by David Wolf (dedicated to the memory of Peter Stone Brown)
“I’m a man of contradictions.
I’m a man of many moods.”
— Bob Dylan, “I Contain Multitudes,” Rough and Rowdy Ways
“. . . I have to be to be honest, I just got to be,
as I got to admit that the man who shot President Kennedy,
I don’t know exactly where — what he thought he was doing,
but I got to admit honestly that I too — I saw some of myself in him.
I don’t think it would have gone — I don’t think it could go that far.
But I got to stand up and say I saw things that he felt, in me
— not to go that far and shoot.”
— Bob Dylan, ECLU Bill of Rights dinner, December 13, 1963
Twenty-two-year old Bob Dylan, the “king” of folk, was well on his way to superstardom when the Emergency Civil Liberties Union (“ECLU”) honored him with the Tom Paine award at its annual Bill of Rights dinner in December 1963. A seemingly inebriated Dylan then gave a rambling speech that, among other things, disparaged those in attendance as bald old fogies and empathized with Lee Harvey Oswald, who had allegedly assassinated President Kennedy three weeks earlier. By late 1964 Dylan was done accepting awards and was just about finished with his folk “phase,” and his attitudinal change probably derived at least in part from his experience with the ECLU. In the wake of the Tom Paine travesty, Dylan wrote a stream of consciousness poem “explaining” himself to the ECLU, and apart from what appears to be an allusion to the dinner in “As I Went Out One Morning” (“…to breathe the air around Tom Paine’s”) on John Wesley Harding, he never addressed it again.
Rough and Rowdy Ways (R&RW) is unique. It’s a double-CD but disc two contains just one song, “Murder Most Foul.” At 17 minutes, it’s Dylan’s longest (the final two songs on R&RW clock in at nearly thirty minutes combined) and that Dylan offers it as a stand alone disc is a statement in itself, its only analog being “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” which received its own side on Blonde on Blonde (a double album, back in the vinyl days). Dylan obviously views it as something special, perhaps even a magnum opus. Indeed, there’s reason to believe it’s a completely separate thing from the rest of R&RW: The physical disc itself, though labeled “disc two,” contains no reference to the album title — just “Murder Most Foul,” as if it is the album title. Moreover, there’s a photo of JFK along with the name of the song on the back cover of the CD case, again, with no reference to R&RW. It’s almost as if “Murder Most Foul” is its own album, even if officially it acts as the closing song of R&RW.
Far be it from me to psychoanalyze Bob, but we all have those cringey moments, where we’ve said or done something that, when it comes to mind, can make you shudder, years or even decades later. I don’t know that the Tom Paine award dinner was such a moment for Dylan, but if for just one time I could stand inside his shoes, that’s one I’d want to walk back. I’m not going to suggest “Murder Most Foul” is a conscious or subconscious attempt to compensate for regrettable comments made as a 22-year old, but it’s impossible for me to ignore Tom Paine in the context of the new song, and I’m equally certain Bob Dylan had at least thought about that night at some point in his creative process.
“Murder Most Foul” was the first song Dylan released during the pandemic, to the surprise and delight of fans, and though I don’t believe it reaches the heights of his other “long” songs (e.g., “Desolation Row” or “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”), it casts me under its spell, stops time, and before I know it, the seventeen minutes have passed and it’s over. It begins with the JFK assassination and its aftermath (entering Oliver Stone territory) before veering off into a stream of cultural and song references. Though I believe it is largely intended as a stand alone piece, there’s plenty of connective tissue to the rest of R&RW.
R&RW is, above all, an album of God/s, presidents, and kings, who, far from being viewed in a hierarchy, are operating on similar planes. Relatedly and in ways both obvious and, as I hope to demonstrate, not so obvious, R&RW is a religious album: In particular, after all these years, that sign on the cross still troubles Bob. We visit dark and violent territory (“you won’t find any happiness here — no happiness or joy”), the album is rough and rowdy, filled with guns, knives, swords, and other assorted weapons, often put to use. There are also numerous Shakespeare references. All of this and more is present in the opening verse of “Murder Most Foul.”
The phrase “murder most foul” is found in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, so we’re already hitting on themes before even getting to the lyrics. “Murder Most Foul” begins: “’Twas a dark day in Dallas, November ’63, a day that will live on in infamy” and time itself is an album motif, with several songs laying out a temporal beginning. For instance, the opening song, “I Contain Multitudes,” (with a spare musical arrangement similar to “Murder Most Foul”) starts with, “Today, tomorrow, and yesterday too, the flowers are dying like all things do,” a line that prepares listeners for what’s coming: All things die, including presidents, kings, and gods. The infamy line is notable because it is quoting another president, FDR (referring to the attack on Pearl Harbor).
The first verse goes on to say JFK was “led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb,” which recalls the ultimate human sacrifice and martyr, Jesus. (For the record and so there are no misconceptions, I’m a Jewish atheist and am responding to what I’m hearing; I don’t know what Dylan’s religious beliefs are and don’t look to him for validation of mine. Further, I believe some of the best performances of his career were in 1979, during his Christian phase, though I don’t “feel” any of it as a believer.) There’s also an allusion to Lyndon Johnson (who’s directly named later) and a reference to JFK — president, martyr — as king (“the day they blew out the brains of the king”). Another president and martyr, Abe Lincoln (assassinated on Good Friday), later makes a sly appearance (“Lincoln limousine”). I note references to sight also fill the album, including in the final line of the first “Murder Most Foul” verse (“right there in front of everyone’s eyes”).
The JFK/Christ analogy might seem a stretch based on just the sacrificial lamb line, but an entire verse follows that makes it more explicit. After again labeling JFK a “human sacrifice,” there’s something about the age of the anti-Christ having just begun. Earlier in the same verse, the narrator claims to have watched the Zapruder film “thirty-three times” (“maybe more”), which also happens to be the age Jesus is believed to have been martyred.
The mixing of gods, presidents, and kings happens with frequency. Dylan himself was known as the king of folk and, then, later as a Messianic figure, a designation he shunned, claiming he never wanted to be a Messiah — he just wanted to be Elvis (yet another “king” and someone who makes an appearance on R&RW). Dylan might not have wanted to be a Messiah but the characters in these songs, who aren’t him but on some level he can’t help but represent, often seem to be claiming the same space as gods, presidents, and kings.
R&RW opens with “I Contain Multitudes,” an interesting title and line (borrowed from Walt Whitman). First, I’d guess it wasn’t lost on Dylan that the title could be read as a reference to his relationship with his fans (i.e., Dylan wards off multitudes; perhaps there’s an echo of, “a million faces at my feet”). Second, though not a direct reference to God, the idea of containing multitudes within oneself — or, in essence, containing everything — is at least God-like. Third, ”contain” has a dual meaning within the lyrics: these are things contained within the narrator but they can also be read as things he controls or restrains.
What are some of the things contained within the narrator? First, he’s “got a tell-tale heart, like Mr. Poe.” As with the other motifs, there are a lot of hearts floating around. It’s tempting to read the “tell-tale” line as a reference to the narrator’s heart (as in his heart reveals all), but I think the better interpretation views it as: “a Tell-Tale Heart, like Mr. Poe,” i.e., as a reference to the title of Poe’s short story: The narrator is saying he too has an enduring, immortal work, the likes of Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart. This interpretation is reenforced when the narrator says he’ll play Beethoven’s sonatas and Chopin’s preludes, along with an earlier allusion to Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience (a work about contradictions), all things contained within him, like Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart. The heart itself comes up again, when the narrator tells the greedy old wolf that he’ll reveal just the hateful part, which only makes sense if he’s capable of keeping any other part of it hidden — or if his heart itself is not a tell-tale one.
Contradictions abound. Things that are lost are made good again. (Note the lost things are not, as we might expect, found, but are instead made good. This slight defiance of expectations happens again and again on R&RW.) We have a narrator that rollicks and frolics but carries four pistols, two large knives, and will see to it that no love is left behind. He sleeps with life and death in the same bed. And somehow he’s just like Anne Frank and Indiana Jones. (Maybe it’s worth mentioning Anne Frank was a real person, a victim of the Holocaust, immortalized through history, whereas Indiana Jones is a fictional character who hunted Nazis and is immortalized through the silver screen.)
R&RW can also enter some risqué, almost Basement Tapes-esque territory, as (I think) it does here, with what appears to be a fellatio reference:
Get lost, madam, get up off my knee
Keep your mouth away from me
“Madam” can be read in more than one way, including as a reference to the head of a brothel. Get up off my knee? Keep your mouth away from me? For what it’s worth, this, by my count, would be Dylan’s third fellatio reference and the first one in over forty years, as “Tangled Up in Blue” contains the, “felt a little uneasy when she bent down to tie the laces of my shoe” verse, and “No Time to Think” has the less ambiguous, “In the federal city you’ve been blown and shown pity.”
The musical arrangement, as mentioned earlier, is spare and reminiscent of “Murder Most Foul” and the three albums of standards (the, for lack of a better term, “Sinatra trinity”) Bob has released since Tempest. Those albums are a bridge to R&RW, with Shadows in the Night receiving shout-outs in the form of references to “Some Enchanted Evening” (“Black Rider”) and “Autumn Leaves” (“Crossing the Rubicon”). The music and singing on much of the album brings the Sinatra Trinity strongly enough to mind that I’m tempted to go back and listen to them all again, or at least to Triplicate, which I never gave the time it deserved.
Dylan’s voice goes from sounding like it has on the recent albums to quite a (great) Tempesty growl on “False Prophet,” and with the band hitting a tight bluesy groove, it’s one hell of a song. Dylan sounds great, and here we have an illustration of Dylan’s delivery — the words and even syllables he chooses to emphasize — working magic that’s actually not present in the words alone.
This, for instance, doesn’t jump off the page:
Well I’m the enemy of treason, an enemy of strife
I’m the enemy of the unlived, meaningless life
I ain’t no false prophet, I just know what I know
I go where only the lonely can go
Hearing Dylan sing those lines, though, the way he breaks up “unlived, meaningless life,” makes it sound like poetry.
There are echoes of earlier work, particularly “Jokerman,” which was also (maybe) about a false prophet. Or was it about Jesus? Or Dylan himself? Those same questions run through “False Prophet,” but unlike “Jokerman,” it’s told in the first person. Though the song is titled “False Prophet,” the narrator insists throughout that he “ain’t no false prophet,” a double negative that in the vernacular is claiming not to be a false prophet but when unpacked is literally saying the exact opposite: “I am a false prophet.” (There are echoes of “Long Time Gone” too: “But I know I ain’t no prophet, and I ain’t no prophet’s son…”) The Dylan mythos often portrays him as some kind of prophet (even when derided as the “Prophet of Profit”), which is something that hangs over both “Jokerman” and now “False Prophet.” The cool encircling breeze reminds me of the hurricane in “Jokerman,” along with an opening that sees “another ship going out,” which calls to mind the distant ships sailing into the mist in “Jokerman.”
There are several Biblical allusions. There are women guiding the narrator through the underworld. The reference to the garden makes me think of Eden and the bride at the end is almost surely the “Bride of Christ.” There’s the Holy Grail, a seemingly non-literal reference to the Devil, and then, immediately, the city of God (on a hill, alluding to the Sermon on the Mount).
Like “I Contain Multitudes” and “Murder Most Foul,” “False Prophet” begins temporally (and as in many of R&RW’s songs, with a reference to a heart):
Another day that don’t end, another ship going out
Another day of anger, bitterness, and doubt
I know how it happened, I saw it begin
I opened my heart to the world and the world came in
The prophet clearly views opening his heart to the world as having been a mistake and is now filled with anger, bitterness, and doubt, sounding a bit like a fallen angel.
There’s a lot here, including a connection to JFK and “Murder Most Foul”:
I’m the first among equals, second to none
The last of the best, you can bury the rest
Bury ‘em naked, with their silver and gold
Put ‘em six feet under and then pray for their souls
The prophet claims to be “second to none,” the first time Dylan has used that expression in sixty years of songwriting, and he uses it a second time, to describe JFK, in “Murder Most Foul” (“Was a hard act to follow, second to none”) — making up for lost time with two appearances on the same album. The prophet says he’s here to “bring vengeance on somebody’s head,” which could be read as a reference to blowing “the head” off of JFK, and thereby collecting on JFK’s “unpaid debts.”
I find the sixth verse especially intriguing:
I’ve searched the world over, for the Holy Grail
I sing songs of love, I sing songs of betrayal
Don’t care what I drink, don’t care what I eat
I climbed a mountain of swords on my bare feet
In addition to the aforementioned Holy Grail reference, there’s the recurring slight defiance of expectations, as the prophet sings songs of love and songs of betrayal. Love and betrayal can be viewed as contradictions but they are not opposites. Discounting the necessity to find a rhyme for “grail,” what I expect to hear after “songs of love” is “songs of hate,” an expectation that is, uhh, betrayed by the appearance of “betrayal.” “Don’t care what I drink, don’t care what I eat” reminds me of “Standing in the Doorway”/“The Moonshiner” (I’ll eat when I’m hungry, drink when I’m dry”), and “I climbed a mountain of swords on my bare feet” is a terrific image (and the first of R&RW’s references to swords).
The song ends with the prophet saying he can’t remember when he was born and has forgotten when he died. Where and when is this occurring? Hell? After death? I’m not quite sure what to make of this (false?) prophet; based on my experience with (the) “Jokerman” (am I referring to the song or to Dylan or both?), I probably never will.
But it’s one hell of a song.
“My Own Version of You,” a quasi-retelling of the Frankenstein story, follows. Its opening verse:
All through the summers, into January
I’ve been visiting morgues and monasteries
Looking for the necessary body parts
Limbs and livers and brains and hearts
I’ll bring someone to life, is what I wanna do
I wanna create my own version of you
Continuing with the album’s motifs, there’s a temporal beginning (note “summers” is plural, so the narrator has been working on this for years, not months) and a heart reference. He’s literally trying to “bring someone to life” — or, in other words, is acting as God. The line “cross your heart” appears later — in addition to making for a second heart in the song, it’s a Jesus connection (with several references to crosses yet to come). “Can you look at my face with your sightless eye” precedes “cross your heart,” hitting on the sight theme. The second verse states it was the “winter of my discontent,” which is another Shakespeare/King allusion (Richard III), with “Julius Caesar” and “to be or not to be” (a contradiction) used later. The Julius Caesar line is a particular delight:
I’ll pick a number between one and two
And I ask myself, “What would Julius Caesar do?”
I ask myself, “What would Julius Caesar do?” Interesting question, one that defies expectations by upending a cliche (Dylan’s been twisting cliches his entire career). When making a moral decision, or, even better, a decision about bringing someone to life, would you ask yourself, what would Julius Caesar do? I’ve never previously heard that question, but what I have heard, countless times, is “What would Jesus do?”
You’re attempting to bring someone to life (in more ways than one), as with Jesus and Lazarus — where would Julius Caesar fit in that equation? Nowhere, but his initials, J.C. do fit, as does “Divus Julius,” or the belief that he literally was a god. Julius Caesar is a stand-in for Jesus, and, when he is again alluded to in “Crossing the Rubicon,” it’s in a deeply Christian context. “My Own Version of You” also contains references to St. John the Apostle, St. Peter, Judgment Day, and Armageddon that strengthen the link to Jesus.
The song features one of my favorite lyrics on the album:
Step right into the burning hell
Where some of the best known enemies of mankind dwell
Mr. Freud with his dreams, Mr. Marx with his ax
See the rawhide lash rip the skin from their backs
The way he sings, “see the rawhide lash rip the skin from their backs,” gives me goosebumps (and makes for another reference to sight). Nobody sings Dylan like Dylan; if you claim to appreciate the songwriting but not his voice, you don’t get it. The image of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx as enemies of mankind burning in hell is a loaded one, but I don’t view it as necessarily reflecting Dylan’s views of them; this is the narrator’s description — someone who’s likely a madman and also probably unreliable as a provider of facts.
“My Own Version of You” might be more metaphorical than literal, and the “creation” the narrator is bringing to life, in more ways than one, using all of his powers, turning back the years, could be the very album we’re listening to — or maybe the “you” of the title is Bob Dylan himself, brought back to life after a nearly decade long absence of new songwriting. That this man of many moods does it with laughter and tears offers yet one more contradiction.
Next comes one of the two best songs on R&RW, “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You.” Upon first listening, something about it brought me to tears; I’m not sure exactly why but it was partially due to the stark realization that Bob Dylan, at 79-years-old, is still capable of creating something so beautiful and pure.
One can think of the “you” of the title as a woman and “Made Up My Mind” as a love song, but R&RW’s themes suggest it might be addressed to God/s. Near the end, Dylan sings, “Take me out traveling, you’re a traveling man,” (two uses of “traveled” and one “traveler” follow, making no fewer than five forms of “travel” in the final four verses) which, if spoken to “you,” would mean it’s a male. In contrast, he follows with, “I’ll go far away from home with her,” and if you is a female entity, I’d suggest it could be Calliope, the Mother of Muses, who appears a few songs later.
In addition, there’s the fifth verse:
If I had the wings of a snow white dove
I’d preach the Gospel, the Gospel of Love
A love so real, a love so true
I’ve made up my mind to give myself to you
The “Gospel of Love” is a phrase used to describe the Gospel of John. The love so real, so true, is Jesus’s love for humanity, humanity’s love for Jesus, and the love humans (Christians specifically) have for others (or are at least supposed to have for others).
The final verse begins:
I’ve traveled from the mountains to the sea
I hope that the gods go easy with me
Here we have the slightest defiance of expectations in the form of the word “with” that is in fact most meaningful. What I expect to hear instead of “with me” is the hope the gods go easy “on me,” that is, if gods are viewed as existing on a higher plane from the narrator. Let’s say, for instance, you’re a convicted criminal defendant: You hope the judge goes easy on you; you’d never say, “I hope the judge goes easy with me.” The phrase “easy with me” connotes a different relationship, like an apprenticeship: When someone is teaching you something new, something you’ll use alongside that person, that’s when you request, “go easy with me.” The narrator doesn’t view the gods as standing in judgment of him, but rather as beings on a similar plane who are willing to take him under their snow white wings.
“Made Up My Mind” continues with the sight theme: “I saw the first fall of snow”; “I saw the flowers come and go” (the flowers that die, like all things do); and “My eye’s like a shooting star, it looks at nothing here or there, looks at nothing near or far.”
Finally, one more line hits hard: “Lot of people gone, lot of people I knew.” There’s a short but pregnant pause between “people” and “I” that sounds as if Dylan could break down on the spot thinking about the departed (perhaps recently deceased friends and contemporaries such as Leonard Cohen and Tom Petty are on his mind).
“Black Rider” is next and its opening chords bring me to the American frontier — the Old West. The rider, all dressed in black, suggests Johnny Cash but what I hear in this song, and I don’t know whether it jibes with Dylan’s intentions, is BLACK LIVES MATTER (it’s worth mentioning “Murder Most Foul” refers to the Black Wall Street Massacre: “Take me back to Tulsa, to the scene of the crime”). Though “Black Rider” is not destined to become the anthem forebearers like “Blowin’ in the Wind” were, it’s as much a song for its time (ironically considering it feels like a nineteenth century setting) as those early 1960s finger-pointin’ songs were of their time.
“Black Rider” begins:
Black rider, black rider, you’ve been living too hard
Been up all night, have to stay on your guard
The path that you’re walking, too narrow to walk
Every step of the way, another stumbling block
The road that you’re on, same road that you know
Just not the same as it was a minute ago
Note another R&RW temporal start (“been up all night”). The rider has been living hard and must remain ever vigilant. When he advances a step, another stumbling block is placed in front of him. Though his path seems to change, it’s superficial and not fundamental change. It doesn’t take a giant leap to read this as an allegory of US racial relations.
The third verse is rich:
Black rider, black rider, all dressed in black
I’m walking away, you trying to make me look back
My heart is at rest, I’d like to keep it that way
I don’t want to fight, at least not today
Go home to your wife, stop visiting mine
One of these days, I’ll forget to be kind
Here we have heart and sight references, with the latter — “you trying to make me look back” — holding a special place in the Dylan canon. Not only is there the line, “She’s got everything she needs, she’s an artist, she don’t look back” in “She Belongs to Me,” D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary of Dylan’s 1965 tour of England is titled DONT LOOK BACK. Dylan himself lives the doctrine, at least in terms of his art. He doesn’t like discussing his songs generally, but he’s especially averse to discussing older ones. He refused to play protest material for several years, and in 1979 and 1980, he refused to play songs that predated his Christian period. He at times moves from phase to phase with stunning speed, leaving the preceding phase in the dust. In short, “look back” is a loaded term in the Dylan lexicon.
I read the third verse as white America’s reaction (or at least the proverbial “Southern Man’s”) to black America’s weeping (“How many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry?”). We’re fine, we enjoy the status quo, you’re trying to make us come to terms with an inconvenient history; we’re not in the mood to debate this, we’re the ones in power, you’re out of luck.
“Go home to your wife, stop visiting mine; one of these days, I’ll forget to be kind” alludes to that particularly Jim Crow form of terror, where black men were lynched in service of “protecting” white women (whom they allegedly made passes at). Dylan wrote a song, “The Death of Emmett Till,” describing one such murder (fourteen-year-old Till was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 after being accused of offending a white woman; his killers were acquitted).
After threatening, in the penultimate verse, to use a sword (another sword appearance) to hack off the rider’s arm if he (my reading) persists in fighting for his rights, the final verse starts:
Black rider, black rider, hold it right there
The size of your cock will get you nowhere
This stood out more than any other line the first time I listened to the album. “The size of your cock will get you nowhere” seemed again to visit bawdy Basement Tapes territory, but, reading it in synergy with the stop visiting my wife line, it carries more power, as it plays on a racial stereotype (i.e., black males have large penises) and the deep-seated roots of racism itself: white fragility. The fear of black male sexuality was at the heart of lynchings like that of Emmett Till, and when I hear this line in the context of this song, I can’t help but draw the connection.
Or maybe it’s merely a song about a black-clad rider with an enormous penis. In the words of one of mankind’s best known enemies, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
A rocker, “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” follows, and this is strong rock ’n roll from anyone, let alone a 79-year-old. When things return to normal, if Bob ever returns to tour (not something I’m taking as a given in a COVID world), I could see it becoming a crowd pleasing staple, like “Summer Days.” There are a lot of highs on this album, “GJR” among them.
In addition to being its most overtly religious song (God do I love the way he snarls “puritanical tone”), it also subtly plays with R&RW’s themes. In “Mother of Muses,” which follows “GJR,” Dylan discusses generals who “cleared the path for Presley to sing,” a path likewise cleared by Jimmy Reed, one of the most influential bluesmen in history. If there’s no Jimmy Reed, there’s no Elvis. If we were to dig deeper, we’d reach the cultural appropriation territory of “Love and Theft.” As he did with “Blind Willie McTell,” Dylan is acknowledging not only a personal debt, but a historical one.
Despite the serious undertones there’s a lot of fun stuff. Dylan’s penchant for playing with cliches returns, twice, first with, “put a jewel in your crown” (playing on “crown jewel” and implying Reed too was a king), and, in the next line, “They threw everything at me, everything in the book” (playing on “throwing the book” at someone). The narrator has nothing to fight back with, “but a butcher’s hook,” a hook not only being a contraption for hanging meat but also a kind of punch (developed in boxing, a sport Dylan has practiced and shown interest in).
The penultimate verse begins:
Transparent woman in a transparent dress
Suits you well, I must confess
I’ll break open your grapes, I’ll suck out the juice
I need you like my head needs a noose
A verse of contradictions, as it’s both fun and serious (Schrödinger’s lyric). Breaking open the grapes and sucking out the juice of a woman in a see-through dress sounds dirty — a line that could derive from the Basement Tapes (maybe Mrs. Henry, still cute after all these years and still friends with Bob, is the woman referred to here). I laugh in acknowledgment that at 79 Dylan still shows this kind of friskiness, but then comes, “I need you like my head needs a noose,” and though delivered jokingly, it carries weight when considered in light of the issues of racial terror (a noose is still a powerful symbol of hate, as we’ve learned in recent months) and cultural appropriation raised not only in “Black Rider” and “GJR,” but in “Mother of Muses,” too.
“Mother of Muses” is another major song and one of the most personal and revelatory of Dylan’s career. Delving into the heart (hearts appear in both the first and second verses) of his creative process, he seeks the aid of a Muse (thematically, a demigoddess), whom he specifically names in the fourth verse:
I’m falling in love with Calliope
She don’t belong to anyone, why not give her to me?
She’s speaking to me, speaking with her eyes
I’ve grown so tired of chasing lies
Mother of Muses, wherever you are
I’ve already outlived my life by far
Calliope is the patron of epic poetry and it’s little wonder Bob Dylan would turn to her for inspiration; I believe he did so as well in “Girl from the Red River Shore” (for what it’s worth, he sings, “Take me to the river” in the final verse of “Mother of Muses”) and that he’s sought her help repeatedly for the last sixty years. When Calliope speaks to him, with her eyes (sight again), he can write elegantly, as opposed to “chasing lies” during periods when he might be writing, but it’s uninspired (“Mother of Muses, unleash your wrath; things I can’t see, they’re blocking my path”). Dylan, truly blessed as the greatest singer-songwriter ever to walk the planet, has been recognized as a Nobel Laureate, and has, he knows, already outlived his life by far. Decades ago he said the world would go on just fine if no more songs were written, by him or anyone else. Despite this, he still searches for, and finds, inspiration.
In the fifth verse, Dylan requests the Mother of Muses, “forge my identity from the inside out; you know what I’m talking about.” This line describes the essence of “Bob Dylan,” an identity “forged” (as in fabricated, in more ways than one) by a young Robert Zimmerman. Dylan has said his songs have always existed, even before there was a Bob Dylan, and the mystery of identity is a recurring theme in his work. He remarked, “I change during the course of a day. I wake and I’m one person, and when I go to sleep I know for certain I’m somebody else.” When I describe “Mother of Muses” as a most personal and revelatory work, I mean it: We learn more about Bob Dylan in this song than we ever could from any quasi-sincere interview or partially plagiarized “autobiography.”
One final thing we learn about Dylan is he’s a student of history, specifically of the US Civil War and World War II:
Sing of Sherman, Montgomery, and Scott
And of Zhukov, and Patton, and the battles they fought
Who cleared the path for Presley to sing
Who carved the path for Martin Luther King
Who did what they did and went on their way
Man, I could tell their stories all day
Why refer to generals in a song about his creative process? They inspire Dylan, in ways similar to Calliope. This, however, is no scornful “With God on Our Side”; there is in fact a distinct lack of rote memorization of names or of mythical US “MAGA” exceptionalism, and what is present is an implicit toppling of Confederate statues. Sing of Sherman, Montgomery, and Scott, from the Civil War. Note who’s missing: Robert E. Lee, who’s left to the dustbin of history. Sherman burned Atlanta to the ground. Montgomery was a staunch abolitionist who employed vicious tactics against slaveowners, and who among other things, partnered with Harriet Tubman to free slaves. Scott was a Virginia native who remained loyal to the Union during the war. Thus, they carved paths for Presley (who stole his act from black bluesmen) and Martin Luther King (two more kings: the king of rock ’n roll and Martin Luther King). When Dylan praises Zhukov and Patton, he’s iconoclastic as ever, informing us Russia was an integral partner in defeating WW II fascism — that the United States didn’t do it alone. (I can state with confidence no American middle- or high school student has ever been forced to memorize the name Zhukov.) Dylan says he could tell their stories all day, and I guarantee that’s true; if you meet Bob Dylan, you’ll have much greater success discussing battles and generals than you’ll find by bringing up his songs.
Another song with war (and more) on its mind is “Crossing the Rubicon,” which is musically uninteresting (it sounds just like “Cry a While,” which isn’t a compliment) but thematically dense. The title is a reference to Julius Caesar (R&RW’s second) and the lyrics again blur the lines between Caesar and Jesus. Caesar “crossed the Rubicon” on January 10, 49 B.C., leading to the Roman Civil War and Caesar’s assumption of dictatorial power (power beyond that of a king). The phrase “crossing the Rubicon” today means to pass a point of no return. In the context of this song, “crossing” contains connotations of Jesus.
The opening verse:
I crossed the Rubicon on the 14th day of the most dangerous month of the year
At the worst time, at the worst place, that’s all I seem to hear
I got up early so I could greet the Goddess of the Dawn
I painted my wagon, abandoned all hope, and I crossed the Rubicon
Another specific temporal start: the 14th day of the most dangerous month of the year. There are times the song appears to be a retelling of the historical event, but the date is the first indication it’s influenced but not bound by fact: Caesar crossed the Rubicon on January 10, not the 14th. There’s a dangerous month associated with Caesar, too, but it’s not January — it’s March, and the 14th is one day removed from its most dangerous day, the Ides of March.
The narrator awakens early (the time theme) to greet a Goddess (a deity). In the second verse, the Rubicon is described as “three miles north of purgatory, one step from the great beyond,” directing us away from the earthly realm (it’s later described as “between heaven and earth”). The narrator prays to the cross, bringing Jesus explicitly into the equation and placing the time period in A.D., not B.C., so we are clearly outside history. In the penultimate verse, the narrator, “feel[s] the Holy Spirit inside.” It all feels like a metaphor for Acts of the Apostles, with Julius Caesar again symbolizing Jesus.
The sight and heart themes are present too. The first is in the form of, “Show me one good man in sight that the sun shines down upon,” which makes me hear, “Ain’t No Man Righteous, No Not One” (and perhaps “sun” can instead be read as “Son,” as in Son of God). In the fifth verse, the narrator requests his heart be placed on a hill, “where some happiness I’ll find” (which is later contradicted by, “You won’t find any happiness here”).
Happiness is sought if not found in R&RW’s standout track, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” the final song on disc one. As in Time Out of Mind’s “Highlands,” Key West is both a literal destination and an otherworldly, almost heavenly, metaphor: Key West is the, “enchanted land”; “the gateway key to innocence and purity”; “the place to be if you’re looking for immortality”; it’s “paradise divine.” I see the “philosopher pirate” of the title as a young Robert Zimmerman, at home in Hibbing Minnesota, “searching for love [and finding] inspiration on that pirate radio station” (the pirate radio is a motif). Dylan (in a great lyric) cites other seminal inspirations:
I was born on the wrong side of the railroad track
Like Ginsberg, Corso, and Kerouac
Like Louis and Jimmy and Buddy and all of the rest
I’ve grappled with “Key West” since my first listening and still don’t have a handle on it. Two more presidents are named, McKinley (assassinated) and Truman. I love Dylan’s vocal performance, which is why it’s to me the best song on the album, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the way he sings, “Bougainvillea blooming,” which leaves my jaw agape (he still has it). There’s one last lyric impossible to overlook but that I won’t even attempt to interpret:
Twelve-years-old, they put me in a suit
Forced me to marry a prostitute
There were gold fringes on her wedding dress
That’s my story, but not where it ends
She’s still cute, and we’re still friends
Down on the bottom, way down in Key West
This review is dedicated to Peter Stone Brown, who passed away in October. As it’s being posted on his blog, many readers knew Peter (PSB for short), but for those who didn’t, Peter was one of a kind and in my estimation the foremost Dylan authority in the world — our Godfather Brando. I’ve cried listening to the album and thinking of Peter. I know he’d have loved it and written the most penetrating and insightful review, with references upon references I’m certain won’t be discovered for years in his absence. I weep knowing how much he’d have loved R&RW and in recognition of the enormity of the loss to the Dylan community. I’ve had a weird, recurring, childish thought — why couldn’t Peter live just one more year? — but the reality is he is gone, his voice silenced, and we’re experiencing R&RW without benefit of his wisdom.
R&RW is a masterpiece — Dylan’s best album since “Love and Theft” (I consider the latter one of his top six albums; I’d place this one in his top ten or twelve). When I’ve had the discussion in recent years, which has been more than once, I’ve said I believed Dylan had another great work left in him. It wasn’t anything owed to us, but it was something I felt was coming, and now it has arrived. I’ve never, however, lived in the land of Oz (i.e., fantasy land) and can see the end on the horizon (line). Dylan’s already outlived his or anyone’s life by far and this could be his final album of new material; if so, he’d be closing with “Murder Most Foul,” a song of significance, and the final line would be a directive to play it. I’ll be listening…