Have you ever noticed those dark spots in the woods while driving in a strange part of the country? Even though it’s broad daylight, the sun can’t penetrate those areas. Some writers work in those spots, either attempting to bring light to the darkness represented by that space or choose to stay in the darkness. In some instances, those dark spots in the woods are not actual dark spots in the woods, but actually an exploration of the self.
The poet and essayist Hanif Abdurraqib was on the podcast Millennials Are Killing Capitalism in December 2020 to mourn the passing of rapper MF DOOM, who we discussed in the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” post. Hanif was reflecting on DOOM’s decision to always appear in public and onstage in a metal mask, and what it meant for, not only DOOM, but for his audience:
“I think there’s something really useful about forcefully hatching one’s self, the actual real person, from whatever their product might be or whatever their consumption point might be for the rest of the public. Just the mask itself does that. But also making no bones about the fact that what you are listening to when you were listening to DOOM was someone who was not only building a persona but building an entire ecosystem through which that persona was operating in. That made it so that the listener had to [understand] the multitudinous nature of this person behind the mask. When tuning into a DOOM record in any form you had to suspend that system of understanding and understand that instead you were listening to someone who had built an ecosystem outside of themselves. And that, I think, is immensely generous. I always talk in writing workshops about how withholding is generous because withholding allows for people’s imaginations to flourish on their own with whatever blueprint you’ve provided them and with whatever you’ve withheld from them. And I think DOOM was a real master of brilliantly and artfully withholding and, through that withholding, I think we got so much more than we would have maybe gotten if he were to take the mask off and tell the story of his many heartbreaks or his many triumphs and losses.”
Bob Dylan himself wears a mask. He was born “Robert Zimmerman” and changed his name to “Bob Dylan” when he left home to play music professionally. When he first came to New York City and then after he achieved some attention for his first albums, Dylan constantly told tall tales about his background. As his career progressed, Dylan adopted certain personas as well as different manners of singing and clothing. From album to album and even song to song within a certain album, we ask ourselves, “Who is the character that Dylan has adopted here?” Even on Recliner Notes, I am constantly jumping back and forth between referring to Dylan as the writer of the words of a song and the performer of the song with Dylan as the narrator of the song, who isn’t quite Bob Dylan. Even if the song is autobiographical, the life story is transformed through the act of creation. As Dylan sings on “Brownsville Girl” (and we covered in this post), “The only thing we knew for sure about Henry Porter is that his name wasn’t Henry Porter.” Dylan loves to work in the in-between space of identities. It certainly keeps his audience off-balance, and, as Hanif Abdurraqib says in the quote above, this is an act of withholding on Dylan’s part, allowing Dylan’s listeners to fill in the spaces for themselves about Dylan and the characters who are presenting a “Bob Dylan song.”
In an interview with Scott Cohen of Spin in December 1985, Dylan confirmed that his song “I and I” explores this slipping between identifies in the way he creates music and presents himself to the world:
“Sometimes the ‘you’ in my songs is me talking to me. Other times I can be talking to somebody else. If I’m talking to me in a song, I’m not going to drop everything and say, alright, now I’m talking to you. It’s up to you to figure out who’s who. A lot of times it’s ‘you’ talking to ‘you.’ The ‘I,’ like in ‘I and I,’ also changes. It could be I, or it could be the ‘I’ who created me. And also, it could be another person who’s saying ‘I.’ When I say ‘I’ right now, I don’t know who I’m talking about.”
“I and I” was released on 1983’s Infidels, and it has a “professional studio musician” sound. Highlighting the album is Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler on guitar, who also produced the album. His guitar playing on “I and I” sounds like machine gun fire at times, always circling Dylan’s vocals. It has the feel of the soundtrack of a neo-noir 80s movie that was released straight to Showtime. That’s not intended to be a derogatory comment as the noir feel provides the proper atmosphere for the reckoning that is “I and I.”
The neo-noir feel of the music carries over to the lyrics as the opening line sets the scene for the song: “Been so long since a strange woman has slept in my bed.” This opening is masterful as it represents so much about the narrator in the song, which is reflected in Dylan’s singing tone and delivery. This isn’t a jubilant occurrence. The narrator is filled with a great deal of self-contempt. This disgust with himself is reinforced in the lyrics by the next verse:
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
The distaste is oozing out of the narrator now, but also bringing on depression and an abiding sense that everything is meaningless. Nothing is happening in this location and that will never change. “I’ve got nothing to say.” Nothing nothing nothing. Negation after negation. This is true noir. Why should I do anything because I know whatever I try to do won’t matter in the end?
The contemplation of the strange woman in the narrator’s bed leads to the dark exploration of self. Dylan sings:
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
The reference to the “righteous king who wrote psalms” is a nod to King David of Israel. It also imagines another parallel existence in which the strange woman is “faithfully wed” to him, Bob Dylan, another writer of songs, not psalms. As Dylan said in the quote above, sometimes the subjects in his songs are the “‘I’ who created me.” “Bob Dylan” – an artist who we as listeners follow, buy albums from – is a creation of Bob Dylan. And what happens when Bob Dylan is constantly having to answer for, explain away, and make sense of the songs of “Bob Dylan?” Things get tricky! Check out the chorus:
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
Dylan is now saying outright that there are two “I”s inside of him and that he is attempting to consider these two identities on a neutral ground where “honor” or “forgiveness” won’t be brought into play. What will happen on this neutral ground? A confrontation between the two identities and an exchange similar to a shootout in a neo-noir in which one “I” says to the other “I,” “no man sees my face and lives.”
What a remarkable thing to say to oneself, to act as if one’s identity is a villain in a movie who needs to be murdered in order to protect one’s identity! Within the song, Dylan is in a face off with himself, the public self and the “true” self. Back to Hanif Abdurraqib’s idea above about the act of generosity that an artist does for his audience when he withholds something from us, allowing us to create and imagine in that blank space. “I and I” is Dylan’s attempt to explain the impact of that act of withholding on the artist himself. While it may be generous to the audience, it leaves the artist filled with self-contempt, at such a magnitude that one self is threatening the other self with murder. This is truly a dark spot in the woods.
Dylan himself acknowledges the darkness in the last verse of “I and I,” singing “Noontime, and I’m still pushin’ myself along the road, the darkest part.” With these words, he is rejecting The Carter Family’s song “Keep on the Sunny Side,” knowing that he has to persevere, but in doing so, he has to embrace the darkest spots in the woods.
Dylan then goes on to say that he pushes himself “Into the narrow lanes,” and while singing, laughs to himself, and then sings, “I can’t stumble or stay put.” This is Dylan talking about how he is received by the public. He’s not allowed to make mistakes or step out of preconceived notions about what his musical output should be without some rebuke. This impossible task of living up to and answering to the media and his fans as his public self makes him laugh at the absurdity of the situation.
Dylan goes on to sing: “Someone else is speakin’ with my mouth, but I’m listening only to my heart.” Here, the two different selves are in control of two distinct parts of the body, but Dylan seems to be saying that there’s only one true “I” in this conflict, the one who is “listening only to my heart.” Then Dylan sings, “I’ve made shoes for everyone, even you, while I still go barefoot.” He is asking for acknowledgment of the sacrifice he makes for creating a self meant for the public.
In 1980 – a few years before the recording of “I and I” – playwright Sam Shepard premiered his play True West. It’s the story of two brothers – one a screenwriter, the other a ne’er-do-well – coming together in their mother’s house, confronting each other about the past, the future, and, well, everything. They eventually destroy the house and the implication is that they both are forever altered by their conflict and possibly ruined.
As an audience, we come to realize that the brothers represent a divided self, two halves of one person. This theme was best expressed by a revival production of True West in 2000 when Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly played the leads, but would switch roles throughout the run of the production. Shepard said of the play:
“I wanted to write a play about double nature, one that wouldn’t be symbolic or metaphorical or any of that stuff. I just wanted to give a taste of what it feels like to be two-sided. It’s a real thing, double nature. I think we’re split in a much more devastating way than psychology can ever reveal. It’s not so cute. Not some little thing we can get over. It’s something we’ve got to live with.”
Did Dylan know this play? Possibly! As I discussed in a previous post, Dylan and Shepard collaborated on what would become “Brownsville Girl” soon after the recording of “I and I.” True West certainly depicts the devastating impact of the divided self and plays out the line from the chorus of “I and I”: “One says to the other, no man sees my face and lives.”
“I and I” is a remarkable piece of writing and one that caught the attention of another master lyricist and performer, Leonard Cohen. In an oft-told anecdote of a morning Paris cafe meet-up between the two songwriters, Dylan expressessed his admiration for Cohen’s song “Hallelujah,” which, like “I and I,” also contemplates King David as a songwriter. The time of this meeting was before “Hallelujah” had been covered by every single member of the human race, so Dylan was ahead of the crowd with his praise. Dylan asked Cohen how long it took him to write “Hallelujah.” Cohen responded “Two years,” despite the fact that it had taken him much longer. Cohen then returned the favor by saying how much he enjoyed “I and I.” He asked Dylan, “How long did it take you to write that?” Dylan responded, “About 15 minutes.”
In high school when I was first learning how to play guitar and was already a big Bob Dylan fan, I received a Bob Dylan guitar songbook for Christmas. The songbook included lyrics and chords of his most well-known songs, including “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Like A Rolling Stone,” and “The Times They Are A-Changin.’” Among the collection was one outlier – “I And I” – a song that I had not heard to that point. Even years later, it’s hard to argue for its inclusion. It remains an obscurity, even for some Dylan fans. Did the publisher push to add it in the songbook so that the songs included wouldn’t only be classics from the 60s and 70s? Did Dylan’s manager want it in the collection? Did Dylan? He repeatedly returned to “I and I” again and again in concert, making it the most played song from Infidels in concert. It certainly resonated with Dylan – despite the short time in composition – and deserves to be included in a guitar songbook of his greatest songs to someday be purchased for a future Dylan blogger.
Image: David Composing the Psalms and playing the harp with Melodia behind him, Paris Psalter, 10th century, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons