At some point in their career, every film critic has to contend with Blade Runner. Similarly, every aspiring Dylanologist will need to have a take on “I’m Not There.” Anyone can hear “Like A Rolling Stone” or “Blowin’ in the Wind” and have an opinion. But “I’m Not There” is different because, before its official release on 2007’s I’m Not There soundtrack and then the 2014’s The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete, it was only available through bootleg recording. This was the case for years. It was passed around like a secret. Greil Marcus devoted a featured section to the song in his 1997 book The Old Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes. Todd Haynes named his Bob Dylan movie after the song (discussed in this Recliner Notes post). These things happened before the song was officially released. One’s knowledge of this song acted as the secret sign, allowing you into the restricted, members-only club.
I was allowed into the exclusive “I’m Not There” club in the spring of 1995. I was visiting a friend over spring break who had recently started dating a new boyfriend. This boyfriend and I soon realized that we were huge Dylan nerds. Eventually our conversation came around to The Basement Tapes, and I said that I had been able to secure a bootleg containing additional songs which were not included on the official 1975 release. He said, “Yeah, but I have the Genuine Basement Tapes bootleg which has all of the songs that they recorded during that time.”
What. This changed everything. So, instead of hanging out with my friend, I purchased tapes and was taping the CDs on her little CD player and dissecting the new songs with the boyfriend. He pointed out the song “I’m Not There” to me. We listened to the song, and I don’t remember having much to say immediately afterwards, I was so overwhelmed. I looked at the cover of the CD for answers, something, anything, and noticed that the song was labelled “I’m Not There (1956)” on the back cover.
I asked, “Why does it say ‘1956?’ Was it written in 1956? Isn’t this set from 1967?”
He shrugged his shoulders and couldn’t answer me. Bob Dylan would have been 15 years old in 1956. How does this song connect to a 15 year old Bob? Did it connect to the outbreak of rock ‘n roll which happened in the United States around that time? No easy answers. As Jochen Markhorst has documented, the song’s original 1970 copyright was renewed in 1998 and again in 2014 with “1956” included in the song’s title in parentheses even though the official release of the complete Basement Tapes does not include the parenthetical. Greil Marcus wonders if the song’s origins can be found in Warren Smith’s song “So Long, I’m Gone” released in 1957. Maybe Dylan mis-remembered the year of that song’s release. It’s a small mystery still unsolved in the large case file of mysteries pertaining to Mr. Bob Dylan.
In the children’s game of telephone, when passing around a secret, the original statement morphs and changes from its simple beginning into something bizarre, hilarious, or even grotesque. Similarly, with “I’m Not There,” its scarcity and unfinished nature forces the listener to grapple with the song and attempt to make sense of it.
In college, I studied in London for a semester and took a British art history course taught by art historian Brian Allen. Once, in the Tate Gallery, the class was standing in front of and taking in the giant John Constable painting, Sketch for ‘Hadleigh Castle.’ I remember it being immensely powerful and overwhelming. Brian Allen cautioned us that the painting before us was unfinished. It was a full-size oil sketch by Constable, and his contemporaries would have known it was unfinished because of the standards of painting in 19th century England. Allen told us that our contemporary eyes, used to the changes of painting since Constable’s time especially through Impressionism, want to see this sketch as a finished work.
Like our contemporary response to the Constable sketch, we respond to “I’m Not There” because, with the release of the complete Basement Tapes recordings as well as other demos and live recordings with sketchy sound in which we can barely hear him sing, we are used to hearing recordings of Dylan in less that pristine studio quality. “I’m Not There” is a song sketch by Dylan, a working document. Recorded in 1967, it seems as though Dylan has found a melody and chord progression for a new song. Similar to other Basement Tapes songs, Dylan decides to capture this draft on the spot with improvised lyrics. Garth Hudson plays an adventurous organ throughout with Rick Danko on bass. Perhaps drawn by the power of Dylan’s performance, Richard Manuel joins on piano halfway through, adding small droplets of piano rain. There’s no sign of Robbie Robertson on guitar or drums.
“I’m Not There” is truly a sketch. The song page on bobdylan.com doesn’t have any lyrics for official copyright purposes. People have attempted to transcribe the lyrics, but reading the words on a screen doesn’t quite work. It’s like an old piece of paper that crumbles when you try to hold it. The lyrics, such as they are, only work in the context of listening to the performance. This is odd to say about Bob Dylan, one of, if not the greatest, lyricist in recorded music. Dylan’s lyrics are what draws most of us to his music. And yet, “I’m Not There” is one of his great performances and the lyrics are placeholders or even afterthoughts. Dylan may be making up the words on the spot, or perhaps he has a few phrases that he’s written beforehand. But it has the feeling of automatic writing. It could be the mumblings of the strange man you pass on the street, forcing you to decide if you want to lean in to hear more or cross to the other side of the street to avoid him all together. The words are not important, instead the emphasis is on the sounds that Dylan is making and the emotions he is conveying when singing those sounds. The emotions are evident: regret, anguish, yearning, compassion, wistful, even anger. As John Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1970:
“You don’t have to hear what Bob Dylan is saying, you just have to hear the way he says it.”
Dylan is at the peak of his powers as a singer, knowing how to draw in a listener through the dynamics of his singing making the words themselves beside the point. The sole exception is the tag at the end of each “verse,” such as they are: “But I’m not there, I’m gone.” It’s a phrase ripe with meaning and feeling. Those words are enough of a starting place for Dylan to create this powerfully emotional performance.
“I’m Not There” is truly a singular experience. If Dylan tried to re-record it with complete lyrics or if Dylan tried to write actual lyrics, no documentation of either exists. In Greil Marcus’s book Old Weird America, Robbie Robertson made an interesting connection between “I’m Not There” and another song that we have explored on Recliner Notes. He says about “I’m Not There”:
“I thought, this needs to be finished. This is a great idea. It popped up again on Planet Waves: ‘Going, Going Gone.’”
Robbie is not an outsider. He has been at various times Dylan’s collaborator, peer, and friend. But from this quote, he doesn’t say that Dylan came out and told him that he was going to try and finalize “I’m Not There” or that he is going to create something new out of it. It sounds like a theory on Robbie’s part – an interesting one, but still a theory.
“Going, Going Gone” was recorded for Planet Waves in late fall 1973. This was the first time Dylan and The Band had collaborated on a large-scale recording project since The Basement Tapes, six years earlier. As we discussed in the previous post, the verses of “Going, Going Gone” are filled with cliché after cliché; the power of the song being the bridge, which doesn’t sound anything like “I’m Not There.” The tagline of both songs is where the connection is strongest. In “I’m Not There,” Dylan sings, “But I’m not there, I’m gone.” As stated above, this line is sung with the deepest of regret and sorrow. In “Going, Going Gone,” he sings, “I’m just going, I’m going, I’m gone.” This line could be a lover leaving a relationship. It could be someone who understands that his death is coming soon. In either case, the way Dylan sings the song, he makes it sound like a threat, a very different perspective than the emotional message of “I’m Not There.” If Dylan was inspired to finish the unfinished “I’m Not There” and the result was “Going, Going Gone,” we see that Dylan himself is participating in the game of telephone that we all play with “I’m Not There”; creating something new and totally different while trying to grapple with the unknowable power of the original song sketch.