It Ain’t Me Babe is the last track on Bob Dylan’s 1964 album Another Side Of Bob Dylan. It’s a special album for me for many reasons. It taught me so much about life, relationships and artistic expression. I like the fact it was all recorded in one magical, Beaujolais-fuelled evening. I also like the fact that you can hear him making mistakes and still figuring out the chord progressions on some songs. It’s almost as if his genius for songwriting was outpacing the actual mechanics of making a record! There are so many highlights - Spanish Harlem Incident, To Ramona, Chimes Of Freedom and My Back Pages have all featured in my live set list on and off throughout the years. Mostly though I love Another Side because it marks Dylan’s transition away from political material into a more opaque, indefinable kind of songwriter. He is at times both full of youthful exuberance and yet wise beyond his years. It’s the first time we see the narrator defining himself by what he isn’t rather than what he is. Most obviously on It Ain’t Me Babe.
"You say you're looking for someone Never weak but always strong To protect you and defend you Whether you are right or wrong Someone to open each and every door But it ain't me, babe"
Bob was heavily influenced by Arthur Rimbaud during this period. His quote “I is another'' seems to perfectly define Dylan’s attitude to fame. Imagine how surreal it was to be called “The voice of a generation” fortunately, like Rimbaud, Bob understood that the ego is not the man, it is only part of him. He was able to mostly avoid becoming a symbol of the culture wars. His early, era-defining songs of course would always be there for the civil rights movement, artists like Joan Baez understood the incendiary power and world changing significance of songs like Blowing In The Wind, and The Times They Are A Changing, using them to great effect at countless protest marches and sit-ins. Those songs undoubtedly inspired millions, and played their part in changing the course of history, but Bob seemed less interested in this.
In 1964 his songwriting transformed from intelligent commentaries on important topical events, to surreal, mesmeric streams of consciousness. These songs are about everything. After writing them he was no longer to be seen in the same light as Guthrie, Baez and Seeger, but rather Verlaine, Rimbaud and Baudelaire. This kind of connection to high art was something entirely new for rock music at the time and shows an ambition far beyond his contemporaries. He intellectualised the artform like no one before. This paved the way for so many artists to do great work after him - Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and more recently Laura Marling (Check out her song, Master Hunter if you get the chance.) Betsy Bowden and Cliton Heylin have written wonderfully about It Ain’t Me Babe and Another Side Of Bob Dylan in their books Performed Literature and Behind The Shades respectively. Both are essential reading for any Dylan fan. However I think Tim Riley summed it up best in his book Hard Rain.
“A rock album without electric guitars, a folk archetype that punches through the hardy, plainspoken mold. Built on repeated riffs and coaxed by the controlled anxiety of Dylan's voice, the songs work off one another with intellectually charged élan”
Whilst It Ain’t Me Babe can be seen on the surface level as an anti love song or as a refusal to be cast in the role of ‘hero’ to a romantic partner. It is about so much more. This refusal to conform or to bow to expectations can be extended to an artistic movement, a country, or a generation. It's Punk Rock a decade before anyone had heard the term. It is also one of Dylan’s most flexible, ever-evolving songs. It has been performed in many different arrangements, different keys and time signatures over the years. From the original album cut it has morphed into a seething, electrified version on Before The Flood, then a careening circus stomp on it’s Rolling Thunder Revue incarnation, all the way back to a more reflective, paired-back strum on 1984’s Real Live. My version in this video ended up pretty close to the original album cut, with a little more finger style guitar work and a slightly slowed tempo, I feel this really helps to bring out the ache and melancholy in the lyric that can sometimes go unnoticed.
If you enjoyed my interpretation of the song and would like to contribute to my work, please hit the Support John Tiller button. Stay safe, John