Dylan Obscuranti: Track 3 – I’m not there

By Tony Attwood

The fact that this is article number 2000 on this site is pure chance, but somehow I rather like the notion that article 2000 turned out to be a song called “I’m not there.”

The idea of this little series is to create an album of some of the more obscure Dylan works that really ought to be known better than they are.   I’m taking this approach liberally – as was evident I hope with the first track (Angelina) in which most people only know one version of the song (Angelina) and maybe don’t see the possibilities beyond that.

Track 1: Angelina but not as we know it

Track 2. Tomorrow is a long time

Track 3.  I’m not there

We have two recordings of “I’m not there” – one that turned up in the 1967 Basement Tapes recording, from the movie, and the Sonic Youth version…

I’m personally not convinced by the Bob Dylan version any more – it used to fascinate me but over time its allure has faded, and for it has been replaced by the version above.  Maybe I’m just getting older.  Maybe I’ve been working on this site too long – but then maybe we all should change over time.  But in case you don’t know it, Bob’s version is further down the page.

To understand the place of this song in Bob’s work we need to recall that 1967 was the year when Bob wasn’t just doing stuff in the Basement, he was specifically looking to 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.  The list we have in the order he wrote them is…

And so we can see “I’m not there” is tucked in the middle of 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 then just moved on, until he included it in the movie, that is.

“Improvising on the spot” is the phrase Heylin provides for this masterpiece (although one is tempted to ask, what other form of improvisation is there?  Improvising means making it up around a set theme – and here the set theme is the chord sequence and the melody.  He’s seemingly improvising the lyrics.)

OK that is unusual – normally the improvisation is instrumental, but there is nothing in the rule book that says you can’t improvise lyrics as well.

Composition by having a chord sequence and a basic melody, and then by playing with words, by having ideas, and, improvising around a theme by using whatever words turn up, doesn’t give us a sense of a finished song in Bob’s case but when we get to Sonic Youth it certainly has that extraordinary sense of darkness and uncertainty.

Some of the lyrics don’t work, the scansion in particular falls over itself, but the strength of the Sonic Youth piece shines through.

As a result the uncertainty over the lyrics and melody adds to the whole notion of a fragmentary vision of events which just has the chord sequence (G, F, Am, G) which itself goes nowhere, to hold onto.

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.

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.

“I’m not there,” the movie, was released in 2007 along with Dylan’s version of the song.  The film has six actors who have been”inspired by the music and the many lives of Bob Dylan.”  The album of the movie includes the Dylan performance of “I’m not there” taken from the Basement Tape days.  The Sonic Youth version of the song comes from this album.

Untold Dylan

We now have 2000 articles on this site.   You can find indexes to series linked under the image of Dylan at the top of the page and some relating to recent series on the home page.

Although no one gets paid for writing, publishing or editing Untold Dylan, it does cost us money to keep the site afloat, safe from hackers, n’er-do-wells etc.  We never ask for donations, and we try to survive on the income from our advertisers, so if you enjoy Untold Dylan, and you’ve got an ad blocker, could I beg you to turn it off while here. I’m not asking you to click on ads for the sake of it, but at least allow us to add one more to the number of people who see the full page including the adverts.   Thanks.

As for the writing, Untold Dylan is written by people who want to write for Untold Dylan.  We welcome articles, contributions and ideas from all our readers.  Although no one gets paid, if you are published here, your work will be read by a fairly large number of people across the world, ranging from fans to academics.  If you have an idea, or a finished piece send it as a Word file to Tony@schools.co.uk with a note saying that it is for publication on Untold Dylan.

We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with around 8500 active members. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link    And because we don’t do political debates on our Facebook group there is a separate group for debating Bob Dylan’s politics – Icicles Hanging Down


  1. Perhaps Dylan is taking a poke at particular literary critics. The artist here could be speaking to his one true love – language.
    The deconstructionists and postmodernists, who some critics say are nihilisic, insist on separating the author’s intention from the work that s/he creates using language (including even written, rather than spoken words, that are done supposedly in an objective scientific style), leaving it up to the listener or reader to disentangle the meaning thereof – difficult because any meaning depends solely on the relationship of one word to another, including outright opposites and fuzzy modifiers; language accordingly, in its written form too, takes on a life of its own – the author is not there, but gets left behind by his independent-minded lover.

    Singing, that involves both writing, speaking, as well as accompanying music, in a deliberate unstructured, nonstandard way that the deconstructionists and postmodernists say is needed still runs up against the mood of the music and the the manner in which the singer emotes the words.

    In spite of what Dylan claims, he is still there to help his loved one out in “I’m Not There”.

  2. Deconstructionists eat their own tails by positing that language in a text by its inherent structure opens itself up to more than one interpretation each of which is entangled with one another, and therefore the meaning cannot be reduced to one correct Platonic absolute, ie as Herold Pinter’s plays apparently endeavour to demonstrate.

    Likewise, defining ‘deconstruction’ is not possible because all generalizations are false, including this one. Simply put that which they pursue cannot be caught – it’s only shadows that they are chasing.

    However, this does not mean a reader or listener can put any interpretation that he wants to on on a text; or throw up his arms and claim that the text makes no sense at all.

    No nihilist be Nietzsche.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *