Don’t Forget the Songs-365: Mach Tres: Day 261
Wed Dec 04, 2013
“I’m Not There (1956)”
Bob Dylan & The Band
“I’m Not There” may have been released almost thirty years after it’s creation but this Bob Dylan and The Band Basement Tape creation reflected the last stand of the Bob Dylan of the 1960’s, the one like to call The Blonde on Blonde Bard of yesteryears past. “I’m Not There” sounds like the exact moment The Dylan we knew, looked to for guidance and loved so much had disappeared into a ghost-like life of domesticity. On this masterful work-in-progress that Dylan never finished because in its fragmentary state symbolically contained the mumbled remnants of the passing of the metaphorical torch-songs from Bob to The Band. Dylan didn’t have to be the one setting the winds of change in motion with his music because The Band had literally taken “The Weight” off Bob’ shoulders. As a five piece unit, The Band had singlehanded changed the face of rock music beginning with 1968’s Music from Big Pink.
It all started with his famous motorcycle accident of 1966. That was the beginning of the end for The Blonde on Blonde Bard that we knew and loved of the 1960’s. Talking about his infamous accident of 1966, in an interview with Scott Cohen in 1985, Dylan said this, “In 1966 I had a motorcycle accident and ended up with several broken vertebrae and a concussion. That put me down for a while. I couldn’t go on doing what I had been. I was pretty wound up before that accident happened. It set me down so I could see things in a better perspective. I wasn’t seeing anything in any kind of perspective. I probably would have died if I had kept on going the way I had been.”
Robbie Robertson and The Band moved to Woodstock, NYC, specifically in an ugly West Saugerties house that was quickly dubbed Big Pink. The same place where The Band created Music from Big Pink is where the historic Basement Tapes were made as Robbie told Mojo Magazine, “It was a clubhouse, and we would go, every day to the clubhouse, the same way in the Mafia would go to their clubhouse […] we started putting some of our gear. And then Garth hooked up this little tape recorder that we had—a little quarter track model.” But instead of planning crimes, Robbie, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel were putting on the hits, in reality; the boys were just messing around making new grooves and having fun in the basement.
Soon Dylan joined the festivities, “wanting to write songs for other people to record;” Or as Bob once told Robbie. “Sometimes we would record things and he’d say OK. The mood was never really serious. We did a lot of laughing putting down those songs. We would lay something down, and then he would, in fun, say ‘Ok, that’s a great one for The Everly Brothers. Let’s send it to them.” Doing my research on Dylan and The Band, I had the impression that Bob suffered from the same case of isolationism that Elvis did. The Band hanging with Dylan was kind of like The Beatles when they met Presley as Ringo once said, “We had each other if any of us went mad. There were four of us. I feel sorry for Elvis, he was all alone.” After his motorcycle accident, Bob must have felt relieved for one moment in his life to be just one of the guys in the clubhouse/studio with Robbie, Rick, Garth and Richard and the loose sessions reflected this loose camaraderie.
When The Basement Tapes were released in 1975, three of the best songs “I Shall Be Released,” “Sign on the Cross” and “I’m Not There (1956)” were missing. Talking about the later two in Sid Griffin’s Million Dollar Bash, engineer Rob Fabroni said this, “Yeah, they are terrific, those two. But on some of the songs, like “Sign On The Cross,” which is one of the reels I made for myself of Basement Tapes out-takes we did not use, pieces of it were missing. Same with “I’m Not There.” There were technical reasons those songs, as great as they are, could not be issued. They were not complete takes. A lot of songs had bits missing or cut off too soon.”
I never understood that, just because something is missing or cut off doesn’t make it an imperfect take. Look at the Stones some of their best songs have mistakes in them, that’s the reason we connect to their music, Keith, Mick, Charlie and co are imperfect just like us. That’s what Dylan fans love about “I’m Not There,” it’s a snapshot of one of Bob’s song coming to life. Who cares if it’s not in the best shape and Dylan mumbles a few words, Keith Richards’ said it best, “Music is a language that doesn’t speak in particular words. It speaks in emotions, and if it’s in the bones, it’s in the bones.” “I’m Not There is definitely in the bones. “There” is a work in progress which what makes this gem so fascinating.
“I’m Not There” is like song riddle, a treasure hunt and we’re all Indiana Jones like music archeologists trying to find the Lost Ark of meaning to one of Dylan’s rarer songs. Like why exactly Dylan subtitled this (1956)? What we love about the Basement Tapes is that these recordings capture the unbridled enthusiasm of Dylan and The Band in this little room in their Pink House. “I’m Not There” is all emotion, So what if we can’t understand what exactly is going on, maybe we’re not supposed to and Keith Richards has a great quote about being too analytical with music when he told Bruce Pollock, “Music isn’t something to think about, at least initially. Eventually it’s got to cover the spectrum, but especially with rock ‘n’ roll; first it has to touch you somewhere else. It could be the groin; it could be the heart; it could be the guts; it could be the toes. It’ll get to the brain eventually. The last thing I’m thinking about is the brain. You do enough thinking about everything else.” That’s what we love about “I’m Not There,” Dylan’s vocal and The Band’s rhythms connect on an emotional level. We’ve been there when thoughts are racing through our minds and we’re struggling to comprehend what’s going on. Even though Bob never understood his fans fascination over this Basement Tape jewel, he and The Band must have been doing something right. Sometimes it takes years to revisit and make sense of a life changing event, for Dylan “There” was tracked in 1967 and we’re still talking about it.
Sid Griffin has a great description about why “I’m Not There” has stood the test of time when he wrote in Million Dollar Bash, “Suffice to say the immediacy of Dylan’s voice, the startling imagery, the viewpoint and even the subject matter off his songs as well as the overall performance he accomplishes with such material are all interlinked in a way that the layperson or the insightful critic will never fully understand. The bard of Hidding nonetheless came up with a classic. Dylan can create in this semi-improvised way and he tells us of his experience/s as he sings it/them. He does so effortlessly. In pop music terms this is the stuff of genius.”
It’s all in his voice. The way he captures the emotion as his improvising, at times he sounds so confident that you can’t tell Dylan is making it up as he goes along. In an interview by Playboy Magazine’s Ron Rosenbaum, when Dylan was describing his sound, it reminded me of the lack of enunciation on “I’m Not There,” as Bob explained, “Sometimes. You get a little spacey when you’ve been up all night, so you don’t really have the power to form it. But that’s the sound I’m trying to get across. I’m not just up there re-creating old blues tunes or trying to invent some surrealistic rhapsody. Yeah, it’s the sound and the words. Words don’t interfere with it. They- they-punctuate it. You know, they give it purpose. [Pause] And all the ideas for my songs, all the influences, all come out of that. All the influences, all the feelings, all the ideas come from that. I’m not doing it to see how good I can sound, or how perfect the melody can be, or how intricate the details can be woven or how perfectly written something can be. I don’t care about those things. “
John Bauldie’s famous depiction of “I’m Not There (1954)” ties in with Dylan’s explanation of the way he sings his songs, as Bauldie described, “‘I’m Not There’ is remarkable… Dylan improvises only vaguely realized lyrics against a hauntingly beautiful melody. The remarkable thing about it is that even, though, for the most part, the lyrics are not lyrics at all, but sounds, the performance is moving, emotionally over-flowing. It is Dylan’s saddest song, and one of his greatest vocal performances, for he catches feeling without words.” You can credit Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel for giving Dylan the rhythmic canvas for Dylan to color one of his most dynamic vocal performances with such mysterious delight.
In his book, The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, Greil Marcus captured the essence of what The Band brought to the Basement and specifically to this legendary track that is “I’m Not There” when he wrote, “Hudson and Manuel play as if they arrived late, but with the confidence that the funeral wouldn’t start without them. “We had played together for years; we could almost predict what we were going to do next.” Danko said of The Band. “We reached that stage with Bob.” Ironic that Marcus uses the word funeral to describe the way The Band was playing on this iconic track. It’s as if, “I’m Not There” is the unofficial funeral march for The Blonde on Blonde Bard of the 1960’s. The lyrics that Dylan mumbles are the last words from his alter-ego that Bob let go soon after these Basement Tapes sessions. This has to be my so many Dylan aficionados are obsessed with “I’m Not There.” It’s as if in between these indecipherable lyrics has to be an answer why Dylan didn’t keep his inspirational torch going. Instead he decided to pass it to over to The Band who took the mantle from these Basement sessions and changed the face of Rock Music with 1968’s Big Pink.
I believe the best description of “I’m Not There” comes from Anthony Varesi’s response to Greil Marcus depiction of this legendary Basement Tapes classic in his book The Bob Dylan albums: A Critical Study, when he wrote, ““I’m Not There” is even more amazing than “Sign on the Cross,” one of the most unique performances a listener will ever hear.” Greil Marcus has a quotation in his book Invisible Republic that refers to “I’m Not There” as maybe “the greatest song ever written”; perhaps it would be more accurate to call [“I’m Not There”] the greatest song never written […]” Varesi is so right since “I’m Not There” was never completed, it sounds more like an inspirational lament, a performance piece, one of the greatest Dylan has ever captured on tape and one of the last in the skin of his Blonde on Blonde Bard persona of the 1960’s. Varesi’s depiction matches the one Clinton Heylin described in his book Behind The Shades, “I’m Not There” as “[…]the most inspired example of Dylan’s ability to capture a moment on tape as vision begins to fragment, he seems to be free-forming words around the rudest of rudimentary outlines.”
I like to believe the reason Dylan fans look towards the mystical nature of “I’m Not There” is that we’re all searching for answers to what made Dylan symbolically walk away from being the movement for change in rock music. This was Dylan said in his best-selling and critically acclaimed book Chronicles Volume One, “Truth was that I wanted to get out of the rat race. Having children changed my life and segregated me from just about everybody and everything that was going on. Outside of my family, nothing held any real interest for me and I was seeing everything through different glasses. Even the horrifying news items of the day, the gunning down of the Kennedys, King, Malcolm X…I didn‘t see them as leaders being shot down, but rather as fathers whose families had been left wounded.”
When Dylan released John Wesley Harding the response was lukewarm as British journalist Mick Farren recalls telling Mojo, “For me, it was kind of a wistful disappointment. This wasn’t a son of Blonde on Blonde, just when we could have used one. John Wesley Harding wasn’t what we were looking for. It wasn’t a big meat and potatoes dinner. He sowed up, and it turned out to be a salad. The prophet had quit. It was clear that Bob definitely wasn’t going to lead us to the promise land.”
Something had to change, for Bob and so Dylan went country. He made peace with his life, his family and went south but the rest of the rock world was at first reluctant to join him they wanted the Blonde on Blonde Bard back, but that guy was gone and never to be seen again. Dylan talked about the change in his life that happened during the post Blonde on Blonde years when Dylan told Mikal Gilmore in a 2012 Rolling Stone interview, “Transmigration is not what we are talking about. This is something else. I had a motorcycle accident in 1966. […] So when you ask some of your questions, you’re asking them to a person who’s long dead. You’re asking them to a person that doesn’t exist. But people make that mistake about me all the time. I’ve lived through a lot. [… ]It is whatever it is. I couldn’t go back and find Bobby in a million years. Neither could you or anybody else on the face of the Earth. He’s gone. If I could, I would go back. I’d like to go back. At this point in time, I would love to go back and find him, put out my hand. And tell him he’s got a friend. But I can’t. He’s gone. He doesn’t exist.”
The Blonde on Blonde Bard had “left us” and The Band had risen from Woodstock to take the mantle that Dylan was more than happy to relinquish and the music world embraced this five piece known Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Levon Helm. The impact that The Band and Music from Big Pink had in the UK earth moving as Ian MacDonald, the late author of Revolution in the Head, once wrote, “Among the student audience, the album immediately became an exalted work, regarded with awe as something at once completely new and timelessly old, listened to as reverentially as Dylan’s 1965-66 trilogy.”
“I’m Not There” sounds like the last stand of the Bob Dylan of the 1960’s, the one like to call The Blonde on Blonde Bard of yesteryears past as Bob told Rolling Stone in 1969, ““Blonde on Blonde” was up on the charts at this time. At that time I had a dreadful motorcycle accident . . . Which put me away for awhile . . . and I still didn’t sense the importance of that accident till at least a year after that. I realized that it was a real accident. I mean I thought that I was just gonna get up and go back to doing what I was doing before . . . but I couldn’t do it anymore.”
The Dylan we knew and loved went out with overtones of Shane and rode into the Nashville Skyline sunset like a lyrical cowboy assume the new identity as John Wesley Harding, and his new ghost life of domesticity. “I’m Not There” was the last stand of the Blonde on Blonde Bard, his mumbles were the final spoken laments from a hero who had enough of the spoils and was ready to hang up his spurs and find a new genre to call home. Lucky we can go back and revisit the last stand of our favorite Bard and with every spin, we can put our ears towards the vinyl and try to figure out what happened during these Basement Tapes sessions, that spawned “I’m Not There” caused Bob Dylan to shed his rock ‘n’ roll sin for a more countrified paradise.
[click on this link to re-experience Bob Dylan & The Band’s “I’m Not There”]