I and I
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.
Been so long since a
strange woman has slept in my bed
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.
I and I
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.
Think I'll go out and go for
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
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,
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,
Noontime, and I'm still
pushin' myself along the road, the darkest part,
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
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
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
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
So twice five miles of
Then take me disappearing
through the smoke rings of my mind,
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
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:
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 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
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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