It’s with a sense of trepidation that I drop the metaphorical needle on new releases by those mythical figures from the dawning era of popular music. Not because the album might be bad. We know that happens. Just listen to all of those albums recorded by those legends throughout the 1980s. Bob Dylan’s Knocked Out Loaded. David Bowie’s Never Let Me Down. Paul McCartney’s Press To Play. Neil Young’s Landing On Water.
So no, we know that Bob Dylan is capable of bad records and he’s certainly got a knack for mediocrity too: Planet Waves, Street Legal, Infidels, Triplicate. What we also know—and prefer to know—is that Bob Dylan is a genius who has towered over popular music for generations now. And for all the albums that we’ve played a couple of times and chucked up on the shelf, there are a whole bunch of records that form the pantheon of modern popular music: Freewheelin’, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde On Blonde, Blood On The Tracks.
We know he’s also the master of the comeback. The aforementioned Blood On The Tracks being the first occasion when, having kept a low profile for almost a decade, he swept back into public view with one of his greatest records. Having limped through the ‘80s, he ended the decade with the reinvigorated Oh Mercy. Having seemed to retreat into history in the ‘90s with a brace of excellent albums of old fold and blues songs (and the first release in his official bootleg operation), it seemed that Bob Dylan was respectable again, but unlikely to turn heads. Time Out Of Mind and Love and Theft disproved that theory.
And now here we are again. A new decade starts and anyone who still cares knows that Bob Dylan hasn’t released any original music in nearly a decade. In the interim, we have had the equivalent of five albums of the Great American Songbook: Shadows In The Night, Fallen Angels and Triplicate. We might have been forgiven for giving up on any new music. After all, his lucrative touring, excellent Bootleg Series, and the knowledge that fans of all ages will buy Bob Dylan Sings Children’s Lullabies should he decide to make that album, must keep the wolf from the door. The Bob Dylan of 2020 is not the same person who rode the rails from Minnesota to New York in 1961, visions of Woody Guthrie in his head.
Is It Rolling, Bob?
But let’s remember that kid for a minute. There he is, smiling on the slightly faded cover of Bob Dylan (1962, sporting a sheepskin jacket and engineer’s cap, and holding his guitar up proudly. He is thrilled to be John Hammond’s newest signing. That boyish face has no idea what the future will hold, but he’s eager, and the music on the album demonstrates that enthusiasm perfectly. In 1965, Bob Dylan would say “I’m just a song and dance man,” and nowhere is this truer than on the debut. It’s fun, quirky, comedic, maudlin, lusty and, of course, it’s almost all covers. This makes the quantum leap to 1963’s Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan all the more startling. He’s gone from “Pretty Peggy O” to “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall” in a year.
Of course, Freewheelin’ and its follow up The Times They Are A Changin’ are the twin monuments upon which his reputation as a protest singer rest. “Hattie Carroll,” “Hollis Brown,” “Masters of War,” “God On Our Side,” “Blowin’ In The Wind,” “Oxford Town,” “World War III,” “Only A Pawn In Their Game,” “Davey Moore.” Incredible songwriting filled with increasingly dazzling imagery and remarkable insight from a man who is still only 22. The first of these records bears the iconic album cover featuring Dylan and his girlfriend Suze Rotolo walking arm in arm through the Village. It’s cold and they’re wrapped up warm. Suze leans into Bob and they seem to be sharing a joke, both faces filled with joy. The next album features a stark monochrome portrait of a scowling Dylan. The lettering, reminiscent of the old west, suggest Dylan the outlaw.
These two albums cast such a long shadow, they sealed his fate as a legend right then and there. He was adopted by the Civil Rights movement. He marched on Washington. He was photographed with Dr. King. He had a dalliance with the queen of the folk movement, Joan Baez. He was endorsed by Pete Seeger. The Staple Singers loved him. Overnight “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “The Times They Are a’Changin’” would be a standards, and his songbook would be sought out by The Turtles, Sonny and Cher, The Byrds to name just three.
But for all that, the twin ghettos of protest singing and acoustic folk music imposed limitations that that couldn’t hold him for long. We hear it first on Another Side of Bob Dylan. On the cover, he stands in a catalogue pose, his foot up on a case, leaning with mock casualness on his knee. He looks off to one side, straight-faced. Knowing how mischievous he can be, it’s entirely plausible that this ‘serious’ pose is deliberately at odds with the playful record within. Still all acoustic but with daubs of piano, guitar and harmonica, the songs here range from the pretty “To Ramona” and “It Ain’t Me,” to the daft as a brush “Motorpsycho Nitemare” and the vocally silly “All I Really Wanna Do.” Recorded quickly, fuelled by red wine and weed, it’s often overlooked throat-clearing exercise. A stepping stone to what would come next.
The epoch-defining 14 months that start with 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home and end with 1966’s Blonde On Blonde is one of the defining moments of modern music—like Elvis, Beatlemania, Ziggy Stardust, T-Rextasy, punk, disco, Madonna and Prince in the ‘80s, Thriller/Bad, Nevermind, and Kanye, Kendrick and Beyoncé in the 2010s. This period in Dylan’s career has been analysed and explored in microscopic detail by better writers than me with greater insight than I can perhaps manage. You know the stories, from the electric shift at Newport Folk Fest to the mysterious motorcycle accident that would take him out of the public eye years.
In those months, we will meet Mike Bloomfield, Charlie McCoy, Bob Johnstone, The Band, Kenny Buttrey, Al Kooper, Joe South. We’ll see Bob scowling at us with his kitten, scowling at us wearing a Triumph logo a T-shirt, scowling at us from the depths of his brown coat and curls. And the songs are incredible. “Visions of Johanna,” “Like A Rolling Stone,” “It’s Alright Ma,” “Mr Tambourine Man,” “Ballad of a Thin Man,” “Stuck Inside Of Mobile.” Most significantly, perhaps, “Desolation Row” and “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” These two lengthy tracks are filled with kaleidoscopic imagery and that relentless shaggy-dog approach, like a counterculture Scheherazade pouring out tale after tale after tale in a determination to stay alive.
Of course this pace couldn’t last. It never does. So would Bowie will kill Ziggy, Kurt would kill himself, and Kanye would lose his mind. What came next was seen then as a retreat. I guess it was. John Wesley Harding is a backwards step, musically speaking. It’s another acoustic album, splashes of bass, drums and pedal steel. He and The Band are up in Woodstock drawing from the same well as Music From Big Pink. The Basement Tapes that would remain buried for years spawned enough material that both Dylan and The Band would be able to assemble astonishing records.
The other thing that has gone is Dylan’s audacious wordplay. He settles here on a much more didactic writing style, pushing back against the startling imagery of the preceding three records. For these reasons, the album is also overlooked. Dylan grinning at us from the cover doesn’t help its cause. The iconic album covers of the mid-’60s are replaced by a blurry image of Dylan in the woods. But this is all part of the Drifter’s Escape.
That escape would be made good in 1969 with the country vibes of Nashville Skyline. The front cover apes the debut album. Once again Dylan smirks at us and proudly displays his guitar. A few notable differences though. This time the hat is a Stetson, the guitar is a flame-topped piece that is more ashville than New York. He’d recorded some of Blonde On Blonde in Nashville, but this is something else.
In Chronicles, Dylan describes this period as “housebroken.” His voice is a country croon. The songs are often insubstantial. He kicks the LP off by revisiting his own back pages, with Johnny Cash joining him for a duet of “Girl From The North Country” which we’d originally enjoyed on Freewheelin’. Here it is softened by the weight of Cash’s terrific bass vocal. They spar but it’s light work. The full wealth of treasure yielded by the Johnny Cash sessions wouldn’t see the light of day until 2019’s Travellin’ Thru. A shame, because this one officially released track hints at wonder but never quite gets there.
This will be the problem for Bob Dylan fans in the ensuing five years. Lots of promise. Very little wonder. Self Portrait (1970) has also benefited from the Bootleg Series. At the time it was met with derision (“What is this shit?,” Greil Marcus wrote in 1970). New Morning was deemed a return to something like form, but it wasn’t. There are some lovely moments, the strongest being “Went To See The Gypsy,” but nothing that’s going to bring about the revolution that his biggest fans still hoped he would lead.
The soundtrack to Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid is another disappointment, consisting of incidental music and a little tune called “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” Planet Waves saw him in the studio with The Band for the first and only time on a studio album. “Forever Young” gets the credit but feels fairly rote.
It would be 1975’s Blood on the Tracks where Dylan demonstrated what he was capable of as a titan for the long-run. Perhaps inspired by the multitude of “New Dylans” that were doing the rounds, the album has a warm, full-bodied sound. Guitars twinkle and chime. There are a range of styles but it feels like a whole. Dylan’s voice is the ragged, sneering tool it had been in the middle of the 1960s, dispatching that thin, reedy croon, along with the shoddy daubs that had been used as art for Self Portrait and Planet Waves.
Here is Dylan rendered brooding behind sunglasses, head down, side on. Much has been speculated about this album, and its apparent detailing of the marital split between Dylan and Sara Lowndes, though Dylan has denied it. What is clear is that love is on the rocks and the vocals are angry, lovelorn, wistful and restless.
This is the most important Bob Dylan record of the ‘70s for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it’s his strongest set of songs since his ‘60s peak. The confidence in his voice and his music is back. So too is the dazzling wordplay that made tracks like “Desolation Row” and “Sad Eyed Lady” slip by, belying their 11-plus minute running times. There are two tracks here that stand out as lengthy. “Lily, Rosemary and The Jack of Hearts” is a jaunty epic that bobs along on a skiffle-style rhythm, unfolding as the shaggiest of shaggy-dog stories. More importantly, there’s “Idiot Wind.” This is eight minutes of rage possibly directed at Sara. The lyricism here is astonishing, reasserting Dylan as the high-watermark for songwriting in the popular music era.
He’d follow this tour de force with the Rolling Thunder Revue live tour and the nearly as brilliant Desire. Once again, the lyricism is audacious and the playing is superb. A warm, exotic feel to many of the tracks make it hugely popular. “Hurricane” saw him returning to his role as protester. He had become hooked on the story of Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, the heavyweight boxer imprisoned on a trumped-up murder charge. The track unfolds like a tensely plotted police drama over furious guitar and mournful gypsy fiddle.
These twin successes of the ‘70s, combined with the Rolling Thunder Revue and the release of the truncated Basement Tapes (in part, to revive the ailing Band who had not mustered anything of any real greatness since Stage Fright in 1970) could not be maintained, and again Dylan sinks from view.
Street Legal (1978) is a good album marred by weak production. Here, a scruffy looking Dylan peers from a stairway, the kind of image that could have been captured by a fan who happened to catch a glimpse of their hero from across the street. The songs, while full of vigour, rely too heavily on spiralling images, and lack emotional anchorage as a result. It’s not clear what he’s singing about. It’s impressive, but what does any of it mean?
It was during the Street Legal tour that Dylan stooped to pick up a crucifix that had been thrown onto the stage. Later, in solitude, he reflected on that talisman and found answers to questions that he had been asking his whole life. That experience also ushered in the trio of albums that straddle the ‘70s and ‘80s: Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980) and Shot of Love (1981).
Popular opinion is that no one likes these Christian rock albums. They are, however, far from Christian rock. Slow Train Coming is helmed by the legendary Jerry Wexler, who had stamped the recipe for success on Aretha’s late ‘60s and early ‘70s stuff. He’d also been there for Dusty Springfield (Dusty In Memphis, 1969) and was central to the Atlantic Records team. While he wasn’t interested in Dylan’s religious beliefs, he does muster up a sweltering gospel soundtrack to the new songs. He’d recreate this spirit of big-top revival on the following year’s Saved, but wouldn’t be around for the lumpier finale. All three albums are packed with charm and lyrical excellence, even if you don’t buy the Bible that he’s selling.
The ‘80s would play out in a series of disappointing albums that, while lacking the genius of his best work, always offer something to put a smile on your face. Infidels should be better but is undermined when Dylan replaced Mark Knopfler as producer at the eleventh hour. Empire Burlesque suffers from the glistening production of the era. Knocked Out Loaded is a washout except for the 11-minute “Brownsville Girl,” an epic up there with “Idiot Wind” and “Desolation Row.” Down In The Groove is a messy mismatch of covers, originals, and co-writes with Robert Hunter that would segue into his tour with The Grateful Dead that would be marked for posterity on the horrid Dylan and The Dead. This may be rock bottom.
Going Back to Go Forward
Next, Dylan would team up with his pals George, Jeff, Tom and Roy for Travelling Wilburys Vol. 1. It’s not perfect as supergroup albums seldom are, but it’s the joyous sound of a bunch of guys enjoying the process of writing, playing and recording. The Wilburys were the throat-clearing exercise that Another Side had been two and a half decades earlier, setting the stage for his late climb back to relevance, and ultimately to Rough and Rowdy Ways.
There would be bumps along the way. Initially, the excellent Oh Mercy (1989) was seen as false hope when it was followed by a lesser second Wilbury’s album (Vol. 3, 1990) and the bizarre and forgettable Under The Red Sky (also 1990). On the other hand, there was The Bootleg Series Volumes. 1-3, which represented the motherlode for fans hungry to see behind the curtain.
Red Sky could be ignored when this was present. It was the era of boxsets and lavish packaging. Dylan would be an innovator here, allowing his vaults to be opened long before The Beatles, Bowie, Springsteen and every other legacy rocker. As usual, everyone would follow Dylan’s lead, with the exception of The Rolling Stones, who prefer to repackage the same compilation of hits under different titles every few years. (Come on, Mick! Show us the sketches!)
The ‘90s also brought about the 30th Anniversary Concert. At that point, maintaining a 30-year recording career in this most disposable of genres seemed something worth celebrating. It’s worth noting that 2020 marks 30 years since Under The Red Sky and two years shy of Dylan’s 60th anniversary as a recording artist.
More engaging was the Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong sets that landed towards the middle of the decade. Both are straightforward cover sets, simple and unadorned. That Good As I Been To You lands 30 years after his debut, and draws material from the same sources, is the sort of cosmic joke that Dylan enjoys at our expense.
30 Years In, 30 Years Ago
This is the point where we embrace Bob again. We forgive him his ‘80s indulgences. We overlook his evangelising on the Christian trilogy. We are immersed in the Bootleg material. We enjoy the soft rock of the Wilburys. And we respect and nod sagely at each of his song choices across these two projects.
Had things carried on in this vein, Bob would have been guaranteed the Sunday afternoon slot at Glastonbury at some point in the 2010s as a much-loved legend. An avuncular, gruff figure, knocking out the hits with an ironic smirk on his face. He could have pitched out the occasional album of new material, sunk his real efforts into playing faithful renditions of the big cuts and knocking out compilation albums to boost the pension fund.
This could have happened. It could have also happened where, had he not had the minerals, the debut album might be dug out by Light In The Attic as a “lost classic” by an unknown folkie who made one engaging album and then disappeared into obscurity. If he’d taken the easy way out after the motorcycle accident, that perfect run from Bob Dylan to Blonde on Blonde could be considered the work of a reclusive genius. And so on. So many avenues, so little time.
Instead, Bob Dylan chose to re-engage, again. He cleared his throat, again. He had something important to say, again. He had done politics, his own inner-self, love, romance, lust, contentment, discontent, religion. He had revisited what made him great in the bootleg material, the 30th Anniversary shindig, and in the reconnection with those ancient songs on the two folk albums. Now it was time to reconnect with someone else: Daniel Lanois.
The Candian producer and performer is a significant figure in Dylan’s career, and music in general. He had co-produced U2’s globe-conquering The Joshua Tree opposite Brian Eno, not to mention Peter Gabriel’s astonishing So, and Emmylou Harris’s career-reviving Wrecking Ball. He’d come to Dylan’s attention through the U2 connection, and 1989’s Oh Mercy is the first fruit of their time together.
This album was Dylan’s best set of material since the mid-’70s. The writing is strong, confident, politicised but without the leaden hectoring of Infidels Neighbourhood Bully. It was spiritual without being condescending. Dylan is quiet and reflective throughout. The music shimmers with a gloss that would be much sought after by bands like The War On Drugs years later. It was felt at the time that the strength of Oh Mercy can be accredited to the control Lanois exerted. Alongside his trademark layers of sound, there is a concision in the songwriting and a stately presence in the vocal delivery that raises his head and shoulders above every album since Desire. Actually, it may be better than Desire, owing to the fact that Dylan isn’t overtly aligning himself to any shoddy political messages this time round.
Back to 1997, Dylan is back in the studio with Lanois and, again, he’s laying down Time Out of Mind, his best set since Blood On The Tracks. Dylan says it was a struggle, but what emerged was a masterpiece, one of his best works. His longest work up to that point, weighing in at 72 minutes, it features his best-loved song from the late era of his career.
Though written by Bob, “Make You Feel My Love” was initially put out by Billy Joel earlier in 1997. In 2008, Adele would release it, securing it as a modern day standard. It’s one of several highlights on an album that is again understated. Like Oh Mercy, Dylan is in quiet voice. The songs ruminate on death. “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven” and “Not Dark Yet” are both fairly explicit. Even Johnny Cash hadn’t dared look death in the face to this degree yet. Dylan achieved another first here. The first of those 1960s rockers to act his age.
The Other Side of the Grave
As he approached his 60s, Dylan was feeling his age. There was bitter regret in the opening track “Lovesick.” “Standing In The Doorway” is broken-hearted. For all the layers of sound, the simplicity of the songs and Dylan’s ageing croak make this feel like a campfire record. And it was the first time that we’d wondered if this might be Dylan’s last album. For that reason, it was greeted at the time by the kind of reaction that may have been in part to do with the fact that here was a man in the rock and pop genre approaching old age and singing about it. Was he well? Should we be worried?
The acclaim that Time Out Of Mind was afforded is well-earned though, not just some sympathy vote. This is the sound of Dylan embracing old age and ushering in a new phase in his recording career. The album stands up as his strongest set of songs since the 1970s.
Dylan had achieved a pair of brilliant albums with Lanois. And herein lies the importance of the only other album of original material that he had released that decade, 1990’s Under The Red Sky. This had been produced by Jack Frost (Dylan’s alter-ego) and Don and David Was. The Was brothers (like the Walker Brothers, not really brothers) had made a name for themselves in the ‘80s with their mutant disco band Was (Not Was), and had subsequently become in demand as producers. What they were seemingly unable to do was manage the mercurial Dylan, who refused to be told what to do. That album is a mess, juxtaposing nursery rhyme-inspired songs like “Wiggle Wiggle” with the diamond in the rough “Born in Time.” Clearly, Lanois was a much better fit.
Ironically, after Dylan’s most death-fixated album, he became very ill and nearly died. But his return to health resulted in another late-career high. Love And Theft is a jaunty affair for the most part. Dylan has also learned his lesson from Lanois. Jack Frost produces this set immaculately. I remember being a little disappointed at first. Time Out Of Mind had gripped me from the outset and continued to be a key album for me. Love And Theft didn’t seize me in the same way. In fact, I would rarely listen to it in those first few years. I knew it was good. I knew it wasn’t the disaster that so many of his ‘80s pieces had been. I just didn’t get it.
Partly, this is down to the emphasis on pre-1950s popular music forms. It felt a bit jazzy. Secondly, the opening track, “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum,” is one of those epic nonsense things that Dylan does. It’s cut from the same cloth as “Dirt Road Blues,” my least favourite song on the preceding album. Things weren’t off to a good start. I no longer had the patience to explore the lyrics and work out whatever it was that this song represented. A third issue was that between these two studio sets had come the fourth Bootleg instalment, the fabled Albert Hall concert, and with this blistering rock ‘n’ roll artefact sitting in the CD tray, an album by an old man that seems to celebrate an era of popular song that precluded the year zero of 1955 just didn’t cut it. For me. At that time. I was wrong.
Songs like “Mississippi,” “High Water” and the seemingly inconsequential “Po’ Boy” re-engaged me with it over time. I now realise it’s a great album by a master. I had the exact opposite relationship with both Modern Times and Together Through Life. Initially, I was keen as mustard. Time has not served them well though. I have rarely felt the need to play either. A shame, because I know they are packed with lots of great late-era Dylan songs ruminating on life, love and death. In fact, looking now at the track lisiting for each, they are loaded with great tunes.
Tempest was, until now, his last set of original material. It had begun to feel as though it wouldn’t happen again. That our “new Dylan music” fix would have to be fulfilled by the excellent ongoing Bootleg Series which varies between offering up unheard work to stuff that is simply the same but a bit different. On Tempest, Dylan embarks upon a lengthy analysis of the sinking of the Titanic. He also meditates on the Early Roman kings, no doubt as a metaphor for something altogether different. The magical “Roll On John” is a lovely ode to his old pal John Lennon and again finds Dylan contemplating the other side of the grave.
Great American Songbook
Then things went quiet. News of Shadows In The Night whetted my appetite but this was dulled with the news that he was taking on the Great American Songbook. Why? I know he loves Sinatra. He ponders that in Chronicles. But as he stated at the time, these songs “have been covered enough. Buried in fact.” It’s not that I dislike these songs. The problem is that they already exist in definitive versions.
I wasn’t interested in Rod Stewart’s Great American Songbook albums either. Nor did McCartney’s hilariously entitled Kisses On The Bottom get a second listen from me. Of course, Dylan is no crooner. He rasps his way through this album and those that follow. Fallen Angels was more of the same and Triplicate stretched the notion way too far. But we are still of the belief that he is great. That these albums are relevant and engaging. At least he isn’t being trite like McCartney or louche like Rod.
What’s interesting is how well these albums sit alongside those other 21st Century Dylan albums. Their sound and feel is simpatico. And the songs are great. What he seems to be doing here is the same as he had done on that brace of early ‘90s folk sets: exploring a body of work, mining it for inspiration, re-engaging with the process of crafting songs, and recreating himself as he has done since the early ‘60s: folk troubadour, protester, pop writer, rock ‘n’ roll star, country singer, house husband, theatrical performer, evangelist, modernist, chronicler of the past, elder statesman, Santa Claus, and some sort of rat packer.
Dylan has always been a good chronicler. His autobiography is of course entitled Chronicles. His first album is a set of old folk and blues. Self Portrait, though people didn’t realise it at the time, was a first attempt to bootleg himself. The Bootleg Series is a spectacular body of work in its own right. Good As I Been To You, World Gone Wrong, Shadows, Fallen Angels and Triplicate all work together to explore a range of song styles that had helped Dylan to find his way.
Rough and Rowdy Ways
So it’s with this notion of Dylan as chronicler that we reach Rough and Rowdy Ways. The album title is the first joke. There’s little rough or rowdy here, at least from a sonic or melodic point of view. What we get here is another set of the kind of old blues riffs that he’s been giving us since the dawn of the 21st century. That’s fine. I don’t want him trying to do a hip-hop album. Lyrically, though, this is the album he has been trying to make since the start of his career. With almost 60 years in the game under his belt and, inevitably, not much time left, it seems critical that this album be important. After all, it may be his last.
Rough and Rowdy Ways was prefaced by the release of two tracks online. Both arrived without fanfare. The first, “Murder Most Foul,” makes up the entirety of the second CD (and the D side of the vinyl release) and at nearly 17 minutes, it’s his longest song ever. Much was made of this. Bob is in his late 70s. He releases a 17-minute song about the death of John F. Kennedy. It goes to number 1. He has had hit records in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, ‘00s, ‘10s, ‘20s. No one else can make this claim.
The second song came as less of a surprise. “I Contain Multitudes” is miniature at only 4 minutes long. But it’s bigger than that. Less of a surprise because we were expecting more new music. It also went to number one, setting all sorts of records for old people having hits.
These two pieces bookend the album, with “Multitudes” opening the set and “Murder” closing it. But also, “Murder Most Foul” exists on its own disc as I have already mentioned. There is no need for this in terms of running time, meaning Dylan clearly wishes us to consider this track as part of the album, but also alongside it and separate to it. The total running time for the album is 70 minutes. Shorter than Time Out Of Mind. The two discs make the physical purchase more expensive than most. That doesn’t matter. The fans will pay. We’ve already paid for a three disc set of ‘40s classics. We’ll pay for this.
And so I popped it in the player.
It wouldn’t play.
Second copy works fine.
I Contain Multitudes
“I Contain Multitudes” swaggers out of the blocks. I’ve heard it already but I haven’t really listened to it. Firstly, let’s unpack the title. The phrase “I contain multitudes”is attributed to the American poet Walt Whitman. In his epic poem “Song of Myself,” he asks “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself. / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” So from the outset, Dylan is owning the one thing that has been consistent throughout his six decades in the spotlight. He is a contradiction. Don’t try to second guess him. He won’t ever do what you expect him to. You want him to be the spokesperson for a generation? Tough luck. Now he’s a song and dance man.
Whitman is an interesting choice as a statement, and this is something else we must consider. It would be well within Dylan’s power as a lyricist to express that sentiment using his own words. Why quote from another writer? Remember that this is also true of the title of “Murder Most Foul.” So let’s look at Whitman. A Modernist poet who was scrutinised in his own lifetime and considered a controversial figure for his own sensual writing style. He has become part of the canon of American writers—a canon to which we must surely also add Bob Dylan, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016—and there’s no doubt that Dylan will have studied his work. He was a humanist at a time that humanism was still largely driven by religious thought.
The first lyrics on the album are “Today and Tomorrow and Yesterday too,” Dylan leaning on the alliteration to emphasise once again himself as chronicler and the significance of the passing of time—a recurring motif in his work. He then references “Bally Na Lee,” an old Irish poem he would have learned from his friend Liam Clancy back in the coffeehouse era. Dylan is digging deep then. Particularly when, in the very next verse, he references A Tell-tale Heart, a short story by another American literary giant, Edgar Allen Poe. The story here is one of madness brought about by guilt.
Dylan references skeletons in the wall. We use the image of “skeletons in the closet” to connote the idea of hidden secrets. Dylan perhaps telling us that he has secrets. Unavoidable at his age, one might think. The next line “I’ll drink to the truth and the things we said” suggests duplicity in a relationship, as if those two concepts, what is said and what is true, are not the same. This is reinforced by the presence of a love rival in the next line.
The verse ends with the reference to painting. We know that Dylan likes to paint. His art work goes on sale for ridiculous prices. The ugly daub on the cover of 1970’s Self Portrait is childlike and heavy-handed. On the cover of Another Self Portrait (2013), we get another picture. It’s more lifelike but still heavily stylised, impressionistic even. The cover of The Band’s 1968 debut Music From Big Pink features another Dylan painting, as does 1974’s Planet Waves, recorded with The Band. Both offer simplistic portrayals of groups of people that we can assume are The Band and Dylan. A look on his website demonstrates a range of other work. The line also references Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom where the protagonist claims to paint “mostly landscapes. Some nudes.” An interesting link because this character is also a fantasist and a maverick who wishes to do things his own way. Anderson is also an auteur with a distinctive film-making style that hinges around the use of colour.
The next verse references the song “Red Cadillac and a Black Mustache,” which Dylan recorded for a Sun Records tribute compilation. The Cadillac is also a symbol of 21st century success and class. A hallmark of quality. In The Wire, when Snoop goes to replace her DeWalt cordless nailgun at the hardware store, the sales assistant describes her new purchase as “the Cadillac” of the range. When she tells Chris, she says “he meant Lexus, but he didn’t know.” To a certain section of the American (maybe even the international) community, the word Cadillac is rich with wealth. By the end of the verse he’s decrying how he “cannot frolic with all the young dudes.” Firstly, a hint of self-deprecation. Dylan is no longer young, nor is he a dude. This time, the words are borrowed from David Bowie via Mott The Hoople. Bowie had recorded “Song for Bob Dylan” on 1971’s Hunky Dory and championed Dylan from day one. Even his tribute song apes Dylan’s own “Song to Woody.” Here Bob returns the favour.
The next reference is more problematic. Anne Frank was the author of Diary of a Young Girl, one of the most widely-read records of life during World War II. Anne, a young girl, spends the war hiding with her family in an attic to avoid capture by the Nazis. She is eloquent and sensitive. A great mind lost to the Holocaust. One among millions. Dylan’s own Jewish heritage is at play here. He was born during the war. Safe in Minnesota, he needn’t worry about the arrival of jackboots. Nonetheless, that single most terrible event in modern history is scored into him.
He juxtaposes that with a reference to Indiana Jones, the comic book hero played by Harrison Ford in the movie franchise. Jones is the all-American hero. Tough, intelligent, resourceful, witty, bashful. And what’s more, he triumphs over Nazis as all good American heroes should do. He is a modern creation but he symbolises George Lucas’s own fascination with the 1930s action heroes in the movies.
Completing a triptych, Dylan then compares himself to “those British bad boys the Rolling Stones.” Again, his tongue is firmly in his cheek here. The Rolling Stones have been part of the establishment for decades in much the same way that Dylan has. They have courted controversy in their earliest years, even experiencing some prison time in the late ‘60s. They dreamt up the Altamont music festival that ended in disaster. Brian Jones would drown in his own swimming pool in suspicious circumstances. They have also found themselves exalted to mythical status, brushing up against royalty. If they are still bad boys, then they are cartoon villains.
Next up it’s the turn of William Blake. Dylan references his Songs of Innocence and Experience here, again nodding to his literary influences, as he will in a subsequent reference to Heraclitus that “Everything’s flowing.” Again, this is the passage of time with Dylan taking the part of victim (Anne Frank), hero (Indiana Jones) and villain (The Rolling Stones) all in one fell swoop. He has gained experience over his long life and he now observes the passing by of the world from the perspective of a spectator. “The Boulevard of Crime” is a reference to the theatrical movement in Paris in the 19th century, which played a big part in influencing Dylan’s look for the Rolling Thunder Revue, an image that will crop up again later on the album. Like Lincoln’s bodyguard, Dylan claims to carry four pistols and two large knives. This also sets us up for the end of the album where the death of another president will be explored in detail. Finally, Dylan claims to sleep with life and death “in the same bed.” In The New York Times review, the critic suggested that this was another hint at mortality from an ageing rock star. “I suppose we all feel that way when we hit a certain age.” Dylan has also commented on the transience and fragility of life.
The song gives way to “False Prophet” which is, at least musically, a much tougher proposition, swaggering about on old blues licks and raw guitar. At the start of the song, Dylan says “Hello Mary Lou” and writes he’s getting back to his roots, channelling Ricky Nelson. Jesus warns us to “beware of false prophets” in the Bible, and here Dylan is refuting that title for himself. Maybe all those boomers were right after all. He is their spokesperson all along! A sly nod back at the previous song’s many contradictions.
Now Mary Lou drops us back to the ‘50s and Dylan’s initial love of rock ‘n’ roll. But who is Miss Pearl? Janis Joplin perhaps. She was nicknamed Pearl and Dylan had a brief dalliance with her in the late ‘60s. It’s tempting then to see these as references to Dylan’s past. Another old flame is rendered in the next part. Dylan uses the phrase “Only the Lonely.” This could reference the Sinatra LP that he was obsessed with as a teenager. But equally, we could be looking at a reference to his old bandmate Roy Orbison who was also a Wilbury. Another important piece in the jigsaw.
Much has been made of the verse that starts, “I’m first among equals,” with one interviewer asking about the recent deaths of John Prine and Little Richard. It’s likely, though, that this song was already in the can by the time of Richard’s death. Dylan refutes the point. I think it’s more likely that he’s keeping up the biblical imagery whilst ruminating on the fact that so many have fallen: Lou Reed, Bowie, Cash, Cohen, Prince, Prine, Penniman, Walker. His friend and rivals are falling away.
This Biblical imagery is compounded by the desire to “walk in the garden,” which we could see as paradise, suggesting that Dylan feels he is near the end of his journey. Like King Arthur, he seeks out the Holy Grail. This quest would lead Arthur to his death and so it will Dylan. Even Dr. Jones knew that the hunt for the Grail was futile. Dylan indulges in some fantastical imagery as the song unwinds, including a “mountain of swords” and threatening to “stuff gold” down your throat. The Biblical stuff has taken a distinctly Old Testament slant. Or maybe he’s riffing on Game of Thrones? You choose.
My Own Version of You
Along comes “My Own Version Of You,” descending the stairs like a Victorian melodrama. The song hangs around a gothic minor key riff that seems to spiral downwards relentlessly at a funeral pace. Again, the references surge forward thick and fast. Frankenstein, implied by the title, being the second example of 19th century horror on the album (the first being Poe in “I Contain Multitudes”).
The mythical monster might represent an unattainable goal. Here is Dylan in the first verse like Victor Frankenstein, gathering body parts. He’s determined: “I’ll bring someone to life” but that hint of uncertainty in “someone” suggests not necessarily the right someone. This is compounded in verse two’s “the winter of my discontent,” again a reference to bodily dysfunction, conjuring as it does Shakespeare’s “crookback” Richard III.
Historically, Richard III was one of Britain’s biggest tyrants. Murderous and duplicitous. But historians have long argued over whether or not Shakespeare gives him a bad reputation. Is Shakespeare’s version of Richard a facsimile of a facsimile as our understanding of Dylan no doubt is also flawed? Dylan is acting, as he always is. The references to acting continue with Pacino as Tony Montana in Scarface, another violent and cold-blooded tyrant. And now, Brando as Vito. More tyranny. Bob seems to be channelling violence and murder and bringing them down on himself.
In the novel, Victor is tormented by his creation, despairing of its hideousness. “I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God…” Victor had aimed for perfection and fallen way short. Is Bob trying to reverse the process? Attempt horror whilst subconsciously hoping for wonder? In the third verse, Dylan references Sanskrit, an ancient language, hard to decipher. He’s playing tricks on us. Setting traps for idiots like me to attempt to decipher. Is his willow tree a reference to the preceding albums of jazz standards?
In verse four, Dylan metaphorically takes up the piano. Leon Russell is mentioned, that monumental iconic sideman, band leader, and an unsung genius of the ‘70s. But then up comes Liberace, a very different player. Grand and showy, the antithesis of Dylan, or so we might assume. But again, underneath the glitz is a complicated man. Third and final in the list of pianists is Saint John. Not sure he ever tickled the ivories, but he has seen visions of monsters and horrors. It is Saint John’s writing that gives us our understanding of judgement day and Armageddon. Here comes a black horse in the form of a tavern. The address? Armageddon Street.
This prompts another burst of religious imagery. Dylan is conscious of Saint Peter at the gates of Heaven, and then there’s Jerome. Saint Jerome of Stridon? Possibly. But “Bring It To Jerome” is also the title of a tune by Bo Diddley, so more likely it’s St. Jerome Green, Bo’s maraca-man and rhythmic foil. The tune was probably a staple of Dylan’s early pre-60s rock ‘n’ roll forays back in Hibbing. After all, he’s now “Bringing it all the way home.” This is too close to the title of Bob’s first electric LP from 1965 to be mere coincidence.
As the song draws toward its final verses, Dylan references the great existentialist question, “To be or not to be?” He is Hamlet, but what is he searching for? Is it Heaven implied by Peter? Or is it his youth back in Minnesota? Like Jagger, he imagines walking a Moonlight Mile. When Jagger took that walk, it was an ode to cocaine and rounded out Sticky Fingers with that haunted, haunting majesty, before he straightened up (by Stones standards at least) and got respectable. Another jazz standard, this time his hero Sinatra and In The Wee Small Hours. This was Frank’s first connection with the great Nelson Riddle and helped revive him when swing bands were all but done. Again, Dylan has been immersed in this era for the past five years or so. And again, in Chronicles, Dylan talks at length about his adoration for Sinatra.
While he seems to be embracing his musical heroes and his spiritual inspirations, he seems to reject other big concepts. Freud and Marx are both lashed. Dylan has no time for psychoanalysis and rejects Marxism. Both are seen as enemies here. And so Dylan is back in his laboratory, as the song comes full circle. Here he is finding that “blast of electricity,” the thing that brings the monster to life. And maybe the song acts as a metaphor for the album as Dylan stitches together his references to create something incredible, something unbelievable.
I’ve Made Up My Mind
Next up is the simple, and very pretty, “I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You.” A simple waltz time, sketched beautifully on feather-weight drums and moth flickers of guitar. After the lyrical intensity of the earlier songs, the pace slows here and offers some well-timed relief.
Dylan is reflective here. He’s been in this mood many times over the decades, most successfully on tracks like “I Threw It All Away” (1969) and “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” (1975). It’s these sorts of songs where Dylan is at his most vulnerable. But Dylan is not the young fire brand of those earlier songs. He is in his dotage, and the juxtaposition between this song and the preceding track is abrupt. A lesser artist might make the transition seem jarring, but like the transition between the rage of “Idiot Wind” and “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” he completes his obsessive desire to create on the funereal “My Own Version Of You,” and emerges refreshed with this simple love song.
The album takes another sharp turn. “Black Rider” is also in waltz time, but unadorned, stripped back. The sound here is desiccated and hollow. As is generally the case with Dylan, we get no real clues to who the song is aimed at. But that dryness of sound combined with some of the bleakest lyrics on the album might lead us to ponder if Dylan is addressing himself.
The image of the black rider itself again could be an image of the four horsemen. Dylan referenced this earlier on, but now it becomes the central image of this song. The figure of the black rider is antagonistic and Dylan is at odds with him. He pities him for “living too hard” and because his path is “too narrow to walk.” Both these concepts could be applied to Dylan himself.
In the second verse, Dylan is pleading with him “be reasonable, be honest.” Dylan once said that to live outside of the law you must be honest, so a reference to his younger, wilder self. He becomes dismissive in the third verse, claiming “I’m walking away” but this claim feels slight. He knows he’ll be back. Throughout the track, the conversation is one way. The black rider never responds to Dylan’s accusations, pleas or insults. He threatens to “hack off your arm with a sword” and still the rider remains silent.
The final verse reinforces the notion that Dylan addresses himself in this song: “I’ll suffer in silence” suggests that this is a long dark night of self-contemplation, that Dylan himself is the brooding, sinister title figure and that he can’t escape himself. He ends with yet another reference to the Great American Songbook, promising that he will sing a song “some enchanted evening.” This crepuscular piece offers us clues to various points throughout Dylan’s life from the near burn-out of the mid ‘60s, the womanising, the spiritual discoveries and finally the scholar of American song.
Goodbye Jimmy Reed
It gives way to an ode to another of Dylan’s heroes: “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” is a tougher, richer sounding blues. Dylan has used the whole of Rough and Rowdy Ways to explore his past and pick out pieces of his history. Musicians like Reed were at the heart of his way of life as a young man. He soaked up blues, rock ‘n’ roll, folk and country. Like many of his generation, he tuned in as a boy to the sounds travelling across the airwaves, picking up all sorts of different music. Jimmy Reed acts as a metaphor here for that faith.
Dylan quotes from the Lord’s Prayer “for thine is the kingdom,” setting this music (and Reed himself) up as almighty. He also tells Reed to “go tell it on the mountain,” another Biblical reference, and also a reference to the writer James Baldwin who used this as the title for one of his most celebrated works. This links Dylan back to that brief window in the early ‘60s when he was engaged with the Civil Rights movement. This will be relevant again later, as will those airwaves carrying music his way.
First though, Dylan finds himself “playing guitar behind my head,” a feat generally attributed to two of Dylan’s peers. The country music legend Glen Campbell who died in 2017, was a highly skilled guitar player and was well-known for this feat of showmanship. His recent departure may well sit with Dylan, although this may be a bit of a reach. Secondly, the iconic image of Jimi Hendrix, almost half a century dead now, but whose iconic music still rings in our ears. Hendrix recorded the definitive version of “All Along The Watchtower” all the way back in 1968, a short time after Dylan himself wrote and recorded it for John Wesley Harding. It’s more likely then that Dylan is celebrating the wonder of Hendrix here.
Mother of Muses
After the barroom groove of “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” the pace drops again. “Mother of Muses” has a hymnal quality to it. Dylan calls for the titular figure, this time a female, to sing for him. The imagery is bucolic, summoning forests, seas and mountains. There is also a reference to “you women of the chorus,” setting this piece up like a Greek tragedy and tying in with the title. He honours the names of those fallen “carved on tablets of stone” and again, this is willingly obtuse.
The third verse references “Sherman, Montgomery and Scott / And of Zhukov, and Patton” calling upon military might and power, but then linking them to “for Presley to sing / who cleared the path for Martin Luther King.” We might consider here that Dylan is reminding us that, like it or not, these men won us our freedoms, even if those freedoms are challenging the status quo. Something that many need to hear in this era of fascism and an increasing pressure on outlets to silence the voices of those who seek to challenge. In the final verse, Dylan invokes the Mother of Muses to “take me to the river,” just as the Reverend Al Green had done all those years ago.
Crossing the Rubicon
In 49 BC, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, a river in northern Italy, and as a result, brought about his time as dictator of Rome and ushered in the Roman Empire. Caesar had been charged with ruling over a region in Gaul and his return to Italy with his army would bring about war. The crossing of the Rubicon was in itself an act of war. The Rubicon, then, becomes the point of no return. And it’s really no surprise to find Bob Dylan identifying with the great general after almost 60 years as one of the most high profile recording artists in the world.
“Crossing The Rubicon” is one of those great Dylan songs that loops images around the central refrain of the title. It brings to mind “Gates of Eden,” although it’s more playful than that. It’s also a kissing cousin of “Up To Me,” a Blood On The Tracks deep cut that is much loved amongst fans.
Dylan starts out evoking the Roman Ides of March with the “14th Day/Of the most dangerous month.” The Titanic, the subject of another recent Dylan epic, sank on the 14th of April. Lincoln was also assassinated on this day. Assassination of presidents will be brought into sharp relief later on the album. Dylan greets “the goddess of the dawn” and I’m struck by how often he finds himself in the company of deities on this record.
The river is described as “redder than your ruby lips / and the blood that flows from the rose.” Is this an oblique reference to the Republican hold over the U.S. at this point in time? Trump is the most divisive president perhaps in all of history. The violence and brutality that we have seen meted out in his name, or under his authority over the past several years is far beyond anything we saw during the administrations of Obama, Bush. Clinton, Bush Sr, Reagan, Carter, and so on. Perhaps only Nixon still has the power to challenge him in terms of anguish caused.
This theory can be backed up by the next verse and “these dark days I see? / in this world so badly bent,” a reflection on the state of the world, with massive rifts forming in Europe. The track unfolds slowly as Dylan ponders the state of the world that he finds himself in, mortality weighing heavy on his mind.
And so to “Key West (Philosopher Pirate).” Another (great) president kicks off the narrative here. William McKinley in the throes of death, a nation in mourning. Dylan ponders his mortality more openly here as he pines for the warm sands of Key West, a place to find immortality. He imagines hearing the news on radio waves coming out of Luxembourg and Budapest, a nod to the great era of pirate radio stations that were common in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
In the next verse he pulls up some of his inspirations, Corso, Kerouac, Ginsberg (who he had worked with on Desire back in ‘76), Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Reed and Buddy Holly. So again we find Dylan digging into his past, referencing Bobby Darin’s “Beyond The Sea,” a final doff of the cap to that great era of songwriting that has been so important to him in recent years. As well as looking back, he appears to be looking forward. Is Dylan looking to retire? Surely not. Not on this form. But the steady falling away of friends and comrades must be on his mind.
Back on Tempest, he commemorated his old friend and sparring partner John Lennon. John’s death was unnatural, a man cut down in his prime. But Roy in 1988 of a heart attack, George to cancer in 2001, and recently Tom Petty of an accidental overdose. That’s three fifths of the Wilburys gone. Plus Bowie, Prince, Leon Russell. And then of course there is the recent passing of Leonard Cohen.
Cohen was half a generation older than Bob, but didn’t enter the music business until much later. His writing would often rival Dylan’s. The two men shared a mutual appreciation. When the end came for Cohen, it seemed to come quickly. Dylan is closing in on 80. Cohen died at 82. This warm, shimmering song seems to long for something, a culmination of sorts.
If the album ended here, it would be a wonderful place to do so. A powerful statement from a titan of modern songwriting. A final reckoning, perhaps, from a man who has rewritten the rule book countless times. Perhaps we would never hear from him again. And if so, this would be a fine place to close the shop. An epic final chapter in an incredible final act that began in the late ‘90s with Time Out Of Mind.
It’s not over though. There’s one more song. And of course, in typical contrarian fashion, it’s also the first one we heard.
Murder Most Foul
Back in March, as the world slipped into lockdown, something stirred in the recesses of the Internet. “Murder Most Foul” emerged—all 17 minutes of it—the longest track in Dylan’s career, his first original recording in 8 years, and granted its own separate disc. Like “Desolation Row,” “Sad Eyed Lady of The Lowlands” and “Highlands” before it, Dylan has left his biggest statement till last.
Why it requires its own disc is a puzzle to decipher in itself. The entire running time of the album would easily fit on one disc. Stretching it onto a second disc that is only 17 minutes in length is an ostentatious approach in an era where physical music purchases are struggling, particularly the CD. Once the brash, shiny new kid on the block, the CD is now deemed to be unfashionable, disposable, lacking in power. Even the cassette is held in higher regard. The production costs emphasise that Dylan is still the king of the castle. After nearly 60 years, the executives at Columbia are not going to start saying no now.
The song is so powerful though. It needs space. You don’t want to come to it after listening to nine other tracks. It’s not like “Desolation Row,” that spiraling, looping masterpiece from 1965. That song was deliberately opaque, drug-fueled, an elbow in the ribs to those of us who seek to find meaning in his every utterance. This time round, Dylan is didactic, retelling the story of JFK’s assassination, analysing it through the prism of history (and his own influences), considering the impact on the nation.
The title is lifted from that other literary genius, William Shakespeare. In Act 1 Scene 5 of Hamlet, the ghost of Old Hamlet warns his son that his own death had been no accident. We start on “a dark day in Dallas,” the alliteration bringing home the enormity of it. We know how this story ends before it’s even started. The song plods along on a deceptively simple piano riff, never really changing.
Musically, very little happens. It doesn’t need to. More than ever, the words do the work. You can’t look away. Dylan defines this day in November as “a good day to die,” the sort of glib phrase that has become a staple of action movies. Of course it is a phrase that brings to mind the plight of the Native American population. The 2010 documentary of the same title explores the life of Dennis Banks who led a protest in 1973 at Wounded Knee. In 1973, Dylan was playing cowboys with Sam Peckinpah on the set of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. His protesting days were behind him. And ahead of him.
In 1976, the tale of Rubin Carter would demand justice. It would feature the line “Wait a minute boys!”—a phrase that resounds here too as Kennedy asks his assailants to recognise who he is. Dylan immerses us in historical detail here, conjuring up Wolfman Jack, the legendary rock ‘n’ roll era DJ, a focal point in George Lucas’ nostalgia hewn American Graffiti. Again, Bobby Darin crops up, Dylan quoting from “Splish Splash,” digging back even further to “Hush little children.” This landmark moment in the 20th Century is filled with gravitas.
In 1963 and 1964, Dylan was a folkie, one-man band, acoustic guitar and harmonica. He was marching with Joan Baez and Martin Luther King. Hindsight has some of his contemporaries questioning his motives in marching. Was he a true believer? Or was it a means to an end? He seemed quick to abandon that way of life in favour of the rock star iconography which he helped to invent, all skinny limbs, sharp suits and messy hair, hiding behind sunglasses and dispensing cryptic messages to the press.
Back then, before he was fully famous, he was in a prime position to observe the 20th century. The Beatles arrive “they wanna hold your hand” he intones, before imagining himself on a ferry across the Mersey, itself a reference to the Merseybeat also-rans Gerry And The Pacemakers. But these boys will quickly seem quaint and outmoded, unlike those British bad boys The Rolling Stones, and of course, The Beatles.
Quickly, Bob has moved on. He’s in Woodstock, “it’s the Aquarian age.” Except that Dylan wasn’t at Woodstock. I hate to say it, but maybe he is evoking the voice of his generation. We’re reminded to “let the good times roll,” a line that is so ingrained in popular culture that to unpick it is an arduous task. Shirley & Lee, Sonny & Cher, Harry Nilsson, Hendrix again. A minor cut on Electric Ladyland.
It’s a significant line to throw out so closely after the death of the president. As though we’re being judged for not taking some sort of action. Just partying on, mindlessly through the century, becoming more and more debauched as the world turns to shit around us. Woodstock and the Aquarian Age would both fail and be pushed to one side. The original rock festival was a mess, the sound was poor, there was mud everywhere, it ushered in the era of the big rock corporation. As that other great contemporary of Dylan, Joni Mitchell sang in her song Woodstock, “we are stardust/we are golden / and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”
Through the lens of history, this seems almost embarrassingly idealistic. On Blue, in 1971, she also sang “they won’t give peace a chance / that was just a dream some of us had,” noting that the dream had already soured, using the words of Lennon to crystallise that thought. s the character of Danny in the movie Withnail & I would note, “They’re selling hippie wigs in Woolworth’s man…we have failed to paint it black.”
The bookend to Woodstock was Altamont, which was an even greater fiasco. The Stones had offered to play a free concert at the Altamont speedway track. The Airplane and The Dead were both on the bill. The Dead had suggested the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club as security and The Stones, keen to embrace all things counter-culture, jumped at the chance. The day wore on, the crowd grew fractious, the security became heavy handed. Paul Kantner from Jefferson Airplane was beaten up. The Stones arrived very late. During “Under My Thumb,” a scuffle breaks out in the crowd, and Meredith Hunter, a young black man, is murdered by Hell’s Angels. The dream was over.
Dylan moves on through time, citing blackface and whiteface. The first is self-explanatory. A criticism of that archaic and hugely offensive practice. It conjures up again the racism in Trump’s America, in Johnson’s Britain, and elsewhere around the world. The whiteface is self-referential, again, Dylan in the mid-’70s now, touring America with his Rolling Thunder Revue, struggling to make a movie. Meanwhile, back in ‘63, the motorcade accelerates away towards the underpass.
Dylan refers to A Nightmare On Elm Street. The first movie in this franchise is a masterpiece of the slasher genre. A group of teens find themselves tormented in their sleep by the murderous Freddie Krueger. They try against all the odds to stay awake, defy tiredness. The inevitable always happens though. Dylan describes the getaway as the motorcade peels off away from the gathering. “Don’t ask what your country can do for you,” he says, paraphrasing Kennedy’s famous speech, citing “cash on the ballot,” perhaps truer now than it was then.
Like Robert Johnson, he finds himself at the crossroads. According to the legend, Johnson met the devil at the crossroads and exchanged his soul for musical genius, fame and fortune. The standard Faustian pact. Johnson is a tragic tail in himself and also a key figure in Dylan’s own musical inspiration. The repetition of the phrase “shoot him” revisits the brutalism with which Dylan describes the killing in the first verse. They “shoot him like a dog.” They “blew out the brains of the king.”
Dylan’s reverence for Kennedy is clear but also, he doesn’t shy away from the violence of the act. He doesn’t dress it up in euphemism. The death of “faith, hope and charity” might signify the selfish nature of the ‘me’ generation as the ‘60s curdled. The Invisible Man puts in an appearance. But is it HG Wells’ character, popularised further on television in the ‘70s? Or the title of Ralph Ellison’s Civil Rights classic, exploring the plight of the black man in America. The invisibility of people of colour is an overarching theme as 2020 continues to confound us all. We have been horrified by the images of George Floyd. This is all part of the imperialism of the U.S., as perhaps Bob sees it. “Goodbye Charlie and Uncle Sam,” he says, hinting at the impact of the Vietnam War on that culture and the rift it created in American society. Things would not be the same after Altamont, after Vietnam.
For all his skills as a writer, Dylan never went down the line of the rock opera. For that I am grateful. But he was listening. “Tommy can you hear me? I’m the Acid Queen,” he says, holding us in 1969, with The Who and Tommy. Townsend’s tale of the deaf, dumb and blind kid was a tale of triumph over adversity. It was a tale of innocence lost and of a youth movement happening. A microcosm of the 1960s across four sides of vinyl.
Dylan switches perspective again, back to Kennedy. The limousine speeds away, he lays his head in Jackie’s lap. He visualises the “mutilated” body and the removal of the brain but then speculates that the soul of Kennedy has never been found. He “throws the gun in the gutter and walk(s) on by,” a Bacharach moment juxtaposed with the violence of the crime. There’s no mention of a rifle or the book depository here. Just an unknown agent tossing a handgun into the street and walking by. To use the title of one of the most popular romantic songs of the 20th century alongside that image is a reminder that these gunshots would bring about an ending to an older way.
Next, it’s “Wake up little Susie.” The Everly Brothers’ hit is another key record for a pre-fame Dylan. But I’m also imagining the news coming in, the young Dylan waking Suze Rotolo to break it to her. I may be reaching here, but it’s an engaging image to my mind at least.
The journey continues, providing a narrative of sorts, allowing Dylan’s mind to wander and then coming back to the story. Dylan seems to switch perspective again as the car heads towards Parkland Hospital. This time, he’s Lee Harvey Oswald, denying any guilt. He’s disorientated, or Dylan is, or perhaps we are. “You got me dizzy, Miss Lizzie,” throwing us back to the ‘50s and Larry Williams, but also forward two years to The Beatles and Help!
Dylan, as Oswald, claims he’s “just a patsy, like Patsy Cline,” supporting one of many theories that the man who is purported to have killed JFK was simply a scapegoat. A man with a link to Soviet Russia, known for his abilities as a sharp-shooter. Eye-witness testimony puts him on the ground floor of the Book Depository moments after the shooting and yet it is claimed that bullets came from the 6th floor. Shortly after his arrest, Oswald was shot and killed on television whilst in police custody by nightclub owner Jack Ruby. Ruby himself would be dead within three months from cancer. And so the circle is closed.
Dylan switches his attention to the Zapruder footage. Describes the horror of it, claims to have watched it 33 times, maybe more. Like the speed of a long-playing record. The footage has been scrutinised frame by frame over the decades to attempt to locate the truth buried within. It was used by Don DeLillo as a recurring motif in his sprawling Underworld. Dylan uses it to presage “the age of the antichrist”, bringing to mind again how significant the death of Kennedy was in changing the flow of history. He sees Johnson sign in “at 2:38”, showing his eye for the detail of the narrative again.
Again, Dylan starts to free-associate. “What’s new, Pussycat?/ What’d I Say?” he asks, citing two big hits from the era. The first, Tom Jones massive hit from 1965, theme tune to the movie of the same name. Hugely catchy but also massively of its time, it no longer has the charm it surely did at the time. Now, it seems brash, condescending. It’s the #MeToo era, and we don’t call women “pussycat” anymore. The second is Ray Charles’ from 1959. This evergreen piece of musical ebullience is exactly what music should be. A massive celebration, euphoric, driving home the idea of soul music as something more than disposable pop.
Next, Dylan circles back to beginning, calling again for Wolfman Jack. A list of songs follows. “Only The Good Die Young”? Is that the Billy Joel song? One of the many “new Dylans” that bubbled up in the ‘70s. Soon enough we’re with Tom Dooley, a song made popular by Peter Seeger, one of Dylan’s old mentors.” St James Infirmary Blues,” where, should we care to look, we’ll find a body, the body of the narrator’s son, wrapped up in linen. “I’d Rather Go Blind” by the brilliant Etta James is a statement of intent while” Scratch My Back” by John Lee Hooker perhaps hints at the skulduggery behind the murder. The duplicity and the perfidy. Jack Ruby crops up here, as does Marilyn Monroe, Kennedy’s alleged paramour, herself found dead in unusual circumstances.
The mantra continues with The Animals’ “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” then The Eagles and “Take It To The Limit.” And as the plane accelerates towards its destination, the new president aboard, Dylan accelerates through the ‘70s with the cocaine corporate era of The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac and Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust.” He then draws us back to the hymnal “The Old Rugged Cross,” reminding us of what we’ve lost, of what has been sacrificed, the irony of In God We Trust. Presley’s “Mystery Train” pulls alongside the birth of rock music. The Reverend Dr King, who would die in similar circumstances.
Key names in jazz: Peterson, Getz, the freedom of expression embraced by jazz musicians. But with the jazz comes the junk. Charlie Parker, dead, leaving behind the body of a much older man, ravaged by heroin and alcohol. Names fly past, Keaton and Lloyd, the slapstick actors. But also “Pretty Boy Floyd,” the Woody Guthrie song that Dylan had played about with in the early ‘60s.
As the song draws to its crescendo, Kennedy’s brothers are coming. Bobby wouldn’t see the end of the ‘60s, killed by another lone gunman, never able to reach his potential or fulfil the promise of Jack. The plane touches down, a final litany of songs, “Play Misty for me,” referencing the song but also the excellent conspiracy thriller directed by Clint Eastwood. Anything Goes, in the second half of the 20th century at least. We’re “Marching Through Georgia” and there’s the “Blood Stained Banner.” And finally, a resounding, “Murder Most Foul.”
The song stops as it starts, echoing off into the distance. The CD player resets itself. There is nothing, and no more. This could be the album that Dylan has always had in him to make If this is it, and we’ve got to accept that at his age, it may be, then it may well be his best work.
Like Shakespeare’s late plays, Beethoven’s late period, Coltrane’s final recordings, Leonard Cohen’s final sequence of albums and David Bowie’s Blackstar, this is a work of art by a genius. It is easy to look to those phenomenal formative recordings from the ‘60s, an incredible body of work, and say that’s his best stuff. It’s reasonable to struggle to find the gems in some of his subsequent work. Blood On The Tracks was seen as an incredible resurgence. So too was Time Out Of Mind. Sooner or later, he’s going to run out of road.
This record may be a revival of form like those two earlier records had been. But I think it’s more than that. I hope there is more to come. I really hope so.