by Stephen Scobie
When I first listened all the way through to Bob Dylan’s new album, Rough and Rowdy Ways (RRW), I felt a bit like the English poet Basil Bunting encountering Ezra Pound’s Cantos:
There they are, you will have to go a long way round if you want to avoid them. It takes some getting used to. There are the Alps, fools! Sit down and wait for them to crumble!
The album is so epic, so immense, that it seems impossible to write any kind of conventional “review,” any neat summation of themes, any reductive analysis or critical evaluation. It’s just too big; it takes some getting used to.
So this article is not a review. It doesn’t pretend to have a coherent, unified viewpoint, from which every odd detail can be slotted into place. Rather, it is a series of rough notes on individual lines and phrases which particularly struck me in the course of my first few listenings.
Many of these notes involve quotations: identifying sources, references, echoes, allusions. Much of this work has already been done by assiduous commentators on the internet; I cannot claim credit for being the first to discover and point out most of the identifications (though I do think I have pinned down a couple of references which I have not yet seen identified on the web).
Nor do I intend to pay any attention here to the vexed problems of allusion, intertextuality, or plagiarism, which I have extensively addressed elsewhere. Certainly, I make no pretence at completeness. There are many references which I have omitted, knowingly or unknowingly. Some I may have added in, hearing echoes where none is intended. This is not a coherent argument: these are first-draft impressions, preliminary reactions, rough and possibly even rowdy.
Could scarcely be more minimal. The musicians are barely listed; the production (presumably by Dylan himself) not at all. The front cover photograph is by contemporary English photographer Ian Berry, The original image was in black and white; the sepia colouring enhances the illusion of a time past – suggesting some 1920s juke joint in the Deep South, but actually taken in London in 1964.
The packaging includes the hagiographic pose of JFK, but not the lurid image which accompanied the pre-release of “False Prophet,” showing a skeleton in a top hat wielding a hypodermic needle. There is a photo of Jimmy Rodgers, but none of Dylan himself.
The title is rather odd. “My Rough and Rowdy Ways” is a 1929 song by Jimmy Rodgers. Dylan is a big fan, having produced a whole tribute album to the “singing brakeman.” But RRW, other than the title and inside cover photo, contains (as far as I can tell) no other reference or quotation from Rodgers. Neither is it especially rough – the production is meticulous – or rowdy – even at its most energetic, it’s not going to have your neighbours banging on the wall. That’s not a criticism: the music is excellent. But quietly excellent.
“I Contain Multitudes”
The Walt Whitman quote, or at least the idea of it, has been hanging around Bob Dylan critical circles for a long time. I’m not sure if anyone has actually used the line, though it wouldn’t surprise me if someone has. Anyway, Dylan has now done it for them. But it’s one thing to have this Whitmanian (Whitmaniac?) virtue ascribed to you by a critic; it is quite another thing (as Walt himself must have known) to claim it for yourself. It may be useful for sidestepping accusations of inconsistency or self-contradiction; but identifying yourself with Whitman does carry elements of bragging and egotism. So, as we will see, such claims are occasionally undercut by wry self-deprecation or deliberate exaggeration.
Today and tomorrow and yesterday too
Possibly a distant echo of Macbeth – “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow … all our yesterdays”? There is an air of Shakespearean tragedy all over this album. Lady Macbeth will appear close to the end, over an hour from now.
Follow me close, I’m going to Bally-na-Lee
Where? After the obvious Whitman reference, here comes Dylan in the third line throwing a curve ball to all potential transcribers and annotators. Where is this place, and how do you even spell it? Turns out it’s a village in Ireland, associated with a 19th century Irish poet, Antoine O Raifteiri, whose work Dylan has reportedly discussed with Shane MacGowan, lead singer of The Pogues. (There may also be an echo from Thoor Ballylee, the home of W.B. Yeats.) As such – a distant location, out on the edge, with a few literary ghosts – perhaps it functions as a bookend to the penultimate song of the album – Key West.
I fuss with my hair, and I fight blood feuds
Sets up the first of a series of rhymes for “multitudes.” I wrote above about Dylan using self-deprecating humour to undercut the possible arrogance of equating himself with Walt Whitman. The line juxtaposes the trivial with the profound. “Blood feuds” is only the first of a long series of images of justice as vengeance, judgements rendered as acts of extreme and personal violence. (This theme has become increasingly prominent in Dylan’s work over the last twenty years.) It pierces to the heart of the debate between public justice and private revenge, society’s transition from the endless extension of “blood feud” to the rule of law, in which the state claims a monopoly on violence. This debate continues to this day, but was most memorably articulated by, yes, Hamlet – “Murder Most Foul.”
Yet here, this intensely serious theme is casually paired with “I fuss my hair.” Now, I would readily agree that there are few heads of hair in the world more worth fussing with than Bob Dylan’s, especially circa 1966 (as ultimately portrayed by the late Milton Glaser). But it scarcely equates with “blood feuds.” The coupling here urges you to see an element of irony in Dylan’s commitment to revenge. The language of “blood feuds” is always, knowingly, a bit over the top.
- But it turns out we’re not yet quite finished with “fuss.” But for that, you’ll have to wait until I get to “Mother of Muses.”
Got a tell tale heart like Mister Poe
Volume 8 of Dylan’s “Bootleg Series,” which covers the years around Time Out Of Mind, is entitled Tell Tale Signs (2008). In Poe, the “heart” belongs to the victim of murder, whose beating heart remains audible as an accusation beyond death. In Dylan, the role of victim is ascribed to the singer himself, the author of the “signs,” and the signs are the songs, or at least the alternative takes and rejected drafts of songs which, once buried, are now permitted to sound beyond the walls of their tombs.
Red Cadillac and a Black Moustache
Classic rock and roll song by Warren Smith (1957), covered by Dylan (2001). The recording was used as a TV commercial for
Cadillac cars and trucks. Dylan has cheerfully allowed his songs to be used to advertise all kinds of products, from Victoria’s Secret lingerie to (just this last weekend) Travelers Insurance golf tournament. Purists have been distressed, but hey, why not? If you contain multitudes, why shouldn’t that include salesman for ladies’ underwear? But the Cadillac will also show up later on RRW, as will “red.”
I’m just like Anne Frank, like Indiana Jones And them British bad boys, the Rolling Stones
This is the first, and perhaps the most unsettling, instance of a device which Dylan uses throughout RRW, and which eventually consumes it entirely: a list of culturally well-known names (authors, singers, titles) arranged in groups of two or three, held together by rhyme, as if each pairing was a mini-collage, in which the significance was to be found not in the terms themselves but in the very act of their juxtaposition. Sometimes the names in the list support each other; at other times they seem bizarrely incongruous, even indeed in violent conflict with each other – as here.
What do these three names possibly have in common with each other (aside from the tenuous link that Indiana Jones fought Nazis)? Indeed, the placing of Anne Frank’s name in this company may be regarded as offensive. Or the lines may be subject to the criticism levelled by Samuel Johnson against John Donne: “The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.”
In the next lines, Dylan ventures that all these characters “go right to the edge … go right to the end.” Fair enough: but the question remains: of all the characters in human history who have gone to the edge, why these three? In his New York Times interview with Douglas Brinkley, Dylan admits that basically, he just doesn’t know:
“Those kind of songs for me just come out of the blue, out of thin air… There are certain public figures that are just in your subconscious for one reason or another. None of those songs with designated names are intentionally written. They just fall down from space. I’m just as bewildered as anybody else as to why I write them.”
Or in other words: I contain multitudes.
Everything’s flowing, all at the same time
In Greek, panta rhei: all things are in flux, unstable, impermanent. Central tenet of the Greek philosopher Heroclitus. In 1919, faced with the complete collapse of European civilisation over the previous five years, Ezra Pound, already “fighting in the Captain’s tower,” wrote: “’All things are a flowing,’ / Sage Heraclitus said.”
I live on a Boulevard of Crime
This was the name colloquially given in the mid-19th century to the stretch of the Boulevard du Temple in Paris housing the popular theatres – tragedies, comedies, melodramas, musicals, mime shows. Its name came from the prevalence of petty crime: pickpockets, muggings, blackmail. It was the setting (though that is far too weak a word) for the film Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise), written by Jacques Prévert, directed by Marcel Carné, filmed more or less clandestinely in Nazi-occupied Paris, released after the war to become one of the great classics of French cinema – and also, as it happens, to become one of Bob Dylan’s all-time favourite movies. It is a dominant influence on mid-70s Dylan, especially on the Rolling Thunder Revue and Renaldo and Clara. The aim of that movie, Dylan once told Allen Ginsberg, was to “stop time.” What art could do, then, was to counter the sense that all things are flowing. Indeed, throughout RRW, Dylan offers various images of time suspended, time cancelled. And here comes the first one:
I sleep with life and death in the same bed Red blue jeans
Has “blue jeans” become such a generic term that their colour doesn’t matter? Are “red blue jeans” what you wear when crossing the Red River in red Cadillac?
I carry four pistols and two large knives
The first in a formidable arsenal wielded by the singer throughout the album.
I play Beethoven’s sonatas, Chopin’s preludes
I look forward to hearing the bootlegs.
This series of articles continues. Meanwhile you might also be interested in some of the other articles we have published on Rowdy Ways.
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