Bob Dylan - "I And I" Lyric Interpretation

Discussion in 'Music Corner' started by RayS, Aug 17, 2015.

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  1. RayS

    RayS Forum Resident Thread Starter

    A thread devoted to the evocative yet somewhat elusive lyrics of this mid-career "classic".

    Been so long since a strange woman has slept in my bed
    Look how sweet she sleeps, how free must be her dreams
    In another lifetime she must have owned the world, or been faithfully wed
    To some righteous king who wrote psalms beside moonlit streams

    I and I
    In creation where one’s nature neither honors nor forgives
    I and I
    One says to the other, no man sees my face and lives

    Think I’ll go out and go for a walk
    Not much happenin’ here, nothin’ ever does
    Besides, if she wakes up now, she’ll just want me to talk
    I got nothin’ to say, ’specially about whatever was

    I and I
    In creation where one’s nature neither honors nor forgives
    I and I
    One says to the other, no man sees my face and lives

    Took an untrodden path once, where the swift don’t win the race
    It goes to the worthy, who can divide the word of truth
    Took a stranger to teach me, to look into justice’s beautiful face
    And to see an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth

    I and I
    In creation where one’s nature neither honors nor forgives
    I and I
    One says to the other, no man sees my face and lives

    Outside of two men on a train platform there’s nobody in sight
    They’re waiting for spring to come, smoking down the track
    The world could come to an end tonight, but that’s all right
    She should still be there sleepin’ when I get back

    I and I
    In creation where one’s nature neither honors nor forgives
    I and I
    One says to the other, no man sees my face and lives

    Noontime, and I’m still pushin’ myself along the road, the darkest part
    Into the narrow lanes, I can’t stumble or stay put
    Someone else is speakin’ with my mouth, but I’m listening only to my heart
    I’ve made shoes for everyone, even you, while I still go barefoot

    I and I
    In creation where one’s nature neither honors nor forgives
    I and I
    One says to the other, no man sees my face and lives




    Rather than narrow the thread with my own interpretation, I'd love to hear from others to get us going (assuming this thread doesn't die a lonely death).
     
  2. RayS

    RayS Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Perhaps I can get things kick started ever so slightly.

    I was considering how the lyric "I made shoes for everyone, even you, while I still go barefoot" may be echoed in "Love Rescue Me" (co-written with Bono):

    "Many strangers have I met, on the road to my regret,
    Many lost who seek to find themselves in me,
    They ask me to reveal, the very thoughts they would conceal,
    Love, rescue me."

    To me, both lyrics are about being an artist, and meeting the public expectation of revealing your private thoughts and emotions for the benefit of your audience (who, in their own lives, rarely do the same thing, even to those that they are close to).
     
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  3. NaturalD

    NaturalD Forum Resident

    Location:
    Boston, Mass., USA
    I've always assumed it's Bob exploring the Rastafarian concept of "I", though it's not a literal examination of Rastafarianism -- more like a creative writer taking off from the basic concept with a personal interpretation.
     
  4. Muddy

    Muddy Forum Resident

    Location:
    New York
    Inspired by a one-night stand. ;)

    Not to veer too far off from the OP...but several years ago I posted a thread on a Dylan forum about "Things Have Changed" (which, IMO, still ranks as Bob's last "great" song). For whatever reason that song really resonated with me. And then someone posted something to the effect of, "Eh, I've heard enough from Bob about his women troubles." :D
     
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  5. RayS

    RayS Forum Resident Thread Starter

    I would agree that the Rasta phrase is a likely leaping off point (and Dylan wrote the song while in the Caribbean), but I think he takes the phrase in the opposite direction. I think of the Rasta phrase as a stand-in for "Me and mine", or "Me with Jah behind me", while I think Dylan uses the phrase to focus on duality - the public "I" (who, in his case, "makes shoes" for everyone) and the private one (who still goes barefoot).
     
  6. I & I means "We"
     
  7. NaturalD

    NaturalD Forum Resident

    Location:
    Boston, Mass., USA
    It can mean "me and you" and can also mean "myself and my consciousness" (if this white boy has learned properly from multiple viewings of Rockers and The Harder They Come).
     
  8. RayS

    RayS Forum Resident Thread Starter

    The "I" who has a one night stand is in opposition to the "righteous" person Dylan was trying to be throughout '79-'81. ("Satan whispers to you - I don't want to bore ya, When you get tired of that Miss So and So, I got another woman for ya", "The call of the wild is forever at my door", "I gaze into the doorway of temptation's angry flame"). I think his concerns go a bit beyond "women troubles". :)
     
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  9. Muddy

    Muddy Forum Resident

    Location:
    New York
    I was always intrigued by the last line of the last verse: "I’ve made shoes for everyone, even you, while I still go barefoot."

    I'm not sure that it's describing poverty, as implied on the surface, but rather piety.

    There are several references to removing one's shoes and walking barefoot on holy ground in the Bible, which I'm sure Dylan knew. IMO, he's sort of saying that he enabled others to sin while he stayed righteous.
     
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  10. dkmonroe

    dkmonroe A completely self-taught idiot

    Location:
    Atlanta
    I can't make sense of the entire song, but I've always felt that the chorus describes a certain peculiar sense of self-alienation. There's the conscious and unconscious mind, or perhaps more correctly the mind and the heart. The symbiosis between the two is never fully understood. No matter how well you think you know yourself, you can still be surprised.
     
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  11. dkmonroe

    dkmonroe A completely self-taught idiot

    Location:
    Atlanta
    An interesting interpretation. I've always thought it meant that he provided comfort to others in some unspecified way while he denied it to himself.
     
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  12. Tom H

    Tom H Forum Resident

    Location:
    Kapolei, Hawaii
    To me, this song screams disillusionment. And I have always thought the verse about the untrodden pathp was a reference to his Christian years.
     
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  13. DeeThomaz

    DeeThomaz Senior Member

    Location:
    In The Felony Room
    "I is another. If the brass wakes the trumpet, it’s not its fault. That’s obvious to me: I witness the unfolding of my own thought: I watch it, I hear it: I make a stroke with the bow: the symphony begins in the depths, or springs with a bound onto the stage."
    --Arthur Rimbaud
     
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  14. jgkojak

    jgkojak Mull of Kansas

    Location:
    Lawrence, KS
    I always thought this was about the duality of his public persona vs. how veiled he kept his real personality/personal life (no man sees my face and lives)

    Its also the best song about a one night stand since Tom Waites and "Ol' 55"
     
  15. jgkojak

    jgkojak Mull of Kansas

    Location:
    Lawrence, KS
    His 3 last "great" songs
    1. Workingman's Blues No. 2
    2. Things Have Changed
    3. Pay in Blood
     
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  16. George Blair

    George Blair Forum Resident

    Location:
    Portland, OR
    One "I" wants the strange woman in his bed, the other feels repentant. Maybe "In creation where one’s nature neither honors nor forgives" is his answer to the dilemma. But of course, that's not enough to completely absolve the situation.
     
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  17. RayS

    RayS Forum Resident Thread Starter

    It's interesting to note that the "righteous king who wrote psalms" (a clear reference to King David), was also an adulterer who stole another man's wife (Bathsheba). 'I and I" (in the duality sense) indeed. The narrator is out walking, in part, to avoid even having a conversation with the woman who shared his bed. He fantasizes about her imagined qualities, but has nothing to say to her, especially about "whatever was" (their night together, one assumes).
     
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  18. dee

    dee Forum Resident

    Location:
    ft. lauderdale, fl
    Bob was jealous of the other Bob but even so that only added up to 2 "I's" which still left him one short of the other Bob's I Threes. I like how the nature of the chorus makes me think equally of Nature Itself in the context of the law of the jungle and survival of the fittest.
     
  19. RayS

    RayS Forum Resident Thread Starter

    "In creation where one's nature neither honors nor forgives."

    Two of the most important tenets of Judeochristianity are honoring God and forgiving others (as Jesus would). Is Bob suggesting that neither comes "naturally" - so while the superego "I" might have fostered both characteristics, the id "I" isn't interested in either?
     
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  20. Zeki

    Zeki Forum Resident

    I go along with this thought. I don't think there is any doubt that there is strong Biblical imagery in the lyrics and, as you note, Dylan sees the parallels to David and Bathsheba. And takes it from there.
     
  21. RayS

    RayS Forum Resident Thread Starter

    In "Hallelujah", the Leonard Cohen song that seems forever coupled with "I And I" in conversation (like two quarterbacks taken in the first round of an NFL draft), he integrates the stories of David & Bathsheba and Samson & Delilah into a single verse:

    "Your faith was strong but you needed proof
    You saw her bathing on the roof
    Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew her
    She tied you
    To a kitchen chair
    She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
    And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah"

    It's interesting to take the first half of the verse and consider it in terms of "I And I". Certainly in the 4 years immediately preceding "Infidels" Bob's "faith was strong". Despite his ambition to lead a righteous life, however, the beauty of the "strange woman" overthrew him.
     
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  22. lschwart

    lschwart Forum Resident

    Location:
    Richmond, VA
    There's a lot to say about this wonderful, although somewhat puzzling song. I agree with those who note that the song is a confession on the biographical level that looks back over the previous few years. The "untrodden path" is the hardcore period of Dylan's conversion experience. But the song is rueful and sounds like the words of a man on the fallen side of that period. He's now on a very trodden path (at least one that he's trodden for many years). And he is not the righteous King who wrote psalms by moonlit streams (there are two Davids, and he's clearly here the fallen one, not the righteous one). The song is a confession about a fall back into what the singer has to face is his abiding nature, and it's not a pretty thing to have to face.

    "I and I" is used in a poetic way that's related to the Rastafarian meaning, but freely adapted here to mean something like self-awareness or self-judgment (the self and the self that sees and judges the self). Fully honest self knowledge can be very hard to bear, and the song is about a self trying to come to terms with that--or maybe almost reconciled to it.

    The song combines two themes Dylan has been working on and with for a long time and that are closely related for him: what it means to be a self that cannot "stay put" (here, as is often the case, framed in relation to love or an erotic experience) and what it has meant to become an artist. The cost of becoming Bob Dylan.

    More later, but here are a set of biblical passages that are central to the lyric:

    Ecclesiastes 9:11 “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

    Which Dylan connects to:

    2 Timothy 2:15 “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”

    The meaning of “divide” here is an obsolete one that dates back to the 16th Century. It means “to determine” or “decide” or “make distinctions” in regard to something (distinguishing, for example, truth from falsehood or one essential part of a thing from another). It’s connected to what in modern terms we might call, “breaking things down” for someone, explaining something complex, part by part.


    The eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth line comes from a complex of passages, three from the books of law in the Torah:

    Exodus 21:25
    …”burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”

    Leviticus 24:20
    “…fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The one who has inflicted the injury must suffer the same injury.”

    Deuteronomy 19:21
    “Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”


    And an important reference back to these passages in the Gospel of Matthew:

    Matthew 5:38-39 "You have heard that it was said, 'AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.' 39"But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.…”

    The idea that one “I” says to the other that “no man sees my face and lives” derives from this passage in Exodus:

    Exodus 18-23: “18. And he said, I beseech thee, shew me thy glory. 19. And he said, I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy. 20. And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live. 21. And the LORD said, Behold, there is a place by me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock: 22. And it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a clift of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by: 23. And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen.”

    What all this means for understanding what the song is trying to say will take a little unraveling.

    L.
     
    Last edited: Aug 17, 2015
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  23. RayS

    RayS Forum Resident Thread Starter

    So much to mine here, to place the Biblical references into the context of Dylan's experiences and his works during the "Gospel" period (always remembering the caveat that not everything in a song need be autobiographical).

    One point I find quite interesting is that it took "a stranger" to teach the narrator to "see an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth". Since this notion, as you illustrated above, derives from the Old Testament (and is essentially refuted in the New Testament), it seems odd that Dylan wouldn't already "know" it from his Jewish upbringing. It took a "precious angel/covenant woman" to introduce him to Jesus and the New Testament - the insinuation in "I And I" is that someone has steered him back to his Old Testament roots.
     
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  24. RayS

    RayS Forum Resident Thread Starter

    While the "no one sees my face and lives" obviously comes from God himself, I've always felt that Dylan is using it to reference the human condition - completely honest self-examination and evaluation is impossible, no one could survive it with their sanity intact. For me it conjures up the lines from "Where Are You Tonight?" - "The truth was obscure, too profound and too pure, To live it you had to explode."
     
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  25. Zeki

    Zeki Forum Resident

    I was telling my wife about this thread a while ago and told her that Dylan had gone back to his Jewish roots. Exactly what you ascertain from the lyrics. I think, in my case, I was recalling what I had read soon after the album's release.
     
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