot Wind.’ In an instant, I realized that I could say more if I let the words sit there, full of spite, and sing them as if they tasted sweet, as if I couldn’t be bothered by how sad they were. And that was it. It was done in one take. And every now and again, I still go back to that song to see what else it can teach me.
*It might be worth noting that songwriter/theater director/clinical psychologist, Jacques Levy, co-wrote ‘Chestnut Mare’ with The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn and proceeded to co-write most of Dylan’s next record, Desire.
Leif Vollebekk is an unbelievably gifted, Montreal-based songwriter. In February he released one of 2013’s finest records, North Americana, an album full of dusty melodies and stories about love, subways, countrysides and changing seasons. Leif Vollebekk is one of the good ones, and he’s only going to get better.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a stream of the original version, the one Leif speaks so fondly of, so above is the second version, the one that appeared on Blood In The Tracks. You can listen to the original, bootleg version by clicking here.
‘Artists as Fans’ is an ongoing series that features artists writing about songs that they personally love and connect with. You can find previous entries here.