I And I (1983). I Am That I Am.

by Jochen Markhorst

Anguilla is a small Caribbean island (about the size of the city of Stoke-on-Trent, about two thirds of Staten Island), separated from St. Maarten by a strait with the misleading name Anguilla Channel. In the summer of ’82, the island receives high visitors: the schooner Water Pearl docks, with co-owner Bob Dylan aboard.

The visit is a milestone for the “Anguillan Bob Dylan”, for Bankie Banx. The local legend had a number 1 hit in ’77 with “Prince Of Darkness” and now, on board in the harbour, Dylan hears the song, is charmed and asks around to invite this Banx. Tracking down Bankie is no problem, obviously. Everyone knows him around here. And when the troubadours meet, there is a click. Banx invites Dylan to visit him at home. In Bankie’s rehearsal room, Dylan directly confiscates the organ.

“After a while, Bob says, ‘Hey, Bankie, this thing sounds pretty good. Can you record that?’ and I said, ‘Bob, I already did.’ In a mellow voice, he replies, ‘Really?’ ‘I played it back for him, and he asked me to put a reggae baseline on it.’

Bob asked two female vocalists to join them: Priscilla Gumbs (who famously asked “Bob who?”) and Amelia Vanterpool. When the girls arrived, they sang three-part harmonies together. When they’d finished, Dylan asked about the cost of production. Bankie recalls, “I said, ‘Bob, man, I’m cool.’ He said, ‘You know what, Bankie, you can have my boat to do that tour you wanted to do.’ He gave me his yacht for six weeks.”

(Sarah Harrison, design anguilla magazine, 2008)

According to some sources, including Heylin, the song recorded there in the summer of ’82 is called “It’s Right”, but the recording has never surfaced anywhere. A little coda it does get, though. Dylan has “Prince Of Darkness” played during the audition of guitarist G. E. Smith, in November ’87 (to be heard on the bootleg Dancing In The Dark). Bankie is invited backstage to the MTV Unplugged session in November ’94, where Dylan reveals to him, not entirely truthfully, that he regularly performs “Prince Of Darkness” on stage (Banx: “That was a big thing for me’).

And the Anguillian intermezzo echoes in the two songs Dylan records after this session, through which suddenly such an unreal, Caribbean wind blows: “Jokerman” and “I And I”.

The most famous claim to fame of “I And I” today seems to be the leading role the song plays in that famous Leonard Cohen anecdote, which Cohen likes to tell more than once:

“That was a song that took me a long time to write. Dylan and I were having coffee the day after his concert in Paris a few years ago and he was doing that song in concert. And he asked me how long it took to write it. And I told him a couple of years. I lied actually. It was more than a couple of years.

Then I praised a song of his, “I and I”, and asked him how long it had taken and he said, ‘Fifteen minutes.’ [Laughter]”

The song does actually not have any other music history fame; it is no longer performed by Dylan, there are hardly any covers and it does not appear on compilation albums or overview works either. Pity, still. Granted, it does not have the monumental quality of “Hallelujah”, but it deserves more than oblivion.

Besides the reggae atmosphere of the musical accompaniment, the Caribbean influence is already apparent from the title. I and I is a rather complex concept, with which the Rastafarians express something like we are all one or God is in you and me. The source is presumably the mysterious ehyeh asher ehyeh from Exodus 3:14, which is translated in capital letters with I Am That I Am, God’s answer to Moses’ question of what He should be called.

The Common English Bible says “I Am Who I Am”, Luther Ich Werde Sein Der Ich Sein Werde (something like “I Shall Be Who I Shall Be), and linguists argue that there are still three, four more different variations which would cover the content.

The source, Exodus, apparently is also felt by the poet Dylan: the closing line of the chorus originates from Exodus too, from Chapter 33: for there shall no man see me and live.

He then carries on browsing and processes Bible quotes like the race is not to the swift (Ecclesiastes 9:11), rightly dividing the Word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15) and eye for eye, tooth for tooth (Deut. 19:21). The latter in particular has opened the poetic vein, presumably; to the associative mind of a genuinely language-loving genius like Dylan, the sound similarity between eye and eye and I and I is of course irresistible.

Freely combining further, the creative vein yields that cruel closing line: if you dare to cast a glance on God, you’re gone. And in the end that chorus then combines Yah, the God of the Rastafarians, with Yahweh, the God of the Jews, a kinship that the poet Dylan has sought out before. In “Precious Angel” for example (“our forefathers were slaves”).

All very playful, foggy and fascinating, but really Dylanesque is the embedding of all those Biblical references in worldly film noir decors plus the suggestion of epic, the appearance of a narrative in the couplets.

The first lines already evoke a Sam Spade-like opening scene. Musing, a man looks down on his bed in which a girlfriend-for-one-night is lying, morning light falls through the blinds, a voice over reveals the man’s somewhat sentimental thoughts and then suddenly it takes an enigmatic turn: in a previous life she could have been “faithfully wed to some righteous king who wrote psalms beside moonlit streams.”

Beautiful, poetic image, but a just king writing psalms? Only David and Solomon were psalm-writing kings, but neither truly deserves the label “righteous”. Certainly not David. Solomon perhaps, with some goodwill. But then again; can one be a faithful wife to a man with a harem of “seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines” (1Ki11:3)? It would be a rather cynical qualification.

Because of this opening scene, the main character appears to be an archetype from Dylan’s farewell songs. The I-narrator from “One Too Many Mornings” is also such a weary lover on the threshold, looking back to the bed, before choosing the conflict- and communication-avoiding road to solitude, an image also emerging from the sketchy description of the protagonist in “Tangled Up In Blue”, the narrators in “Highlands”, “Summer Days”, “Mama, You Been On Mind” … men who wander lonely, thinking of the abandoned woman, but still prefer to to go on without her.

The confusing, special beauty of “I And I” is the sum of storytelling techniques from all those songs. From the 70s, from “Tangled Up In Blue” we know the fiddling around with time. Here the poet in the first verse suggests that it is early in the morning, in the fourth verse he gloomily thinks the world could come to an end tonight, that the world could perish tonight and in the fifth verse it is noontime. And every time the narrator is walking the same walk from the second verse, his nocturnal concubine still sleeping at home.

In the meantime, he roams, just like in “I Shall Be Free No. 10” and later in “Highlands”, an almost empty world, he records similar scenery pieces as in “Ballad For A Friend”, “I’ll Keep It With Mine” and “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven”,  interlacing the observations and the narrator’s meditations with that dizzying mix of Biblical quotes and half-known references. Smoking down the track invades Dylan’s idiom thanks to Elvis, or at least: thanks to the adaptation that The Band makes of the rock ‘n’ roll monument “Mystery Train” (Elvis is unassailable, but The Bands funky stomp on Moondog Matinee, 1973, is beautiful ). And that’s all right in the next line must have been triggered by Elvis (“That’s All Right”, 1954). The darkest part of the road is an echo of James Carr’s hit from ’67, “The Dark Side Of The Street” and “two men on a platform” is an image the poet may have picked up anywhere. From the film Send Me No Flowers (with Doris Day and Rock Hudson, 1964), for example.

All in all, the song marks the transition to Dylan’s Late Work, to those sparkling amalgams of centuries of Western art and culture in which the Nobel Prize winner will excel roughly from Oh Mercy (1989). Cohen’s witty pointe that the creation of “I And I” did cost Dylan fifteen minutes, is therefore only a half-truth. Writing it down may have taken fifteen minutes, but the creation in the artist’s mind has taken really quite a bit more than fifteen years.

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  1. Thank you very much for this interesting article about circumstances, influences and history of the creation of the amazing song I and I.

  2. Sadly, this great song was spoiled on the album by the horrendous sound of the album especially the unlistenable drums ( despite a truly wonderful expressive Dylan vocal ). To fully appreciate the power of this song you really needed to have been in the audience when Dylan performed the song… some come to mind including the lovely slow 1984 version, the terrific full tilt reggae performance with the wonderful Tom Petty band in 1987 and the magnificent, long dramatic version in 1993 when one of his greatest Never Ending Tour bands provided the musical sensitivity the song, and Dylan’s sublime vocal performance, deserved.

  3. to Robert: there are also some lovely bootleg versions which will be released one of these days…..

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