Monday, October 13, 2008

Bob Dylan & The Band | "I'm Not There (1956)"


[Don't let the slideshow disturb the song. Slap on some ear goggles and let it play.]

As Duke Ellington said about his favorite music and musicians, this song is beyond category. Recorded in 1967 during The Basement Tapes sessions, "I'm Not There (1956)" is to Dylanologists the ultimate Gordian knot or the Borgesian Aleph that, if deciphered, can uncover the secrets to the universe, or perhaps just to Dylan's brain. Both equal in importance. Greil Marcus wrote that "There is nothing like 'I'm Not There' the basement recordings, or anywhere else in Bob Dylan's career. It was only recorded once; unlike others of the new basement songs, which Dylan rerecorded or continued to feature on stage thirty years later, it was never sung again."

Other than Dylan's strumming, Rick Danko on bass and Garth Hudson on the organ are the most prominent players. Of Danko, composer Michael Pisaro says:
[He] plays as if he knows that all his life this song has been waiting for him to complete it, and that he will only be given one chance.
(The only legal release of this song is included in the soundtrack to the biopic of the same name released in 2007.)

The "(1956)" is part of the song's title, just as much a mystery as the lines, "And I don't bart-believe/it's all bag for tebusing." Or, more specifically, as Pisaro says:
It's almost as though he has discovered a language or, better, has heard of a language: heard about some of its vocabulary, its grammar and its sounds, and before he can comprehend it, starts using this set of unformed tools to narrate the most important event of his life.
It's not that the lyrics are indecipherable, it's that they aren't meant to be deciphered. Part of the song's enduring appeal is that the listener must surrender to it, to the repetitious chord patterns in the verses and refrains, to the made up words and strange syntax, to everything, including the emotion. Dylan's vocal delivery in "I'm Not There (1956)" is undoubtedly one of the most affecting of his career. His voice is soaked in melancholia, nostalgia, and regret. A threnody with only a shadow of a story. Unlike other Dylan songs from this period, the narrative arch is not so much disrupted as it is fragmentary and paradoxical. There are two characters, and something happens, who knows what, but something happens. And simultaneously, the characters are both present and absent. Physically, emotionally, it doesn't matter. When Dylan sings "I'm not there/I'm gone," it's a cosmic statement.

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