On Dec. 13, 1963, Bob Dylan was given the “Tom Paine Award” by the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee for his political activism. A visibly shaken, and likely drunk, Dylan said he accepted the award on behalf of “everybody that went down to Cuba,” then unleashed a doozy: “I got to admit that the man who shot President Kennedy, Lee Oswald … I saw some of myself in him.” The crowd booed him off the stage.
A few days later, Dylan released a statement that read, in part, “If there’s violence in the times, then there must be violence in me.”
It’s 2020, and the times are more violent than ever. They have been for a while. Where has Bob Dylan been in the era of Donald Trump, mass shootings, climate crisis and COVID-19? Where’s the singer who marched on Washington with Martin Luther King Jr. and wrote searing political anthems like “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “Only a Pawn in Their Game?” He was releasing Sinatra cover albums — three, to be exact — from 2015-2017. It seemed, for those who hoped for a guiding message from rock’s poet laureate, that Dylan had decided to sit this one out.
Yet, in June 2020, Bob Dylan is back with his first album of original music in almost a decade — Rough and Rowdy Ways. It’s a career-defining masterpiece, an album both bracingly current yet timeless in its compositional breadth, pulling from the best of Dylan’s work through the decades. Rough and Rowdy Ways has the enthralling auditory grit of 1997’s Grammy-winning Time Out of Mind, the socio-political layers of Highway 61 Revisited and the personal revelations of Blood on the Tracks.
“Today and tomorrow, and yesterday too,” Dylan begins the album’s first song, “I Contain Multitudes.” “The flowers are dyin’, like all things do.” Dylan’s message is clear from the start: These are the end times. Yet after this apocalyptic pronouncement, he implores an unnamed woman to “Follow me close … I’ll lose my mind if you don’t come with me.” In Dylan’s world, where “Everything’s flowing, all at the same time,” one can “sleep with life and death in the same bed.” Basically, even if everyone’s going to die, they don’t have to die alone.
In a whimsical, almost snide cadence, Dylan throws in a myriad of other personal complexities, but one line stands out: “I’m just like Anne Frank, like Indiana Jones and them British bad boys the Rolling Stones.” The lyric bristles at the ear, mainly because it’s so impenetrable. How is the 79-year-old Dylan, while a rock star like the Rolling Stones, like Anne Frank or Indiana Jones?
Right from the start, Rough and Rowdy Ways is sonically striking. Dylan’s last original album, 2012’s Tempest, was chock-full of crashing drums, out-of-control guitars and a voice that sounded like Dylan had swallowed a gallon of rocks. Dylan has self-produced every one of his albums since 1997, and generally favors a raw, unfiltered performance by both himself and his tour band. This time, though, he’s meticulously crafted every aspect of the album. The instrumentation and his voice transform to reflect the subject matter of each song. “I Contain Multitudes” is almost completely acoustic, intimately shading the confessional lyrics as the listener is drawn in by Dylan’s soft voice.
This comfort is ripped away on the second track, “False Prophet.” Amid crashing drums and smarmy guitar, Dylan continues the dark lamentations in a Tempest-style bark — “I know how it happened, I saw it begin. I opened my heart to the world, and the world caved in.” While he doesn’t yet reveal what caused this apocalypse, Dylan asserts with haggard surety “I’m no false prophet, I just know what I know.”
Things get weirder in “My Own Version of You,” a song backed by a mournful steel guitar straight out of a retro horror flick. Dylan details his plan to dig up “limbs and livers and brains and hearts” and “bring someone to life … someone who feels the way that I feel.” Again, love and death are bedmates. While Dylan, parroting Victor Frankenstein, swears to act with “decency and common sense … for the benefit of all mankind” with his creation, he also asks “What would Julius Caesar do?” Like Caesar, and all authoritarians, Dylan considers his actions, however inhumane, permissible since he believes himself to be working for the common good. Adding to this prescient commentary, Dylan invites the listener to “Step right into the burning hell, where some of the best-known enemies of mankind dwell.”
In these flames, Dylan somehow finds a way to sing a masterful love song, “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You.”
“I’m sitting on my terrace, lost in the stars,” he begins. The Sinatra phase has paid off — Dylan’s voice hasn’t sounded this sharp in decades, a cavernous croon that soars with genuine affection. The soft instrumentation builds to a sublime electric guitar solo that’s one of the best moments on the album. There are also faint, almost imperceptible backing singers, one of which just might be Fiona Apple, whose soft choral drone gives the song a sense of deep melancholy. When Dylan sings, almost tearfully, “I don’t think I could bear to live my life alone,” it’s as moving as anything from his love-sick opus Blood on the Tracks. Thankfully Dylan meets someone, telling this unnamed lover “I’ll lay down beside you when everyone’s gone.” In a time when reality itself seems to be falling apart, Dylan’s honesty is piercing.
Then comes “Black Rider.” To the tune of a slithering acoustic guitar, Dylan criticizes an unnamed man for womanizing, violence and arrogance (all of which Dylan has displayed thus far in the album, making one wonder if the song is a soliloquy, critiquing Dylan’s own dark, masculine shades). Whoever the black rider is, Dylan tells the guy “You’ve been on the job too long,” before giving one the album’s most brutal, and unexpected, lines: “The size of your cock will get you nowhere.” Dylan’s lambasting of this predatory, arrogant mystery-man brings the album’s apocalypse a step closer to 2020.
“Goodbye Jimmy Reed” adds another political layer, with Dylan deciding “That old time religion is just what I need” and promising to “thump on the Bible, proclaim the creed.” Right after this declaration, however, Dylan tells a woman he will “break open your grapes, suck out the juice,” while admitting “I need you like my head needs a noose.” The fusion of fundamentalist religion with hypocritical lust and punishing violence adds another shade of relevance. After all, the tear-gassing, psychopathic president who swore to “grab them by the” you-know-what got 81 percent of the evangelical vote.
Subject matter aside, “Jimmy Reed” is a sonic escape to a time gone by, with rollicking guitar and harmonica straight out of Dylan’s 1966 classic Blonde on Blonde. Again, Dylan shows his multitudes and proves that, even in the end of days, one can still have a little fun.
In “Mother of Muses,” Dylan is back to grappling with apocalypse. Like Dante, he implores the muses to “show me your wisdom” and guide him through the hell-fire. Then Dylan gives a list of muses much like the idiosyncratic roster in “I Contain Multitudes,” naming William Sherman, Bernard Montgomery, Winfield Scott, Georgy Zhukov, George Patton, Elvis Presley and Martin Luther King Jr. Again, one is befuddled. What do Union and World War II Allied generals, a rock star and Martin Luther King Jr. have to do with one another?
Regardless, Dylan seems comforted by these muses in the next track, “Crossing the Rubicon.” He regards the “red river” that lays before him, “one step from the great beyond.” With a rolling guitar-lick, Dylan declares “I embrace my love, put down my head and I cross the Rubicon.” He has leapt over the river of blood and has passed into the afterworld.
Dylan explores the afterlife in the masterpiece “Key West (Philosopher Pirate).” It’s the most musically complex song of the album, a masterful blend of guitar, ghostly background singing and accordion riffs that lap at Dylan’s lyrics like waves on a midnight beach.
Key West, according to Dylan, is “the place to be if you’re looking for immortality,” a netherworld that radiates from a “pirate radio station.” Bob Dylan, the only songwriter thus far to win the Nobel Prize, spending his afterlife in the sound waves is more than fitting.
“I was born on the wrong side of the railroad track,” he says, referencing his childhood in the barren mining town of Hibbing, Minnesota. “Like Ginsberg, Corso and Kerouac.” While at 79, Dylan still appears healthy, it isn’t hard to interpret the song as a meditation on both death and an eternity as a literary icon. He’ll be remembered as one of the best, but what will happen to his soul?
Key West is “innocence and purity … paradise divine” yet also unrelentingly hot and “at the bottom,” full of “blossoms of a toxic plant.” Even in the afterlife there are multitudes; love and horror are intimately intertwined. Is this Heaven, Hell or somewhere in between?
Either way, for this grizzled pirate in the throes of eternity, the heart still wants what it wants. “I’m so deep in love I can hardly see,” he proclaims. Yet his muse is gone: “I heard the news, I heard your last request. Fly around, my pretty little miss.” At Dylan’s age, it’s likely he’s seen many lovers come and go, and the accordion’s soft swell makes his sorrow all the more potent. This close to the end, even love can’t ease the pain.
While Dylan has grappled with death throughout the album, this song is crushing because it is no mythological, apocalyptic musing. It’s tied to Dylan’s own life and career. The song ends with Dylan giving the haunting admission that for him too, Key West is “on the horizon line.”
Through the past nine songs, Dylan has detailed intimate secrets, unpacked toxic masculinity, religious hypocrisy, impending mass death and his own legacy. Yet he isn’t done. There’s a final, devastating epic to, paraphrasing one of Dylan’s classics, bring it all back home.
On Nov. 4, 2008, the night Barack Obama was elected president of the United States, Dylan tearfully told a concert hall "I was born in 1941 … I've been living in a world of darkness ever since. But it looks like things are going to change now." For much of the nation, that hopeful night did seem like a leap towards equality. Then came 2016. Then 2017, 2018, 2019 and, to top it all off, 2020.
“If there’s violence in the times, then there must be violence in me,” Dylan wrote in ’63. In the final song on Rough and Rowdy Ways, the 17-minute masterwork “Murder Most Foul,” he finally explains himself.
The song opens with the assasination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, the year Dylan offended the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee. “They blew off his head when he was still in the car,” Dylan laments, “shot down like a dog in broad daylight.” Piano and violin straight out of a funeral parlor, or perhaps the Titanic, back Dylan’s soft incantation, which could be mistaken for a spoken eulogy.
Dylan isn’t just grieving the man’s death. Something far greater had been lost. Kennedy, the youngest elected president, was a figurehead of the 1960s New Left. He proposed a major Civil Rights Act and promised to put an American to the moon. Many believed President Kennedy would usher in an era of equality and progress, a promise clipped short by Oswald’s bullet.
The song’s instrumentation, while understated, has echoes of distorted strings and crashing symbols that inflect the loss with uncanny horror. This hint of supernatural is confirmed when, after Kennedy’s death, Dylan swears “The age of the anti-Christ has just only begun … The soul of a nation been torn away … It’s beginning to go down into a slow decay … It’s 36 hours past judgment day.”
The song was released at midnight on March 27, 2020, when COVID19 was peaking in much of the United States. As bodies piled up in refrigerated trucks, President Trump screamed lies at journalists on TV and, a few weeks later, contemplated the ingestion of cleaning fluid. While Rough and Rowdy Ways was recorded before the crisis, Trump’s hateful mismanagement had been long obvious. Like Kennedy’s perceived era of progress in 1963, Obama’s fresh start was similarly murdered in 2016.
If America’s president is an “anti-Christ,” what is the nation that created, and then elected him? In “Murder Most Foul,” Dylan tells us. He alludes to the racism (“Black face singer, white face clown, better not show your faces after the sun goes down … Shoot ‘em while he runs, boy, shoot ‘em while you can. See if you can shoot the invisible man”), the greed (“Cash on the barrelhead, money to burn … Business is business, and it’s murder most foul”) and the dishonesty (“What is the truth, where did it go?”) that define the current presidential administration.
A final nail in the star-spangled coffin is Dylan’s assertion that Kennedy himself wasn’t perfect, far from it. Dylan imagines an autopsy of JFK where “His soul was not there where it was supposed to be at, for the last 50 years they’ve been searching for that.” If America’s martyr is soulless, what does that say about America?
Dylan points to the 1921 Tulsa Massacre (“Take me back to Tulsa to the scene of the crime”) and the lingering cultural remnants of the Confederacy (“Frankly, Ms. Scarlet, I don’t give a damn … play ‘The Blood Stained Banner’”) to display how the racism prevalent nowadays isn’t new. It’s as American as cherry pie. When Dylan sings “Goodbye Uncle Sam,” one wonders if it is America itself or its glorified, picturesque version of history that is dying. Perhaps both.
As depressing as this prognosis is, Dylan offers hope. After being shot to death, Kennedy rides into the afterlife in his bloodstained convertible, listening to the radio. Playing the part of a DJ named “Wolfman Jack,” Dylan spins dozens of iconic musicians to ease Kenney’s pain. While ingeniously tying together the album’s themes of coming apocalypse, psychopathic masculinity, lost love and the afterworld, “Murder Most Foul” also offers one last chance for hope.
Playing the part of Wolfman Jack, Dylan references and quotes songs by Sam Cooke, Nina Simone, Joan Baez, Woody Guthrie and dozens more. Like the links between Indiana Jones and Anne Frank, Elvis Presley and Martin Luther King Jr., mentioning Kennedy with these artists combines the historical with the cultural in an unexpected fashion. While eclectic, there is method to Dylan’s madness.
Almost every figure Dylan namedrops on Rough and Rowdy Ways is an enemy of tyranny. There’s General Patton, who smashed the Nazi war machine on the European front; Anne Frank, whose hopeful diary, written under Nazi occupation, is a classic; Indiana Jones, who once shoved a Nazi into a spinning airplane propeller.
In “Murder Most Foul,” Dylan hones in on musicians who have waged war against oppression. Sam Cooke sang “A’ Change is Gonna Come.” Nina Simone demanded “Just give me my equality!” Joan Baez said “And we're still marching on the streets, with little victories and big defeats, but there is joy, and there is hope and there's a place for you!” Woody Guthrie promised to “Tear Them Fascists Down.”
To end an album that screams with the coming apocalypse, Dylan offers light at the end of the long, punishing tunnel. Even in the worst of times, one can find truth, beauty and inspiration in music. When things just keep getting worse, it’s hard to think of a better comfort.