By Tony Attwood, with recordings presented by Mike Johnson in the Never Ending Tour Series.
In this series we look at the way Bob has transformed his songs over time, in particular looking for the progression in his feelings about and understanding of what the song offers and where it can be taken.
So far we’ve looked at
- Frankie Lee and Judas Priest
- Visions of Johanna
- The Hard Rain of 1988, 2003 and 2015
- Tangled up in Blue 1988 to 1993
- Blowing in the Wind. 1991-2001
- Blind Willie McTell. 1997-2006
Here I am looking at the evolution of It Ain’t me Babe from 1994 to 1998.
This recording in the Never Ending Tour series has an aggressive edge. But it also has a superb Dylanesque acoustic guitar performance. It is fast and it is sad, which allows it to be aggressive in its message to the woman through the speed at which it is delivered, but soft and sad at the same time. The instrumental break adds to this too, there is a powerful driving force here, and although when the vocal returns there is further sadness, I have the feeling he is already packed and half way out of the door – or maybe even sending a postcard from his next stopping point.
I also seem to remember that some writers at the time of the first appearance of this song, took it to mean not so much that he was literally moving on from a past lover, but saying to the media “I am not telling everyone what to do; I’m just a folk singer.” There could still be some of that…
But whatever the message was in 1994, just one year later in 1995 the song has changed dramatically. It is as if Bob had realised that he was onto something with the 1994 version, but wanted to take out some of the aggression in the notion that it “ain’t me babe” and return to the original sadness of the song, which implies the thought of “I’m sorry but it is not me”. So we have the bass added to the song, and the vocals are more spaced out, more reflective, as indeed would be the case after singing the song so many times (the first performance having been in May 1964 – so by the time of this rendition the song was already 31 years old!)
This is where I think the value of this occasional year-by-year comparison comes to the fore – at least it does for me, for in following the invaluable series presented so brilliantly by Mike, I find although I listen with great pleasure to each new recording, and add my comments, I can’t recall what the song was like one or two years before – the last time Mike included it in his collection.
And now we find Bob has slowed the song down. The bass is more to the fore and playing a more tuneful accompaniment and there is a second guitar in there as well, which I didn’t appreciate before.
Now Bob is plaintive and desperate at the same time. He really wants us to know that it isn’t him that we are looking for. He really is just this songwriter. And somehow, brilliantly, he brings that to the fore in the instrumental break, as if he is just still walking on down the road, forever traveling on, just like the old bluesmen whose music so enthused him from the off.
But again we have change, and here the accompaniment is slightly more filled once again, and the delicacy of the feelings are pushed forward until there is a desperation in Bob’s voice. The introduction is the same, but suddenly there is an extra push in the music, allowing the vocals to remain as plaintive as ever.
Now what I find so wonderful is to be able to hear this growth in the development of this approach. The percussion is there, but holding back, just adding a commentary and allowing a more bouncy, “It ain’t me Babe” to be introduced.
Oh to have been there listening to the discussion as the rehearsals took place. Did Bob know where he wanted to take the song, or was it just something that happened as they rehearsed, with ideas coming in as the band worked? Did they know that the percussion would come in on the chorus each time, but then drop out during the verse, or was it Bob’s direction, or just something the percussionist just did?
However it happened it is a wonderful development. But then just over halfway through, with the bass becoming a lead instrument for a few moments there is a feeling of growth and determination, as if the leaving is ever more intentional… and yet again that fade back… he’s walking off alone into the sunset… And then… suddenly, the whole pace of the song cuts back. It is as if he has disappeared over the horizon, and having made his point and left he can now reflect on what he has done. And that leaves a real sadness at the end.
In the final version of this selection, from the off we feel the song has now taken on a new power. Not the power of rock n roll, but the power of the certainty of the singer that he really is moving on. The sadness is there, but it is more at the edge of the decision to break up. It is more that “we’ve taken this as far as we can go”. Yes he is still plaintive, but the band is now taking on a much fuller part in the song; he’s not alone now as he clearly says, but he is certainly not there to provide emotional pick-ups. No no no, it ain’t him babe.
But oh, there is still a plaintiveness in those instrumental breaks.
As you may know from my previous ramblings about other Dylan songs on this site, I tend to write them as I listen, in order (as I see it) to capture my initial response to the music, rather than indulging in some sort of attempt at a deeper analysis which is so often the case with writers about Dylan’s work, and which I personally feel can become more pretentious than insightful. That is indeed probably why I do it, but I think there is another point here. Bob has toured over all these years to bring us these reworkings of the songs as he feels them; as his response to the songs are not only of the composer / performer but also a response to those who comment on his work. And that I think is the point of the half-speed coda in this 1998 version. It is a way of answering his critics who don’t want (and probably can’t understand) all these reworkings.
I do hope you get something out of hearing these different versions of each song across the years. I know that for me, this is adding a lot more to my understanding of what the Tour has been all about.