What you really don’t want: reconsidering “It ain’t me babe”

Previously by Wouter van Oorschot on Untold Dylan: All I really want to do: What you really want

But it’s not to stand naked under unknowin’ eyes
It’s for myself and my friends my stories are sung.

(‘Restless farewell’ – 1963)

Turn the tables.

Perhaps you have been in a situation before where you were approached with clear romantic intentions by somebody who was in love with you. You were certainly taken with this person, though you felt like you needed time to determine whether you in fact returned their sentiments. Such universal doubts and insecurities are nothing unusual, after all.

At the same time, you were also a single person with certain needs, and so when love came along on a silver platter, and presented by someone who seemed appealing at first glance, you perhaps decided to get to know them better after all. I will skip over whether the ensuing romance was enjoyable for you both – it was your romance, after all – or whether it maybe did not ensue at all. But whatever the case, at a certain point you decided it would be better to call off the proceedings before the initial attempt at intimacy, or perhaps after several attempts – here, too, I will refrain from comment, as I cannot know when your misery began.

What it all came down to was the fact that the other party’s love for you expressed itself as stifling possessiveness. You were expected to turn a blind eye to all of their faults, for example, to promise time and time again that you would never leave them, that you would always show strength and never weakness, that you would take your lover’s side even when they were demonstrably wrong, to help them up after every stumble, close off your heart to all others but always bring your sweetheart flowers, come running whenever you were called, and heck, even die for them – or more if that were possible. In other words, you were to be a lover for life and nothing else. This, wholly or in part, is what they demanded from you.

The above scenario may seem familiar to many. Let us cautiously posit that these expectations have been (and in some cases, still are) cherished in conformity with a centuries-old, heterosexual set of love morals by quite a number of women with respect to men. To offer the benefit of the doubt, we might also add that for thousands of years, women have been subjected to conditioning by predominantly male religious leaders in the form of mores, values, legislation, religious treatises, and also in the arts (see Dusty Springfield below). In other words, a moral framework that resulted in ‘the weaker sex’ having very little say in such patriarchal societies, leaving them no option but to submit in resignation. At the same time, women quickly realised that their only recourse was to appropriate this moral code in extremis, and to demand domestic security from men, lasting from marriage to the grave. That is roughly how things went, and is reflected in the summary above.

Western society did change slightly in the 1960s due to the second wave of women’s liberation. The concept of ‘the battle of the sexes’ gained ground, and in the English-speaking world the pithy term ‘politics of sex’ became popular. While unfortunately, neither attained the status of ‘winged words’, one consequence was the fact that, however slowly, it increasingly dawned on heterosexual men that a woman’s dedication at the very least presupposes some form of reciprocity. Or in other words: that mutual love and authority must be earned, not demanded.

An equally important artistic consequence for the love song was that, compared to the dominance of the macho texts from the previous decades – several tasteless examples of which we examined in the previous chapters, selected from a pool of thousands – male artists were now also learning how to portray themselves as the weaker party.

To baby boomers such as myself, who were not yet ripe for love but were rapidly heading that way, this phenomenon undoubtedly began with the first Rolling Stones hit written by its own members Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, released almost simultaneously with The Beatles’ ‘A hard day’s night’ in the late spring of 1964, when Dylan wrote ‘All I really want to do’. ‘Tell me’ is clumsy and dull, the message is little more than ‘tell me you’re coming back’. But as a Stones fan from day one, I grant clemency in this case because – mainly thanks to the final verse – it is a blues, a genre to which separate criteria apply, as you know:

But I digress: this was evidently the new direction for heterosexual men, and it did not take long for things to degenerate into extreme sentimentality, such as the first worldwide hit by The Four Tops from May 1965, a full ten years after their formation: ‘I can’t help myself’. Here, a fellow wails at his ‘sugar pie honey bunch’, claiming that he is ‘weaker than a man should be’, and ‘tied to her apron strings’:

Oh, what a poor, powerless, hen-pecked chap. When the authoritative music magazine Rolling Stone published a revised, second list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time seventeen years after the first, they had the nerve to move this sob-story from position 422 to 483. On the positive side, this is thankfully only 18 places away from complete oblivion.

Besides, the reader will also be fully aware that lyrics of this kind do nothing to attack the essence of male-imposed love morals: most have regarded women as their property for so long already, have they not? And how recently did men still deny women even their own bank account – a trivial example compared to all the physical violence unleashed on women by men over the ages.

It is therefore not difficult for a ‘healthy’ man to present himself as the weakest hankering, pleading, simpering party of the two. I’ll give ten-to-one odds that when push comes to shove – to use a fitting expression – he will maintain that a woman should still bend to his will more than he to hers. And at least 99 out of one hundred are still too self-absorbed to even give their loved one adequate satisfaction in the bedroom, where they climax too quickly, collapse in exhaustion and then usually fall asleep. Women have been counting their blessings in this regard for centuries.

Nevertheless: in our 21st century, I wish I had a dollar for all the members of both sexes who perpetuate this possessive form of love. One could become a millionaire a hundred times over – although that depends on how deep your pockets already are, I suppose. In any case, friends, by now we have realised just how slow genuine progress is, have we not? Is there anything to be done?

In the final track from Another side…, which forms the complementary bookend to ‘All I really want to do’, Dylan did do something, by rejecting this kind of possessive behaviour outright. Though it is hard to argue against him, listen first and judge for yourself:

Go ’way from my window
Leave at your own chosen speed
I’m not the one you want, babe
I’m not the one you need
You say you’re lookin’ for someone
Never weak but always strong
To protect you an’ defend you
Whether you are right or wrong
Someone to open each and every door
But it ain’t me, babe
No, no, no, it ain’t me, babe
It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for, babe

Go lightly from the ledge, babe
Go lightly on the ground
I’m not the one you want, babe
I will only let you down
You say you’re lookin’ for someone
Who will promise never to part
Someone to close his eyes for you
Someone to close his heart
Someone who will die for you an’ more
But it ain’t me, babe
No, no, no, it ain’t me, babe
It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for, babe

Go melt back into the night, babe
Everything inside is made of stone
There’s nothing in here moving
An’ anyway I’m not alone
You say you’re lookin’ for someone
Who’ll pick you up each time you fall
To gather flowers constantly
An’ to come each time you call
A lover for your life an’ nothing more
But it ain’t me, babe
No, no, no, it ain’t me, babe
It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for, babe

By way of comparison: when Dylan wrote this song, The Beatles were still producing hit after hit, devoid of any substantive claims concerning traditional relationships. All well and good: their service to music was a different one, to say nothing of the Rolling Stones.

Dylan did make such claims, for although he would always deny being a moralist, he was one nonetheless, as evidenced by numerous songs that lack an I-figure and that therefore resemble sermons, or are replete with single-line admonitions. He would remain so his whole life.

I am certain that there will be experts by now who argue that he cannot possibly have realised at the outset that ‘It ain’t me babe’ was addressing possessiveness in relationships as a universal problem. Granted, at the time the material was perhaps too close-to-home for him to have been fully aware of it while writing.

My counterproposal is that the idea is not so far-fetched after all, since his mind was already open to the idea of anti-possessiveness. The dimension he had already added to the centuries-old love song made it clear that a fine alternative was available: that it is good and proper to end a relationship – as tragic as it may seem – if another’s love comes at the cost of surrendering your soul and becoming a trophy which, of course, is not love at all.

But although he revolutionised the genre, his efforts unfortunately did not result in the prompt eradication of this brand of possessiveness from society. Even disregarding the overly adulated conservative horror Tammy Wynnette, her and Dylan’s much-adored contemporary Dusty Springfield (1939-1999) demonstrated as much in 1966, with her universally nauseating world hit ‘You don’t have to say you love me’, whose misogynistic sentiment trumps even ‘Stand by your man’:

This was two years after ‘It ain’t me, babe’. It is almost as though Springfield listened to Dylan and thought: I need a countermove, but what? Oh, I know: ‘Believe me, I’ll never tie you down’.

Notice the contrast with The Four Tops, who were actually begging to be tied to the ‘apron strings’. But here, too, appearances are deceiving, for although Springfield refuses to tether her man – who does not even need to say he loves her nor stay forever and is therefore no ‘lover for your life and nothing more’ – he does, however, need to ‘be close at hand’, like a pack of tissues ready to wipe up her blubbering.

If this is not enough to make you sick, I don’t know what is. The you-figure in her song therefore had every right to flee, though he applied Dylan’s ‘Go away from my window’ to himself. Or who knows: perhaps he clambered out of her window to make as quick a getaway as possible. None of this reflects personally on Dusty Springfield herself, of course – like Presley, she had a formidable voice. But she could simply have refused to sing it. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine had the nerve to include this originally Italian drivel (‘Io che non vivo senza te’ – I who cannot live without you) as number 491 in their 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It no longer featured in the 2021 revised edition, so clearly finding a replacement was not that difficult after all.

There are lighter – and therefore more underhanded – variations on this possessive theme, such as ‘You are the sunshine of my life’ (1973) by Stevie Wonder. In the 2021 Greatest 500 list, Rolling Stone awarded it position no. 183. Quoting the full song is not even necessary to convey its suffocating qualities, the opening two lines are enough.

Incidentally, I have rejected Sony Music’s risible demand that I pay €20 per 10,000 copies to quote those two lines in this narrative essay – they are freely available online. But surely their import does not bear thinking about: somebody who will hover about you like an insect or orbit you like a planet for your whole life, on pain of combustion in the fire of your so-called love? This is clearly an example of love being taken, not shared.

In short, three dreadful but universally acclaimed global hits by The Four Tops, Springfield and Wonder that represent a vast majority who stubbornly clung (and still cling) to the age-old fairy tale that human beings’ greatest happiness consists by definition in the act of discounting oneself completely in favour of another.

I chose a gender-neutral formulation here, but just in case, I will insert another reminder that in practice it was, and still is, the doing of religious moral crusaders worldwide – heterosexual men who still have no inclination to change traditional marriage values once and for all for the benefit of women, while maintaining that they are ‘ordinary, healthy men’ who are perfectly fine with the status quo. Nowadays, more and more women rightfully have very different ideas on the subject, and so we find ourselves embroiled in the ‘politics of sex’ – the latest proof of which can be seen in the #MeToo movement.

What does all of this say about the societal facet of Dylan’s ‘inner-directed, inner-probing, self-conscious’ work that Irwin Silber refused to comprehend? Given the largely autobiographical character infusing Dylan’s entire oeuvre, it could very well be that all of his love songs from the early period – that predominantly address a lost love, or sometimes a farewell – draw on personal experiences with women, though for us readers and listeners, his personal life is irrelevant.

What is relevant is that his rejection of possessiveness in relationships, the first sign of which was ‘Don’t think twice, it’s alright’ from November 1962, merged roughly one year later with his rejection of the possessiveness of the masses who wanted him to continue writing and singing ‘socially engaged’ songs such as ‘Blowin’ in the wind’, ‘Masters of war’ and ‘The times they are a-changin’’.

It is my opinion that the quasi-cheerful ‘All I really want to do’ and the simultaneously unapproachable and dolorous ‘It ain’t me, babe’ are the first fruits of this attitude in his work. As a dual declaration of independence, they are both contrasting and complementary to one another since the former, though in a rather negative fashion, sets out the conditions under which the I-figure is prepared to maintain friendship with you-figures, while the latter expostulates the equally negative reasons why there is not – or no longer – any possibility of love.

In ‘All I really want to do’, Dylan clearly delineates what society can expect from him, and in ‘It ain’t me, babe’ he specifies what a lover (or potential lover) should, at any rate, not expect from him. It is the crystal-clear position of a person protecting their independence from both a possessive society and a possessive lover. So once again: far from abandoning the engagement present in his earlier work, as described by the Irwin Silbers of this world, he instead tackled both types of possessiveness in one fell swoop.

After Another side of Bob Dylan, this confrontation led to a creative explosion lasting a mere eighteen months in which Dylan, in addition to other important works that unfortunately must be left aside here due to the scope of this book, combined both rejections into a series of under ten songs, treating his besiegers to a barrage of disdain. The eight others will be presented below one by one.

Did he thereby significantly contribute to the liberation of the individual from love and from the collective, both simultaneously and definitively? Did he confound traditional power dynamics for good with the two notions that love can only exist based on freedom, reciprocity and equality, and that the authority of parents, family, teachers, employers, religious forerunners, politicians and peacekeepers are not to be taken for granted, but must be earned?

Looking at the world today, it would not seem so. But neither these questions nor the answers thereto were what prompted the jury to award him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 – which was well-deserved. It was enough that the extremely well-spoken Dylan had set an oeuvre to music that posed this question, an oeuvre that was unparalleled, incomparable, and therefore inimitable.

‘It ain’t me, babe’ has proved itself as one of Dylan’s most popular songs, or at least one of the most significant. This fact evidently also held true for himself. The use of statistics often conceals skullduggery, but with over 1070 live performances by the end of 2023 it was ranked eighth among his most frequently performed songs of all time, which cannot be a coincidence.

Of the nearly one hundred cover versions by others, the earliest – by Johnny Cash and Joan Baez – appeared only months after the original. Even Nancy Sinatra tried her hand. It has been recorded in seventeen languages and distributed by ‘local artists’. Nevertheless, I would advise you here, too, to stick with the original version, which is musically already problematic enough, not being what one would call a ‘catchy tune’. Incidentally, none of the anti-possessiveness songs lend themselves to arrangements, for the simple reason that they are all inimitable. Though the substance may be relatable, any version that does not supersede Dylan’s own will only expose the performer as a parroter of ideas, destroying any sense of credibility. Superseding Dylan is also no mean feat, and one that almost nobody can pull off successfully: the sound is simply too unique, without enough ‘general appeal’.

The fact that Dylan knew exactly what he was doing is illustrated by a fourth verse that was discovered later, and that he discarded with very good reason, as it would have diluted the whole significantly:

Your talking turns me off, babe
It seems you’re trying out of fear
Your terms are time behind, babe
And you’re looking too hard for what’s not here
You say you’re looking for someone
That’s been in your dreams, you say
To terrify your enemies
An’ scare your foes away
Someone to even up your scores
But it ain’t me babe

An audio recording of the London premiere on 17 May 1964 has survived. Though not the best quality, it does convey the charm of the initial try-out before a full auditorium: the tempo is low, and the vocals extremely concentrated. What struck me personally is that it was perhaps the only time when he was not completely certain of singing ‘No no no, it ain’t me, babe’, since he seems to have used ‘Lawd, Lawd, Lawd’ several times, a variant of ‘Lord’ that was not uncommon in both blues and folk circles.

Lastly, I am loathe to deny you the opinion of one particular scholar, who is convinced that Dylan’s ‘no, no, no’ is a response to The Beatles’ ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ in ‘She loves you’ from over nine months beforehand. A clever theory, and if you ask me: sure, I’m all for clever theories. I even have one or two of my own if need be. But my suggestion would be: let’s ask Dylan himself.

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