The Man In Me: the lyrics change, the song evolves. Dylan at work.

The Man In Me (1970)

by Jochen Markhorst

The colourful crackerjack guitarist and full-blooded musician Jack White may consider himself one of Dylan’s more intimate acquaintances and lives in a large house with a large piece of land in Nashville.

In March 2017 he receives a visit from journalist Alec Wilkinson, who writes an article for The New Yorker about this polymath, this uomo universalis and who is being shown around the site. Haughtily three snow-white peacocks parade around.

There are some buildings behind the house. In one of them is a studio, an upholstery – White has been trained as an upholsterer. In another building, White has had a bowling alley with three lanes, where he occasionally goes bowling with friends. The journalist notices the ball rack, with gaily decorated bowling balls, with nameplates. Bob Dylan’s ball is decorated with a portrait of John Wayne.

It is an intriguing, almost surreal image that now imposes itself: Bob Dylan in Nashville, watched by albino ornamental birds, bowling with the head of John Wayne, while Jack White keeps the score on a psychedelic upholstered bucket seat. An image that fits into the cult film that coined the Bob Dylan + bowling combination, The Big Lebowski (1998).

It is a special art, the skill to merge a film scene with a song so that the image settles in the collective consciousness of millions of viewers. There are not too many examples. “Stuck In The Middle With You” and the torture scene in Reservoir Dogs, “As Time Goes By” at Rick’s cafe in Casablanca, “The End” of The Doors in Apocalypse Now.

“The Man In Me” now also belongs to that exclusive club, and we owe that to T Bone Burnett, the “Musical Archivist” (he feels very uncomfortable with the usual function indication “Musical Supervisor”, hence). Burnett has since built up an Olympic status in the film world, also in the field of composing, and has won Grammy Awards, Oscar nominations (once won) and all other conceivable prizes, for his musical contributions to movies like The Hunger Games, O Brother Where Art Thou and Crazy Heart. He is a popular music producer as well, working with some of the greatest musicians: Roy Orbison, Elvis Costello and Los Lobos, just to name a few.

Dylan connections abound. Indirectly anyway: T Bone produces an album of the band of Dylan’s son Jakob, The Wallflowers, as well as his solo album Women & Country. And of course the Lost On The River project, the ambitious venture of A-artists like Elvis Costello and Jim James to put a pile of forgotten lyrics from Dylan’s Big Pink period to music.

The direct connection to Dylan goes back decades: in ’75 and ’76 Burnett participates in the Rolling Thunder Revue, where the extremely spindly and tall Texan is notable for his behaviour along the way, not only because of his grotesque appearance and swaying rumbling across the stage. Log writer Sam Shepard notes that Burnett “has a peculiar quality of craziness about him. He’s the only one on the tour I’m not sure has relative control over his violent dark side.”

In an interview with Rolling Stone, 1983, the protagonist does recognize some of that image: “I could be mean and sarcastic (…) and laughing in the face of death.”

However, in the following years Burnett recovers, becomes a born-again Christian and, as mentioned, reaches the top in his field. Choosing “The Man In Me” then, in 1998 as a Musical Archivist, is not entirely inspired by artistic insights – Burnett also confesses a missionary urge: “New Morning is one of my favorite Dylan records.”

The mission succeeds. “The Man In Me”, when appearing in 1970 on New Morning, does not really stand out, tucked away somewhere near the end of side 2. It certainly has a nice little melody, as Dylan would say, but it sounds a bit dull, the ladies’ choir does not really work and Dylan has a bit of a cold. And apparently the creator saw that it was good; more than two takes he does not grant the song, despite an audibly enthusiastic Al Kooper on the organ. After that second and last take, he spends the rest of the studio time mainly on the – not too complex – “Father Of Night” (eleven takes).

Initially, the song hovers in the grey zone of quite-okay Dylan songs, until it is picked up in 1978 by the master. It appears on the setlist for the Far East Tour, soon finds a beautiful new form during the practice sessions at the Rundown Studios in January and is indeed played at every concert in Japan and Australia. Only one time, in Adelaide (March 18) he introduces the song: “This is an old song. There’s a few new lyrics that keep it up to date.”

Intriguing words. Prior to “The Man In Me” Dylan has already played seventeen songs that are older, but never does he feel the urge to update any of the ‘old songs’. That would have been a bit bizarre, obviously, with timeless classics like Hard Rain, Tambourine Man and Rolling Stone, but apart from that it is a rather unusual, on a motivational level even unique maneuver. Dylan tinkers with and refines his lyrics all the time (from “Tangled Up In Blue” we heard dozens of variants, for example), but this is the only time he describes such an operation as an update.

It concerns the lines

I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it’s true,
I’m lying next to her, but I’m dreaming of you
I know you got a husband, and that’s a fact,
But, ah baby, turn me loose or cover my tracks,

… that indeed bring about a change of course – the you from the original text is apparently no longer near, has a husband (or: is officially still married to the narrator) and is now only worshipped from afar, while the protagonist is lying in another bed. And because of this textual intervention, it is rather difficult to avoid an autobiographical interpretation.

The original lyrics would, following that line of thought, have been a tender ode to Dylan’s wife Sara, the update is a sad post scriptum after the divorce. The obvious candidate for the mentioned her would be backing vocalist Helena Springs, who is repeatedly, not too gallantly, introduced as ‘my current girlfriend’ on this Far East Tour and now also hears night after night that her ‘current’ boyfriend boyfriend thinks of another when he is in bed with her.

And that is not all, in terms of deleting and rewriting. Already at those first practice sessions in January we hear, in addition to smaller revisions, a renewed second verse:

Lost on the river of no return
I try to make it to you, but I’m afraid my heart will burn

And a few months later, July ’78 in Paris, the last verse opens with

I go down to the border beneath the sun
Calling out her name, but, baby, you're the one

… wherein that border beneath the sun seems a poetic choice of words to express that he so missed the you while he is under the equator, in Australia.

Keepers are none of them. In the 21st century Dylan maintains the original New Morning lyrics both on his website and in the collected Lyrics.

A successful musical intervention is the repetition of middle-eight, a style break that Dylan seems to be rather fond of in this Street Legal phase. This bridge has a classic beauty and can be traced back: Dylan lends part of the words, the meter and the melody of “On The Street Where You Live”. The original, from the musical My Fair Lady (1956), is just a bit too saggy, but the song has been recorded dozens of times, and Dylan is undoubtedly familiar with the versions of big names like Andy Williams, Doris Day and Perry Como, but especially with that of one of his idols, Nat King Cole.

The biggest revelation, however, is the arrangement of 1978. Most live performances are very nice, but they rarely reach the breathtaking intensity of those January sessions. That version sets in like “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart” and is gradually enriched with the frayed edges and the cojones which are absent from Al Green’s masterpiece.

In the 70s, the song is already covered here and there. Usually pleasant readings. Dylan probably feels honoured by contemporary Lonnie Mack, who is an early bird (on the beautiful, The Band-like album The Hills Of Indiana, 1971), just like a-capella group The Persuasions (Street Corner Symphony, 1972 ). Noteworthy is the version of the British reggae band Matumbi, which owes the breakthrough to Dylan – the band scores a big hit in 1976 with “The Man In Me” and that again inspires Joe Cocker to record a reggae version (Stingray, 1976, on which also a sultry, fascinating cover of Dylan’s rejectee “Catfish” can be found). Similar reggae- or Maumbi-inspired is an outtake from The Clash (The Vanilla Tapes, 2004)

The most fascinating, until Dylan’s own revision in ’78, is the elaborate, kaleidoscopic interpretation by sidekick Al Kooper on his ambitious album A Possible Projection of the Future / Childhood’s End from 1972. Kooper seems to want to deal with the harrowing frustrations that he has accumulated in producing New Morning, with the original of “The Man In Me”; Hear, hear: this is what we could have done with the song. To Dylan fans it might be somewhat overproduced, but Kooper is clearly in love with the song and manufactures sparkling, multicoloured marquetry.

Since The Big Lebowski, the number of covers has increased exponentially, and a quality that only a handful of Dylan songs have, stands out: the song can hardly be ruined. Jim James, who already produced such an ethereal upgrade to “Goin’ To Acapulco”, repeats that achievement with his band My Morning Jacket.

Ray Lamontagne sings like he often does, a bit over the top, but his interpretation has an attractive, sober, intimate arrangement. Totally different from the jumpy, energetic, trashy, pleasantly disrespectful cover by punk band Say Anything from Los Angeles, the most magnificent adaptation of the past years.

Debatable, of course. Or, as The Dude would say: “Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”

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  1. Great article as usual Jochen!

    I had forgotten the Clash did a cover of this… I’ll need to look out my copy of London Calling with the bonus disc and give it a listen again!

    T Bone was also involved in the creation of Dylan’s most recent track Gone But Not Forgotten. Jim James was also part of The New Basement Tapes band. James has become pretty good at these types of project (as Yim Yames) starting with the George Harrison “Tribute To” ep, then the Woody Guthrie project “New Multitudes”, followed by “Tribute To 2” which included a great country version of I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.

  2. So am I to take it that the song’s not about a bunch of kids playing a game of ‘Hide-And-Go-Seek’?

  3. I kinda suspected as much, Larry. Granted, we’re on the Old Continent, but not that deeply slumbered away. Yet.

    @Aaron: thanks, I’ll check it out.

  4. True the lyrics do evolve and this is a feature of Dylan’s artistry that I truly admire. However, the lyric changes can be problematic. I believe that the various wonderful ‘Bootleg Series ‘outtakes clearly demonstrate that Dylan not only keeps singing a song until he achieves the right vocal and musical vibe but also the right words. ‘Workingman’s Blues 2’ had me in an emotional spell from the first time I played the album ( and still does ), then not long after the album’s release I went to a concert and he had drastically changed the words to my disappointment. In this case the words of the song which refer to his lover may have been too personal despite his attempt to make the song universal…something happened because the lyrics printed in the latest collection of his lyrics ( the book ) are the revised lyrics he performed live. I can also see that he has done the same with ‘Beyond the Horizon’. Sometimes,the changes can be spine tingling such as Wembley 1984 when myself and 90,000 people heard the glorious ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ rewrite. The latest version of this song is wonderful too especially if you are in the auditorium when he sings it for you.

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