I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met), Bob Dylan, his son, the Beatles

by Jochen Markhorst

Understandably, son Jakob stays away from his father’s oeuvre, but unfortunate it is all the same. With his Wallflowers he repeatedly demonstrates his talent to upgrade songs of others; very successful covers of “I Started A Joke” (Bee Gees), “Too Late For Goodbyes” (Julian Lennon) and “Heroes” (Bowie) at least make one curious about how Jakob would interpret a “She Belongs To Me” or a “Love Sick”.

Close to his father’s work he comes with the contribution to the soundtrack of I Am Sam (2001), with the cover of the Beatles song “I’m Looking Through You”. It is one of the ‘Jane Asher songs’ by McCartney, one of the songs in which the Beatle processes relationship perils with his then-girlfriend Asher (like in “Things We Said Today”, “You Won‘t See Me” and “For No One”). In the biography Paul McCartney: Miles From Nowhere (Barry Miles, 1997), he also admits this in so many words:

Suffice to say that this one was probably related to that romantic episode and I was seeing through her façade. And realising that it wasn’t quite all that it seemed. I would write it out in a song and then I’ve got rid of the emotion. I don’t hold grudges so that gets rid of that little bit of emotional baggage. I remember specifically this one being about that, getting rid of some emotional baggage. I’m looking through you, and you’re not there!

… so McCartney’s own private life inspires the theme, but word choice, staging and content do also reveal that Another Side Of Bob Dylan is on his turntable, and more specifically: “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)”. Textual parallels enough (where did you go versus why did she go, for example), and of course the most striking thing is the similarity between The Beatles’ you’re not the same with Dylan’s she ain’t the same.

Lennon does not stay behind either; “I’m A Loser” is the first Lennon song in which Dylan’s influence can be pointed out so clearly. Not only because of the folky approach and the mature, semi-literary lyrics, but also because of an idiomatic peculiarity, which Lennon himself points out, in his interview with David Scheff in 1980, shortly before his death:

I’m A Loser is me in my Dylan period, because the word ‘clown’ is in it. I objected to the word ‘clown’, because that was always artsy-fartsy, but Dylan had used it so I thought it was all right, and it rhymed with whatever I was doing.”

Apart from the word ‘clown’, the refrain line I’m not what I appear to be stands out – Lennon writes this song a few days after Another Side Of is released, so a couple of days after he first heard Dylan’s “I Don’t Believe You” with that key phrase she ain’t the same.

Incidentally, with his cover (2003), Eels turns “I’m A Loser” into a full-blooded Dylan song, including a Dylanesque harmonica solo.

I’m looking through you

The title of Dylan’s song does not appear in any of the lyrics, not even in his own song, and in doing so the bard sets a trend. This fourth album is the first album on which Dylan comes up with song titles that add something to the lyrics. So far he names the song, as songwriters have been doing for centuries, after the chorus (“Blowin ‘In The Wind”), the recurring verse line (“With God On Our Side”) or he crystallizes the whole song in the title (“Bob Dylan’s Blues”, “Percy’s Song”), but from now on the period begins when the poet names his works like a painter does. “My Back Pages”, “Motorpsycho Nightmare” and this “I Don’t Believe You” … titles that add an extra overtone to the lyrics, which either deliberately confuse or give more depth. On succeeding records he perhaps carries on a bit too far, making up titles that no longer have any recognizable relation with the song itself. “From A Buick 6”, “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry”, “Fourth Time Around”.

Now the title’s link to this song is not that far-fetched, obviously. With I don’t believe you, the protagonist brings his opinion about the opponent’s actions back to the core, like, for that matter, the stamp ‘unreliable, fake’ also fits perfectly on the main characters of “I’m Looking Through You” and “I’m A Loser’.

Two years later, the slogan completely separates itself from the song, when Dylan uses exactly these words against (most likely) the one who shouts Judas! at him, May ’66 in Manchester.

The words I don’t believe you still hang in the air, at that memorable point. Five songs before Judas! the men have played the song, provocatively announced by Dylan (‘It used to go like that, now it goes like this’, to which the audience reacts with some nervous laughter), and then launches a magisterial, scorching and misunderstood version into the room.

The atmosphere remains hostile, with the world’s most famous concert insult as apotheosis. “I don’t believe you,” Dylan says blurrily, then more viciously: “You’re a liar,” and finally grimly to The Band: “Play it fucking loud!”

That short riposte is of great beauty, in particular because of the multitude of opposites within it. Dylan’s emotion changes per sentence – contentwise it goes from cool to blistering to vulgar and at the macro level the contrast between the goosebumps inducing quality of the performance and the hateful, disappointed reception by the audience continues to fascinate. The eleven words acquire the same status as a monumental Dylan song; they are printed on T-shirts, bumper stickers and posters,are retold hundreds of times in review articles, biographies and documentaries and the hunt for the anonymous bawler is closed fairly credibly and convincing in 1999 by Independent journalist Andy Kershaw, who was approached by a sympathetic, modest teacher trainer from Manchester, one John Cordwell.

Cordwell tells that, although he felt betrayed by Dylan’s turn to rock ‘n roll, he was particularly annoyed by the appallingly poor sound quality. On hearing the official CD of that concert in 1999, he says: “Absolutely brilliant. But that wasn’t the set that you heard in the auditorium. It didn’t sound like that.

Dylan does not consider it worth talking about. However, the source of his famous stage talk, the song “I Don’t Believe You” seems to echo. In 1979, on his first evangelical album Slow Train Coming, in the song “I Believe In You”. I believe in you, he sings there, even on the morning after. That seems a bit disrespectful, in this context. As if the love for the Lord Jesus is a one-night stand that was so great that He may stay for breakfast. The verse line before that is also slightly abrasive: I believe in you even though we be apart. If you have accepted Jesus into your life, He is always with you, is he not? What does the poet mean by ‘even if we be apart’? Alright, with some good will that can be understood as ‘you and I together, separated from everyone else’. That would be rather inconsistent with the use of all other personal pronouns in this text, but then again: Dylan does have a tendency to mess around with pronouns (“Tangled Up In Blue”).

That morning after, however, can not be squeezed in a pious, respectful interpretation – here the poet really juggles with the lyrics of the song that is so very often on his playlist (in 1978, the year before “I Believe In You”, 104 times), the song about the she he does not believe, the next morning, “I Don’t Believe You”.

Dylan’s love for this song is easy to understand. Technically, the bard already delivers a tour de force, even by his own Olympic standards.

The poet chooses a seemingly antique, but surprisingly not very archaic rhyme: the Kipling, named after, yes indeed, Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), because of his poem L’Envoi. The rhyme scheme (aabccbdeffe), which has a somewhat medieval touch, like a mixture of the chant Royal and the tight proverbial stanzas, is distinct, but presumably still an own (re)invention by the poet Dylan. In previous songs like “Restless Farewell” and “When The Ship Comes In” we already see him vary, just like the source of inspiration Brecht does in his poetry, on classical verse and rhyme forms, and on this album he explores that terrain further. “To Ramona”, “My Back Pages” … poetic eruptions of a language-loving genius who will know how to create, even without the Kipling example, a mesmerizing masterpiece with such a distinctive rhyme scheme and such a distinctive cadence like “I Don’t Believe You”.

The equally hypnotic melody imposes itself almost automatically, within such a tight structure of quirky changes of metre (almost every second line of the eleven-line couplets has a shift in metre). Irresistible indeed, like whole cohorts of colleagues demonstrate.

Waylon Jennings injects an infectious stomp and a cheerful bar-piano  (Don’t Think Twice, 1970). Glen Campbell carelessly pours out buckets of violins, but oh well, it remains a beautiful song (on Mr. 12 String Guitar from 1966, the album on which he violates six other Dylan songs too). The obscure Westcoast band The Bows And Arrows demonstrates what The Byrds would have made of it (single 1965, to be found on YouTube) and better known, but not necessarily more appealing is the smooth pop gem of the affected Al Stewart (Orange, 1972).

The song remains popular in the twenty-first century. It is on the setlist with the indestructible Lloyd Cole (who manages to give a dark, brooding touch), and Darrell Scott is a successful songwriter (Dixie Chicks, Faith Hill), but also a compelling, virtuoso musician whose “I Don’t Believe You” gets a Desire atmosphere (Modern Hymns, 2008).

Still, the most beautiful cover is an oldie goldie, one that stays close to The Band: the British folk rockers around Sandy Denny, Fotheringay, on their second album (Fotheringay 2, 1970 – but only released in 2008).

All of them, however, fall short in comparison to the master himself. At least the Top 3 of the Ten Most Beautiful Versions consists of versions by Dylan, where one cannot choose between the original version from ’64, one of the many beautiful 1966 performances with The Band or 1978, the Rundown Sessions. Or the studio outtakes from 1969, from the sessions with Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. Or, of course, The Last Waltz with that crushing guitar solo by Robbie Robertson. That masterpiece could well be the template for the final cover that, some fine day, Jakob Dylan will make of one of his father’s monuments.

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  1. Rudyard Kipling’s style motif in ‘L’Envoi’ – “Shall draw the thing as he sees it” – , and Ezra Pound’s in ‘Envoi’ – “All things have beauty alone” greatly influence Modernist poets like William Carlos Williams – “No ideas but in things” – the last poet, through Allen Ginsberg, especially influences the style of Bob Dylan’s song lyrics.

    That Kipling be an advocate for the British Empire -and Pound be a proponent of Fascism – distances these artists today, but not their artistic imagery.

  2. Take what you have gathered from coincidence –

    In “L’Envoi”, there’s:

    field ((a) yield (a) sun (b) over (c) clover (c) done (b)
    tresh (d) rain (e) song (f) long (f) again (e)

    In “I Don’t”, there’s:

    understand (a) hand (a) wall (b) know (c) go (c) all (b)
    night-time (d) forget (e) clear (f) here (f) met (e)

    Very interesting.

  3. There’s:

    We are dropping down the ladder rung by rung …
    God help us, for we knew the worst too young
    (Kipling: Gentlemen-Rankers)

    And then there’s:

    May you build a ladder to the stars
    And climb on every rung
    May you stay forever young
    (Dylan: Forever Young)

  4. Gathered from coincidence indeed, Larry.

    My first hunch was François Villon. After all, this rhyme scheme feels late-medieval / early-Renaissance. In Villon’s work I could not find this specific scheme, but on the way I stumbled – by chance – across Kipling’s L’Envoi, which seemed a perfect match.

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