Bob Dylan can't even

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For Bob Dylan connoisseurs, the release of The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 12 is a momentous occasion. It encompasses the studio sessions that gave us the albums Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde On Blonde, and it's available as a 2-CD sampler, a reasonable 6-CD version, and an ultra-comprehensive 18-CD collector's edition for the true Dylan obsessives. The collector's edition, which compiles every outtake from those crucial 1965-66 sessions, may have been released by Columbia primarily for copyright reasons, but for those willing to slog through the 19-hour runtime, there are some unexpected pleasures.

For a Billboard review, Chris Willman listened to the whole 18-CD set in a marathon session. Here's how he describes one track:

Dylan grows increasingly frustrated by how he feels the Hawks are mangling "She's Your Lover Now." "Aw, it's ugly," he says. "I can't. I can't even." Did Bob Dylan just invent the 21st century catchphrase "I can't even"? I think he did!

I managed to find the track in question: "She's Your Lover Now – (1/21/1966) Rehearsal" (Disc 11, Track 3). Here's a clip of the relevant bit:

Some background… The Jan. 21, 1966 session took place as Dylan was putting together the songs that would become Blonde on Blonde. He was recording in Columbia's New York studio with a group that included members of The Hawks, who backed him up on his first "electric" tour and would soon find fame on their own as The Band. Dylan was dissatisfied with how "She's Your Lover Now" was turning out — although a nearly complete full-band version of the song, first compiled on The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3, sounds awfully good. After the rehearsal in which Dylan "can't even," he dismissed the band and tried doing the song on his own, accompanying himself on the piano. That sounds awfully good too. (Elvis Costello says it's his favorite track on The Cutting Edge, telling Esquire, "The whole clambake is worth that one performance.") But Dylan would ultimately abandon the song, leaving it off Blonde on Blonde, which was mostly recorded by studio musicians in Nashville after Dylan moved down there in Feb. 1966. (See the Sean Wilentz essay "Mystic Nights" for more on these sessions.)

So was Dylan half a century ahead of his time because he couldn't even? For more on "I can't even" and recent elaborations like "I've lost the ability to even," see:

I like Gretchen McCulloch's characterization of "I can't even" and its kin as "stylized verbal incoherence mirroring emotional incoherence." When Dylan complained, "I can't… I can't even…", he was certainly experiencing emotional incoherence, and in his verbal expression of it, he was perhaps trying to convey something like, "I can't even get through this song (or this sentence)." Of course, that's a long way from the stylized incoherence of modern-day can't-eveners, as spoofed not too long ago on Saturday Night Live.


  1. Laura Morland said,

    December 29, 2015 @ 10:22 am

    I love the audio and video links… but how do we even get from 1966 to 2013?

    (Admittedly I haven't read the linked articles; perhaps the answer(s) lie there?)

    [(bgz) Part of the story has to do with a shift in the usage of even over the past few decades. For more on that, see Mark Liberman's 2011 post, "Why does 'even' even mean?"]

  2. richard krummerich said,

    December 29, 2015 @ 10:40 am

    Urban Dictionary comented on its use on July 3, 2010

  3. Keith DeRose said,

    December 29, 2015 @ 11:50 am

    I guess instead of:
    2: sampler; 6: reasonable; 18: obsessive
    I'd go with:
    2: a little much, but reasonable enough, I suppose; 6: obsessive; 18: I can't even

  4. DWalker said,

    December 29, 2015 @ 1:25 pm

    Regarding Dylan: I know he is influential in American popular music; many people worship him; etc. but I never understood his appeal.

    For me, his music is not fun, pleasant, enlightening, or exciting to listen to. I just don't get it. (I also don't like to listen to Neil Young, but that's because he can't sing any better than I can. And I wouldn't want to listen to myself sing!)

    Oh well; to each his own.

    I am wondering if I will ever receive a copy of Rolling Stone magazine (which I subscribe to) that doesn't mention Bob Dylan somewhere in the issue….

  5. KevinM said,

    December 29, 2015 @ 1:45 pm

    So I guess Ben is a Zimmer Man?

  6. david donnell said,

    December 29, 2015 @ 4:28 pm

    Similarly off-topic: I always wondered if Bobby Zimmerman ever visited Zimbabwe?

  7. Ken Miner said,

    December 29, 2015 @ 6:25 pm

    @ DWalker Dylan, born Robert Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota, came out in New York City in the 60s, where I was then, with a phony accent and singing Songs of Experience at the ripe old age of twenty. A few of us saw through it (Jean Shepherd for example) and never dreamed he would take off. But he did.

    A guy named Bill Wyman had an article on Bob Dylan in the July 28, 2014 issue of New York Magazine in which he remarks that after 1974, "depending on how generously you view his career, there has been either a long decline or decades of remarkable and kaleidoscopic creativity… " (He can't tell which it is. What else is new?)

  8. Charles Antaki said,

    December 29, 2015 @ 6:33 pm

    I admit to being baffled by this usage – I've never come across it in Brit-speak. (Maybe I live a sheltered life.)

  9. chuck said,

    December 29, 2015 @ 6:50 pm

    There is also a remarkable, coincidental intimation of the "more cowbell" skit 34 years before it appeared on Saturday Night Live. On two consecutive takes of Visions of Johanna (disc 9, tracks 14 and 15), producer Bob Johnson implores his desire for more cowbell.

  10. Adrian Morgan said,

    December 29, 2015 @ 9:57 pm

    I mentioned recently on one of Stan Carey's blog posts for Macmillan that the inability to even means approximately the same as the traditional sense of "nonplussed". Yet few if any blog posts about one of those expressions ever mention the other (none of the bulletted links above do so, for example). A list of semantic similarities and differences between the two expressions ("nonplussed" vs "unable to even") could be quite fruitful, I expect.

  11. AntC said,

    December 30, 2015 @ 3:15 am

    @DWalker thank you for saying that out loud. Me neither.

    BUT: There are large numbers of covers of Dylan songs by other artists. And some are quite palatable – I'd even say show musical appeal. I'll mention Joanna MacGregor and Andy Sheppard's version of "Ring them Bells" (sadly can't find it on youtube).

    That's an instrumental. Yeah perhaps it's the voice thing.

  12. Ken Miner said,

    December 30, 2015 @ 3:22 am

    Dylan wrote "Maggie's Farm" which is said to have influenced Jimmy Carter, but ironically Dylan apparently intended the song as a counter-protest to the political protest movement that, in his view, had corrupted folk music. That was also my own view at the time.

  13. Bmblbzzz said,

    December 30, 2015 @ 5:48 am

    @Charles Antaki: It's definitely used in British English too, though not that much. There's also a similar phrase used in Polish, ja nie mogę. Literally "I can't" but what you cannot is never specified.

  14. DWalker said,

    December 30, 2015 @ 11:00 am

    @Ken M: Thanks for that info. A long decline, starting from somewhere that (to some people) wasn't very exciting to begin with.

    What is weird is that some magazines (such as the aforementioned Rolling Stone) seem to think that everyone, just everyone, worships Bob Dylan. It ain't so. :-)

  15. DWalker said,

    December 30, 2015 @ 11:00 am

    I meant to say, in regards to Dylan: I can't even.

  16. andre fritze said,

    December 30, 2015 @ 5:15 pm

    I would like to reply but, I can't even…

  17. Shawn said,

    December 30, 2015 @ 9:29 pm

    No one has said it, so it needs to be said, no one sings Dylan like Dylan.
    Dylan is more of a historic character and talent, not really meant for lightweight tastes. One of the great things about appreciating Dylan is he is historic, has high name recognition and has become rich and famous, yet at the same time the fan gets to feel he is still part of something small and special. Frankly, I've met very few people who listen to Dylan out here. Of course, at one of his concerts is different.

  18. Ken Miner said,

    December 30, 2015 @ 11:34 pm

  19. Raph Cohen said,

    December 31, 2015 @ 2:40 am

    For DWalker:
    Dont listen to Him. Just READ the lyrics. Start with simple stuff like "Blowin' in the wind", before you move on to "To Ramona", "It's alright Ma" or "Every grain of sand". After that, if you still dont get Dylan, its that you simply dont care to immerse yourself into that stuff, and maybe you prefer to stick to artists like Madonna or Gaga or Swift. Not every one enjoys fine cuisine, some prefer hot dogs and burgers. And that IS FINE. It takes all kinds to make a world. And to each his own. It's not "levels" it's just preferences, none is bad or poor or stupid. It's just what you like and you are free to do so. There's no accounting for taste or preferences.

  20. JS said,

    December 31, 2015 @ 3:00 am

    What Shawn said. Basically no one is into Dylan; they just smile and nod about how he was a talented "lyricist" or occasionally "songwriter."

    No need for expatiation about the real depth of his talent; I'll just say that at one point, when it came to making and performing songs, he had it all, and did exactly what he wanted, exactly how he wanted. Re: authenticity, again, he's a performer, where it's sincerity and not truthfulness that counts… so no, he wasn't really a hobo and isn't, more recently, an apostle — probably really a self-absorbed, self-righteous prick, but so it goes.

  21. Pickering said,

    December 31, 2015 @ 5:48 am

    Dylan critics. And you who philosophize… I can't even.

  22. Burt said,

    December 31, 2015 @ 7:26 am

    DWalker and Ken Miner:

    Dylan worship does get a little thick; he's done plenty of stuff I don't like. But he's done so much that I revere. Specifically to Ken Miner, so you and Jean Shepherd were "onto" Dylan — never taken in like the rest of us, huh? One day the world will wake up and realize that even his best work stinks. Hm. So exactly what were you very wise people "onto" that no-one else saw? Many, many people in the Village knew Dylan was lying about his past. Many, many people couldn't stand the guy. He wrote tons of songs in his early 20's about "experiences" he never had — so by definition you believe that makes his songs inauthentic? Come on, Ken! Art is authentic if it moves and convinces you. Robinson Crusoe was a hoax. People believed Don Quixote existed. So what? You dislike Dylan the man so much that you're deaf to his talent. A jerk like that doesn't deserve to have genius; it's not fair. Maybe not, but he's got it anyway. All the rest of us are delusional? Sorry that you and DWalker are missing out. I mean you don't have to like Dylan — but don't let insecurity or arrogance convince you that this emperor has no clothes. Artistic authenticity has zero to do with biographical authenticity. The work either speaks for itself or it doesn't. You seriously can't hear the magic of the music even from '63 through '67? The best of the later stuff has magic too, but the earlier stuff is bursting with it. Who the artist is, how old, what gender, what skin color — none of that matters. If the stuff works it's just cause for wonder. I hear Dostoevsky was a creep in some ways. But The Brothers Karamazov, Notes From Underground, Crime and Punishment are sill great art. Is that possible? Well it's true so I guess that means it's possible. Incidentally, Jean Shepherd doesn't help your case, at least for me. He was a great radio guy but I once saw him take someone apart at a reading in a nasty, almost sadistic way. He had a very, very inflated opinion of himself as a writer and was bitter that few, if any, agreed with him. He wrote well but not THAT well. Telling stories, not writing them, was his great gift (in my view). And I guess he was lousy at recognizing genius, even when it was singing right in his face.

  23. Dee gee said,

    December 31, 2015 @ 7:48 am

    Stop all your whinging and listen to and enjoy all the music that this great artist has recorded for over half a century

  24. Shawn said,

    December 31, 2015 @ 1:13 pm

    JS, isn't it the most annoying thing to hear that Dylan was a great songwriter, end of sentence? The only covers worth your time are done by the Grateful Dead and The Jerry Garcia Band. The competition for the most annoying Dylan opinion is the one where The Byrds covers are better than Dylan's original. Hilarious, sad and annoying. Their versions are tailored for mass taste, they cut verses, make the guitars sparkle, but they mostly turn high folk and rock art into bubble gum music. Doesn't mean I don't enjoy a Byrd's song, but I'm aware of the difference from the original.

  25. zythophile said,

    January 3, 2016 @ 5:51 am

    "Their versions are tailored for mass taste" – you say that as if it's a bad thing.

  26. Ken Miner said,

    January 3, 2016 @ 10:23 pm

    "The guitar-banjo-mandolin plain-human mysticism of musical innocence" (speaking of the 60s). Nobody has put it so well. It's from an obscure book, Rational Meaning(1997) by the poet Laura Riding and her husband Schuyler B. Jackson.

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