I have a book on my shelf by John Braine. ‘Room At The Top’ is it’s title. Some kitchen sink novel about northern England in the 1950s. I copped it in a junk shop in Manchester, cheap as chips. Found on the floor, torn to bits and pleading for adoption. There was no price on it but I think I copped it for about 50 pence. The book cover was a striking, dated shot of a couple dancing, taken by Ian Berry in 1964. Reading upon it I found that Berry had to leave shortly after because people started lobbing beer bottles at him. Poor thing. Today I noticed the cover sleeve on the new Bob Dylan album has the same image. Just uncropped, revealing a hunchback figure leaning over a jukebox. This is a revelation to me – though probably trifling to you.
‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’ is the long awaited 39th studio album from Bob Dylan. His first original material in 8 years. In which the expectation of a new, Dylan penned release has been raised following his win of the Nobel Prize For Literature in 2016. A controversial award with him being a songwriter. Dylan, a true original, plays to his own strengths and rules on Rowdy. He works with sounds of the past, made to be the playlist for shots of bourbon in a dimly lit 1am room. Some of his contempories have gone off their rockers by now, following trends and writing simplistic songs. Dylan however spends time musing on heavy topics. Often tackling mortality in his withered croon. He has seen it all at 79, admitting modestly ‘I’ve outlived my life by far’ and ‘I sleep with life and death in the same bed‘. I wouldn’t be surprised if Dylan knows this is his swan song.
Opener, ‘I Contain Multitudes’ is a melancholic, minimalistic track. Smothered with weeping, country influenced steel guitars, atop of some beautiful flamenco acoustic playing. It’s interesting in retrospect to most Dylan openers, which are upbeat and roaring. There’s no drumming here, and the light is shined primarily on Dylan’s lyrics. Those being a self portrait. Sometimes of humor, but mostly of candid philosophy. The track takes its title from a stanza in a Walt Whitman poem, ‘Song Of Myself’ (1855). The stanza states that today, tomorrow and yesterday all hold different emotions. Life will contradict itself no matter what, even if you try change it. Dylan compares that idea to his own body of work. A man who at one point sang about 3 different women on the same record. Contradicting himself blatantly one may say, but it was recorded over a years period. One where each day is vitally different. At points he looks at his past optimistically. It gained him success. ‘I have no apologies to make.’ At others, he’s his own devil. A guilty man fighting ‘blood feuds’ with his emotions. His guilt is methodically referenced to Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘Tell Tale Heart’. A short story where a body, alike to those Dylan hurt, is stored under the floorboards. He doesn’t state a line without following it through. I’d argue that some of the references are deeper than what initially comes to mind. The reference to Antoine Ó Raifteiri is one that hit hard (‘I’m Going To Bally-Na Lee’). Raifteiri was an Irish poet who was lucky to survive a near fatal smallpox outbreak. It is likely Dylan makes this connection to his own near fatal condition of histoplasmosis in the late 90s. Something that affects him to this day. He rarely plays harmonica anymore. Seeing him live last year, he got it out once for ‘Simple Twist Of Fate’, and even that strained him. Raifteiri was also known as the last of the wandering bards. Something that Dylan considers himself. In the next track he braggadociously claims that ‘I’m the last of the best, you can bury the rest’.
On ‘False Prophet’, Dylan sings from the perspective of his dead self to another human. It isn’t stated who this human is, but to me it’s an upper class figure. Maybe a politician. That’s sometimes the beauty of Dylan’s work. It’s always been this way. This person remembers him as a ‘false prophet’. The term (of a prophet) being one that Dylan has tried to escape since the 60s. He accepts it in tongue and cheek humor here. Keeping his strong wit. He tells the judging person that it doesn’t matter what he’s stated to be. He just knows what he knows, and does it as no one else will. He claims his songs have made more of an impact toward world issues than this person has in their wasted wealth. There are some humorous Dickensesque lines about how the judger should ‘take a walk in the garden’ (of eden) to see the reason the world has hit its decline, before wishing him luck with his death. Keeping all his silver and gold encapsulated around him. There may be hints in the striking single art for this one. A pulp skeleton figure with a syringe (a coronavirus cure?), with a shadow of a dead, hung devil figure in view behind him. Instrumentally this one could raise eyebrows. Its swaggering central riff sounds familiar, heavily sampling Billy “The Kid” Emerson’s 1954 B Side ‘If Lovin’ Is Believing’ . An artist Dylan mentions in reverence on his opus ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ (1965).
This is all expected from Dylan at this point, who often borrows from his influences musically. On the next track, ‘My Own Version Of You’, Dylan writes his own treatise about it. Creating a new character to join his freak show. One earlier painted on ‘Ballad Of A Thin Man’. His character, a mad Frankenstein like scientist lurks around graveyards and monasteries to steal body parts. He reveals that this endeavour is to make a perfect image for himself. I find it particularly interesting that he even mentions his negative influences. There are some incredibly visceral Dante like images of travelling to hell and witnessing famous people being lashed into flames on his journey to collect their souls. It brings into question people like Marx and Freud with their beliefs. Instrumentally it is a surprise. His band cooks up a Portishead like noir. Smoky!
In contrast again, ‘I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You’ confirms the years covering American standards and Franky boy have made a mark on Dylan. This track is a swooning 50s-esque number made for crooners of the night. I can imagine someone like Adele covering it and having huge success, like she did with ‘Make You Feel My Love’. I have a love hate relationship with this one. It can be too schmaltzy with a few questionable lexical choices on one hand. For example. one verse dedicates itself to all the places Dylan has travelled seeking his love, and is a bit disappointing for his standard of writing. The chorus refrain can feel just a little cheesy at times too. Though admittedly, Dylan makes it sound better than most would. I tend to be more satisfied with the back end of the song, where the meaning is opened up to interpretation. Maybe this isn’t a love song to a woman. Instead to a spiritual force. Make what you will of it. But Dylan’s desperate spine chilling croons are beyond beautiful. He begs a godly figure to save him in his loneliness and despair. It feels all the more relevant after his close friend Little Richard passed recently. ‘I traveled a long road of despair. I met no other traveler there. Lot of people gone, lot of people I knew. I’ve made up my mind to give myself to you.’
‘Black Rider’ takes this to a bleaker level. This track sounds like the lost soundtrack to Ingmar Bergman’s ‘The Seventh Seal’ (1957). A film set during a huge plague where death challenges a knight to a game of chess (really recommend this one). Like that film, the track seems to be a battle with death. Dylan asks death to stop playing tricks on him, stating he’d be happier dead now, because alive he is at his most afraid. ‘If there ever was a time, then let it be now. Let me go through, open the door. My soul is distressed, my mind is at war.’ He has every reason to be, being high risk to coronavirus, and maybe to other unknown illnesses. At times it feels like a religious force is trying to intervene, unabridged with biblical quotations. Just like the happy couple in ‘The Seventh Seal‘ providing the only light. A most impressionable one being Isaiah trying to purify his soul with coal.
Tracks like ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’ and ‘Crossing The Rubicon’ are blues stompers, following in the footsteps of the ‘Love and Theft’ album. The first; A party of harmonicas and swinging blues traditions, celebrates the long gone hero of Dylan’s. Dylan sings ‘I can’t sing a song that I don’t understand’ in praise of Reeds lyrical abilities. Another line I love on this one is ‘I can’t play the record cos my needle got stuck’. How he simply, but so wonderfully writes that his record is scratched up is excellent. ‘Crossing The Rubicon’ is a denser number. Dylan writes from the perspective of Julius Caesar crossing the rubicon before his assasination. Dylan adds numerous small details that are applaud worthy. One being in linking Caesar’s assasination (that happened in April) with the month itself. ‘The most dangerous month of the year’ warns Dylan. Coming to my mind are the following events: the sinking of the Titanic, the fire of Notre Dame cathedral, and Lincoln’s assasination. Damn, even T.S. Eliot states that ‘April Is The Cruelest Month’ in ‘The Waste Land’. And to really top things off, April was the opus of the coronavirus lockdown. Maybe a coincidence, but creepy. During the rest of the track Dylan ponders over the world around him, as if he is the Caesar of our generation looking upon a world he isn’t too proud of.
In Dylan’s nobel prize speech, he mentions the huge influence Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ had on him. One that undoubtedly helped him write ‘Mother Of Muses’. The muses, originally 9 greek goddesses are where the term ‘my muse’ comes from. And here Dylan talks of his muses in prayer form. Calling Calliope to it’s centre. The greek goddess of poetry. One who Dylan states ‘i’m falling in love’ with. Later Dylan discusses how everything is shaped by someone else and soon they could be forgotten about. Dylan asks that we ‘sing of Sherman, Montgomery and Scott. And of Zhukov and Patton’. All being generals who made it possible for the world to be as it is now. It reminds me a lot of Leonard Cohen in structure. Especially as the song takes prayer form musically, sounding like some ancient hymn.
Now if you know me, you know I find accordions romantic. You shouldn’t trust a man who plays one, but an accordion song is great. No doubt of it. Bob Dylan somehow found this out on ‘Key West’. Instrumentally a counterpart to Tom Waits’ ‘Cold Cold Ground’, and lyrically a love letter to the Californian place. A romanticism for authors like Jack Keuroac and Ernest Hemmingway. Two big influences on Dylan who swayed him to the dark side. I find this track a lot more convincing than Desire’s ‘Mozambique’ (weak point on an otherwise stellar album), where Dylan attempts a second profession as a holiday brouchure writer. Something age has brought him wisdom in doing quite evidently. I could go to Key West now with my radio and abandon everything. Lyrically It is full of bold prophesations; ‘If you’ve lost your mind, you’ll find it there’ and ‘Key West is the gateway key to innocence and purity’. Dylan even avows that when hearing awful news (on pirate radio stations with signals coming from afar), he has an inclination that he is safe. Dylan jumps ship to get more personal in the second half of the song, providing one of the strongest verses on the record. He talks about his uncertainty with his Jewish upbringing, comparing his thoughts while receiving his Bar Mitzvah to the biblical story of Hosea. In reflection he says it impacted him and the Torah became like a bride to him. Whether for the worse or better. ‘Twelve years old, they put me in a suit. Forced me to marry a prostitute. There were gold fringes on her wedding dress. That’s my story, but not where it ends. She’s still cute, and we’re still friends. Down on the bottom, way down in Key West’.
‘Murder Most Foul’ closes the record in bleak fashion. An ode to the unjust world we live in, taking its title from Hamlet. Although instrumentally being three chords, the 17 minutes are mindblowingly powerful in it’s lyrical content. The track focuses on President John F Kennedy’s assasination. One that Dylan, since 22 years of age, has felt strong indignation to. “If I was more sensitive about it than anyone else, I would have written a song about it, wouldn’t I?” Dylan says about the murder in 1971. Now he has written about it. Dylan paints the scene of Kennedy’s death, and the factors surrounding it in miniscule details. From the (prior) failed attempts of murder, to the three suspicious looking ‘bums’ on the crime scene, to the conspiracy theories of the additional gunman at a ‘grassy knoll’, to Zapruder filming the entire thing from the start. Yet (Dylan muses) nobody arrested them. How come? He questions and makes ruminations over the killer, Oswald and his murderer; was it planned to kill Oswald? Therefore moving him away from a prison sentence, and the time of repentance due to him? He travels over JFK’s brain being found to be stolen a good 3 years later. Do people really care about his brain more than the fact he was brutally murdered? And do people really care enough for it to take 3 years to find out the man’s brain is missing? The answer my friend is blowing in the wind. All he states is America’s innocence is lost, as it’s youngest president is killed ‘like a lamb to the slaughter’, and it will never be the same again. There are some heavy tangents on other vital events shaping America’s history – not without a bleak, but honest mind. He looks at the rise of bands like The Beatles, and drug culture, leading to intense violence. You want a peaceful music festival? Go to Woodstock. But don’t forget Altamont which was held shortly after. Intended to be the west coast equivalent to Woodstock, but instead causing violence and deaths.
Dylan goes back to compare JFK to the second coming of Christ. He brings him back to life and asks Wolfman Jack to play a myriad of songs in tribute. These songs start off all connected in some way to the murder. Whether its the jazz standard ‘St James Infirmary’, in which a dead man in a hospital is portrayed, or John Lee Hookers ‘Scratch My Back’ to symbolise a group of people getting together for an assasination. It later turns to a celebration of any music that can aid us in hard times. Dylan has a constant belief that America’s best presidents have all been killed, and we are left with the incompetant ones getting away with murder; he considers the US flag ‘A Blood Stained Banner’. He can’t provide us with an answer. Instead a warning. Just like he did on 1963’s ‘A Hard Rains A-Gonna Fall’ .
Like any great Dylan album, this is an absorbing experience. An epic, near perfect 70 minute journey. Likely to be rewarding on numerous listens, uncovering different meanings to each listener. Don’t let this one slip the radar.
KEY TRACKS: ‘I Contain Multitudes’, ‘False Prophet’, ‘My Own Version Of You’, ‘Black Rider’, ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’, ‘Mother Of Muses’, ‘Crossing The Rubicon’, ‘Key West’, ‘Murder Most Foul’