Rough and Rowdy Ways
The dream is over
What can I say?
– John Lennon, “God” (1970)
A few decades ago Bob Dylan took Joyce Carol Oates for a ride and she almost never came back, but when she did she dedicated a creepy short story to him, “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?” A girlygazer past his prime (i.e., over 30) pretends to be of teenage vintage to lure a pretty waywarder into his vehicle, there’s resistance, at first, then one day … see story title.
Recently, I came across a scene from Hearts of Fire, a Dylan vehicle that crashes out in Hank Williams country, where the doggone rivers are dry, and sees him, with guitar, stealing in on a young lass sleeping among hay roostin’ hens in a barn, where he proceeds to serenade her, Milli-Vanilli style, with “Couple More Years” (a line straight from JC’s story!), with a girlygazer-past-his-prime song that lures her into going for a short ride down a long Life. (Spoiler Alert!) They say the director never worked in Hollywood again. And it made you wonder about Dylan’s road experiences, the Endless Tour, the needle in search of new hay. And, I thought, what did JC Oates know, and when did she know it?
It seems like aeons, now, since I turned on the car radio and heard the opening lines of Joan Baez’s “Diamonds and Rust”: Well, I’ll be damned / Here comes your ghost again. Joan hearing Bob’s voice on the telephone from “a couple of light years ago.” Ten years, she said. So, a light year back then was 5 years, I’m thinking. (An aeon, if you’re keeping track, is 10 of those Baez light years.) Madonna was laying into Bob for his “obscurity” and “keeping things vague” and being “nostalgic” and something about the time the cufflinks broke. Damn, that was one basted lamb of a song. But Dylan keeps coming back, like Bill Halley’s comet, a shooting star that just won’t burn out. A recurring eternalist. A not-so-leitmotif. A needle in my haystack I stopped looking for ages ago.
I stopped regularly following Dylan’s work after Time Out of Mind (1997), for which I wrote a review, praising his “wizened if not wiser ways” and enjoying Alan Ginsburg’s nomination of Bob for the Nobel prize (he would eventually win in 2016). But I was seriously bummed out by a couple of dangerously depressing lyrics from “Trying To Get To Heaven”:
When you think that you’ve lost everything
You find out you can always lose a little more
I’ll close my eyes and I wonder
If everything is as hollow as it seems.
And, teary-eyed, I listened to Dylan sing in “Highlands,” my favorite song on the album:
There’s a way to get there and I’ll figure it out somehow
Well, I’m already there in my mind, and that’s good enough for now.
Even a true, diehard Dylan fan, like moi, can only take so much 12-string homesickness for eternity, and I had to give up Dylan for years to find a way to cope with the picture of the world he painted (and probably plagiarized, too).
Like everyone else, I barely noticed when Love and Theft was released on the day the towers fell in NYC. And Tempest, inexplicably released on 9/11 (2012), left me unimpressed; the picture Dylan himself conjured up of sitting there watching James Cameron’s Titanic and him writing the title song, a limp last waltz with the ship’s band, with no mention of a causal iceberg, the onboard battle between the 1% and the 99, and me wondering why the reference to Shakespeare’s Tempest. Did I miss something?
Now, it’s eight years later, a Baez light-year or so ago, since his last studio album (the ones with the ‘messages’ and themes), and here it is, we’ll be damned, Rough and Rowdy Ways. He baited us for a couple of months, releasing singles off the album, luring us in for a ride. The album comes after the Impeachment failed and Covid-19 muscled in on the culture while everyone was busy watching the Super Bowl (no Bob Lite ads this year). Dylan’s Never Ending Tour has stopped, maybe permanently; it may be years before crowds can gather, masked and anonymous, in significant numbers to enjoy his gloom.
When “Murder Most Foul,” at almost 17 minutes, his longest song since “Highlands,” was released at the end of March, I went apeshit, I thought it was so bad, and had to be sedated with Enya shots. I literally nominated the song for an Ignobel Award (bad forensic science), writing, in part, “Bad lyrics, bad arrangement, Dylan’s voice channeling — of all people — Wolfman Jack,” his worst voice since that one-off falsebasso thing he did with “Lay Lady Lay,” that was incomprehensibly popular, Johnny Cash inviting him to Nashville for some country chart pie, oh, me-oh-my.
The lyrics! “Then they blew off his head while he was still in the car / Shot down like a dog in broad daylight.” (Was he supposed to get out of the car? Who shoots dogs at all?) “You got unpaid debts, we’ve come to collect.” (So, he was watching The Irishman when he wrote the song? And only watching it to see how Scorsese portrayed his song “Joey.”) “The day they blew out the brains of the king.” (Yo, heads up, we’ve been a democracy since we told the Royals to stuff their taxes.) And “I’m goin’ to Woodstock.” (No, you’re not, and a lot of hippies were pissed off about it, too.) “Then I’ll go over to Altamont and sit near the stage.” (What the fuck for? Angry bikers are on the prowl.) Damn.
Well, Rough and Rowdy Ways is with us now, months after the single’s teases, and, frankly, it’s an outstanding album. It seems to start out where Time Out of Mind and “Highlands” left off. It’s dark and bluesy and full of intrigue. The Ghost of Memory, who has “less and less to say,” and who flirts with a Boston waitress on his way to the Highlands is that much further along on his long career’s journey into night. The cover art of Rough and Rowdy Ways resembles the dancing figures of Oh Mercy, but, now, much darker and retro, like the album’s road trip.
Covid-19 has stopped his touring, which may or may not be a good thing for him (and us). I think of him as The Wandering Jew, who snarked at Christ on his way to Calvary and was condemned to walk the Earth until the Second Coming, but then not again maybe Christ misunderstood his obscure meaning. So existentially dissociated, he’s a spook in his own life, without anchor or compass, and where he notes, in “I Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You,” that “I’ve traveled a long road of despair / I’ve met no other traveler there.” Dylan’s moving through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, down Blake’s road of excess toward wisdom, and he’s crossed the Rubicon into the Inferno, and “abandoned all hope.” What more does a girl want? Get in the car.
Keeping with the Dante-esque excursion into the licking flames of his private hell he trudges on, picking up Mary Lou and Miss Pearl, “My fleet-footed guides from the underworld,” and moving to a slow baion rhythm past the weigh stations of the double-cross and forever-loss, the album vaguely resembling the 9 plus 1 structure of the Divine Comedy. from the afterwordly consciousness of Others that he wakes to in “I Contain Multitudes,” on through a kind of purgatory where he burns off the accrued effects of the seven deadly sins (lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, pride), and “Three miles north of purgatory,” he’s crossing the Rubicon, not coming back, one step away from the all-consum(er)ing paradise of Key West — but also, one time home of Ponce de León, who sought the Fountain of Youth — and some semblance of the Ideal Feminine.
“I Contain Multitudes” showers the listener with vintage Dylan lines that are at once playful, evocative and which sometimes resonate with something you can’t quite put your finger on. “Multitudes” contains threats of violence, which becomes a sustained theme throughout the 2-CD set. The poet sings,
Got a tell-tale heart like Mr. Poe
Got skeletons in the walls of people you know
The Tell-Tale Heart is about tension that must break at any moment, but, when it does, you wish it hadn’t, for the horror it reveals.
Surprising lyrics in the song that seem to want to fuck with you, reveal that Dylan still has some spunkaneity in him. He sings,
I’m just like Anne Frank, like Indiana Jones
And them British bad boys, The Rolling Stones
Reader-response theory being what it is, each of us performing paged words differently, when I think of Anne Frank, I think of her recently discovered sex-saucy comments on Wehrmacht women wearing mattresses on their backs (and, also like Dylan, she liked to hide in the attic). Like Indiana Jones, around every corner Dylan faces a tiresome (s)word-wielding critic that he must dispose of with ennui. And like the British Bad Boys, he shares a common musical mentor in Muddy Waters, who wrote “Rollin’ Stone.”
To fend off women (presumably wearing Kill Bill eye-patches) who may come back at him in his dreamy travels, the poet sings, “I carry four pistols and two large knives,” and ends the song with the provocative image of a ménage à trois: “What more can I tell you? I sleep with life and death in the same bed.” Who’s fucking whom, and in what order, seems to be the only question left.
The early release of “False Prophet” featured cover art that depicts a skeleton, holding an antique syringe filled with pink liquid, staring out at us, as if to ask ‘are you ready?’; the shadow behind him depicts a hanged man, suggesting that the skeleton used to be a crim back in his biology days. His body language seems to mimic the beat of the song, which features a rhythmic riff-off of Billy “The Kid” Emerson’s “If Lovin’ Is Believin’.” An alert that Dylan means to be playful. It’s a great song.
“False Prophet” seems to suggest (you can’t really be sure with the vague-keeping Dylan) what he’s doing time in the hellish hoosegow for — false prophesying. The poet sings, “I opened my heart to the world and the world came in,” and fucked him over, essentially. Who can’t relate to that sentiment? (In that sense, all of us, including Dante, contain multitudes.) Then he hits us with what might be the quintessential truth of his career:
Enemy of the unlived meaningless life
I ain’t no false prophet
I just know what I know
I go where only the lonely can go
At heart, he’s Zimmerman, not Zarathustra, although, when you think about it, he’s Zarathustra, too. Enemy of the unlived meaningless life, Socrates and Dylan in a nutshell, but the latter sans hemlock. Maybe Socrates should have taken up the lyre.
In “My Own Version of You,” continuing the slow blues beat, Dylan goes from a consideration of the passive aggressive social milieu he’s been forced to live amongst, masked and alias-ly, to mad scientist, a Dr. Frankenstein who sings,
I’ve been visiting morgues and monasteries
Looking for the necessary body parts
Limbs and livers and brains and hearts
I’ll bring someone to life, is what I wanna do
Seems like a comment on both the Age we live in, moving toward the Singularity, and a personal reflection on the Feminine Ideal; if he can’t find what he’s looking for in nature, he’ll make do with a composite, a jigsaw of all the women who have ever puzzled him.
The mad poet thinks that if he uses his creative energies he will “be saved by the creature that I create.” But it’s a dicey proposition. He says he’ll take “the Scarface Pacino and The Godfather Brando,” as if he were at a CRISPR machine splicing some roles. It’s an evil place he’s in, where “the enemies of mankind,” Freud and Marx, are engulfed in flames, and he imagines “the raw hide lash rip the skin from their backs.” It’s a nasty place: “Shimmy your ribs, I’ll stick in the knife / Gonna jumpstart my creation to life.” The music plods on and on, and he wonders, “Is there light at the end of the tunnel, can you tell me, please?” Dark shit, man.
Beginning with the sixth song, “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” the tone and rhythm starts to change, and things lighten up. Jimmy Reed was an old time guitar and harmonica bluesman from Mississippi known for his accessibility, who spent time as a busker, and ended up on shift work at a meat packing facility, while white men, like Dylan, got rich off his Black-and-blues. You can hear Reed in a lot of early Dylan, and here, in Rough and Rowdy Ways, one can hear the beat of “Bright Lights, Big City” and the now-taboo humor of “I’m Going Upside Your Head.” Dylan’s paying homage; shedding off ‘one more layer of skin,’ striving and shriving on his way to ‘Beatrice’.
In “Mother of Muses,” an appropriate follow-on, he’s almost there. About to cross the last line into the last realm. Echoing sentiments expressed in previous albums, such as “I can’t believe it / I can’t believe I’m alive” from the song “Where Are You Tonight?” off Street Legal, Dylan begins with the final realization many critics have been waiting for: “I’ve already outlived my life by far.” In his youth, he was just Watching the River Flow through his mind, Heraclitean, a river of multitudes, where, the poet sings, “I keep seeing this stuff and it just comes a-rolling in.” He’s ready to lie down next to the river now, and have himself a final dream, a door he’ll conjure up, to the other side, the final set of 9 plus 1 circles of paradise (so, maybe he’s got another album in him). Here he comes, Mama: “I’m travelin’ light and I’m a-slow coming home,” leaving behind the material world, like the good Tibetan Book of the Dead says we must.
Then it’s on to the album’s Paradise, the ‘nostalgic’ “Key West,” book now. Artist colony, citywide museum, purveyor of fast foods (you know the ones, you know exactly the ones), and home of the Hemingway Code: grace under pressure. (Except for a couple of albums I needn’t mention.) That’s Dylan, too. And Caribbean Wind. And some Sara’s probably down there, too, in her late stage bikini, waiting to draw him into another disillusion, much to our delight. If you lose your mind, you will find it there, the poet sings. Well, maybe, but I can’t afford the rates there, so I’ll have to take his word for it. In fact, Bob, it’s because I can’t afford the rates that I lost my mind (oops, TMI).
Except for “Murder Most Foul,” Dylan’s voice hasn’t sounded so smooth, polished and uncroakin’ in a long time, maybe the result of precision engineering, or restraint, or both. And, incidentally, when I reconsidered “Murder Most Foul” (briefly), the song evoked, for me, American Graffitti, a film that features DJ Wolfman Jack, and the platters he spun, and recalling an era of contradictions and lies about the American Dream, and serving to remind us all that Dylan has been around since Ike warned us to beware the Military Industrial Complex. My whole life Dylan has been hoarsely whispering in my ear, beware, beware. Except when he was cashing in.
Who knows where Rough and Rowdy Ways fits into his catalogue. It’s his 39th album (his 39th lash?), and probably as good as anything he’s produced in awhile (it depends on how you look at it), but I wouldn’t want to move his albums around in a hierarchy — it would be too much like fucking around with a Rubik’s Cube. Who needs the frustration or self-administered take-down of intelligence? Certainly, the album comes at a time of preoccupation with disease and death that the Pandemic has brought and when the crisis of American democracy smells of collapse. You worry when you read that the Wandering Jew was condemned to do the Johnny Walker until the onset of Christ’s return — i.e., the Apocalypse promised in Revelations — and now he’s stopped wandering.
But as we’ve all learned over the decades, it’s senseless to read too deeply into Dylan’s oeuvre — probably you’re projecting and exposing yourself to well-founded ridicule, like that moron in that famous 1962 interview who seemed to mistake Dylan for Barry McGuire (a Dylan imitator) and asked him to explain the deep meaning of “Eve of Destruction.” It’s an instructive interview, glaringly exposing what the Poor Bastard has been up against all these years, squeezed between the Press that wants to hold him accountable and the People who want him to save them. No wonder he ended up referring to himself as “a song and dance man.” (Check it out: it’s unbelievable.) Next to Lennon, no Pop Icon has ever had to put up with such sustained blatherscheissen.
The poet once sang, “I haven’t known peace and quiet for so long / I can’t remember what it’s like.” With Rough and Rowdy Ways, he seems to be one step closer to Beyond. One day, probably soon, we’ll pick up the paper and read the obituary the Times has had on file and ready for many years. Thanks, Bob, for a lifetime of contradictions, insight-ments, and the strange solace, along the way, of emotional validation.