Sunday, October 19, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #47: It Ain't Me Babe

And so we reach the end of Another Side of Bob Dylan with "It Ain't Me Babe", one of Bob's most famous songs, a tune covered any number of times by any number of well-known musicians, turned into a hit by The Turtles, and beloved by most all of his fans. We also have one of Bob's most famous allegorical tunes (at least, according to those who care about such things), his parting farewell to folk and acoustic music before he turns to popular music and changes his career. In the great long mythology of Dylan, it is all too easy to find pat little ending points of certain eras and moments that could be taken way out of proportion; for example, Dylan playing "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" at the close of his Newport '65 set could be taken as the real goodbye to the folk establishment. And yet with "It Ain't Me Babe", there seems to be a reason Bob slotted this song last, a song that sounds much more concilatory and less harsh than, say, "My Back Pages" (which would've also made a fine closer), to give a true farewell to the movement that he'd done so much for in such a short span of time.

Listening to the song today, I find myself feeling a little sorry for the Bob that wrote this song, that invested two different meanings into a song that's strong enough with just one. It's one thing to find ourselves over our heads in our vocations or in our personal lives; it's another thing entirely to find ourselves over our head when thousands of people are hoping that we'll say, do, or sing something that will bring meaning into their lives and change the course of our history. As I've written before, that pressure is something I wouldn't wish on anybody - even today, the intensity of the issues Bob wrote about still has a potent charge. That charge must have been even stronger in those days. And with hindsight, it seems unreasonable to demand so much of one man; I have nothing against Phil Ochs or Donovan, but when Dylan left the folk stage the movement lost a great deal of momentum and popular appeal, and those musicians were hardly capable of picking up so great a slack as left by Bob. And that's not their fault, either. But Dylan felt that the responsibilities laid on his head were too much, and he pushed them aside, and it's hard to argue that he wasn't better off for doing that.

Dylan's tone throughout the song makes me feel even sorrier for him, since it's clear that he knows all of this as well, and that he wants to apologize for not being strong enough to shoulder those responsibilities like Atlas carrying the world on his back. It takes a wise man to know his faults, and a strong man to admit them; nobody likes to say "you're looking for a man who never fails? A man who won't let you down? Well, keep moving, pal, because it isn't me!" And you can even imagine the folk movement sharpening their knives in hearing this song, waiting to cut apart his lyrics for the flimsy excuses that they are, ready to tell him "how lame is that 'sorry' bullshit? Get your ass back into the studio and sing about issues, damn it! ISSUES!!!!" Take, for example, Irwin Silber's assertion that "the paraphernalia of fame" was messing with Bob's head and causing him to write only about himself -never mind that many people in Bob's position would've abused the hell out of his famous status, instead of casting it away like Bob did, and that anybody that sang about what Bob did was liable to fall under a spotlight bright enough to distract even the most disciplined of us. Or take David Horowitz dismissing Another Side as "a failure of taste and critical self-awareness" - never mind that Dylan is about as self-aware as it gets on the album (even on "Ballad in Plain D"...well, sort of), and the taste thing I'll just leave alone. Those criticisms smack of something deeper than just distaste for Dylan's new direction - there's a feeling that Bob, if you will, has become Darth Vader, seduced by the dark side and slave to the Emperors of Popular Music and Useless Introspection. And you wouldn't have done what Bob did if you were in his place, to run as far away from these uber-serious goons as possible?

All the same, even with those thoughts in my mind, I find "It Ain't Me Babe" to be much more powerful if I leave aside considerations of Dylan's career and concentrate solely on the surface meaning of the song - i.e., a gentle remonstration to a lover that he's not the man she wants or thinks she is. There have been times in my own life, for sure, where I've felt that I've let somebody down because it turned out I wasn't as mentally strong or capable as I was supposed to be, and few feelings are more rotten than letting somebody down. And that carries into every block of life, from personal to public, from my career to my schooling, sometimes to the point when I find myself paralyzed by being unable to do the right thing because I'm so worried about doing the wrong thing. This very blog is a microcosm of that struggle; every criticism stings (even the most gentle of them), because I feel like I've made somebody think less of me, or my writing ability, or the way I conduct this blog. The harsher ones (and there have been harsh ones) make me feel like this project was a mistake. I know, cry me a river, Justin Timberlake. But I sincerely doubt that I'm the only writer that feels this way, no matter how large his audience. In the end, no matter how hard you try to please yourself, your audience is who you're really trying to please, and if you can't do it, then you're in trouble.

That's not to say that I'm going to stop writing this blog - there are readers that actually like what I have to say, like how I say it, and to let my own nonsense get in the way of that is the very kind of selfish those folk critics accused Dylan of being. I like doing this blog, and feeling that in my own tiny way, I'm paying homage to a musician that's given so much to me and enriched my life in such a massive way. And I'm grateful to know that a man as brilliant as Dylan has his own moments of doubts, knows his own limitations, and is willing to state those limitations to a world unwilling to accept that he has them and is not the Superman they want (or need) him to be. Sometimes strength comes from knowing that you're not the only one with weaknesses, and that someone you revere saw the weaknesses in himself and accepted them for what they are.

Author's note: The Every Bob Dylan Song office (such as it is) has temporarily moved base, so the schedule may be a bit different than you readers are accustomed to. For this week, I will be putting up a special post on Wednesday, and then resuming the song posts on Sunday. After that, I'll play it by ear. As always, thank you so much for visiting my little corner of the Internet, and for continuing to read my blog.

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Anonymous said...

I am a senior English major attending the University of Idaho, with an emphasis on creative writing. Music is something that is very important to me and something I write about quite a bit in various forms, mostly creative non-fiction although a few short stories as well. Looking at this blog from the view of a writer, I appreciate the way you approach Dylan and his music with respect and depth. It is refreshing to read a blog that is not just superficial cotton candy. So yeah, keep up the good work, I enjoy reading it.

Da C.I.A. said...

It's a grateful pleasure to read all your opinions.
I'm from Brazil and starts knowing Dylan albums only this year!
I'm working hard to obtain more and more details about his career, specially the older albums and your blog is very, very good. Unfortunately, here in Brazil is hard to obtain good biographic books bout Dylan, so, stay posting good details and opinions about these songs and albums.


Anonymous said...

I have a different take on this song. I don't see any appology or regret, but rather a declaration of indepdance from someone who was expecting him to live up to a fantasy. Something that no one could do.

She wants unconditional suppport (right or wrong) from a man who doesn't tolerate hypocracy or fools well. She wants to own him body and soul - not only to have him at her beck and call but to have him close his eyes and heart as well.

"In the end, no matter how hard you try to please yourself, your audience is who you're really trying to please, and if you can't do it, then you're in trouble."

But this is not what Dylan felt. He played for himself and let the audience follow or not. And new audiences keep coming. I admire that someone that young could have the confidence to ignore expectations and follow his own heart.

andrew! said...

I was listening to the Live '75 version of this song the other day & realized that I hadn't read too much about Another Side.

It Ain't Me, Babe from this album is the perfect example of why I hardly ever listen to this album. Sure, it's a classic & it would make just about anybody's Greatest Hits compilation. But for me, there's too many great live versions for me to listen to the original & not wish I was listening to a live version. The same can be said for many of the songs on Another Side. The album is a great blueprint for these songs, but I think many of them hadn't been fully realized yet. It's as if Bob was itching to play with a band & couldn't get this album over with to get to the next one.

Anonymous said...

This site is pretty cool.

Did you ever think about posting a mp3 of each song you cover from one of the bootlegs (either live or from the Genuine Bootleg Series, studio outtakes, etc.)?

You couldn't find one for every song, but for most of them you could post something cool.

Just a thought, that you probably already thought of, but I'm just throwing it out there.

Keep up the good work.

Tony said...

Thank you Mark and Angelo for the kind words. Mark, nice to have another English major in here. Angelo, if you go to you can get Clinton Heylin's Dylan biography, which is well worth the read (even though I disagree with his opinions more and more, his biography details are unparalleled).

dianes, I see where you're coming from w/r/t the song. And yes, I think Dylan had a great deal of courage in going into a new direction. But I can't think that he wrote only for himself; IMO, music written for public consumption will almost always be written with more than just yourself in mind as an audience. The Basement Tapes are an exception, since they weren't supposed to be released until the Great White Wonder folks forced Dylan's hand.

andrew!, nice to see you posting again. I think you're being a tad harsh on Another Side, but I also see where you're coming from; most of the songs have been done up very well in a live setting by Bob and his various bands. You basically described a constant struggle I have with the acoustic albums; I like the songs, but they can occasionally not sound fully formed.

Anonymous, thanks for the kind words. I honestly should start putting up more mp3s, if only to increase site traffic. :D Seriously, though, I wanted to do that more often, but I don't have physical copies of many of my bootlegs, so pulling up mp3s can be a bit of a pain. The Subterranean Homesick Blues entry is just screaming for an 88 version; I may have to find one at some point to put up there.

Eustace said...

It Ain't Me, Babe is clearly an antiwar song. It's surprising that the very first line ("Go 'way from my window") did not make people consider that the American flag was what Dylan was talking about, something confirmed beyond any reasonable doubt a little later with "Go lightly from the ledge, babe". See full analysis at

Music of Bob Dylan said...

Hello Tony, Thank you for posting this interesting essay. Come and join us inside Bob Dylan's Music Box and listen to every version of every song composed, recorded or performed by Bob Dylan, plus all the great covers, free, legally and without Ads.

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