Culture & Criticism From the Far Distant Realms
“Being a musician means – depending on how far you go – getting to the depths of where you are at. And most any musician would try anything to get to those depths, because playing music is an immediate thing – as opposed to putting paint on a canvas, which is a calculated thing. Your spirit flies when you are playing music. So, with music, you tend to look deeper and deeper inside yourself to find the music.”
(Bob Dylan to Ron Rosenbaum; Playboy Interview; January 1978)
“let me begin by not beginnin
let me start not by startin but by continuin…”
“everybody wants security
they want t be secure
they want t be protected
an I say protected?
protected aginst what?
protected against starvin I guess
an power too
an protected against the forces that they know will
get them if they lose their money…”
(Bob Dylan – in a 1964 letter to Sis Cunnigham and Gordon Friesen at Broadside Magazine)
Bob Dylan’s 39th album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, was released on June 19th – nearly 6 decades after his first record, Bob Dylan, debuted from New York City. Accordingly, Rough and Rowdy Ways stands as the greatest record any musician has ever released 60 years into his career.
The big buzz the album has generated is due to the fact it’s Dylan’s first collection of original material in 8 years, following 2012’s magnificent Tempest. But as good as Tempest is, Rough and Rowdy Ways might be a hair better. The reason is because this music comes to the world when it needs it most.
Dylan’s 79 years old now, and over the span of his long career he has mastered multiple genres – Blues, Rock, Folk, Gospel, Country – with his full arsenal featured here. Notwithstanding the ground he covers, what is most amazing about this record is found in the jewel of his voice – bold and evocative, moving you from your chair, compelling rapt attention.
After 60 years, another lengthy back-story on Dylan’s life and times is hardly necessary. Fans and critics alike know the high points as songs like “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Visions of Johanna” extended the Beat Generation’s vision, taking poetry from the page and bringing it back home to the stage. With guitar and harmonica in hand, Dylan followed the spirit guide as he performed his poetry across the world. His work truly revolutionized the art form, and because of this, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 2016.
Rough and Rowdy Ways, then, is a record meant to show us why Dylan deserved this rare honor. In reality, the album is a looking glass of sorts, with Dylan opening up both sides of his mirror, allowing us to peek inside at the writer at work.
The three big songs on the record all arrived to us via advance/stream release. First off, “False Prophet” is directed straight to listeners, the poet imploring us to look to ourselves – and not to him – for answers. The song is actually blood-kin to an old theme, evoking the song “Trust Yourself” from 1985’s Empire Burlesque. If fans missed it there, they should go find the version Dylan did with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at Farm Aid. In the snap of a finger, the message will ring clear. Make no mistake, “False Prophet” is the real Dylan talking to us: This is really the same Bobby Zimmerman boyhood friend Louie Kemp wrote about in his 2019 memoir “Dylan & Me” – with Dylan sternly stating through a long rolling blues riff that he’s only walking the world like everybody else.
The next benchmark is “I Contain Multitudes.” This one seems written to all those critics out there constantly bitching about Dylan being vague and circular and circumspect. In turn, he drops his guard and shares his perceptions of himself by outlining the fine-points of old influences, admitting to the blind multiplicity of the selves. And he writes:
“You greedy old wolf, I’ll show you my heart
But not all of it, only the hateful part
I’ll sell you down the river, I’ll put a price on your head
What more can I tell you? I sleep with life and death in the same bed”
There’s no denying that the centerpiece of the record is the seventeen minute epic, “Murder Most Foul.” At first glance, this song is about the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. But really, it’s a statement on locked-down Pandemic-stained America. A true classic, it recalls Allen Ginsberg’s “Capitol Air” in scope and visceral power – this personal statement on the politics of the times, the poet reminiscing about the horrors big eyes tell and see. And he writes:
“What is the truth and where did it go
Ask Oswald and Ruby – they oughta know
Shut your mouth, says the wise old owl
Business is business and it’s murder most foul”
All the cuts on Rough and Rowdy Ways have something to say; additionally, these pieces merit repeated spins: “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” “Mother of Muses” and “Crossing the Rubicon” collectively paint a picture of Dylan at his poetic zenith as he reviews himself and the roots of the myriad genres he’s explored since 1962. Finally, “Key West” serves as an homage to the Beat Generation – Dylan calling out Kerouac and Ginsberg and Corso by name in sweet recognition. Rough and Rowdy Ways is truly a transcendent record, and each of these songs present their own reason why.
At nearly 80 years old, stuck in the midst of the modern plague, stuck in the locked-down world with the rest of us, it’s anybody’s guess if we will see Bob Dylan further the great Frank Sinatra’s legacy of performing into his 8th decade. But if circumstances decide that Dylan never takes center stage again, it hardly matters: The reasons for the poet’s ‘rough and rowdy ways’ will forever be on display in the beauty of his latest classic.
Rough and Rowdy Ways
1. I Contain Multitudes
2. False Prophet
3. My Own Version of You
4. I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You
5. Black Rider
6. Goodbye Jimmy Reed
7. Mother of Muses
8. Crossing the Rubicon
9. Key West
10. Murder Most Foul
Bob Dylan: vocals, guitar
Bob Britt: guitar
Matt Chamberlain: drums
Tony Garnier: bass guitar
Donnie Herron: steel guitar, violin, accordion
Charlie Sexton: guitar