She was workin' in a topless place
And I stopped in for a beer,
I just kept lookin' at the side of her face
In the spotlight so clear.
And later on as the crowd thinned out
I's just about to do the same,
She was standing there in back of my chair
Said to me, don't I know your name?
I muttered somethin' underneath my breath,
She studied the lines on my face.
I must admit I felt a little uneasy
When she bent down to tie the laces of my shoe,
Tangled up in blue.
Leading off Bob Dylan's great album Blood on the Tracks (1975), "Tangled Up in Blue" is an extended narrative of disrupted romance set in a restless crisscrossing of the country reminiscent of Kerouac's On the Road. Over the course of seven 13-line stanzas (each capped off with the song's one line refrain), the narrator sets out from an unnamed starting point for the East Coast; he travels West with his love; he takes a job in the Great North Woods after they split; he then heads to New Orleans where he chances to meet her again. There, they rekindle their romance and finally end up moving to Montague Street (presumably in Brooklyn) where they separate once again.
The chance reunion in New Orleans occurs when the narrator recognizes her among the waitresses in a topless bar. In the stanza before, the narrator admits that "All the while I was alone/The past was close behind/I seen a lot of women/But she never escaped my mind..." And yet, having recognized her, he doesn't approach. He sits at the bar and drinks. Finally, just as he's about to follow the last customers out the door, it is she who approaches him. Whether he didn't have the courage to approach her, or was captive of his pride, (and whether she recognized him earlier and was feeling regretful or awkward), seems of little importance. For whatever the causes of the initial hesitation, the willingness of one to approach the other has depended upon the thinned-out hour of closing. That's the time where courage waxes, pride wanes, and a possibly painful intimacy can be exchanged more safely in a public space.
As with Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca, prime time in the crowded venue has provided chance the opportunity to bring the Dylan characters into proximity, but it is closing time that has allowed the deeper truth of a connection to brush aside the shallower impulses, the emotional obstacles, and the inhibitions which have initially kept them from honestly acknowledging each other. Or perhaps, more simply, closing time is when there is no other avenue of escape available to these two who have been brought together once again by fate.
In the song's final stanza, the narrator provides a quick accounting of his current state:
So now I'm going back again
I got to get her somehow
All the people we used to know
They're an illusion to me now
Some are mathematicians
Some are carpenter's wives
Don't know how it all got started
I don't know what they're doing with their lives
But me I'm still on the road
Heading for another joint
We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point of view
Tangled up in blue
After all these years, the majority of those he's known, having entered the mainstream, have become illusions to him. The only thing left that seems concrete, the only thing worth having or pursuing, is his relationship with her. To that end, he has remained on the road, constantly heading from one joint to another — be that a bar or nightclub or café — in the slim hope that one night when the crowd has thinned out, there will be a familiar woman standing at the back of his chair.
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Having reviewed these five seminal Closing Time images this week, it's interesting to find at their center five decades of American cool: Hemingway (the 1920s into the '30s); Bogart (the '30s into the '40s); Sinatra (the '40s into the '50s); Holden Caulfield (the '50s into the '60s); and Dylan (the '60s and beyond). Each of these men can serve as an exemplar of cool in his day. Hemingway with his ex-pat, war-correspondent style; Bogart with his cigarette-smoking film-noir allure; Sinatra with his cocktail glass in hand and tilted fedora; Caulfield with his fast-talking alienation; and Dylan with his sunglassed, bushy-haired reluctant-idol aloofness. Many a young man adopted the stylish trappings of these five in pursuit of attaining the cool in their time.
But, to varying degrees, all five of these icons also exemplified the more timeless attributes of cool. American-male cool is comfortable with isolation. It is the man who is so at ease in his skin and private in his thoughts, that he clearly does not need our attention or confirmation. The American-male cool is not glimmering and perfect. It is openly flawed, strengthened and seasoned by setbacks, occasionally moody, dark and dispirited. It is decidedly not muscle bound. It has a poetic sensibility that is rugged enough to be admired by men, but fragile and heartfelt enough to be magnetic for women.
And it is not a coincidence that these figures all appear in seminal expressions of Closing Time — because the core characteristics that define American-male cool are all at the heart of what makes Closing Time such a lasting cultural touchstone. It is that space where the lone individual lingers with his thoughts and regrets, where both the roughness of his experiences and the poetry of his sensibility are hovering at the surface — for the moment accessible to whomever sits on the neighboring stool.
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Note: All quotations above are from "Tangled Up in Blue" by Bob Dylan.