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Bob Dylan: Rough and Rowdy Ways

This piece is actually what I was writing when I started thinking about the so-called baby boomer generation, and the whole generations scheme, which led to a separate post on that theme. More about that further down.

A month or two or three ago when this album came out there was a promotional video for it using the first track, "I Contain Multitudes." I listened to it and thought "Well, this is an album I can skip." I mean, Dylan's recent work has been pretty good, but there wasn't all that much that I felt like I couldn't do without. There's so much music I want to hear that I wasn't going to bother with this one. But my friend Stu told me I really should give it a listen. So I did: thanks, Stu.

I do think it's a mixed bag. But the good stuff...well, I'll take it track by track.

"I Contain Multitudes"
(The phrase is from Whitman, as you probably know.) I just don't care much for this. It's not so much a song as a recitation over some not especially effective music. There are some good lines but overall the lyrics are not so great. "I drive fast cars and I eat fast foods / I contain multitudes." It's a good thing that it's not that long.

"False Prophet"
Now the album really gets started: blues riff, words somewhat on the dark side. I would quote some of it but you really have to hear it in his voice. At six minutes it doesn't seem too long. His vocals are impossible, by which I mean that it seems impossible that they are as effective as they are. As has been the case for some time, it's often a stretch to call what he does singing. But it really works.

"My Own Version of You"

All through the summers and into January
I’ve been visiting morgues and monasteries
Looking for the necessary body parts
Limbs and livers and brains and hearts

I want to bring someone to life - is what I want to do
I want to create my own version of you

Over a descending spooky-movie line the song goes on like that. Is he creating a Frankenstein's monster, or an ideal lover, or maybe even creating God in his own image? I'm not sure--making linear sense is not what Dylan does--but this is a strong track. Everybody knows Dylan traffics in allusion, but I suspect he does it even more than most of us recognize. Like this line: "You can bring it to St. Peter - you can bring it to Jerome."

Because I've had a copy of Bo Diddley's 16 Greatest Hits since I was 18 or so, I happen to know that the second sentence refers to one of his lesser-known songs. I don't know how many people who listen to this album would catch that. Or how many such references I miss.

"I've Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You"
A love song that, like all love songs, could be addressed either to a person or to God. Every now and then Dylan writes what seems to be a conventional love song, and I tend not to like them. I didn't like "To Make You Feel My Love" on Time Out of Mind and moreover thought it was totally out of place on that album. Not surprisingly, it was covered by some other artists. Anyway, this is good, but not one of my favorites.

"Black Rider"
I'd call this "pretty good": an interesting lyric, not much musically. As with "Multitudes," it isn't overly long, which is good.

"Goodbye Jimmy Reed"
I love this one. It sounds like Jimmy Reed and the lyrics are sharp. It's a tribute to Reed, with musical and lyrical allusions to some of his songs, and weighted with a sense that he had something that we still need.

"Mother of Muses"
Slow, kind of pretty, a sort of prayer. But I'm afraid I don't care much for it.

"Crossing the Rubicon"
Now this is a killer. There's a pattern in my reactions here: a preference for the more rock-oriented and sharp-tongued songs. This one is both. The more I hear it the more I like it, and want to say it's up there with some of his classics. As the title suggests, it's about a moment of decision and determination in the face of long odds, and it's very powerful:

Three miles north of purgatory, one step from the great beyond:
I prayed to the cross and I kissed the girls
and I crossed the Rubicon

"Key West"
I really wanted to like this one. I've never been to Key West but from what I've seen and heard it must be an enchanting place. This song should enchant, but for me at any rate it does not. And at nine and a half minutes it goes on too long to suit me.

"Murder Most Foul"
Now I will contradict what I said about the pattern of my reactions. ("Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself.") Superficially this song is like "Multitudes"--really just a recitation over a musical background. And I did not expect to like a 17-minute Dylan song. I expected it to go off the rails, like the long closing song on Time Out of Mind, which spends too much time on a silly episode apparently sparked by rhyming "legs" and "eggs."

This is where the "generations" stuff comes in. In the post I mentioned earlier I argued that if we're going to classify people in that way one of the groups should include those born between roughly 1940 and 1960--which is to say those who had the experience of growing up in the 25 years or so following the end of World War II. 

For better or worse, it's a feature of the constantly changing modern world that if you live a normal three-score-and-ten or more you're going to see the world you grew up in disappear. I've seen it happen to my parents and their parents and now it's happening to me. Naturally it often seems to the passing generation that the changes are for the worse, but whether that's actually the case or not, it's a sad thing.

This song is Dylan's farewell to the world he and I grew up in. Or rather to the America we grew up in. And it's a lament, which he hangs on the myth of the Kennedy assassination. I call it a myth because that event became almost immediately a symbol that was at least half-detached from the reality. I was never caught up in the Kennedy mystique--it wasn't a political thing, I guess I just don't care much for Glorious Leader cults. And I never thought much of the idea that the nation lost its innocence at his assassination, and so forth. (America innocent? Oh, come on.) But there is a kernel of truth there: there really was a sense of hope and expectation abroad in the land in the late '50s and early-to-mid '60s, and the assassination was a blow to it, and a symbol of its waning.

Over a quiet and somber background of piano and bowed bass, the song begins with the assassination and then begins branching out into cultural references. A little more than halfway through, it becomes a litany.

Wolfman Jack, he’s speaking in tongues
He’s going on and on at the top of his lungs
Play me a song, Mr. Wolfman Jack
Play it for me in my long Cadillac

Wolfman is requested to "play" one after another mid-century image: songs, movies, people.

Play Oscar Peterson and play Stan Getz
Play Blue Sky, play Dickie Betts
Play Art Pepper, play Thelonious Monk
Charlie Parker and all that junk
All that junk and All That Jazz
Play something for The Birdman of Alcatraz
Play Buster Keaton play Harold Lloyd
Play Bugsy Siegel play Pretty Boy Floyd

The instrumentation grows slightly as it goes on, including a bass drum that sounds as big as a room. It's funeral music for a funeral song or poem, and I find it very moving. The thing about the times is, they never stop changing. 

Comments

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I really haven't had an opportunity to sit down and listen carefully to this yet. I did play it once or twice "in the background" -- ie. amid the chaos -- but I'm looking for a chance to really *listen*. I appreciate your pointers to what you found most valuable about it.

I can't believe you don't like the "eggs and legs" section of "Highlands"! For me it's one of the best parts of a really wonderful record.

Chaos! In your house, Craig? I can't image.

AMDG

LOL, yes Craig I like "Highlands" a lot too, and Time Out of Mind remains my favorite Dylan disc.

It's funny, how we get music nowadays. "Murder Most Foul" showed up out of the blue, then maybe "False Prophet" and "I Contain Multitudes". I can't really get into these songs until I have all of them together in some way, and can then listen in my car while traveling, or on the stereo downstairs instead of computer/YouTube. So I didn't pay too much attention and waited for the CD to be released.

Then I was on a car trip, and I think on a stop somewhere outside of Kansas City I texted Mac from a rest stop to let him know that he should really listen to the album. I probably listened to it 6 or 7 times on that car trip WY to MO to NM to CO then back to WY, so quite a lot of car miles.

The only track I haven't been able to get into at all is the "Key West" one, though it is a pleasant way to end the experience, if you begin with "Murder Most Foul" (a separate CD) and then listen to the rest. "Jimmy Reed" is probably my favorite, but like a lot of albums you listen to over and over the favorite keeps changing, at first it was "I Contain Multitudes".

What I'm most amazed by is Dylan himself! How does he keep doing this, at now age 79? I sort of enjoy the album Tempest, and saw him twice while that was his most recent CD of original songs, so heard many of them in concert - BUT, his voice is ragged on that album. He someone cleaned it up for the three (5?) albums of the Great American Songbook, and now on Rough and Rowdy Ways.

It is immensely good, and wonderful to listen to over and over, just to try to catch the next interesting tidbit that he has dropped in and you didn't notice in an earlier listen. Kennedy died three years before I was born, but I still find that song moving too.

Right after I posted this I listened to "Highlands" again, for the first time in many years. I've always really liked most of the song, and I kind of like that whole bit with the waitress now. But the eggs and legs business still grates. I mean really:

She studies me closely as I sit down
She got a pretty face and long white shiny legs
She says, “What’ll it be?”
I say, “I don’t know, you got any soft boiled eggs?”

I hope I didn't prejudice you, Craig. I avoid reading reviews before I've read or heard or seen whatever it is.

Thanks again for putting me onto this, Stu.

I saw Dylan...two years ago?...I guess it was the Tempest-related tour. I enjoyed it but I won't go if he tours again. He brings these bouncers with him who are really aggressive about pursuing and threatening to eject anyone whose phone lights up. Leaves a bad taste.

It occurs to me that Dylan may have been alluding to those haunting lines from Leadbelly:

She was a good lookin woman, she had great big legs
She walk like she walkin on soft-boiled eggs

Almost the only thing I can remember about the one Dylan concert I went to was that somebody in the balcony spilled beer on me.

And also, the harmonica solos which were really good.

AMDG

I never did succeed in liking his harmonica playing.

Maybe it sounds better with beer in your hair.

AMDG

Probably keeps you from listening as closely.

I like this album. I have listened to it a few times in the car. Its true that although the Kennedy assassination is not what people say it was, because Kennedy is not who people say he was, still it does represent a turn from the hopefulness of the late fifties and early sixties.

Right.

Dylan does not use his tongue in a very sophisticated way in his harmonica playing, so you don't get a sense of control and finesse that you find in a professional. John Lennon was better at it from that perspective. Or listen to Neil Young on "Heart of Gold."

All I know is that it has never seemed to me to add anything to his work. I'm not particularly keen on the instrument anyway, though I like some of the blues players.

"there really was a sense of hope and expectation abroad in the land in the late '50s and early-to-mid '60s, and the assassination was a blow to it, and a symbol of its waning"

I was 18 years old and just starting my sophomore year in college when JFK was elected, and although I was taken with his glamour, etc., that was quickly overshadowed by a sense of doom re nuclear war. Don't think I was an outlier in that.

Oh certainly, I didn't mean there was *only* that. The fear was at least as much a part of the mix. I remember very well standing in the schoolyard during the Cuban missile crisis with a friend, looking up at the sky and wondering whether the bombs were going to come.

"Kennedy is not who people say he was."

What do they say he was? What was he really?

My first memory of politics was swinging on the swing at the age of five in 1964 talking to my older sisters about how great Johnson was and how evil Goldwater was.

I don't remember the Kennedy assassination, but I do remember the murder of Oswald and the Beatles on Ed Sullivan.

I wasn't born yet, but hat sounds like quite a show :)

:-)

Ringo put up a good fight but in the end he too went down.

The person some people thought Kennedy was is pretty much summed up in the word "Camelot" applied to his presidency.

Just finished reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Camelot wasn't "Camelot" either.

I think it was Hollywood Camelot—“one brief shining moment” kind of thing.

We were so close to Oak Ridge, and you were even closer. It was scary.

AMDG

I think I was less than 20 miles as the blast wave propagates from where military and NASA rocket engines were being designed and built.

Here's a guy who never got over the Camelot business:

https://observer.com/2015/07/jfks-camelot-was-real/

I searched for "jfk camelot" and the first several things that came up seemed to say that Jackie was the one who came up with the Camelot comparison. And that it was indeed based on the musical. I only skimmed the first couple of paragraphs so there may be more to it.

I'll just interject to say that Dylan's harmonica solo before the last stanza of "Desolation Row" is pretty terrific.

I don't think I ever paid attention to it, and I used to know all the words--i.e. I heard it many times. What I immediately think of in that performance is Charlie McCoy's wonderful guitar. I don't know how long he worked on it but it probably wasn't very long. Those Nashville session guys were just amazing.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlie_McCoy

It's always fun these days to hear a harmonica in a rock song. On the new Pretenders album Chrissie has one song that features it. I'm looking forward to seeing them in concert again once the pandemic is under control so there will be two "harmonica songs" in the set list, the new one and "Middle of the Road".

It must be a Dylan song where he sings "play the harp until your lips bleed", right?

Heh. I don't remember that line. The harmonica on "Middle of the Road" is striking.

"I'll just interject to say that Dylan's harmonica solo before the last stanza of "Desolation Row" is pretty terrific."

Yeah. It is pretty good. It actually has form, for one thing. And he has the bend technique down and uses it effectively.

Ok, I listened to it, and...I'll defer to those who appreciate the instrument more than I do.

The great band War on Drugs uses harmonica pretty effectively from time to time. They have a habit of throwing one in where you least expect it.

And for my money one of the great harmonica solos is the one in Talk Talk's 1986 song "Living in Another World." It's done by Mark Feltham, who's the U.K.'s go-to guy for harmonica. He's been on dozens if not hundreds of songs. The full solo appears on the album version of the song but is shortened on the single and used as the fade-out.

I don't know that one.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qAlLQaDXc4I

Solo starts at 3:55.

There are a couple concert versions on youtube featuring Feltham and he nails it perfectly live too.

Now that you point it out, I can see that that's very good playing, but I wouldn't really have paid attention to it otherwise. I seem to recall there is some kind of strange skronky harmonica on one of those more abstract albums that they (he?) made. It adds an interesting color, if I'm remembering correctly.

The Camelot thing started the week after JFK was killed when Jackie talked about it in an interview with Theodore H. White which ran in Life magazine. I just read it again and find it maybe even more grippiing than when I read it in 1963. She seems dazed in most of it. It's here, if you'd like to read it: http://www.jfklancer.com/pdf/Camelot.pdf

Here's the part about Camelot:

I kept saying to Bobby, I've got to talk to somebody, I've got to see somebody. I want to say this one thing. It's been almost an obsession with me. This line from the musical comedy's been almost an obsession with me. At night before going to bed...we had an old Victrola. He'd play a couple of records. I'd get out of bed at night and play it for him when it was so cold getting out of bed. It was a song he loved, he loved `Camelot.' It was the song he loved most at the end...on a Victrola ten years old...it's the last record, the last side of 'Camelot,' sad `Camelot.'...'don't let it be forgot that for one brief shining moment there was Camelot.'

I adored Dylan back in the day. He was hero, poet, philosopher king, beatnik hippie all rolled into one. I knew the words to all his songs! I was in 7th grade when Kennedy was shot. I was in 4th grade during the Kennedy/Nixon pres campaign. My older sister who was a wannabe beatnik brought Dylan's Freewheelin' album into the house, probably around the time of the assassination.
Many years down the road, I turned on Dylan after I read about Hurricane Carter to my own satisfaction. Now that was a very cool song! I could still say so although I think his version of the story is a lie. I don't buy that Carter was wrongly convicted and came to see Dylan's song as part of a whitewash. Even if it was catchy. So I was no longer favourably disposed to Dylan, now that I was 'grown up'.
I heard Murder Most Foul when it first came out. By accident. I'm sorry for those of you who like it, but I don't. I was flabbergasted, found it asinine in every way. Including the title.
Just sayin'

"one of those more abstract albums that they (he?) made"

Yeah, I think Feltham's on both of those later records too.

I think I'll listen to those again. They're really good.

onfire, I wasn't listening much to Dylan when the album with "Hurricane" came out. Never did listen to it much but I seem to remember that that song was at least pretty good musically. The one I recall being somewhat appalled by was "Joey," which pictured a Mafia hood as some kind of romantic semi-saint.

That's really fascinating, Marianne. Fascinating and horrible. And this little aside about John-John is very poignant: "He's so interested in planes...."

Robert Gotcha - the Camelot Kennedy hero. I have met dozens of people who intensely believe in that. I think there was a new surge of hope after the second world war had been assimilated, and Kennedy somehow symbolized it.

It occurs to me that everyone I've ever known personally who talked about Kennedy in that Camelot hero way was a woman. He really got to them. I remember my father teasing my mother about him. But anyway, there really was (along with the nuclear terror as Marianne notes), and he really did. For a while at least. I remember a conversation about the Vietnam war with a leftist ca 1967. He was certain that Kennedy would have stopped it. Maybe, but he pretty much started it, so it's far from certain.

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