Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #45: I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)

It seems kind of funny, forty years down the line, that quite possibly the most enduring song on the entire album is this one - maybe more so than "All I Really Want To Do", or "Chimes of Freedom", or any of the more famous and analyzed songs here. Certainly it's a song Dylan holds clear to his heart, since it's cropped up in just about every tour that he's performed in his long and illustrious live career. Consider:

1. a spot in the 1964 Carnegie Hall show (complete with a stoned Dylan spouting non sequiturs during a meandering guitar intro, culminating with his asking the audience how the first verse goes);
2. part of Dylan's 1965-1966 electric sets (we all remember Dylan's smartass 1966 intro - "it used to be like that, now it goes like this");
3. one of the highlights of the earlier, superior 1974 shows;
4. a place in Dylan's lovely 1975 acoustic sets
5. part of the 1978 tour rehearsals (all of which are superior to even the best 1978 shows, IMO);
6. intermittent performances during the Never Ending Tour, from 1988 to today.

So Dylan must have a soft spot for this song, right? I mean, he never plays anything from Desire, very rarely plays something from the gospel days, hardly plays more famous songs like "Subterranean Homesick Blues" or "Lay Lady Lay", and yet this little song about a wild night and a "what the hell happened?" morning after continually finds its way into Dylan's setlists. Pretty surprising, isn't it?

Perhaps. But I like to think that Dylan, who can be incredibly self-aware when he wants to be, knows just what a universal sentiment he touched upon with "I Don't Believe You", even beyond the nostalgic feelings it brings up in his fans from the 60s (some of whom may have seen the 1966 version - imagine that!). Who among us hasn't had that feeling of sudden, incomprehensible rejection after what you believed was a night of joy and pleasure? And how many of us hasn't wondered "wait a second - is this guy/girl serious?" as they find themselves being pushed away. Dylan manages to capture all of those emotions - the whirlwind of what feels like courtship in the nighttime hours, followed by the confusion and bitterness when the courtship abruptly breaks off in the morning. And unlike the 1966 live performances, where Dylan's acidic sneer makes it hard to believe that man on stage had ever felt that kind of hurt, the album performance keeps the pain right underneath the surface, just barely held in check.

Also, Dylan actually touches on something just becoming relevant then and very relevant today - the traditional view of courtship and relationships butting heads with the modern, liberated views of sexuality and living a life not tied to old ways of thinking about love. It's ironic, in a way, that it's the male narrator that finds himself being shown the door when he thinks he's laid the foundation for a deeper relationship. Most of us think it's the other way around (for instance, the American notion of the "walk of shame", where after a night of sex some poor college student is forced to gather her things and walk back to her own lodgings, usually early in the morning - think smeared mascara, a shirt not quite put on right, and hair mussed like a tornado had blown through), whether it's right or not. The gender inversion's kind of cute, but it also underlines the changes in our society that Dylan was witnessing firsthand. Now women were able to force men to do the walk of shame, to realize that they're not the only ones that can sleep around (or even just have a wild night) with no repercussions. Funny or not, it's actually a very advanced way of looking at the world.

I have that same kind of push and pull in my own life - I don't have a problem with having multiple partners, and yet I'm more the kind of person that would want to settle down with somebody and have that stability in my life. I actually found myself in a similar situation as Dylan describes in "I Don't Believe You", only stretched out for a long period of time, to the point where it felt like I was involved with Dr. Jeckyll (a female version, for the record). There's nothing quite like it; it's the feeling of riding a rollercoaster, only you never get off and rollercoasters usually don't leave you questioning what you're doing with yourself and whether or not you need to say "I can't take this anymore" and jump off. I did, eventually, but even now I wonder if I didn't make the wrong decision, and if I'd managed to ride out one more wave things would be different today. Dylan, in his song, seems to feel the same way - he remembers that night of pleasure quite fondly, even while pondering where it all went wrong. And that's the same way relationships work in real life, even when they go wrong; surely if something had been different, if the wind had blown another way, things might have gone right instead. Maybe that night wouldn't have to end, and maybe her skirt would be still swaying as the guitar's still playing.

And maybe a million dollars might fall out of the sky and drop in my lap. In the end, it's a quote from the movie Cocktail (of all things) that sums up life so very well - "all things end badly, or else they wouldn't end". Relationships, jobs, sports careers...hell, even life itself all follow that same path. And when I reminisce about what went wrong and how it could have gone right, I always do well to remember that, in the end, it didn't go right, and that's why I'm thinking about it instead of still being with her. "I Don't Believe You" sighs with longing and regret, but the narrator still manages to move on in the end, even delivering his own pithy quote to sum things up. People move on, and so does life. If you don't move on too, you'll find yourself simply going round and round, like that Steely Dan song, just to do it again. You'll be forever consigned to staring at that wall, wondering how you got there, as that guitar quietly fades into the distance.

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3 comments:

LostChords said...

Thank you for all your writings, Tony, it's always a pleasure to read them (although often enough I tend to disagree).

About "I Don't Believe You":
To be true, there's not much new in this song, it's more or less a recycling of an Irving Berlin song from the 20s, "Remember", one of his sad minimalist syncopated ballads (+ some elements of another one, "The Song Is Ended"). This song offers exactly the same scenery: a poor fellow complaining that the girl is turning a cold shoulder towards him.

"Remember the night
The night you said, I love you
Remember?

[...]

You promised that you’d forget me not
But you forgot
To remember"

Dylan simply pads it out to 5 verses and in the last verse he combines it with the revenge motif that is also common in American popular song since the teens, as in Shelton Brooks' famous and influential "Some Of These Days" (1911): "Two can play this game".

The motifs used in "I Don't Believe You" are old, Dylan only tried to find a different language. You write that "Dylan actually touches on something just becoming relevant then and very relevant today - the traditional view of courtship and relationships butting heads with the modern, liberated views of sexuality and living a life not tied to old ways of thinking about love. It's ironic, in a way, that it's the male narrator that finds himself being shown the door when he thinks he's laid the foundation for a deeper relationship". That was already an important topic for the songwriter's in the teens and twenties. that was exactly the time when role of women both in society and in popular songs saw a massive change. What you call an "advanced way of looking at the world" goes back to that era and Dylan in his love & anti-love songs from the 60s is often enough trying to invent the wheel a second time.

"I Don't Believe You" seems to be song that somehow matured with Dylan from 1964 to 1978. The early acoustic versions turn the situation into ironic comedy. The electric performances in 1966 are much more aggresive and lack the comical touch. But in 1975 and in 1978 he displays a kind of world-weary cynism, a nice example of how a song can change its general mood without changing a word. Now he uses minor chords that create a different atmosphere. The rehearsal version fom 1978, with Dylan sounding like a tired crooner in Night Club, would have fit perfectly onto "Street Legal". The arrangement for the 1978-tour is excellent and very different from earlier and later incarnations. Unfortunately in concert it was buried between "Maggie's Farm" and "Like A Rolling Stone", loosing much of its effectiveness.

Josh Perry said...

How can I listen to those versions you listed? The only ones I could find on youtube were 64 and 66. Any help?

rwhaller42 said...

"That, to me, speaks volumes about how Dylan felt as a protest singer - a foot soldier in a cultural war, battling mongrel dogs, not realizing that he's no different from those that he would rail against. "

As Pogo said, "We have met the enemy and he is us."