The Rough and Rowdy Ways Tour 11: Key West (Philosopher Pirate)


I don’t know what it means either: an index to the current series appearing on this website.

Commentary by Tony Attwood, audio kindly provided by Mr Tambourine.


Key West begins at 54’15”.

The basis of this performance is pretty much “Key West” as we know it from the album.  But there are some extras from the band.   And that makes all the difference, for on the album there is a profundity created by the simplicity of the music against primarily the background of a very gentle lilting input from the band.  Together this creates an image of peace and tranquility, which I guess is what Dylan found at Key West.

But this profundity is lost in a live performance caused both by audience noise, and Dylan’s variance from the delicacy of the original recording – which of course is what he normally does.

Indeed aybe Bob felt he had to do this because he knows his audience finds it hard to be quiet in the way that they did listening to his early performances from the days of Freewheelin’ and Times…  And that of course is a good reason to change things: one has to take note of what the audience will do.

But… I don’t find the live version attractive, because what I value so much in the original is the simplicity of the overall sound, which fits so perfectly with the lyrics.

Thus in the original recording the lyrics

Beyond the sea - beyond the shifting sand
Key West is the gateway key
To innocence and purity

make absolute sense in the context of the music.  But with the extra variations from the instruments and the noise of the audience I find this is lost. In fact most of the meaning is, for me, lost.

But of course Bob can’t do much about the audience making noise, so instead perhaps I should focus on the accompaniment.  And this is where I think there is a problem.  If you care to listen to the original album recording again (I’ve put it below) you will hear once again how completely simple it is. But now on tour the instrumentalists still feel the need to do something, and this constant background seems to me to take away everything from the tranquility and gentleness of the original recording.

Obviously, sometimes such views can be misleading, arising simply because one likes what one hears first, but I’ve tried to put such thoughts out of my head.  Yet still that meandering lead guitar background, and the extra percussion, just seem to be wrong to me.

The album recording works, and is a beautiful piece because it stays with the essence of the singer meandering through his memories without any interruption.  And thus without the need for counter-melodies.  Nothing interrupts the daydreams and reminiscences – which is why the recorded performance works.

But of course, the audience demands variation, because that is what Bob has always delivered.  He tries to find this, but this time, for me (and as ever it is just for me) it really doesn’t work.

For me, what is so wonderful however is that I can now play the original, and just sit here, looking across to the tall trees wavering very gently in the wind, and know that although what I see is so different from what one sees in Key West, they are both the environments worth contemplating in calmness.

I sit here 4500 miles from Key West.  It is March.  Snow is forecast.  Beyond the house there is silence. The trees in my garden are sixty feet high – maybe more.  They sway in even the slightest breeze.  The music below is perfect.


  1. Key West is not all peaceful and tranquil as oft presented in the child-like themes of Romantic Transcendentalism.

    In the lyrics of Key West, individualistic original thoughts and collective religious beliefs clash.

    ie, beware of dogmatic religions, symbolized by the whore of Babylon, that take hold of your young arm, and lead astray your humanity:

    Twelve years old, and they put me in a suit
    Forced me to marry a prostitute
    (Bob Dylan: Key West)

  2. Key West, Island of Bones

    ‘The song is like a painting, you can’t see it all at once if you’re standing too close.’ Bob Dylan

    ‘Key West’ is, I think, not just the latest but also one of Dylan’s most extraordinarily potent enactments of an ‘imaginary’ and yet deeply authentic voice. In some ways the song calls to mind Matthew Arnold’s ‘The Scholar Gypsy’ (scholar/philosopher; gypsy/Pirate), a poem that itself echoes Keats’ ‘Nightingale’ (coincidentally a poem Christopher Ricks compares with ‘It’s Not Dark Yet’) in juxtaposing a bleak actuality and an imagined, or imaginary, immortality: ‘this strange disease of modern life…the infection of our mental strife’, alongside the inevitability of fading youth, highlight by contrast the gypsy’s ‘unconquerable hope’ in blissful solitude – forever. In Arnold’s narrative poem the scholar gypsy doesn’t speak, of course, whereas Dylan’s dramatic monologue enables his ‘philosopher Pirate’ to reflect, reminisce, assert and eulogise in his comparably – if not consistently – blissful state.


    The Pirate’s monologue seems to be, in part, a confession, prompted by an old man’s memory of McKinley’s assassination and his doctor/priest’s command:
    …McKinley – death is on the wall
    Say it to me if you got something to confess
    The prompt sets off a series of memories and reflections, calling to mind but far less bitter than T S Eliot’s ‘Gerontion’, a monologist wandering through a labyrinth of ‘windy spaces’ while he’s ‘read to by a boy’, where the Pirate has his radio for company and, perhaps, solace, as, he too wanders in, as Robert Glover has it – referring to the whole album – ‘a work of seemingly bottomless depth, a haunting liminal space where past, present and future overlap’.

  3. The live version sounds kind of hypnotic to me.

    But not as good as on the album, I do agree.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *