Exclusive Excerpt, Part 2: Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs
Summer’s almost over, but that doesn’t mean you can’t add to your list of beach reads. We recommend Counting Down Bob Dylan, a new book written by Jim Beviglia (American Songwriter) that examines 100 songs penned by one of American music’s most influential songwriters. (If you missed yesterday’s excerpt, which covered “I Shall Be Released,” catch up here.)
45. “It Ain’t Me, Babe” (from Another Side of Bob Dylan, 1964)
This is a great example of how, even on a song you love and think you know by heart, Dylan can trick you. Given just a perfunctory listen, “It Ain’t Me, Babe” comes off as a guy’s admission that he’s just no damn good, and, as a result, he is chivalrously stepping away from a girl who holds him in lofty status in her mind.
That interpretation of the song comes in part because of the song’s chorus, with Dylan shouting out “No, no, no” not too long after the Beatles had shouted out “Yeah, yeah, yeah” as if to emphasize that there was another point of view to be considered. In the midst of the other deeply personal songs on Another Side of Bob Dylan, a song about owning up to one’s own weaknesses and frailties seems to be right in keeping with the tenor of the LP.
When the Turtles took the song to the U.S. Top 10 in 1965, they seemed practically gleeful in re-telling Dylan’s tale. In their hands, “It Ain’t Me, Babe” came off sounding like a guy who knew he was the weak link in the relationship and was completely unapologetic about it. That same year, Johnny and June Carter Cash put out a duet of the song which messed with the context in fascinating ways, taking Bob’s measured words and shouting them at each other like two former lovers who were each trying to win the blame game.
Dylan’s own version of the song features sad guitar arpeggios, some desperate wheezing on the harmonica, and a woebegone vocal, all of which play into the assumption that the song’s narrator is sorry that he can’t live up to the girl’s expectations. It takes a very close listen to hear the subtle bits of sarcasm and veiled accusations peppered throughout the lyrics, which ultimately reveal that maybe those expectations are unreasonable and it’s “Babe” who has a lot of explaining to do.
Dissecting the song in verse-by-verse fashion brings some of these buried aspects to the surface. In the first verse, the guy immediately tells her that she should get out of there, that he’s not the one she wants or needs. She needs someone “who’s never weak but always strong / To protect you an’ defend you whether you are right or wrong.”
In the sway of the rhyme and the music, none of that seems unfair to ask. In truth, however, it’s a little bit much to expect someone to never have a moment of weakness. And, while two people in love would ideally have each other’s backs in any dispute against another, the fact that she even brings up that she needs to be defended even when she’s wrong suggests that maybe that occurs a little bit too often.
On to verse two, when the unreasonable nature of her demands starts to become more clear. She wants, “Someone to close his eyes for you, someone to close his heart.” The first phrase suggests that he should look the other way when she messes up, while a closed heart doesn’t seem conducive to a healthy relationship. She also desires, “Someone who would die for you and more,” as if dying for her isn’t enough. What more does she want?
That becomes clear in the final verse. She wants someone “To gather flowers constantly / And to come each time you call.” The pejorative term for someone who does all of those things is “whipped,” and it’s understandable why this guy would not want to go down that road. That leads up to the coup de grace: “A lover for your life and nothing more.” In other words, his own identity will be subsumed if he stays with her.
After hearing all of these things that she needs lined up one after another, it becomes clear why he would seek out the comfort of another (“And anyway I’m not alone”). His heart has hardened like she wanted it, only now it has hardened against the possibility of their reconciliation.
What’s ingenious is the way that Dylan pulls this off so covertly, subtly turning what seems like a song of confession into a song of accusation. In the end, “It Ain’t Me, Babe” seems to be saying that the girl was the one who really needed to change for the relationship to have worked out. Until she makes those changes, it ain’t ever gonna be anybody.
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