It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to be not able to even.
But that’s where Bob Dylan was on January 21, 1966. He’d been trying to cut a track called “She’s Your Lover Now” with his band, a bunch of Canadians and an drummer from Buffalo, then known as the Hawks. But things just weren’t working well. The band ultimately tried 19 times to record the song for Blonde on Blonde, but they never got a satisfactory take, and it was unreleased until The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 in 1991.
Because Dylan fans are obsessive nutcases who will buy this sort of thing (I include myself!), Columbia Records is now releasing hours and hours of outtakes. And on one version of “She’s Your Lover Now,” Chris Willman of Billboard noticed:
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!
The linguist and journalist Ben Zimmer isolated that moment and posted it on Language Log. You can hear drummer Sandy Konikoff struggling to keep the tricky rhythm at the turnaround:
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.
Zimmer is right that Dylan’s usage isn’t as stylized, but it’s also easy to draw a straight line from his use to this one. It’s a clear ancestor. In other words: It turns out that the new Bob Dylan turned out to be … Millennials.
Here’s a thought experiment: What if instead of Sandy Konikoff, the drummer on the session had been Levon Helm, the former Hawk who later rejoined the Band and is one of the greatest rock drummers of all time? Maybe “I can’t even” wouldn’t even exist. I literally can’t even.
Rejected headlines for this note include:
I’m Not There—Can You Not?
Tryin’ to Get to Heaven, but I Can’t Even