OLD BOB A NEW DYLAN FOR THESE TIMES
By Norman Warwick
The Times They Are a-Changin’ was Dylan´s third studio album released by Columbia Records on January 13, 1964. It was his first album to feature only original compositions, made up mostly of stark, sparsely arranged ballads concerning issues such as racism, poverty, and social change. I was twelve years old and was happy just to be Glad All Over with The Dave Clark Five, but somehow Dylan´s title track captured the spirit of social and political upheaval that characterized the 1960s, and by the time I turned eighteen in 1970 I was warning to anyone of an older vintage than I that The Times They Are A-Changin´.
Of course, we all know now that there was a word missing from Dylan´s song-title.
It might have been better called The Times They Are CONSTANTLY A-Changing. We might then have adopted a more patient approach, or perhaps even a more radical approach and avoided some of the mis-steps of our lifetimes. Now, though, that soundtrack to my life sounds as impelling as it did fifty years ago and the state of our world seems just as grave and eruptive.
Despite the hundreds of ´new Dylans´ identified by the media ever since the first and only Dylan emerged in the sixties of the previous century not one seems to have stepped forward and delivered the soundtrack to these current times a-changing as did Dylan back then.
This is despite the fact that according to Will Gompertz, Arts And Entertainments Officer with the BBC (@WillGompertzBBC) ´There is a new genre in pop music emerging. It’s not coming from the housing estates of Tottenham, or the studios of LA. It hasn’t stumbled out of the clubs of Ibiza, or drifted into mainstream from the back streets of Rio. It isn’t radical or exciting or rebellious or loud. It is something else altogether: a form that has only just become possible, which is not down to technological progress, but the more mundane inevitability of the ageing process.´
Gompertz reminds us that ´the baby-faced pop pioneers of yore; the beautiful young things who lit up a dreary post-war world, are coming to the end of their long and winding roads.´
He suggests these artists are now walking an ´untrodden path´.
He goes on to say ´there are no precedents. It is up to those original trailblazers to define the aesthetics of an elderly star’s final act.´
Those hunters coming home from the hills today are, however, following some fairly fresh tracks whilst doing so. Johnny Cash with his Rick Rubin-produced American Recordings series, particularly American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002), left some clues to follow with his take on contemporary pop. Stripped back and raw, his voice was fluid, but had gained a gravitas and resonance that gave the songs a melancholic beauty and a, somehow humble, omniscience.
Gompertz reminds us that Bobby Womack went down a similar hip-collaboration route for his final album, The Bravest Man in the Universe (2012), made with Blur’s Damon Albarn and produced by Richard Russell. Womack’s voice has the same vintage wine vibe as that of Cash, ´but this time,´ says Gompertz, ´it’s the sound of sixties soul distilled through decades of hard living and regret.´
He goes on to eulogise David Bowie’s Blackstar (2016), released on his 69th birthday, two days before he died, saying the album consolidated the aesthetics of the late-career-pop-album just as Rembrandt’s final paintings set the standard for an ageing artist’s final flourish. It was nostalgic, prophetic, and philosophical.
As was Leonard Cohen’s You Want it Darker, which came out later in the year. Wistfulness, wisdom, and vocal character rather than dynamic range, appear to be the dominant themes of this new category.
They are all there to be heard in Marianne Faithfull’s Negative Capability (2018), in which she covers It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue, written by her old friend Bob Dylan, the 2016 Nobel Laureate
Now, though, against a cinema-scape of Me Too, Black Lives Matter and statues being torn down by throwing a noose around their necks, a new Bob Dylan has finally emerged, and this one, in a phrase that was used in all those early episodes of West Wing, ´ís the real deal.´ Of course, he isn´t a new Bob Dylan, but is very much the original Bob Dylan disguised as a waiter pouring new wine from old bottles.
Rough and Rowdy Ways (left) is the 39th studio album by American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, released on June 19, 2020, through Columbia Records. It is Dylan’s first album of original songs since his 2012 album Tempest, following a trio of albums that covered traditional pop standards. Rough And Rowdy Ways, however, slips comfortably into conversation with those artists, Johnny Cash, Bowie, Leonard Cohen and Marianne Faithful, mentioned earlier by Will Gompertz. What these artists have in common, is that they have all delivered at least one seminal album earlier in their careers. Their places in rock history are assured and it might be argued that none of them has ever had what Cohen might have called called ´the gift of a golden voice´ at any stage in those careers.
Nevertheless, when recording later albums, they had no need to try to impress or please. On none of their latest albums was any one of them seeking to add a spoonful of sugar to a weary, limited voice or occasionally garbled words. Maybe we don´t expect sage septuagenarians to deliver their pearls of wisdom in smooth talk?
If truth is the talisman, the BBC arts editor suggests artists of a certain age should just tell it like it is.
The track I Contain Multitudes (note the double edge of that verb, by the way) not only shows Dylan giving open ended answers to the open ended questions we ask of him but also offering a chance for us to listen in at the confessional box as he delivers a folky lyric and tune about his nature and influences.
Gompertz describes it as ´William Blake, The Rolling Stones, Anne Frank, Beethoven, Chopin and Indiana Jones all name-checked in a lyrical story told in a musically simple song about a complex man, which opens with these words:´
Today, tomorrow, and yesterday, too
The flowers are dyin’ like all things do
It is interesting to note the name of William Blake on that list. Dylan’s Visions Of Sin, a 2004 book by Christopher Ricks, a British poetry scholar and literary critic, considers the songs of Bob Dylan as works of literature. Ricks’ analysis of Dylan’s songs is organized around the Christian theological categories of the seven deadly sins, four virtues, and three graces and he offers several compare and contrast examples of the wrtinggs of Dylan and William Blake the seventeenth century English poet and visionary. Perhaps Dylan is in fact, the ´new Blake.´
Later, we get an early taste of Dylan´s self-deprecating humour and constant cultural references (David Bowie in this instance) that are present throughout the Rough And Rowdy Ways album:
Oh, while I cannot frolic with all the young dudes
I contain multitudes
My own musical fetish is for songs that reference other songs and artists and this song certainly makes interesting listening for me. It’s a long time ago that I wrote a book called Their Names Fell Out In Conversation, which explored this phenomenon. Maybe a second edition with added information is due.
The second track on Rough And Rowdy Ways, is False Prophet – a slow, bluesy number – and has a heavier tone that sees Gompertz accurately describe Bob as ´growly and Socratic´, proclaiming he is an…
Enemy of the unlived meaningless life
I ain’t no false prophet
I just know what I know
I go where only the lonely go.
The author ponders on whether Dylan might have felt any imposed or self-generated pressure, given that as far as we know these are the first he´s penned since being announced a Nobel Laureate,. If there is was any extra pressure we might assume it has drawn from Dylan his best form. It is becoming increasingly difficult, one would think, for artists to produce a lyric nowadays that can command audience attention in the modern multi-sensory, multi-media world, and there seems to be some difference of opinion between the critics with Gompertz saying Dylan succeeds on most tracks in delivering lyrics to consider, rather than to dismiss.
The Mail On Sunday, however, suggested that Dylan has little original left to say, and seems content to re-hash lines from obscure writings by others. That word re-hash sounds pejorative, as if of somebody making a fry up from last night´s. haute cuisine. Dylan doesn´t do that. His wide, fathomless knowledge of music of all ages and genres helps him select a line that he can change sufficiently to make it his own whilst leaving it sufficiently intact for anyone with a similar knowledge to identify the source, and then to consider all the reasons Dylan might have chosen that source.
No one who has ever listened to an edition of The Bob Dylan Radio Hour, (left) or who has ever bought a compilation album under that title will have any doubt of how encyclopaedic is that knowledge of Dylan´s: a knowledge fed and watered by his true love of the music he enjoys and admiration for those who created it. The sleeve notes of one of the Best Of cd compilations from the programme, after all, boasted that it contained ´blues, r&b, rockabilly, doo wop, soul, jazz, rock ´n roll and country !
Gompertz describes My Own Version Of You as a low tempo, rockabilly-infused track that sees the singer in the role of Victor Frankenstein; he’s taking ´blood from a cactus, gunpowder from ice´, and ´going to bring someone to life in more ways than one”. ´
´It’s a slippery, elliptical song,´ says Gompertz, ´that is at once a million miles from Blowin’ in the Wind, while at the same time being so clearly from the same mind with its themes of identity and existence and time. All of which are revisited in track five, Black Rider, a quieter song with a Spanish guitar, which reflects on a life on the road.´
As on much of Rough and Rowdy Ways, it reminds I am reminded here of Tom Waits’ throatily-sung album called Black Rider (1993): not only the name but also the coarseness and urgency of Dylan’s delivery.
Goodbye Jimmy Reed is a storming 12-bar blues number, which is as close to classic Dylan as the album gets – there’s even the squeal of a harmonica. It is also the most obviously autographical song, although of course Jimmy Reed was a musician who created a body of work Dylan will be very familiar with, lending to the authenticity of the sound here, with its hint of old scores not yet settled:
You won’t amount to much, the people said
‘Cause I didn’t play guitar behind my head
Again, the writing is terrific. Although Gompertz reveals that, for his money, Leonard Cohen was the better poet of the two folksters, he concedes that the Canadian didn’t have Dylan’s cantankerous edge, which leads to unforgettable lines such as this from Goodbye Jimmy Reed: I need you like my head needs a noose.
Even so, I wouldn´t agree in general terms with Gompertz´s argument here. It may be true that Cohen made better use of the conceit of a poem (as in Alexandra Leaving) and had neat lines in irony about being born with the gift of a golden voice, it might alos be worth considering whether, somehow Dylan (still) writes songs he sets to poetry and Cohen wrote poetry he set to song.
I am of the opinion that, generally speaking, the meaning of a Cohen lyric / poem will yield and reveal itself to the reader and it is perhaps a failure, or at least an irritation, of Dylan´s work that it can seem to sometimes seem so dense and tangled that it cannot be unravelled. On the other hand, we can take such great delight in ´creating´ our own meanings of those songs.
The most distinctive song on the album, says Gompertz, is Mother Of Muses, a lament that in its hymnal tones has a beauty that seems to be rendered untouchable by hearing Dylan reaching for the high notes. In fact Gompertz draws a Shakespearian comparison here, between Dylan, a regal voice of pop facing up to his fading faculties, and King Lear. It’s Whitman-esque, deeply romantic piece is on one level an ode to America quality, in which the song´s narrator tells us he is falling in love with Calliope (the Greek muse of epic poetry).
Mother of Muses, wherever you are
I’ve already outlived my life by far
are lines which reveal the honesty of the teller and yet this love affair with an ancient Greek muse lends support to my comments about the complexity of Dylan´s work.
Disc 1 finishes with two long songs before we listen to disc two with a 16-minute disc 2, a previously released track called Murder Most Foul, in which Dylan revisits the assassination of JFK. This a song that so much sates my thirst for those ´names falling out in conversation´ that Steve Bewick and I will shortly bring you our script and playlist for a proposed radio programme, introducing as many of the songs and artists, that time will allow, as mentioned by Dylan. This song is an incredible litany of the movers and shakers and music makers and events of the twentieth century. It is a throwback, whilst sounding brand new, to the beat poets, and is somehow as poppy as Billy Joel´s We Didn´t Start The Fire .
Rough and Rowdy Ways, as a double album release, therefore takes its place on the pantheon of late works making up this new old-age, age-old pop star genre; it is exceptional, and we might be justified in saying Dylan has fulfilled his promise to write his ´masterpiece´. What is certain is that, with nobody stepping forward to claim the title over the last half a century, we will soon be hearing suggestions that the old Bob is surely likely to be ´The New Dylan !´
ROUGH AND ROWDY WAYS by Bob Dylan
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 (Philosopher Pirate)
1. Murder Most Foul (entire disc)