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I and I

Bob Dylan's Dialogues with The Muse

 

by Russell G. Blatcher

 

Many Dylan lyrics seem impenetrable. They deftly defeat analysis even as they shine with hidden clarity. In much of his sixties' work this may be because they refer to personal matters we still know too little of to decode. As the writer and performer he somehow transmutes the material into gold. Any inability then or now to explain some of the specifics of, say, Visions Of Johanna, will never reduce it's power. This is not wilful obscurity, Dylan sometimes seems as in awe as we are of the process by which such work was produced. Dylan the man stands apart from Dylan the writer of these songs. This duality is the subject of one of his greatest songs of the eighties I And I. In some ways these later works are more impressive because Dylan has recovered from his bereavement at the loss of his early Muse and resumed working, fully conscious of what he is creating and how he is creating it.

I And I is Dylan's most personal song. It takes us straight inside the details of his daily life. The first line is so compact and so revealing: 

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.

For all the groupie mythology, how often do songwriters explicitly acknowledge the existence of casual sex on the rock and roll high road? Also, 'Been so long' and 'strange' show that this either marks the end of a previous relationship, or it's first betrayal.

Dylan looks at the sleeping girl, and for all her beauty is utterly separate from her. The contrast between being  'faithfully wed' and a one night stand reflects the contrast between the turbulence of Dylan's life as an artist and the tranquil creativity of the king 'who wrote psalms beside moonlit streams'. This image leads straight into the chorus and makes explicit the subject of the song: Dylan is not just separate from the girl: the greater separation is of the two 'I's of the title: the flesh and blood Dylan the man and his great creation, 'Bob Dylan' the songwriter, public figure, 'spokesman of a generation': 

I and I
In creation where one's nature neither honors nor forgives
I and I
One says to the other, no man sees my face and lives

The two 'I's are mutually destructive and can neither acknowledge nor  tolerate the existence of the other.  Since the second was created, each has continually tried to destroy the other. The created 'I' was in almost total control during the world tour of 1966. It's not just the drugs that make Dylan seem such an automaton in this period. The onstage figure of Eat The Document jerks like a puppet whose strings are about to be cut. Bob the man, Bob the father briefly triumphed during the years at Woodstock. Then, there is a dangerous balance between the two during the Rolling Thunder and Renaldo and Clara period. For either Dylan the problem was that the quality of his work seemed for many years to be tied to the dominance of the 'fake', manic Dylan in his personal life. It must be a bitter pill that his greatest work (1965-1966) comes from a time when he probably came close to insanity during the raging battle between those two selves.

Richard Nixon often referred to himself in the third person ("Nixon couldn't do that" etc) because the President, the politician, was not really him at all, but a figure constructed for public consumption. This may well be a mechanism to hold back the cognitive dissonance caused by maintaining a false persona. But the creation of 'Bob Dylan' was not such a conscious artifice. He probably didn't realise the threat which that new 'I' would present to the 'I' he already inhabited.  Several times before the uneasy truce which this song describes, he tried the more radical solution of completely destroying what he had created (motor bike 'crash', Self Portrait, being reborn).

This is the creation referred to in the second line of the chorus. The second ‘I’ is the created 'Bob Dylan'. The second and fourth lines refer to the conflict between the real 'I' and the Dylan which he created, and who everyone else now expects him to be, including those strangers like the girl sleeping in his bed. 

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. 

Here he describes these expectations, that he should be 'Bob Dylan', instead of himself and relive the past, especially those aspects of it he most wishes to forget. He goes out alone to escape the inevitable questions about the past from his new 'friend', and worse, her probable presumption of his great wisdom. Apparently even his wife, Sara, made this mistake, referred to in Idiot Wind: 

People see me all the time and they just can't remember how to act
Their minds are filled with big ideas, images and distorted facts
Even you yesterday  you had to ask me where it was at,
I couldn't believe after all these years, you didn't know me any better than that
Sweet Lady.

In fact the people don't see him at all, only their 'distorted' preconception of the 'Bob Dylan' figure. In The Nightingale's Code, John Gibbens describes how the songs on John Wesley Harding portray Dylan's recognition of the falsity of the role he had previously adopted, whether willingly or not. You can track Dylan's frustration through the rest of his career, that although he grasped this, and publicly acknowledged it,  the public, mostly, couldn't.  By the time he was writing I and I Dylan could have fairly averred that the public Dylan was as much other people’s creation as his own, taking it even further from his control. 

The third, fourth and fifth verses of  I and I take a lonely walk through the later parts of Dylan's career. 

Took an untrodden path once, where the swift don't win the race,
It goes to the worthy, who can divide the word of truth.
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. 

This shows how he began the escape from the trap he had created. The echoes of several well known biblical allusions (paths to heaven and hell, eye for an eye) suggest that the 'stranger' who helped him is Jesus. However, he could also be referring here to Norman Raeben, whom he has acknowledged for helping him move from unconscious to conscious creation, prior to the writing of Blood On The Tracks. 

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. 

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. 

In the fourth verse he is able to face with equanimity the destruction of 'Bob Dylan', because if that 'world could come to an end tonight', he (the surviving 'I') would still exist, and so would the girl's beauty. The 'tonight' of the third verse is paradoxically followed by the  'noontime' of  the fifth, even though this is 'the darkest part'. The metaphor is of a lifetime as the course of a single day: 'noontime' is Dylan entering into midlife, "still pushin' myself along the road", i.e. still touring relentlessly, still trying to write honestly. 

This darkness and the 'narrow lanes' are the pressures constricting Dylan as a writer as his career lengthens. Expectations are  more and more unrealistic: 'I can't stumble or stay put' i.e. he is always expected to improve on what he did before, or is written off as a failure. Although critics, pundits and the public can use and reuse his work ('Someone else is speakin' with my mouth'), he is always expected to create anew and from scratch: 

I've made shoes for everyone, even you, while I still go barefoot 

In this, the last line of the last verse 'you' appears for the first time in the song. Who is Dylan suddenly addressing? Consider the context. Dylan has made shoes for everyone  'even you'. The shoes are the songs, 'I' is the real, flesh and blood, born of woman, Bob Dylan, and 'you' is the 'Bob Dylan', become monster, which he created. But now the creator finally turns upon his ungodly creation and reclaims authorship not only of this great song, but all the others as well. 

It is possible to trace the tenor of Dylan's relationship with his muse in certain crucial songs throughout his career. Mr Tambourine Man has long confounded the efforts of schoolboy critics. But make no mistake, the Dylan songs which have a visceral impact, which resound with their roundness, their inner world, all have reachable statements. As in I and I the person addressed in Mr Tambourine Man is this muse, who, even at this early stage is regarded with considerable ambiguity. The contradiction for all great artists is their need for certainty, arrogance even, balanced against the fleeting nature of inspiration. In this song we see the contrast between inspiration, when the writer is transformed, and the more mundane periods when nothing happens for him. So when inspired he will "dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free", but at other times "my weariness amazes me". Dance and the dancer are also used in the most famous evocation of the muse, Coleridge's Kubla Khan: 

That with music loud and long
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
and all should cry, Beware!   Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair! 

It is especially ironic that like this poem, Mr Tambourine Man is irrevocably and equally erroneously linked with drugs. Kubla Khan is no more about opium than Mr Tambourine Man is about marijuana LSD, amphetamine or alcohol. Both are about building 'that dome in air'. Both are about the delight of being possessed by the muse, balanced with the fearful knowledge that each time that possession ends it could be the last time it comes. Coleridge's warning about the muse ('Beware! Beware!') reflects Dylan's warning in I and I ('no man sees my face and lives') because the ecstasy is always balanced by the fear. In Tambourine Man, Dylan, like Coleridge writes of creation's link to loss of control and heightened senses. The places they visit are very similar dream landscapes: 

So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery. 

Then take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind,
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves,
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach,
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow. 

Put I and I next to Mr Tambourine Man and the contrast between the young and the middle-aged artist is revealed in the different landscapes through which the older man is taken. From 'the jingle jangle morning'  and 'the circus sands' to I and I's grim walk along the wintry station platform, 'waiting for spring to come' and 'Into the narrow lanes'. Contrast in fact the fullness of the early song's descriptions and  metaphors, to the  resigned plodding along  seen here. For all the power of the song, Dylan's exhaustion is palpable. 

On Love and Theft Dylan returns again to warring twins. What then of Tweedledee and Tweedledum? Is the first song on Dylan's best album for 10, maybe 20 years, just a throw-away joke? 

Here again is the familiar duality from I and I. Another 20 years on, Dylan no longer takes the issue of his problems as a creator quite so seriously. Indeed Love and Theft is crammed with many types of humour, from the most banal (which so confused our deadly British broadsheet reviewers) upwards. 

In Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass, Tweedledee and Tweedledum represent all the pointless fights in human history caused by the exaggeration of small differences. The closest literary parallel is in Gulliver's Travels, where Swift's LittleEnders and BigEnders go to war over how a boiled egg should be eaten.  Dylan follows this idea through each line in the first verse: for example, the end product of all wars is surely  'Two big bags of dead man's bones'. 

During the recent U.S. Presidential election, Ralph Nader repeatedly characterised the Democratic and Republican parties as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and Dylan also sees their  struggle as a pointless and comic contest. The middle section of the song is  littered with references to that election and it's farcical epilogue in the Florida courts:

'they're goin to the country'
'His Master's Voice is calling me'

'They seem determined to go all the way'
'They got a paid permit and a police escort'
running for office?
the military-industrial complex giving
instructions to candidates?
the legal wrangles over the pregnant chads?
the perks of politicians everywhere?

In the last verse, like I and I, and many folk songs, the song's moral or  theme is emphasised and clarified: 

Well, a childish dream is a deathless need
And a noble truth is a sacred creed. 

Deathless means unending and inescapable. Dylan's childish dream is to serve that 'noble truth': but now at sixty he knows he will never get away from the code he set for himself when he first became an artist: to remain truthful. The problem for him, as for all of us, is that such truth comes only from within, and the battle he is ridiculing here finally is his own struggle with himself, not to descend into self parody, or regurgitation of earlier 'triumphs'. The artist is left without help in these matters. No one can help him, for only his opinion matters. 

Whereas in Mr Tambourine Man, Dylan sees this as tragic, and appeals to his muse for help in every chorus; whereas in I and I he is isolated and alone, almost self-pitying; in TweedleDee and Tweedledum he can at last step back and laugh at it all.

 
 
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