The 30 Greatest Bob Dylan Songs: #16, “Idiot Wind”

Written by April 20th, 2009 at 3:45 pm

“Someone’s got it in for me, they’re planting stories in the press…”

With these enigmatic words, Bob Dylan sets up 7 minutes and 47 seconds of one of rock music’s holy grails — “Idiot Wind.” For true Dylan fans, it contains everything we love about him: brilliant, mystical lyrics, wildcat singing, and that signature, spontaneous Bob Dylan “sound” that only his records possess. The electric imagery swirls with venom, bile, heartache, catharsis and hurt feelings.

This ain’t no “Blowin’ in the Wind.” It’s a putdown, an embrace, a farewell and a musical mugging.

The chorus comes from a place where you’re so emotionally worn down there’s no filters or niceness left. It’s down to insults and raw emotion — “you’re an idiot babe, it’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.” Many have likened the song to a modern day “Like a Rolling Stone.” Before, he asked how does it feel. Now he can’t feel you anymore.

But in “Idiot Wind,” every one is guilty, no one gets away. Nor is the song devoid of empathy. “You’ll never know the hurt I suffered, nor the pain I rise above,” Dylan sings, then counters with “I’ll never know the same about you, your holiness or your kind of love,” before capping it off with a spine-tingling “and it makes me feel so sorry.”

Listening to the song is like watching a building burn down, or a relationship collapse. The fire is hypnotic. Quotable passages come in wholesale chunks — nearly every line feels like a classic.

Even you, yesterday you had to ask me where it was at,
I couldn’t believe after all these years, you didn’t know me better than that

I ran into the fortune-teller, who said beware of lightning that might strike
I haven’t known peace and quiet for so long I can’t remember what it’s like.

You didn’t know it, you didn’t think it could be done, in the final end he won the wars
After losin’ every battle.

I woke up on the roadside, daydreamin’ ’bout the way things sometimes are….

Down the highway, down the tracks, down the road to ecstasy,
I followed you beneath the stars, hounded by your memory
And all your ragin’ glory.

I been double-crossed now for the very last time and now I’m finally free,
I kissed goodbye the howling beast on the borderline which separated you from me.

Another factor that gives “Idiot Wind” its weight is the exotic Cm chord the song builds itself around. The heart-punch vocal leap at the end of each line of the verses is vintage Dylan. If “Idiot Wind” isn’t his masterpiece, it sure sounds like the blueprint.

“That was a song I wanted to make as a painting,” Dylan has said of “Idiot Wind.” “A lot of people thought that song, that album Blood on the Tracks, pertained to me. Because it seemed to at the time. It didn’t pertain to me. It was just a concept of putting in images that defy time – yesterday, today, and tomorrow. I wanted to make them all connect in some kind of strange way. I’ve read that that album had to do with my divorce. Well, I didn’t get divorced till four years after that.

“I thought I might have gone a little bit too far with ‘Idiot Wind.’ I might have changed some of it. I didn’t really think I was giving away too much; I thought that it seemed so personal that people would think it was about so-and-so who was close to me. it wasn’t. But you can put all these words together and that’s where it falls. You can’t help where it falls.

“I didn’t feel that one was too personal, but I felt it ‘seemed’ too personal. Which might be the same thing. I don’t know. But it never was ‘painful.’ ‘Cause usually with those kinds of things, if you think you’re too close to something, you’re giving away too much of your feelings, well, your feelings are going to change a month later and you’re going to look back and say, “‘What did I do that for?”

There are two distinct versions of “Idiot Wind” (double the pleasure for Dylan lovers), and more than that if you surf around the Internet. In September 1974 he recorded a sublime take with just acoustic guitar and bass, which can be heard on the Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3. That December in Minnesota he changed the lyrics and recut it with a band who had never heard the song before. That’s the version that ended up on side one of Blood On The Tracks.

“Yeah, you know, obviously, if you’ve heard both versions you realize, of course, that there could be a myriad of verses for the thing. It doesn’t stop,” Dylan said in an interview with Bill Flanagan. “It wouldn’t stop. Where do you end? You could still be writing it, really. It’s something that could be a work continually in progress. Although, on saying that, let me say that my lyrics, to my way of thinking, are better for my songs than anybody else’s. People have felt about my songs sometimes the same way as me. And they say to me, your songs are so opaque that, people tell me, they have feelings they’d like to express within the same framework. My response, always, is go ahead, do it, if you feel like it. But it never comes off. They’re not as good as my lyrics. There’s just something about my lyrics that just have a gallantry to them. And that might be all they have going for them. However, it’s no small thing.”

No one famous has ever covered the song, but Hootie and The Blowfish quote a couple of lines from the song in the lyrics to “I Only Wanna Be With You.”

Thanks to Toby Croswell’s book “1,000 Songs” for the quotes.

  • Rob

    Another great one.

    A few corrections:

    1. ” In September 1973 he recorded a sublime take …”

    Make that 1974.

    2. ” There are two distinct versions of “Idiot Wind” …”

    Make that three.

    The live version on “Hard Rain” (from the second leg of the Rolling Thunder Revue) is loud, angry, full of venom … but Great! He almost seems to spit the words out, and the song is played very aggressively.

    3. ” … Hootie and The Blowfish quote a couple of lines from the song in the lyrics to “I Only Wanna Be With You.””

    The song is called “Only Wanna Be With You.” They quote most of the first verse, and also reference Sitting On A Barbed-Wire Fence and Tangled Up In Blue.

    In 1995, Hootie and the Blowfish and Bob Dylan reached an out-of-court settlement for the group’s unauthorized use of Dylan’s lyrics in their song “Only Wanna Be With You.”

    It really is a fantastic song.

    One of my favourite couplets of all time (altough, of course, it’s partly the delivery):

    The priest wore black on the seventh day and sat stone-faced while the building burned.
    I waited for you on the running boards, near the cypress trees, while the springtime turned … slowly into autumn.

    The way he sings that “slowly” is more than just powerful, and more than just “pop music”.

  • Proman

    I would put “Simple Twist of Fate” higher. This is a stunning song, but on my favorite Dylan’s album I love that song more.

  • Kevin

    Hard Rain version is the best.

  • Brad

    One of his best pieces of writing; one of his best melodies; one of his best.

  • steve l

    The Hard Rain live performance version is hard hitting and mesmerizing.

  • Srivatsan

    Great song .. great lines .. great delivery. “I cant even touch the books you’ve read” or “Springtime turned slooowly into autumn” or “You’re an iyediot babe” etc.

  • http://dylanology.org AJ Weberman

    “Someone’s got it in for me” Weberman has a grudge against me also “in for me” as “infamy” this “someone” is infamous “they’re planting stories in the press” he and his cohorts are orchestrating a campaign against me in the press “Whoever it is?” sarcastic: everyone knows these stories emanate from one scum bucket, A.J. Weberman “I wish they’d cut it out quick” I wish the editors and publishers like Jann Wenner would immediately cut these stories out of music publications “but when they will I can only guess” but there is so much interest in this douche bag that I cannot influence them not to write about him and things have gone beyond my control “They” the articles “say I shot” exhausted, wore out “a man” a male representative, as of a country our man in London “named” represented or reputed, as opposed to reality, in name only “Grey” Charles Grey; British politician who as prime minister implemented the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire “and took his wife” and took the ideology he was wedded to, the Civil Rights Movement to the far right. Chronicles, “What I know about Pound is that he was a Nazi sympathizer in World War II and did anti-American broadcasts from Italy. I never did read him.” “She inherited a million bucks” according to Weberman the ostensibly leftwing Dylan earned millions for songs he composed that he did not believe in “and when she died” and when the phony folk music phase of Dylan’s career ended and he could milk it no longer “it came to me” the royalties came to me, the real Bob Dylan. Also something else “came to me” occurred in the mind: a good idea of what to write just came to me. “I can’t help it if I’m lucky.” Sarcastic: I can’t help it if was, am and will always be a successful capitalist and that is what I am going to write about. “Luck” as wealth, Fare-the-Well, “I still might strike it lucky on a highway going West” I still might become wealthy by opening a new frontier in music “though I’m traveling on a path beaten trail” even though I am singing songs of the Depression that were already covered by other artists.

  • Dylanesque

    I love this song. It’s like watching a movie over and over again and you see something you missed the first time around . I feel that way about all of his songs. he is absolutely correct when he says nobody can write, sing, or say things the way he does. Bob Dylan is truly one of a kind noone will ever come close to his talents. I think these songs are his life and another great one is Sara…Though a genius and prophetic he hurts in many ways that we all have hurt. In love he too, has loved and lost he knows..and understands..and i love the rolling thunder revue stuff the best

  • Sano

    for me, the bootlegs version is the most visceral and gut-wrenching. the additional lyrics absolutely blew me away when i first heard them, and his vocal delivery sounds more personal and reflective. it sounds like the song was more personal for Dylan in the earlier take. by the time it was redone in Minneapolis, maybe he had already moved beyond some of the knee-jerk emotions explored in the song. the harmonica work, too, is far more tortured in the NY city version.

    best lyric left out of the album version:

    “you can have the best there is, but it’s going to cost you all your love…you won’t get it for money”

    i think most artists would write an entire song around a lyric like that if they could come up with it, and bobby just tosses it aside. remarkable song. remarkable.

  • http://dylanology.org AJ Weberman

    “People see me all the time and they just can’t remember how to act” I let Weberman come over to my studio as much as he liked and yet he wasn’t grateful or subservient “Their minds are filled with big ideas” their brains are filled with high falutin’ Leftwing idealistic ideology “images” my poems, image: a figure of speech, especially a metaphor or simile “and distorted facts” and distorted exegeses that Weberman tries to pass off as facts “Even you, yesterday you had to ask me where it was at” even you AJ Weberman, founder of Dylanology, you had to ask me to help you translate my poetry “I couldn’t believe after all these years, you didn’t know me better than that” I couldn’t believe that after all your years of studying my poetry you penetrated it just superficially “Sweet lady” slow learner, dummy, slow learning reporter; sweet used as an intensive ‘he took his own sweet time to finish.’

  • Ben

    It was the acoustic bootleg version for me, and it’s very underrated. He was pain-stricken and mournful in that cut.

    And yes, lyrics that angry beg to be shouted out loud, so the album take has deserved appeal. But the anger is still there in the acoustic take. You can hear it. The difference is that it’s broiling underneath the surface, and growing more and more through each verse, each time so regretfully calling you “an eeeeeeediot, babe”.

    And like Sano said, it’s topped off masterfully with a tortured harmonica solo.

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  • http://captainbeerlog.com Graham

    Seconded the Hard Rain version. It’s a fantastic track, and the highlight of that album.

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