By Tony Attwood
If you have taken a look at the chronology page on this site, you’ll know that the very first song chosen as a significant Dylan composition is the 1962 composition Ballad for a friend, a song which I personally find to be of monumental importance in terms of Dylan’s writing, and in terms of my own understanding of Dylan as a songwriter. It is indeed, for me, the very start of Dylan as the writer we have known across the years, although of course I do know that he wrote other songs before that.
Ballad for a friend is unknown to many, many Dylan fans, and so is “I’m not there” – but each of these songs is an utter masterpiece; they are songs that really should be considered to be fundamental to the canon of Dylan songs.
This song is part of a huge outpouring of songs from Dylan in the first half of 1967, which were by and large recorded with the Band.
Indeed after the failure to get a finished version of “She’s your lover now” Dylan composed a whole collection of highly successful songs, all of which were completed and recorded…
- One of us must know (sooner or later)
- Absolutely Sweet Marie
- Just like a woman
- Pledging my time
- Most likely you go your way and I’ll go mine
- Temporary Like Achilles
- Rainy Day Women
- Obviously Five Believers
- I want you
1967 then saw him compose a set of songs that were made available for other artists to record with the understanding that Dylan himself would not be recording them.
- Tiny Montgomery
- Sign on the cross
- Million dollar bash
- I’m not there
- You ain’t going nowhere
- This Wheel’s on Fire
- I shall be released
- Too Much of Nothing
And so we can see “I’m not there” is tucked in the middle of Million Dollar Bash, and You ain’t going nowhere, along with Sign on the cross, a song that generates different visions and views.
This is an extraordinary mixture of pieces – Tiny Montgomery is about one of Dylan’s odd character creations, Sign on the cross seems to be about a conversion to Christianity, the Million Dollar Bash is the final party of all the freaks who have appeared in earlier songs, You ain’t going nowhere is country rock-a-billy, This Wheel’s on Fire is a sensational piece of rock mysticism…
It is a most extraordinary mixture of pieces and shows Dylan at his most creative, not just for each individual song, but for the incredible variation in all the songs.
And in the midst of it all, we have a song he seemingly threw away. The exact opposite of She’s your lover now, which he struggled to record, here is a song he just tried out once and moved away from.
“Improvising on the spot” is the phrase Heylin provides for this masterpiece from Bob Dylan – a song that apparently Dylan could never understand why others loved so much.
And there is something in what Heylin says, but it is much more than just improvising… for what we have here is a song which is not only staggeringly beautiful in itself and would be the highpoint of a career for most writers, but because of its incompleteness, it gives us a clue as to how Dylan composes. Not how he composes every song of course, but how he composes some.
Composition by having a chord sequence and a basic melody, by playing with words, by having ideas, and, (dare I agree with Heylin?) improvising around a theme by using whatever words turn up…
Sadly, any version of the lyrics that you find written down is an approximation, because there is nothing to guide us on the official Bob Dylan site, and no second or third recording to help us compare the more confusing or downright incomprehensible moments in the song. Even Heylin, with his endless collections of bits of paper discarded by Dylan, can’t help us all the way through, and the fragments he does provide are still open to debate.
So we have to make do with what we can work out. But even if we can’t agree on the lyrics for this song, we surely can agree that on two things:
1: That Dylan isn’t always the best judge of his work.
2: That Dylan, at least sometimes, writes by trying out lyrics, playing with them, and seeing where they go, rather than carefully plotting hidden meanings inside convoluted texts about something so obscure, listeners can’t agree what it was that he was trying to say in the first place.
As for the recording, this is one of those songs that Dylan presented to the band, and just started playing without telling them what happens, and how many verses it takes to happen. Indeed it is not clear if the start of the song is truly captured, nor if the band are told to stay quiet until Bob gives them the nod.
What is clear however is that it takes the band a while to get into the song – and it is all the better for that because when they do become apparent behind Dylan’s searching voice and repeated chord sequence, they have really got to grips with what is going on.
Because the song isn’t finished we have to make guesses about the meanings, but in essence it seems to be the reflection of a man who was not always there when needed by the woman who has the toughest of experiences and who really needs his support. He recriminates with himself for his failure, but doesn’t ask for forgiveness. He just blames himself and tells it how it was.
As such it is a painful, evocative, overwhelming portrait of two lives in just over five minutes, and the uncertainty over the lyrics and melody adds to the whole notion of a fragmentary set of life-defining events presented in the song. Indeed even the lack of anything remotely like a definitive version of the lyrics adds to this portrayal of a life falling apart. In short, once more we experience life through the mists. As fragmentary and uncertain as Visions, but in this case, a song not finished.
The basic chord structure is G, F, Am, G, a chord sequence that really goes hardly anywhere, and Dylan’s opening vocal lines reflects that.
When the melodic line rises (I believe that she’d stop him) we get C, Em, F, G and variations thereof. It is not exactly in a different key, but it is halfway there, which is what gives the alternate verses such a strong sense of individual identity.
Not many people have commented on the song, but here are a few of what seemed to me to be the most interesting commentaries…
Greil Marcus called the song, “a trance, a waking dream, a whirlpool… Words are floated together in a dyslexia that is music itself — a dyslexia that seems meant to prove the claims of music over words, to see just how little words can do… In the last lines of the song, the most plainly sung, the most painful, so bereft that after the song’s five minutes, five minutes that seem like no measurable time, you no longer believe that anything so strong can be said in words.”
Michael Pisaro wrote, “It’s almost as though he has discovered a language or, better, has heard of a language: heard about some of its vocabulary, its grammar and its sounds, and before he can comprehend it, starts using this set of unformed tools to narrate the most important event of his life… [Rick] Danko plays [bass] as if he knows that all his life this song has been waiting for him to complete it, and that he will be given only one chance.”
Paul Williams, in Bob Dylan, Performing Artist 1960-1973 wrote, “What’s astonishing here is that we can feel with great intensity and specificity what the singer is talking about, even though 80% of the lyrics have not been written yet!…
“It’s as though when Dylan writes, the finished song is not constructed piece by piece as we might imagine, but tuned in; there is an entirety from the first but still out of focus, like the photograph of a fetus, a blur whose identifying characteristics are implicit but not yet visible — not because they’re obscured but because they haven’t yet taken shape. ‘I’m Not There’ is a performance complete in feeling.
The late John Bauldie, who wrote the quarterly magazine, The Telegraph, called it “Dylan’s saddest song, achieved without benefit of context or detail. It’s like listening to the inspiration before the song is wrapped around it.”
Even if this song were nothing else, it gives us one of the great insights into Dylan’s songwriting technique. But of course, it is much more. So much, much more.
Because the lyrics are not published on the official site, I’m putting my version of them below. By all means correct my version with better lines, but please don’t blame me for complete misunderstandings – I’m an English guy trying to understanding an American singer.
And just a note about copyright – I mean no disrespect to the copyright of Bob Dylan in producing these lyrics, and if my production of them does cause a problem to the copyright owner, I will of course remove them at once.
Thing’s are all right and she’s all too tight
In my neighbourhood she cries both day and night
I know it because it was there
It’s a milestone but she’s down on her luck
And she’s daily salooning about to make a hard earned buck; I was there.
I believe that she’d stop him if she would start to care
I believe that she’d look upon the side that used to care
And I’d go by the Lord anywhere she’s on my way
But I don’t belong there.
No, I don’t belong to her, I don’t belong to anybody
She’s my Christ-forsaken-angel but she don’t hear me cry
She’s a lone hearted mystic and she can’t carry on
When I’m there she’s all right, but then she’s not, when I’m gone.
Heaven knows that the answer she not calling no one
She’s the way, forsaken beauty for she’s mine, for the one
And I lost her hesitation by temptation lest it runs
But she don’t honour me but I’m not there, I’m gone.
Now I’ll cry tonight like I cried the night before
And I’m leased on the highway but I still dream about the door
It’s so long, she’s forsaken by her faith, (where’s to tell?)
It don’t have consternation she’s my all, fare thee well.
Now when I’ll teach that lady I was born to love her
But she knows that the kingdom waits so high above her
And I run but I race but it’s not too fast or still
But I don’t perceive her, I’m not there, I’m gone.
Well it’s all about diffusion and I cry for her veil
I don’t need anybody now beside me to tell
And it’s all affirmation I receive but it’s not
She’s a lone-hearted beauty but she don’t like this spot and she’ gone.
Yeah, she’s gone like the radio below the shining yesterday
But now she’s home beside me and I’d like her here to stay
She’s a lone, forsaken beauty and she don’t trust anyone
And I wish I was beside her but I’m not there, I’m gone.
Well, it’s too hard to stay here and I don’t want to leave
It’s so bad, for so few see, but she’s a heart too hard to need
It’s alone, it’s a crime the way she hauls me around
But she don’t fall to hate me but tears are gone, a painted clown.
Yes, I believe that it’s rightful oh, I believe it in my mind
I’ve been told like I said one night before “Carry on the crying”
And the old gypsy told her like I said, “Carry on,”
I wish I was there to help her but I’m not there, I’m gone.