Blood on the Tracks

If You See Her, Say Hello and You’re a Big Girl Now, from Blood on the Tracks (1975) are perhaps Dylan’s two most heartbreaking songs. While other tracks on the album (like Buckets of Rain, You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go or Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts) adopt a more light hearted approach or hang on complex symbolism or structures (Idiot Wind, Tangled Up in Blue) these two songs express the pain of marital separation in no uncertain terms. In his early ‘love songs’ like Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right, Mama You Been On My Mind and Girl From the North Country, I’ll Keep It With Mine or One of Us Must Know, Dylan tended to take a distanced approach. The relationships he applies his lyrical scalpel to in these songs are all in the past and Dylan, consciously working against the sentimental romantic song tradition, tended to look on philosophically or even caustically at past relationships, clearly indicating to us that he has moved on from them. In his ‘country period’ of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s he recorded many more conventional songs of love or lust, such as I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight, Lay Lady Lay, One More Night, Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You, If Not For You, The Man in Me and New Morning. Even Planet Waves, his 1974 ‘comeback’ album, included straightforward and rather nostalgic love songs like On a Night like This, You Angel You and Something There Is About You. Only two earlier songs, 1969’s I Threw it All Away – with its quite beautifully simple and understated expression of lost love and opportunities and 1974’s rather twisted and contradictory Wedding Song – hint at what is to come here.

In these songs Dylan is no longer the smart-tongued young hipster or the happy family man of previous periods. Not only does he lay what appears to be highly personal experiences of pain on the line but he also admits to being extremely confused and out of control. No solutions to the state of emotional grieving he presents so vividly are advanced. In both songs he attempts to respect the wishes and choices of the woman who has left him so bereft, but these admonitions are really very unconvincing. For the first time- and perhaps the last – he shows himself to be emotionally vulnerable. The language Dylan uses in these songs – especially in If You See Her – is mostly straightforward. Unlike so many other Dylan songs, they eschew clever observations, ambiguity and complex metaphors in favour of direct – if often confused and desperate – statements.

Use of Language on Blood on the Tracks:  If You See Her, Say Hello     

The way Dylan uses language in these songs is a kind of object lesson in the aesthetics of poetic song. The use of ‘plain speak’ here is necessary to directly express the intense emotions that are being conveyed. Both songs are addressed from the first person to lovers who have deserted their narrators. In If You See Her the expression is so confused and unconvincing that it is always hard to believe the view of the relationship that the narrator, who is wallowing in self pity, presents. When Dylan radically revises the lyrics – as he does so in several live performances – the emotional effect is very similar despite the changes. If You See Her is the first song to be recorded at the Blood on the Tracks sessions. The Bootleg Series box set More Blood, More Tracks presents us with three takes of the song recorded with just Dylan’s solo acoustic guitar and harmonica. The album version is slightly slower paced and is enhanced by organ, bass and a second guitar. Some commentators prefer the starker, acoustic ‘New York Sessions’ recording to the released cut. If You See Her frequently featured in many of Dylan’s set lists over the years and was developed lyrically and musically in many different ways. Surprisingly, such changes have little effect on the emotional appeal of the song, the structure of which Dylan does not substantially alter.

This confessional song has no frills – it contains of five verses, no choruses and a conventional ABAB rhyme scheme. The narrator’s level of regret and self deprecation is clear throughout. Whatever he has done to cause the woman to leave him but lurks just behind the text of the song. The narrative is addressed not to the love object but to a mutual friend who the narrator humbly requests to pass a message on to her. It is obvious by the narrator’s tone that he knows she will never return to him. Indeed, he appears to assert (quite explicitly, in one version) that she is better off without him. Of course, this might be a rhetorical trick. Perhaps the narrator hopes that sending this message in such an apparently honest way will win her over. The song is an expression of extreme desperation, mixed with a fatalistic acceptance that the relationship is over. We can thus empathise with the narrator, but we are left with an uneasy feeling that whatever he has not revealed about his actions towards her must be pretty devastating.

The title phrase appears only once, at the beginning …If you see her, say hello/ She might be in Tangiers… which suggests that the relationship actually broke up some time ago. The narrator makes a series of plain, straightforward statements that are quite chilling in their sparseness. …She left here last early spring… he tells us matter of factly …Is living there, I hear… These rather flat, prosaic lines establish a considerable geographical and temporal distance between the singer and his ex-lover. It seems that he has been harbouring feelings of guilt and regret for some time. He instructs his friend to …Say for me that I’m all right/ Though new things come and go (later …Though things get kind of slow…). We surely know, however, that he is not ‘all right’. He tells his friend that …She might think that I’ve forgotten her… This is, it seems, extremely unlikely. In the final line his instruction to …Don’t tell her this isn’t so… he presents himself as a kind of martyr, as if he only has her best interests at heart and that he will swallow his own pain to protect her. Given what we have heard so far, this is hard to believe.

The next lines continue the narrator’s self-pitying, deluded confession. The very bland statement that …We had a falling out, like lovers often will… suggests that they broke up after a minor disagreement. But …To think of how she left that night/ It still brings me a chill… suggests that their relationship ended in some kind of cathartic crisis that the narrator – perhaps rightly – blames himself for. We will never learn what happened on that fateful night. But we can, of course, imagine… In the song’s most mournful lines we hear that …And though our separation/ It pierced me to the heart/ She still lives inside of me/ We’ve never been apart… Dylan’s syllable-by-syllable pronunciation of …sep-a-rat-ion… is genuinely chilling here. The lovers have certainly been apart for some time and though he is apparently obsessed by her memory, the blandness of his diction – including the tired metaphor of ‘pierced me to the heart’ remains unconvincing. The following verse concludes with another reference to that fateful night: …The bitter taste still lingers on/ From the night I tried to make her stay… The use of ‘make’ suggests that, on that night he lost his temper and quite possibly committed acts of physical or emotional violence against her. He claims that he …always has respected her/ For doing what she did and getting free… and even states, in apparent magnanimity, that …Whatever makes her happy, I won’t stand in her way… But set against the self pitying nature of everything else he has told us, it is hard to believe he is really sincere. In the earlier versions we hear that : …If you’re making love to her/ Kiss her for the kid/ Who always had respected her/ For doing what she did… This is somewhat more graphically memorable, as we hear that narrator actually imagining the physical reality of the woman being in bed with another lover. But he then becomes decidedly fatalistic: …Oh I knew it had to be that way/ It was written in the cards… This is surely a cop out on his part, implying a lack of any responsibility for what happened.

The penultimate verse begins with the rather insipidly vague: …I see a lot of people/ As I make the rounds/ And I hear her name here and there/ As I go from town to town… But these low key lines merely function as a contrast to the song’s most devastating confession of inner hopelessness: …I’ve never gotten used to it… he tells us …I’ve just learned to turn it off… This is followed by the pathetic and devastating …Either I’m too sensitive/ Or else I’m getting soft… The last line suggests that the narrator cannot help subscribing to a macho stance of being ‘hard’ (or emotionally tough). Of course, this may all in reality be persuasive rhetoric, in the hope that the woman will take pity on him. But all the lines do is reveal the tragic sense of self-denial that is bound up in his conventionally male emotional stance.

In the concluding verse we finally get some respite from all this intensity, beginning with the song’s only truly ‘poetic’ lines: …Sundown, yellow moon/ I replay the past… The two naturalistic images provide a contrast of expectations. ‘Sundown’ suggests that the relationship is definitely over. A ‘yellow moon’ (otherwise known as a ‘harvest moon’) Is an image of renewal, perhaps of hope. The narrator has been ‘rewinding’ the events of the past throughout the song. …I know every scene by heart… he cries …They all went by so fast…The tone of regret is unmistakeable here. Then the song ends on a rather downbeat note, with more instructions to the friend, beginning with the underplayed: ...If she’s passing back this way/ I’m not that hard to find… and concluding with the cynical and apparently resigned …Tell her she can look me up/ If she’s got the time… By now, we must know that it is highly unlikely that the woman will come back to him. Despite his protestations, this is clearly what he passionately wants. But he has, it would seem, burnt his own bridges.

The text of If You See Her is essentially a dramatic monologue. The very flatness of the words appears to conceal a hidden truth. Despite the undeniable power of the song, it is hard to deny that the lines are mostly prosaic. During its performing life, the song has been altered in a number of ways. It begins as a confessional acoustic reading, then progresses, by the time of the final official release, to become slightly more jazzy and nuanced. In some ways the slower, more considered versions of the song are even more subtly powerful than the expression of naked emotion in the first recordings. In performance, Dylan also appears to feel that he can alter the words of the song at will, depending perhaps on how well he feels he can pull off the song’s complex expression. Minor changes are often made in any performance of the song, although when it is revived in the mid 1990s, Dylan largely reverts to the original lyrics. But in the years immediately following the song’s composition, he continues to experiment with substituting alternate words. In a rehearsal version recorded just before the first Rolling Thunder Tour of 1975 (included in the Rolling Thunder edition of the Bootleg Series) he produces an entirely different opening verse. We now hear that she might be ‘in Babylon’, often identified in the songs of Bob Marley and other reggae singers as the iniquitous modern capitalist/imperialist world. The tone now is rather uncertain as he struggles to fit in the rather awkward …She left here last early spring/ Took a while to know that she was gone… Later we hear, in more ‘difficult’ lines that …I’ve never really swallowed/ I’ve kept it in my mouth/ As she’ll bid hello and leave up north/ Most likely I’ll go south… These lines may well be improvised variations on the original, making the narrator sound even more confused and unsure of himself. This sets a precedent by which Dylan will at times change key lines in the song for dramatic effect.

In the only live version on the Rolling Thunder Tour, recorded at Lakeland Florida on April 18th 1976, the lyrics are completely rewritten, now in an AABB rhyming scheme. The woman is now in ‘North Saigon’. Despite the fact that the American retreat from Vietnam was then a fairly recent event, this choice is more random than significant. The narrator confesses that …You might say that I’m in disarray and for me time’s standing still/ I’ve never gotten over her and I guess I never will…  At least here he appears to be more honest about his feelings. The second verse is more of a departure, as the narrator refers to seeing a ‘bright light’ and a ‘scattering of souls’ which he calls …Just one of those reckless situations which nobody controls… He refers to the ‘menagerie of life’ ..going on right before my eyes… and tells us that …We all do the best we can which should come as no surprise… These statements all appear to be unconvincing testaments by the narrator. In the final verses the narrator’s desperation leads him to threaten the third party: … Right now I’ve not got much to lose… he tells him …So you’d better stay away… In the final verse he lets his fantasies take over: …I know she’ll be back one day/ Of that there is no doubt… are very surprising lines, but not as surprising as the final denouement: …And when that moment comes, Lord give me the strength to keep her out… In this version of the song the narrator is much less guarded, and far more prone to giving rein to his fantasies, but the final twist suggests that his sense of guilt is even stronger than before.

If You See Her, Say Hello is a hard song to sing as it eschews refrains and choruses and relies on the singer making the listener both sympathise with him and pity him. Despite Dylan’s denials of its autobiographical nature, there is little doubt that its composition was linked to his personal feelings about the breakup of his marriage, even if it would be a mistake to identify the song’s narrator directly with Dylan himself. The later versions of the song, though often more developed musically, tend to tone down the extreme emotions, presumably because by then Dylan himself no longer felt those confusing and contradictory feelings so strongly. In You’re a Big Girl Now the subterfuge of If You See Her is largely absent. The song is delivered with great linguistic and musical power. As with If You See Her, there are five verses and no chorus; although at the end of each verse there is a slight musical shift to introduce a changing refrain. The song also has a very strong and affecting melody, and is punctuated by instrumental interludes led by Dylan’s emotive harmonica.

You’re a Big Girl Now

You’re a Big Girl Now is a carefully structured work, which builds towards one of the most effective and devastating conclusions of any Dylan song. Its final metaphor is so eloquent and formidable that it represents a moment of genuine catharsis, perhaps for Dylan himself and certainly for his listeners. For a few brief moments, it seems as if, for the first time, Bob has ‘let us in’ to the secrets of his heart. As with the earlier song, both the ‘naked’ early acoustic takes and the later, more ‘laid back’ and ‘orchestrated’ officially released versions have their supporters and detractors. They convey the emotional core of the song in different ways, both of which are effective and worthwhile. Despite the pain that the song conveys, it expresses genuine compassion – more desperately so in the earlier versions and more philosophically in the later ones. It became a frequently performed number on stage, with over 150 performances between 1976 and 2007. It has also been covered by a number of artists, including Lloyd Cole, The Waterboys, Lambchop and many others. An outstanding recent example is the reading by Chrissie Hynde on 2001’s album of Dylan covers Standing in the Doorway.

The song begins somewhat tentatively, with the narrator mouthing clichés uncertainly: …Our conversation was short and sweet/ It nearly knocked me off-a my feet… The addition of the ‘a’ to ‘off’ gives the vocal a little ‘kick’. But both statements are questionable. The conversation he is referring to is presumably the one in which she gave him the ‘brush off’. It may have been short, but why would he consider it to be sweet? The expression ‘to knock someone off their feet’ usually refers to someone being ‘swept away’ in love by a particularly dynamic partner, whereas here he has been knocked off his perch by her rejection. The narrator seems to be reaching out for any cliché he can find. The following …I’m back in the rain/ And you are on dry land… is a representation of his confusion. Dylan frequently uses rain as a metaphor, most obviously in songs like A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall or Shelter from the Storm and more obscurely in Just like a Woman where the narrator ‘stands inside the rain’. In such songs rain tends to symbolise confusion, or even chaos. But here the metaphor sounds somewhat awkward, having little resonance with the initial lines. The title phrase, used here for the only time at the end of the verse, sounds rather patronising – a rather feeble recognition of the fact that she seems to have ‘made it somehow’ to dry land. She appears, at least in his eyes, to have escaped the relationship unscathed. He sounds desperate, and spends much of the song searching for the appropriate words to express his situation. After this, and the subsequent ‘refrains’ in the final lines of the verses, there is a judicious pause in the music, as if he is taking a deep breath before continuing. There is no doubt that he is very traumatised by what has taken place.

He then stares into the distance and sees a …bird on the horizon/ Sitting on a fence… who is …Singing a song for me/ At his own expense… As the bird is on the horizon it is obviously some distance away, suggesting that she may not even hear its song. It may already be obvious to us that he himself is that bird; attempting to reach her but failing pitifully. In case she had not picked up on this, he then spells it out to her: …I’m just like that bird… he tells her …Singing just for you… But then he drops the slightly superior tone, to plead with her: …I hope that you can hear/ Hear me singing through these tears… These are the first genuinely moving lines in the song as, despite all his bluster, the tragic nature of how he is really feeling becomes apparent. In the next two verses, however, he falters. Both verses begin with supposedly meaningful but actually rather unconvincing statements. …Time is a jet plane/ It moves too fast… and …Love is so simple, to quote a phrase… Both of these ‘philosophical’ statements are backed up by the narrator flailing around desperately. In the first case he whimpers …But, oh what a shame, that all we’ve shared won’t last… He promises that …I can change, I swear… but with the lack of consistency he has shown, it is very hard for the listener – or the object of the song – to believe him. In the next verse, the rather simplistic first line (a reference to a line spoken in Marcel Carne’s Les Enfants du Paradis, one of Dylan’s favourite films) is followed by him conceding that …You’ve known it all the time/ I’m learning it these days… his first despairing admission that she may in fact be a whole lot wiser than him, although we may well have suspected this already. His tearful admission that …I know where I can find you/ In somebody’s room… is followed by him attempting to swallow his pride: …It’s a price I have to pay/ You’re a big girl all the way… but it is hard to sympathise with such maudlin self-pity.

Despite the narrator’s lack of conviction in his pleas, the song does have a considerable emotional impact, much of which comes not from the lyrics themselves but from Dylan’s pained cries of ...Oooh, oooh… which interrupt his appeals. The final verse begins with the narrator falling back on a rather weak metaphor to persuade her to return to him: …A change in the weather/ Is bound to be extreme/ But what’s the sense of changing horses in mid-stream?… But then the coup-de-grace is delivered. Now the narrator drops all pretence. …I’m going out of my mind… he proclaims …With a pain that stops and starts/ Like a corkscrew to my heart/ Ever since we’ve been apart… This is punctuated by another pained cry of …Ooooh… Now we see that all his pathetic pleading was in vain. Only in the final lines does he redeem himself by finally being honest. The metaphor of the corkscrew turning is quite graphic, producing a ‘pain that stops and starts’ as whoever is twisting it takes the occasional pause. The image of a corkscrew gradually screwing itself into his heart is a searingly effective portrayal of how the pain of separation can affect individuals. This is backed up by the musical arrangement with its ‘stop-start’ dynamic. For any listener who has experienced the pain of such separation, the ‘corkscrew effect’ is an accurate description of how things can actually seem to be OK in some moments before the crushing pain returns. So, while the rest of the song consists of pleas for sympathy that will probably go unheard, these final lines are especially powerful because we can hear quite clearly that the narrator is only now finally opening his heart and being truly honest with himself.

These two highly moving songs took Dylan into new territory of open-hearted honesty that he rarely reproduced at any stage of his career. Both songs feature unreliable narrators. The awkwardness of the language used contributes greatly to our picture of narrators who are so blinded by love, regret, guilt and fear of the future that they struggle to communicate convincingly with their lost lovers. And despite the fact that both narrators’ pleas in these intensely powerful ‘dramatic monologues’ are hopeless, there is no doubt that the pain that these songs convey so strongly is absolutely real.





























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