I’m Not There (1956; 1967). Or not.


by Jochen Markhorst

On fan forums, YouTube, Dylan sites and in Dylan books, the “Answerphone Song” has been bouncing around for several decades now, the recording of a short, funny song, supposedly sung by Dylan as a message on his answering machine sometime in the early sixties. Its authenticity is controversial, and the multitude of sources claiming to have made the copy does not make it more reliable. The generally well-informed Alan Fraser (from the site Searching For A Gem) claims that it was copied from Dylan’s telephone in Malibu in 1975, others say they called the apartment on West 4th Street at the time and Dylan’s house in Woodstock is also mentioned as a source.

Voice, harmonica and guitar sound throughout Dylanesque, that much is true. Not entirely one hundred percent, but that may be due to the poor quality and the fact that those old tape recordings almost never had the correct pace (usually too fast). Anyway, it’s a charming, Dylanworthy recording:

Well, he ain’t at home right now,
He can’t come to the phone
So leave your name and number
When you hear that lonesome tone.
[harmonica solo]
I’d gladly talk to you right now,
I’d like to guarantee
But I can’t speak or answer now,
Since I’m not really he.

The authenticity becomes all the more doubtful because the lyrics wink at one of Dylan’s most obscure, legendary and mythical songs: the ethereal “I’m Not There (1956)”, one of the absolute highlights of The Basement Tapes. Plus: it is suspiciously well intelligible.

The enigmatic lyrics to “I’m Not There” are incoherent, meandering, sometimes unintelligible and seem largely improvised on the spot. “He would pull these songs out of nowhere,” says eyewitness Robbie Robertson, and he specifies with regard to this song: “There’s something going on inside the song, but you’re not sure what it is.”

On his solo albums, Brian Eno copies the associative, loosely written method of poetry and thematizes it in the opening number of his masterproof Another Green World (1975), in “Sky Saw”:

All the clouds turn to words
All the words float in sequence
No one knows what they mean
Everyone just ignores them

The pitfall is obvious: such a modus operandi soon leads to an accumulation of empty, meaningless sounds, to a Dadaistic hotchpotch of syllables chosen purely for their timbre. As Eno demonstrates in the remaining lyrics to “Sky Saw”:

Mau Mau starter ching ching da da
Daughter daughter dumpling data
Pack and pick the ping pong starter
Carter Carter go get Carter

In other words: painting with sounds, which Eno will intensify on later, instrumental records and will call ambient music. (Exquisite drumming by Phil Collins, by the way.)

Dylan does not fall into that trap; the form is too one-dimensional and way below the ambition of a poet of his class. Not that “I’m Not There” is so much clearer than mau mau starter ching da da, but part of the magic of the song is the suggestion of an ominous, moving story behind the words. It indeed is like Robertson says: something is happening, but you don’t know what is.

The brave transcription attempts may differ, but the overall picture is comparable: inconsistent nebulae with an occasional half-hearted Biblical reference (something with a kingdom so high above her, at any rate) and – predominantly – the regretful observation that the I is not ( anymore) with the lady of his dreams.

The trigger for the Dylan disciples, however, is that one message that comes through loud and clear, also because it is the title: I’m not there.

Should one have to reduce the special appeal of the artist Dylan to one one-liner, then I’m not there is a good candidate. Director Todd Haynes does recognise this very well when he gives his “biopic about the many lives of Bob Dylan” precisely this title (I’m Not There, 2007). The Great Common Divisor of both Dylan’s biography and his discography is, after all, the man’s intangibility, the lack of one identity.

That starts even before his first professional recording, when Robert Zimmerman changes his name and fantasizes different life stories for his New Me, for this “Bob Dylan”. Already in the first radio interviews, newspaper articles and in the liner notes of the first albums, a Dylan’s life that does not exist at all is described. From an unbound vagabond from Gallup, New Mexico, who has been traveling around America with traveling carnival shows since his earliest childhood, for example.

When that vagabond is transformed into Dylan the Folk artist, the Prince Of Protest, he puts on a leather jacket and plugs in an electric guitar. When he then becomes a rock god, a Rimbaud Of Rock, the hippest person on earth (according to Marianne Faithfull), he puts on a hat, becomes a family man and sings “You Win Again” and “Wildwood Flower” – and at this point we only recapitulated the first six years of Dylan’s nearly sixty-year, multi-coloured career. The only all-encompassing stamp that can be put on the indefinable artist is placed by the bard himself, shown in No Direction Home, while reading a newspaper article about himself: “God, I’m glad I’m not me.”

The film footage leaves no doubt as to it being a spontaneous, witty joke, but Freud would effortlessly recognise the deep, deep truth underneath that joke: here an individual looks with a self-evident distance at an alter ego that he may have created himself, but has now started to live a life outside of him. Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, indeed.

How remarkable that is, stands out in the comparison with the “normal” reaction of prominent people who are confronted with hurtful, untrue or unwelcome publications. The Trumps, the Tom Cruises, the Lady Gagas and the J.K. Rowlingses respond with indignation, or shrugs, or official denials, or with lawsuits … but never a victim replies chucklingly: “Boy, I’m glad I’m not me.”

It shows a detachment that is not only consciously recognised by Dylan, but also cultivated. In Chronicles, the autobiographer acknowledges his identification with Rimbauds je est un autre, a refrain in the more serious interviews is Dylan’s assurance that the ego from his songs is not me, Bob Dylan. In the radio interview with Mary Travers, in ’75 following Blood On The Tracks, Dylan patiently explains that the listener can read you or he instead of I – “It’s all the same.”

It’s not me. It’s the songs. I am just the postman, I deliver the songs, he tells Robert Shelton in 1978. Similar to the way in which he rejects biographical interpretations of his film Renaldo & Clara: “The film is actually very little about me. It’s a dream. To put it more correctly, it isn’t even my dream.” And a next movie he calls Masked and Anonymous – the silver thread should be clear by now: I’m not there.

The definitive explanation is lucid, complex, confusing, incomprehensible and yet clear, as befits Dylan. He produces this in response to “Seeing The Real You At Last” in an interview with Scott Cohen, in 1985:

“Sometimes the you in my songs is me talking to me. Other times I can be talking to somebody else. If I’m talking to me in a song, I’m not going to drop everything and say, alright, now I’m talking to you. It’s up to you to figure out who’s who. A lot of times it’s you talking to you. The I, like in “I and I”, also changes. It could be I, or it could be the I who created me. And also, it could be another person who’s saying I. When I say I right now, I don’t know who I’m talking about.”

“I’m Not There” would therefore, in all intangibility, contain an amusing paradox – the song poet who repeatedly claims that he himself is not to be found in his films and songs, writes a song in which the I-person propagates the motto of that poet himself: I am not there. And, paradoxically, thus Dylan would sing an autobiographical song after all.

Unfortunately, the approach of the song does not seem that poetic and complex. In all ten verses it can be distinguished that the I complains that he cannot be with a beloved woman, or realises that he cannot stay here. Literal, physical absence, and not so much a metaphysical, metaphorical absence.

An extra veil is given to the song when securing copyright in 1970. Garth Hudson, the acclaimed archivist of the Basement Tapes, has written “I’m Not There, I Am Gone” on the cover and that is how Robbie Robertson calls the song too. The official title, however, receives a mysterious addition in brackets: “(1956)”.

Someone must have been pondering thereon, which is a bit intriguing. Song titles with additions in parentheses are not that special, and Dylan has a weakness for them, as we know since Theme Time Radio Hour episode 47 (“I always liked songs with parentheses in the title”), but songs with a year in between those parentheses are quite rare. The best known is probably the beautiful Beach Boys’ “Disney Girls (1957)”. The year specified there is not too enigmatic; it is a melancholic masterpiece in which the protagonist looks back with nostalgia on a carefree summer in his youth – in 1957, apparently. Three Dog Night sings “Good Feeling (1957)” and explains with the musical accompaniment to which that title refers: it is a 50s doo-wop. And in the – rare – other cases, the song simply sings about an event in the year in question. “Man At The Gate (1913)” by Ron Sexsmith for example, and “Lifted Up (1985)” by Passion Pit.

In short: if a lyricist chooses the addition, it is quite easy to trace. But from where the year 1956 comes in this song title, and what the relationship with the lyrics is at all, is in the lap of the gods. It is tempting to call in the personal biography of the poet Dylan, making Elvis unavoidable. The year in which The King records “Heartbreak Hotel”, earning his definitive breakthrough and in which he scores five number 1 hits. The then fifteen year old Dylan is crushed:

“When I first heard Elvis’s voice I just knew that I wasn’t going to work for anybody and nobody was gonna be my boss. Hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail.”

But then again; in that case Dylan would have put the 1956 addition after “I Shall Be Released”. Or after “Goin’ To Acapulco”, or “Dress It Up, Better Have It All”, “Minstrel Boy”, perhaps “Get Your Rocks Off” … there are more than a handful of Basement Songs more fitting for a wink to Elvis.

By the way, on the first official release, on the soundtrack of the film I’m Not There in 2007, “1956” has disappeared again, just like on The Basement Tapes Complete (2014).

On the other hand, in 1998, the 1970 copyright is renewed in the U.S. Copyright Office for the full title, including “1956”, (document number V3416D881, registration number: RE 771-501), and again in 2012 – which is weird, considering the song is never officially released under that title.

However, the puzzling with lyics and year evaporates when the music starts. Words float in sequence and nobody knows what they mean – but what they describe the performance artist makes clear even without semantics. This is lyrical in its original, real meaning: the expression of feelings. The singer Dylan uses his voice like the ancient stage Greeks used the lyre to express the protagonist’s feelings. And like Mozart uses the oboe in the adage of KV 361, which is the inspiration for Salieri’s famous monologue in Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus:

“On the page it looked nothing. The beginning simple, almost comic.”

But then suddenly… an oboe, and a moment later the clarinet takes over, and that

“…sweetened it into a phrase of such delight! This was no composition by a performing monkey! This was a music I’d never heard. Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing, it had me trembling. It seemed to me that I was hearing a voice of God.”

Granted, a bit exalted, matching Salieri’s stormy Italian temperament, but filtered, the monologue can be transposed to Dylan’s “I’m Not There”. Plaintive, but not complaining, regretful, but still resigned … music filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing.

The song is an impregnable fortress. Covers there are not. Apart from the one by Sonic Youth, of course, who is given the tough task to produce a cover for the film’s soundtrack. The band permits itself, apparently with the consent of the authorities, some lyrical interventions with which actually some coherence does creep in. It is a good performance, yearning and heavy, but Thurston Moore is not a Dylan of course – and if he had known that the original would also appear on the soundtrack, he probably would have refrained from it. For consolation, Sonic Youth’s version gets a prominent place: over the movie’s credits.

But still: he’s not really he.

I’m not there: Untold’s original review.




  1. It’s a song about a cat with nine lives of constant sorrow (one of them being Rimbaud).

    He’s wailing about being maligned in the press and by his girlfriend (later identified as Grizabella):

    His powers of levitation would make a fakir stare
    And when you reach the scene of the crime
    Macavity’ not there!
    (TS Eliot: Macavity, the Mystery Cat)

    Macavity (aka Mack The Knife) gives his side of the story:

    It’s a crime the way she mauled me ….
    But I’m not there, I’m gone
    (Bob Dylan: I’m Not There)

  2. Seriously though – the song has the fingerprints of Eliot’s poetry all over it:

    Remark the woman
    Who hesitates toward you in the light of the door
    Which opens on her like a grin
    (TS Eliot: Rhapsody On A Windy Night)

    Now I’ll cry tonight like I cried the night before
    And I’m released on the heights, but I dream about the door
    (Bob Dylan: I’m Not There)

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