By Tony Attwood
Dylan described this as “one of them Caribbean songs. One year a bunch of songs just came to me hanging around down in the islands.” He also said on another occasion in a comment to Leonard Cohen he wrote it in 15 minutes.
These are, for me at least, two of Dylan’s most helpful comments, for here they suggest that the song’s lyrics really are a series of phrases and words that came to him – perhaps with some flipping through the Old Testament at the same time (or maybe just remembering a phrase, given the amount of Bible study he had done a few years earlier), and which were crafted together without any deep planning or plotting of the meaning.
But even without said plotting and planning this is one of those songs in which the dichotomy between the life of the individual (whose life is inevitably self-centred) and the world itself (which could be on the brink of political, environmental, or conflagrational disaster) is explored. Although it could also be a song in which God reflects on the futility and sheer utter pointlessness of being omnipotent. And that is rather fascinating for when the omnipotent one asks, “what is the point of all this?” then the sparks really do either start to fly, or begin to die.
One of the key reference points we have here is that the song itself can travel in so many directions, as revealed by the various versions of the song hear on stage and across so many different times, as the lyrics reveal.
I’ve put three links on here to different live versions of the song, and if you have a mind to I would urge you to try all three (unless you already know them) because they each tell a different story even though each uses the same lyrics. Then go back to the album (or listen on Spotify) and hear how Dylan wanted it at the start.
But back to the lyrics – for behind all the different musical versions there are two issues that commentators focus on: what does “I and I” actually mean, and how to handle a song in which the chorus (with its obscure meaning) is repeated five times. Indeed, for me, identifying these issues really help me as I listen to the live versions, not least because the Hammersmith version really seems (to me – it is always just my opinion) to fail to deal with these issues in the way the others do much more successfully.
So let’s start with the dominant issue in many people’s debates on the song, the issue of what “I and I” actually means.
It can mean “me and you” and can also mean “myself and my consciousness”. Or maybe “Me and Mine”, or it could be the public persona and the private persona. There really is no way of telling what Dylan had in mind, which again makes me think it was just a phrase that came to him.
In such a case it could even (and this is just me being fanciful, but having had the thought I do rather like it) be about God being omnipotent, but also saying to humanity, I want you to be my friend. God the all-powerful one vs. God the guy next door who helps you out with a new pair of shoes.
That God is part of the show is indicated with the final line of the chorus which is from Exodus, and refers to the notion that God is so utterly almighty and powerful that no one can see His face and live. The overarching, all-powerful, omnipotent, absolute ruler and controller of all things who demands devotion or else sends you into the endless fires on judgement day. Not my idea of fun but yes, in such a scenario, it seems fair enough that to look at Him is to die.
In many regards we’ve got the same sort of mystique and mysteriousness of Caribbean Wind here, as we move from one world to another line by line. Take for example
Told about Jesus, told about the rain,
She told me about the jungle where her brothers were slain
By a man who danced on the roof of the embassy.
And that means… well anything you like. The roof of the embassy could be a metaphor for pretty well most things – power, corruption, revolution, the denial of power… or it could just be one of those great phrases that actually has no meaning but is worth keeping because it is so, so intriguing. I can say for sure as an occasional song-writer whose works are just heard by a select few, I would love to have written that line.
Against this, the song is without utter brilliance and complexity of the music; it is a good song that benefits from its simplicity in the music, because of what the lyrics do. So (for me at least) musically it is without the pure certainty of direction that the chorus of Caribbean Wind offers, but the lyrics make up for that to quite a large degree.
Here’s the first of the live versions:
After listening to this and the other live versions (below) it is a shock to come back to the album track, so restrained and (at least in the verses) almost hesitant. It is an interesting game to play to jump from one to another. Well, it has been for me over the last couple of days, as I prepare this little commentary.
And after a couple of days of pondering, to me the whole song seems like a deliberate mix, jumping from one reality to another, and so it deserves lots of outings in different forms.
Been so long since a strange woman has slept in my bed
Look how sweet she sleeps, how free must be her dreams
In another lifetime she must have owned the world, or been faithfully wed
To some righteous king who wrote psalms beside moonlit streams
Dylan here is exploring the vacuum, the alternative realities, the fact that where we are is pure chance, and as we move on (and not for the first time in writing these reviews of songs from the post-Christian era) I am reminded of Talking Heads song “Heaven” .
Think I’ll go out and go for a walk
Not much happenin’ here, nothin’ ever does
Besides, if she wakes up now, she’ll just want me to talk
I got nothin’ to say, ’specially about whatever was
Talking Heads proclaimed,
There is a party, everyone is there
Everyone will leave at exactly the same time
It’s hard to imagine that nothing at all
Could be so exciting could be this much fun
This is the world of nothingness, vacancy, hopelessness, so far removed from the world of dominance proclaimed by Exodus despite the Old Testament certainty….
Took a stranger to teach me, to look into justice’s beautiful face
And to see an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth
And we have the great imponderable. There is no connectivity, except that everything is connected, but at the same time all is uncertain
Outside of two men on a train platform there’s nobody in sight
They’re waiting for spring to come, smoking down the track
The world could come to an end tonight, but that’s all right
She should still be there sleepin’ when I get back
There is also the most extraordinarily set of images in the final verse. It is almost as if the character relating the tale is either the god who suddenly finds he is not omnipotent at all or the mortal who realises that he is not under God’s power.
Noontime, and I’m still pushin’ myself along the road, 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, even you, while I still go barefoot
That final line is not, for me, a line that has an explicit meaning – it is an image, like shaded colours in an abstract painting. It is there for us to take as a feeling, not to say that it means x or y. A bit like dancing on the roof of the embassy.
Time for the second live version…
Of course as others have said it could be about two Bob Dylan’s – the public and private man, the evangelical man or the agnostic, the optimist the pessimist. Two characters at different times, two people living in the same body. Hence the multiple versions of the song.
Here’s the third version…
Musically the song is a simple minor key blues rift build around Am, C, G; D Am. The chorus has the same musical basis, just leaving out the C chord. It is one of the many amazing things about Dylan’s music how it can get so much out of a chord sequence he has used so often before.
Dylan certainly felt a complete empathy with the song, between 1984 and 1999 he played it 204 times live on stage. Thus he clearly got a lot out of the composition – which again reinforces my view that it is an abstract not a set of meanings. Each time he recreated it, the music set the lyrics into a new mode with a new meaning.
It really is great fun.
The Discussion Group
We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook. Just type the phrase in, on your Facebook page Untold Dylan or go to https://www.facebook.com/groups/254617038225146/
The Chronology Files
There are reviews of Dylan’s compositions from all parts of his life, up to the most recent writings, but of late I have been trying to put these into chronological order, and fill in the gaps as I work.
- Dylan songs of the 1960s
- Dylan songs of the 1970s
- Dylan songs of the 1980s
- Dylan songs of the 1990s
- Dylan songs of the 21st century
All the songs reviewed on this site are also listed on the home page in alphabetical order – just scroll down a bit once you get there.