The Never Ending Tour – the absolute highlights: I and I (1998)

by Tony Attwood, based on “The Never Ending Tour” series by Mike Johnson.

Dylan said that he knocked this song off during a time spent in the Caribbean in about 15 minutes.  That may or may not be the absolute truth, but if it were composed quickly, then it must be one of the most rewarding ways ever to have spent a quarter of an hour or so, not least because between 1984 and its final putting to bed in 1999 Dylan performed it 204 times.   That’s about 17 hours of live performance, all out of 15 minutes original work (although to be fair they would have spent some time in rehearsal getting the arrangement sorted).

And it is clearly not an easy song to get a perfect performance out of, because of the instrumental sections in which the various parts of the band seem to be competing with each other to be at the fore, in musical representation of the I and I message.

I’ve read the various reviews of what the song is all about, and indeed I wrote one myself, but I think I have just reached the stage where it has become a set of lyrics and musical phrases that eternally intertwine representing this “two sides of everything” concept.  The exact meaning of the lyrics, if there is one, has for me become secondary to the overall sound.

And indeed why not?   Why should not lyrics be more about sound rather than meaning?  Of course I have now meandered into the world of sound poetry, of which I am absolutely not in any way an expert, but which is there and has some highly praised practitioners.  Just because poetry with meaning dominates, it doesn’t mean that sound poetry isn’t of equal merit – or at the very least worthy of contemplation.

These are the thoughts that swirl around as I listen to this recording in which there is such a movement from the opening section to the frenetic build-up of the music later.  And as a result, while writing this I jumped from the frantic musical entanglement that we get to at the five-minute mark back to the start.  It is a phenomenal contrast, and the fact that after the five-minute section they do take it all back down as they enter the final coda, shows that there is an overall conception in the piece rather than just an improvisation around a theme.

In fact, it is the extraordinary set of contrasts within this performance that made me think of adding it to this series.   The opening, both in terms of the musical accompaniment and Bob’s singing is an extraordinary entwining of voice and instruments, so that it seems to me we are no longer in the world of vocals and accompaniment but of an entwining of a range of sounds in which at different moments different elements come to the fore.  The meaning of the lyrics thus disappears in terms of importance.

And in this entanglement, take the piano as an example: a lot of the time we don’t know it is there at all, and yet occasionally up it turns.   But always it is those repeated guitar phrases that entwine themselves and dominate our vision.

But despite this level of entwining, still there are moments where everything is taken back down.  Indeed in this regard just consider the final verse of the song which starts around the four minute mark:

Noontime, and I'm still along the road, on the darkest part
Into the narrow lanes, I can't stumble or stay put
Someone else is speakin' with my mouth, 
        but I'm listening only to my heart
I've made shoes for everyone,  I'm still going barefoot

I and I
In creation where one's nature neither honors nor forgives
I and I
One said to the other, "No man sees my face and lives"

This is, for me, a perfect example of a Dylan sound picture.  The lyrics give us images which are not precise – we can change them as we wish.  For me the “darkest part” makes sure that we do appreciate this is the bleakness of the world that is being portrayed in which we each have two parts to our personality, each facing the other.

The entanglement of the music through the guitars thus expresses this vision perfectly.  Everything is a contradiction, but everything fits together into one life, one piece of music, two parts of the same.   I and I.


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