Bob Dylan Countdown #200: “I And I”

Well, if I’m going to do this, I might as well start with a hard one, right? In truth, this is actually a good beginning, because it will allow me to make a stand on Dylan allusions:  I’m really not all that concerned with them. Is it interesting to me that there are bits of Biblical arcana mixed in with a title borrowed from a Rastafarian principle? Yes. Does it in any way enhance the impact of listening to the song? For me, not so much.

Look, I get that Dylan is well-read and chooses his words very carefully. But you also have to remember that he allegedly claimed to Leonard Cohen that he wrote the lyrics to this song in about 15 minutes. Which means that he likely absorbed all of these bits and pieces and then reused them, probably from his subconscious, as he saw fit for the purpose of this song. And that’s how I feel about all of the allusions that he has ever sprinkled throughout his work.

In other words, I get that the main line of the chorus (“One says to the other, no one sees my face and lives”) is likely taken from what God told Moses. But how is it used here in the context of the song? It’s in the service of a narrative about a guy forever searching, leaving behind a woman in his bed in some quest for some sort of intangible truth. What does it say about that dude that he would use words that, even if you didn’t know the reference, are clearly drenched with ominous portent?  Is he deluded? Hubristic? Off his rocker?

Those are the questions that should be asked, not from what chapter and verse the lyrics originate. I don’t think that Dylan doesn’t necessarily want us to seek out the source material; I think he just wants us to consider what this guy is doing in this particular time and place.

Anyway, it’s an interesting melange of stuff going on here, even if it’s an uneasy segue at times when the portentous stuff bumps up against the film-noir atmospherics of strange women and train platforms in the smoky night. The music is a neat little mixture too, with Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare’s reggae accents accompanied by Mark Knopfler’s “Brothers In Arms”-style licks.

One final note here. Conor Oberst, who is one of the most recent new Dylans, used the following lyric this past year in the Bright Eyes  song “One For Me, One For You”, which itself is reminiscent of “Chimes Of Freedom”, albeit with an electronic bent: “You and me, that’s an awful lie/It’s I and I.” Oberst is pleading for some sort of togetherness, while Dylan’s character couldn’t seem more isolated. Context is everything.


4 Comments on “Bob Dylan Countdown #200: “I And I””

  1. Shabtai says:

    First , thanks and congratulations for the nice and invested job of Dylan canon rating and write-ups .
    Of course the rating has to do a lot with personal taste. But , to put I&I in the 200th spot is an insult, to any Dylan fan and points to a major problem with feeling and understanding at least this particular Dylan song.
    I&I is one of Dylan greatest masterpieces. It is an epic about relationship between man and god, about dignity, redemption and the disillusion of man from the cruel and unjust world that God has created.
    It is great poetry, and in my opinion on much higher standard than all his topical and finger pointing songs

    • countdownkid says:

      Thanks for reading. Remember that, while “I And I” is #200, there were upwards of 400 Dylan songs that could have been ranked, so #200 is not that bad a spot overall. That said, it is about personal taste and, while I like the song, I don’t love it like I do others. Then again, such differences of opinion are part of the deal with an artist as complex and unique as Bob. Hope you stay with the countdown.

  2. Peter says:

    Hi there. Nice work on the site.

    I always got distracted by the very 80s production (especially the drums) on this song… as with much of Infidels and Empire Burlesque.

    BUT I found an alternative mix of this track on Genuine Bootleg Series 4 which reduces much of the 80s synthetic drumming amongst some other improvements, such as bringing out more acoustic guitar – I think it sounds soooooo much better. Plus it really builds to the final climactic chorus.

    Worth checking out if you can – far far better than the Infidels version in my book.


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