Friday, October 23, 2020

Rough and Rowdy Ways

A new album by Bob Dylan.

A lot of us thought that Tempest would be his last album; we thought the title was a reference to Shakespeare. No, he said: my album is called Tempest: Shakespeare’s last play was called THE Tempest. 

He surprised us with an album of Christmas songs; then he surprised us with an album of Sinatra songs; then he surprised us with — er — another album of Sinatra songs. And then he didn’t surprise us nearly so much with a triple album of Sinatra songs. 

And then, suddenly, in the middle of lock down, almost unheralded, ten new songs.

Ten new songs.

By Bob Dylan.

You’d probably decided whether they were going to be the crowning glory of an illustrious career or a the final and clinching proof that Dylan was and always had been an over-rated no hoper before you listened to the first note. 

I’m in the first camp. You won’t be surprised to learn.

But it’s a silly question. Here is a very old man who has lived through the second half of the last century and the first decades of this one. Here is a man who smoked pot with the Beatles, jammed with Johnny Cash and shared a platform with Martin Luther King. Good, bad, indifferent, we are going to listen to these songs; we are going to think about them; and we can be pretty certain that in a hundred years time people will still be listening to them and re-assessing them.

Who the hell listens to Planet Waves, they said, apart from joyless completists? And then suddenly talented young folk-singers are covering Forever Young and calling it the most beautiful song ever written.

And his Jesus phase. Everyone agrees that was a crashing embarrassment. And then you find yourself in the main tent at Sidmouth listening to a tent full of youngsters swaying  happily along to Man Gave Names To All the Animals.

Who actually enjoyed Time Out Of Mind? Apart from Adele, apparently.

You just never know.

What we have here is an album of poems: Dylan rarely gets beyond speaking the words; and if someone told me that he had read the texts into a mic and someone had added musical tracks afterwards without his input I wouldn’t be entirely surprised. They are wildly free-associative: there is barely a narrative, a character, or even a coherent argument on the whole CD. Maybe you should think of the record as a single extended song; a smokey room, a husky voice, 6o minutes of imagery.

Say what comes into your head says the Freudian analyst; just say whatever comes into your head.

Or perhaps the smoke and the rhythm and the riffs take us inside Bob’s head and we start to share in his dreams — not Sandman dreams or Lewis Carol dreams, but real dreams, dreams where one thing flows into another and everything is multiple but it all makes total sense at the time.

Ten Songs By Bob Dylan. 

Let’s listen to them. 

One at a time.

1: I Contain Multitudes

A long time ago, T.S Eliot and Ezra Pound were spotted dancing in the captain’s tower. Calypso singers were laughing at them while fishermen threw flowers. T.S Eliot wrote a shattered world-weary poem called The Love Song of Alfred Prufrock. Andrew Lloyd-Webber appropriated it and turned it into a song about a suicidal pussycat.

I Contain Multitudes is nothing like Memory, but it is something like Prufrock.

It’s a poem, drawled out slowly with someone tinkling away in the background, like a bluesman talking over the opening bars of a song which never quite gets around to starting. We don’t find out who the poet is or who he is speaking to; but the lyrics draw us into a world of heaviness and contradiction.

There are dead flowers; there are skeletons; there are old queens; there is a man who shares a bed with death and life. The poem is driven forward by the phrase “I contain multitudes”: each stanza ends on a contradictory couplet.

“I fuss with my hair and I fight blood feuds”

“I rollick and frolic with all the young dudes.”

“I drive fast cars and I eat fast foods”.

The strong rhymes push it into the realm of nursery rhyme:

Pink pedal-pushers, red blue jeans
All the pretty maids, and all the old queens
All the old queens from all my past lives
I carry four pistols and two large knives
I’m a man of contradictions,
I’m a man of many moods
I contain multitudes

I suppose a pink pedal-pusher is a young girl on a bike; which may have been suggested by the idea of the young man trying to join in with the younger men in the previous lines. I am not sure how jeans can be both red and blue at the same time. Each line is a distorted echo of the one before. “All the pretty maids” sounds like something out of Mary Mary Quite Contrary, but “all the old queens” seems to be evoking aging gay men who are tying to look young. But then they become literal old queens; as if Bob is now thinking about reincarnation and famous historical figures he might have met. “Mary” in the nursery rhyme may be Mary Queen of Scots. She died.

The rhymes are contrived and whimsical (nudes/dudes; feuds/preludes) but the claim that he is a man of contradictions is disarmingly straightforward and unforced. The line “I contain multitudes” is a quote from a Walt Whitman poem called A Song Of Myself. 

A Song of Myself would have been a good alternative title for this song: and indeed for every other song on this album.

2: False Prophet

False Prophet does at least have a bit of a beat behind it; and Dylan’s gravelly voice speaks the words in time with the beat. It is another song of himself; another song in which the speaker, who both is and is not Bob Dylan, tries to define his nature.

I am; I am; I am.

The poem is called “false prophet”; but the speaker twice declares that he is not a false prophet; which kind of means he is a real one. 

But he seems to deny that as well: I ain’t no false prophet, I just know what I know. I ain’t no false prophet, I just said what I said. (“I am not a spokesman”, says spokesman.) 

But he is also an ascetic, a seeker after truth, and a poet. He is a “false” prophet in the sense that other people have burdened him with a prophetic identity, when all he wants to do is live a life of integrity and sing songs; but in doing so he has somehow lost contact with himself. 

When he speaks of mystical women guiding him through the underworld, like all those Johanas and Angelinas, one half-suspects he is really talking about drugs. He always was.

Well I’m the enemy of treason
Enemy of strife
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 

Like I Contain Multitudes, False Prophet is neither autobiographical nor a final summing up of a career. But both are evocations of the persona that Dylan has adopted: the contradictory, elliptical bard.

3: My Own Version of You

I suppose it was about 1968; folkie Woody Dylan accepted the 30 pieces of silver and stopped writing songs of protest and started writing songs of himself. And by himself we mean the inside of his head, long chains of imagery. Either he is providing a compelling picture of the psyche; or he is offering up a musical Rorschach test in which we all see our own faces. Or just self-indulgently noodling imagery. One of his fans famously thought Bob had betrayed him: many of his fans were, and remain, puzzled. 

Writing in this style requires an almost unachievable sense of balance. Like Luke Skywalker, you must learn control. Just speak every word which comes into your head and you end up with gibberish which means hardly anything to you and nothing to anyone else: but try to impose too much sense on it and the images stop coming. 

Some people say it is all about drugs: but that’s what people who don’t have any imagination always say about people who do.

A Better Version of You has the balance exactly right: it starts with an image; it riffs off that image and distorts it in all kinds of directions; but the transformations bring us back where we started.

This time, the speaker sees himself as Frankenstein: he starts out collecting the necessary body parts “limbs and livers and brains and hearts” and ends up animating his creation with electricity:

One strike of lightning is all that I need
And a blast of electricity that runs at top speed
Shimmy your ribs, I’ll stick in the knife
Gonna jumpstart my creation to life

But he is not creating a monster. He is creating an ideal friend; or re-creating an existing friend in his own image. He is going to create his own version of you; someone he’s never seen; someone who feels the way he feels; someone with decency and common sense. In the end he just want’s to bring someone to life. The man who contains multitudes is going to create new life in more ways than one.

Sometimes it is a silly song: but there is a sense that Dylan has gone through “silly” and come out the other side. What can you do with

I’m gonna make you play the piano like Leon Russell
Like Liberace,
like St. John the Apostle

except drop your jaw and applaud.

Sometime it is cartoonish: but the cartoon keeps bringing us back to the Frankenstein image:

I’ll take the Scarface Pacino and The Godfather Brando
Mix it up in a tank and get a robot commando
If I do it up right and put the head on straight
I’ll be saved by the creature that I create

Yes: Brando/Commando is a silly rhyme: but the idea that Frankenstein is like a young boy trying to assemble an action-figure is rather cool. He is taking two gangsters apart and reassembling them as a sci-fi monster. If he puts the kit together correctly, then the robot will save him from the baddies: but who ever managed to put the head of a model kit in the right place?

The lyric is full of references to other songs. He’s going to create the monster in the wee-small hours; he’s going to walk a midnight mile; he’s going to say to the willow tree don’t weep for me; and he’s going to bring something — the creature, possibly, or a human head — all the way home. So perhaps Dylan isn’t trying to make a perfect woman or a perfect friend. Perhaps the “you” refers to the song itself: stitched together from memories of other songs. Dylan said that a line like “how many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man” grew out of singing “the captain said to John Henry a man ain’t nothin’ but a man” over and over again. Perhaps this one comes from singing his own songs one time too many. 

But it is also a parade of famous people: St John — the Apostle and the baptist — St Peter, St Jerome, and, somehow standing in for Jesus, Julius Caesar. So perhaps the song is about celebrity; about fame. The better version of you is really a better version of me. Old Bob wants to re-create Young Bob: the myth of Bob has become like Frankenstein’s creation; both saviour and destroyer.

want to bring someone to life
want to role back the years
do it with laughter
do it with tears

It isn’t about creating a new life, it’s about rejuvenating an existing one; and it’s really going to be done with perfectly ordinary human happiness and sorrow.

Although still more poem than song, this feels like a performance, not merely a recitation. The word “monasteries” roles around his mouth in the first line, the way place names used to in Theme Time Radio Hour. There is a desperation in the way in gasps out that he wants to create a new version of “hhh…yooo”. He seems to get angry when he says he’s going to create new life “in more ways than one”. And the final evocation of creation has a staccato urgency.

4: Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You

It is late at night: the poet is sitting on the roof of his house listening to music.

He has sat there through winter and spring.

He has lived in different places.

He is lonely.

He has come to a decision: it was an intuitive decision, not a rational one.

It takes him a long time to make decisions.

Either he himself, or the world around him has changed: during his life, many of his friends have died.  

He thinks that leaving home and travelling may change the way he looks at things.

But his final decision is to dedicate himself to someone else: or possibly to put himself under someone else’s control.

At one point he seems to be talking to a male friend who he will go travelling with: but elsewhere he seems to be talking to a female love. When he starts to talk about doves and preaching the Gospel, it is tempting to wonder if he is using the language of evangelical Christianity, giving himself to God. But I think this is a simple love song to a woman he hopes to travel with and stay with until he dies.

In the last song, the Frankenstein figure seemed to be wanting to be reborn and to live life again: but this one has a resigned, end of life atmosphere. He is no longer the person he was, but if the dream-woman accepts his offer he may become so again.

5: Black Rider

Dear God….

I couldn’t believe that Dylan really sang that line.

I checked three different lyrics sites, and they all agree.

Black rider, black rider, hold it right there;
the size of your cock will get you nowhere.

Does Dylan see his whole career as a willy waving contest; a bit of adolescent boasting about who is the most macho? Maybe there was a certain locker-room atmosphere back stage in the early days of the folk revival. Guys do sometimes show off about that sort of thing. 

Or is he just taking the piss out of a certain US president?

There is a Clint Eastwood movie called Pale Rider. There is another Clint Eastwood movie called Unforgiven. The latter has quite a few references, implicit and direct, to dick-size. That’s the kind of thing we remember in these kinds of dreams.

But the line still seems incongruous. A bit of schoolboy slang in a dark brooding song.

The song is written in the second person. The Black Rider could be death; it could be depression. It could be Donald Trump. But I am pretty sure that Bob is still singing about himself. The black rider has seen it all; he’s been on the job too long; he’s walking away

He has been on the road a long time; he feels he knows the road but at the same time he feels he does not know it. He doesn’t want to join any more fights; he thinks he may have to stop talking. And at some level, he is ready for the end:

Black rider, black rider, tell me when, tell me how
If ever there was a time, then let it be now
Let me go through, open the door
My soul is distressed my mind is at war.

I think that this song works nicely. 

It helps that it is quite short. Size doesn’t necessarily matter.

6: Goodbye Jimmy Reed

This one is relatively straightforward. Like Roll On John and Lenny Bruce is Dead it’s a tribute to a specific person; part pastiche, part tissue of quotations with a large dollop of myth making on top. It is much more song than poem — it sounds a lot like the kind of thing Dylan was doing in the 90s — and it rattles along in Blues Gospel style. He praises the gospel singer for his “straightforward, puritanical tone”; tells him to “thump on the Bible, proclaim a creed” and references lots of hymnal phrases - “for thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory”; “go tell it on the mountain”; “will there be any stars in my crown”; and even, a little obliquely, “mine eyes have seen the glory”. Of course it goes off in funny directions: is the “transparent woman in a transparent dress” the one who leads the Gospel singer off the path; or is it another of the sad-eyed Angelinas who haunt Dylan’s drug-visions?

Except, so far as I can tell, Jimmy Reed wasn’t a gospel singer, and never was especially religious. The refrain and the style may reference Jimmy Reed: but the song is about someone entirely different. Is blues and religion somehow connected in Dylan’s head? Do both harks back to a time of simple religious certainties? Or are we simply in one of those dreams where it makes perfect sense to be telling Christopher Biggens that he is far and away your favourite astronomer?

The case against William Zanzinger wasn’t clear cut. Joey Gailo was a thug in a sharp suit. Rubin Carter was never that great a boxer. We’ve long forgotten the real people who John Henry and John Hardy might have been based on. If Bob wants to call his mythical gospel singer after a real life blues singer, that’s his prerogative.

If the Jimmy Reed of the song isn’t Jimmy Reed the recording artist who is he? The one who sang in a straightforward puritanical tone? The one who wouldn’t do tricks like Jimmi Hendrix? The one who was attacked but only sang songs which were meaningful to himself? 

Even when he is singing about someone else, Dylan is singing about himself.

7: Mother of Muses

This is very nearly a song. It is a song I can imagine someone else singing. It sounds like Bob Dylan. Not the young protest Bob; but certainly the Bob who wrote Forever Young.

Yes, he is speech-singing it; he’s always done that to some extent. But the way the whisper goes up and down, the phrasing of it: those five CDs of Sinatra covers have added a new layer to Bob’s performance.

He’s not a folksinger. He’s not a crooner. He’s doing a new thing. His own thing. And it is almost unbelievably sad.

Classical poems often begin with an evocation to the Muses; the gods of poetry. The muse very often just means inspiration. And we sometimes call a poet’s lover his muse: the person for whom he wrote his poetry.

The first two stanzas are directly addressing the muses of classical mythology. He tells the Muse what he wants her to sing about; which is to say; what he wants to sing about himself. First, he wants to sing simple nature poetry about the mountains and the deep dark sea:

Sing of the lakes and the nymphs of the forest
Sing your hearts out, all your women of the chorus

But then he wants her to sing about heroes: military generals; singers; civil rights leaders; artists. It seems that it was the soldiers who won the wars who made rock and roll and civil rights possible. That’s a far cry from wanting the cannon balls to stop sounding because too many people have died; but he was so much older then.

Sing of Sherman, Montgomery, and Scott
And of Zhukov, and Patton, and the battles they fought
Who cleared the path for Presley to sing
Who carved the path for Martin Luther King
Who did what they did and they went on their way
Man, I could tell their stories all day

This seems to to get exactly right what Murder Most Foul got so terribly wrong: rhymes which make you smile (sing/king) and a gentle fading of the high into the colloquial. “Man I could tell their stories all day” seems very much the kind of thing Bob Dylan would have said.

This is not a young poet in the first flush of inspiration. This is an old poet who feels his inspiration has gone away. It’s not too long ago that he was shouting out “I ain’t dead yet; my bell still rings” but now, he’s growling

Mother of Muses, wherever you are
I’ve already outlived my life by far

It’s almost as if the Muse is angry with him, or as if he has some kind of block which is preventing him from singing.


got a mind that ramble, got a mind that roam 

I’m travelin’ light and I’m slow comin’ home

is a direct reference to Leonard Cohen’s final album. But it makes me think of the late-early Dylan, bringing it all back home. And all that talk of rambling, and roaming, and hard travelling must surely take us back to where it all started. To Woody.

The muse he mentions in the poem is Caliope, who is the muse of epic poetry: which is appropriate if he is talking about civil war generals and civil rights leaders. But Caliope is not the mother of the muses. The mother of the muses is Mnesomyne.


8: Crossing the Rubicon

Two songs back Bob asked what Julius Ceasar would do. One of things Julius Ceasar certainly did do was cross the Rubicon. 

But that almost certainly has nothing to do with this song. The singer is going to cross a metaphorical rubicon. Pass the point of no-return. Make an irrevocable decision. What could he possibly be thinking of?

Whatever he did or is going to do, he is going to do it on the fourteenth day of the most dangerous month of the year.  The aforementioned T.S. Eliot once remarked that April was the cruellest month. Passover occurs on the 14th day of the first month; which often falls in April in the Julian calendar. Jesus Christ died at Passover; in some traditions Good Friday is celebrated on 14th April. Bob has previously sung about Titanic, which sank on April 14 1912; and his hero Woody sang about the great dust-storm which hit Texas and Oklahoma on April 14 1935. 

I first heard Bob do a live concert on April 14 2007, which is why you should never go down these kinds of rabbit holes.

On April 14 he gets up early to greet the goddess of the dawn. The name of the Christian festival Easter, which coincides with Passover, was named after the goddess of the dawn, Oestre. In the next verse he prays to the Christian cross. Easter and Passover are both spring festivals; about death and new life. Mr Eliot’s poem The Wasteland is about the life returning to the land after a drought, among several other things.

Before making his crossing, Dylan says he abandons all hope. “All hope abandon” is famously written above the gates of Dante’s hell. Shortly after revealing that April was the cruellest month, T.S Eliot compared the commuters crossing Westminster bridge with Dante’s vision of the damned entering hell. Neither of them had realised that death had undone so many. A long time ago, Dylan’s lover gave him a book of poems written by an Italian poem from the fourteenth century.

Dylan clearly has Dante in mind, since the rubicon he is planning to cross is “three miles north of Purgatory”. But he also seems to have cowboy films in mind, because he is going to paint his wagon before setting out on his journey.

The name Rubicon means “a red river”. It is literally red because of the Italian clay mud, but for Dylan it also suggests a woman’s lips, roses, and blood. Red River is the title of a John Wayne movie about a cattle drive: the image of driving cows through the wilderness to their eventual slaughter connects back with the Infernal image of the dead flowing through the gates of hell.

Verse three is about looking backwards and looking forward: he can only see darkness in the future; he thinks he has wasted too much time in the past; and he knows that he does not have very much time left. In verse two, women’s lips were connected with blood and death: but here he is is simply going to hug his lover goodbye before embarking on the journey.

Then the direction changes. He is angry. Possibly he is angry with someone who has raped or otherwise harmed his lover. He is going to kill them, widow his own wife; dismember him with a crooked knife. We haven’t come that far from John Wayne movies and damned souls. But at the same time he is conscious of his own mortality, and of his own sinfulness. He seems to be talking about both vengeance and repentance; exacting payment and paying off debts while there is still time. He is going to miss the person he kills. Possibly he is accusing himself and thinking in terms of self-punishment.

Take the high road, take the low

Take any one you’re on

I poured the cup, I passed it along

And I crossed the Rubicon.

Dylan’s’ second album ended with a rewrite of an old Robert Burns song about leave-taking: “Then fill to me the parting glass, good night and joy be with you all”. And here he is again, passing the cup round before leaving us. And this time he quotes By Yon Bonnie Banks which is also about parting. The spirit of the dead soldier will fly straight back to his home (“the high road”) but the survivor will have to take the long way round. Dylan doesn’t know which road he is going to take. If he is “between heaven and hell” then he must be in Purgatory. But as soon as we think about passing a cup around before dying, we are back to Passover and Easter: and Dylan imagines his skin being displayed on a hill after he is died, which could be a kind of grotesque echo of the crucifixion and the paschal lamb.

The final stanzas take us back to the beginning. He believes in God; he believes in light and freedom. He believes that everyone can be sanctified. He said at the beginning that he was going to get up early to greet the dawn: in the penultimate verse it is still dark and the dawn hasn’t come yet. Or possibly autumn is giving way to winter.

As so often in Dylan, his real religion turns out to be romantic love. Perhaps human love is the only metaphor he has with which to talk about the love of God. (Dante, again.) At first glance, he seems to be saying that his human lover is the only person who has accompanied him to the threshold: we have a simple, Bunyanesque image of one lover crossing the river of Death and the other staying behind. 

“Morning, baby...”  We started out greeting the goddess of the dawn: surely Oestre and the Morning-Baby are aspects of the same figure? An imaginary, spiritual figure — “...are you still in my mind?

The day is over; it is nearly winter; but he is still looking for Easter. He quotes the old folk saying about how the darkest hour is the one before dawn. He could also have quoted the old poet who asked “if winter comes, can spring be far behind?”

9 Key West

Key West is placed between Crossing the Rubicon and Murder Most Foul. Crossing the Rubicon is about death. Murder Most Foul is about the death of President Kennedy. Key West is about heaven; but heaven is located in Florida. And it begins with the assassination of President McKinley. Crossing the Rubicon ended with autumn leaves and the first frosts of winter: in Key West it is hot. Very hot indeed.

Someone is listening to the radio. They are hoping to find a love song: but they hear the news of McKinley’s assassination instead. Radio didn’t exist in 1900. Radio Luxembourg certainly didn’t.

Someone is hitchhiking to Florida; and identifies with the beat poets who wrote about life on the road. He picks a flower and puts it in his button hole.

Someone arrives in Florida: which is different from Australia. It is hot. There are lots of flowers. There is a sea-turtle conservation project and also religious music and Indian ceremonies. It is very hot.

Someone is still trying to find the romantic song on Radio Luxembourg…and suddenly we are in a weird, pedophile nightmare. 

Someone was the victim of a forced marriage when they were still a minor. They can remember the brides wedding dress. They have separated, but he is still attracted to her. She is dying; or possibly under sentence of death; or possibly it isn’t the girl but the President; or maybe the President’s assassin, who is being allowed a last request.

Key West, Florida is un-fallen (“the gateway key to innocence and purity”) connected with fairy tales or Walt Disney (“the enchanted land”). It is a place to regain mental and physical health (“if you lost your mind you will find it here” “the healing virtues of the wind”.)

These four claims are repeated at the end of the song:

Key West is the place to be

If you’re looking for immortality

Key West is paradise divine

Key West is fine and fair

If you lost your mind, you’ll find it there

Key West is on the horizon line

The poem is subtitled “Philosopher Pirate”. Pirates probably did hang out in Florida Keys: but the “pirate” he is talking about is the pirate radio station. Somehow he is listening to the radio; wishing he could go back to Florida; and thinking of spiritual rest at the same time.

10: Murder Most Foul

For no very good reason, this song is set apart from the rest of the album and given a CD of its own. I have already written about it at some length. It is very long. And very irritating.

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Chris said...

Pedal pushers are a style of (usually women's) trousers (calf-length). Pink Pedal Pushers was also a song by Carl Perkins (no doubt he was thinking, "If Blue Suede Shoes worked...").

g said...

Is "Memory" really derived from Prufrock? I don't really see the connection. At least one page on the internet links it to two other Eliot poems -- Rhapsody on a windy night and Preludes -- which it seems much more like to me.

Andrew Rilstone said...

It is, er, entirely possible that I mixed two poems up in my fluffy little head.