Words, Music & Screen
Discussions and Reviews by Thomas Itty
“Blood On The Tracks” was my introduction to Dylan. I was about 16-years old and lived in Bangalore, India. I knew a guy who worked at a hip clothing store on Brigade Road (which was the street where all the young hip people in Bangalore hung around those days). They had a good collection of rock, folk, country and pop records at the store, including "Blood On The Tracks." It was the US release, with glossy printing and full liner notes. I would go to the store to chat with my friend and listen to music. He even let me borrow the records to take home sometimes. I kept "Blood On the Tracks" for over a month, until my friend pleaded with me to bring it back. We didn’t have headphones or a Walkman at home those days. I had a small 3-in-one stereo (radio + turntable + cassette deck). I played it as loud as my parents allowed me to, and without it sounding distorted on my 20-watt speakers. Here's how I listened to music I liked: the first few times, I studied the liner notes and song titles while listening. After that, I would close my eyes and just listen to it without any distractions. Sometimes I would turn off the lights or close all the curtains and listen in the dark. I called it “deep-listening" — it's something I still do today with a new album I like. I remember being very impressed with Dylan and the songs on "Blood On The Tracks." It was unlike anything I'd heard until then. Even the liner notes on the back of the album was very different... almost a work of literature. It was a perfect initiation to Bob Dylan. Since then, my journey into his music has been one of my most satisfying intellectual pursuits and pleasures of my life. Many years later, I found out that Pete Hamill (who died on August 5, 2020 and whom I admired for many years as a journalist, columnist and author) had won a Grammy award for writing the liner notes for "Blood On The Tracks." I still have vivid memories of most of the albums I listened to back then and, when I hear a song from one of them now, my mind often goes back in time to when I was a teenager in my room, with light blue walls and posters of The Beatles on them, at my parent's house in Bangalore.
I deep-listened to “Blood On The Tracks” for several days in 1977, just as I deep-listened to “Rough And Rowdy Ways” last month. I can tell you they're both great! In "Blood on The Tracks," Dylan was still a young man on a quest for love, knowledge, music and inspiration while dealing with rejection, betrayal and the vagaries of fate. Now, some 45 years later, he is an elder statesman with all the awards and recognition that anybody could ever want (including the Nobel prize) and nothing left to prove. Yet he has created an album of all new original songs that is as good as anything he's done in the past. I don't know what motivates him to keep coming up with new songs and poetry or how he does it. His creativity hasn't dimmed with age at all. His wordplay and delivery are as potent and exciting as they ever were.
The songs on "Rough And Rowdy Ways" have a vibe that seem to suggest Dylan's dissatisfaction with the times we live in today. The 1950's, 60s and 70s had it's share of villains and horrible events but it was all out there in the open. Ultimately people got together and, with the help of progressive, clear-thinking, dynamic leaders, changed the country and society for the better. Today, nothing is clear. The political situation and a pandemic have created a degree of uncertainty no one has experienced before. Even some of the progress that was made in the last fifty years to make this a more just and fair society is being systematically eroded every day. There is an unsettling quality in all the songs on Rough And Rowdy Ways that I think is meant to reflect the times we live today. That's just my take on it! With Dylan, as with all poetry, there is no single objective truth or meaning. Listeners have to decide for themselves what they take from it. Dylan often goes out of his way to confuse people who ask him about the meanings to his songs!
"Rough And Rowdy Ways" contains 9 songs plus the 17-minute epic, “Murder Most Foul”(a line from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”). Dylan uses JFK's assassination as the starting point for a riveting cultural and political journey through some of the most turbulent times in America's history. The last several minutes are a recitation of musical legends and songs that he obviously admires. Set over sad and somber music, it is almost as if he is lamenting both the death of people he mentions as well as all the great music created in the decades immediately preceding and following the 1960s.
Play "Moonlight Sonata" in F-sharp
And "A Key to the Highway" for the king on the harp
Play "Marching Through Georgia" and "Dumbarton's Drums"
Play "Darkness" and death will come when it comes
Play "Love Me or Leave Me" by the great Bud Powell
Play "The Blood-Stained Banner", play "Murder Most Foul"
Back cover with liner notes from the original release. Read the full copy of the Grammy Award winning liner notes by Pete Hamill here.
Walt Whitman, who coined the phrase "I contain multitudes"
AUGUST 15, 2020
FROM "BLOOD ON THE TRACKS" TO "ROUGH AND ROWDY WAYS"
by Bob Dylan
Album Review by Thomas Itty
“I Contain Multitudes” is definitely the song most people will remember from the album. I've already seen several cover versions of it on YouTube. The title comes from the Walt Whitman poem, “Song of Myself – No. 51...”
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Dylan has never been shy about borrowing lines, tunes and ideas from others but he has always used them to create a new piece of art that is different, bigger and usually better. You always get the feeling that he's paying tribute to someone when he borrows from them. Here he’s taken a throwaway line from Whitman and written a riveting 347-word song from it..
I'm a man of contradictions
I'm a man of many moods
I contain multitudes
"False Prophet" is a noir story over a familiar delta blues riff and chord progression. It is full of braggadocio and frightening imagery — death, the underworld and even the Holy Grail. It is a dark song possibly alluding to the Book Of Revelation from The Bible. It could be about Death waiting to subjugate and rule over even the rich and powerful. Or maybe he's just talking about Kanye West!
A long goodbye
You ruled the land
But so do I
You lost your mule
You got a poison brain
I'll marry you to a ball and chain
"My Own Version Of You" is a catchy but creepy Frankenstein-inspired song about taking body-parts and aspects of people he admires and combining them into a single being… even maybe just as a joke! Over the years, people have created versions of Dylan that suited them — here he may be telling people that he's making his own versions of them as well.
I'll take the Scarface Pacino and The Godfather Brando
Mix it up in a tank and get a robot commando
If I do it upright and put the head on straight
I'll be saved by the creature that I create
"I've Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You" is a beautiful song with a melody that is very similar to Offenbach - Barcarolle, from 'The Tales of Hoffmann' (from the late 1800s). It reminds you that Dylan can write a love song or ballad as good as anyone. This one is of the same caliber as "Make You Feel My Love," "Love Sick," or "Lay Lady Lay."
Well, my heart's like a river, a river that sings
Just takes me a while to realize things
I've seen the sunrise, I've seen the dawn
I'll lay down beside you when everyone's gone
"Black Rider" seems to be coming from the same place as "False Prophet." The Black Rider could be Death or maybe the Third Horseman of the Apocalypse. He uses a bit of bawdy language in it (see below) which is unusual for him but I guess it justifies the title of the album.
Black rider, black rider, hold it right there
The size of your cock will get you nowhere
I'll suffer in silence, I'll not make a sound
Maybe I'll take the high moral ground
Some enchanted evening, I'll sing you a song
Black rider, black rider, you've been on the job too long
"Goodbye Jimmy Reed" like "Murder Most Foul" uses one story as a starting point to talk about another story... or something else. Jimmy Reed was a black Mississippi blues songwriter and guitarist who has been recorded by Elvis Presley, Hank Williams and The Rolling Stones. In addition to being a tribute to Jimmy Reed, the song appears to be about the lack of authenticity today and fact that everything and everyone, including religion, has been assimilated into a bland, popular culture.
For thine is kingdom, the power and the glory
Go tell it on the mountain, go tell the real story
Tell it in that straightforward, puritanical tone
In the mystic hours, when a person's alone
Goodbye, Jimmy Reed, God speed
Thump on the Bible, proclaim a creed
"Mother Of Muses" The title could be a reference to Mnemosyne the Greek goddess of memory and the source of language and words — and the mother (by Zeus) of the nine Muses. In the beginning, the narrator is asking her for her help so he can write wonderful, inspirational songs about heroes he admires. However, by the end of the song he only wants the deity to take over his whole being so he can live a righteous life.
Mother of Muses, unleash your wrath
Things I can't see, they're blocking my path
Show me your wisdom, tell me my fate
Put me upright, make me walk straight
Forge my identity from the inside out
You know what I'm talking about
"Crossing the Rubicon" The phrase historically alludes to Julius Caesar's crossing the Rubicon River in 49 BC — thereby starting a war against the Roman Senate. He reportedly uttered the famous phrase "alea iacta est" (the die has been cast) after doing it. Since then, "Cross the Rubicon," implies making a decision from which there is no coming back. At first, there is anger and hate in the character in the song as he is making decisions that will have severe consequences but by the end he is at peace and fearless in the face of his impending doom. Dylan has always made radical decisions that seemed to subvert expectations of what others wanted of him — from going electric, much to the disappointment of 90% of his fans... to taking himself out of a leadership role the Civil Rights movement and focusing his songs on other things... to converting to Born Again Christianity and releasing two very religious Christian albums... and then converting back to Judaism with no explanation... and not showing up in person for his Nobel Prize! However, he seems to be very comfortable with his decisions and is at peace with himself at this stage in his life — like the character in the song.
I can feel the bones beneath my skin
And they're tremblin' with rage
I'll make your wife a widow
You'll never see old age
Show me one good man in sight
That the sun shines down upon
I pawned my watch, I paid my debts
And I crossed the Rubicon
"Key West (Philosopher Pirate)" reminds me of Van Morrison's "In The Days Before Rock 'n Roll" for some reason. It's long and very wordy, clocking in a 9:34 but it is a beautiful ballad. The narrator (possibly a criminal, outlaw or pirate) is living out the rest of his days in beautiful Key West while looking back at his life and the people he admires. It can be compared to some of his other long and deep songs like "Mississippi," "Brownsville Girl" and "Workingman Blues." It's a great song to close out the album!
Key West is the place to be
If you're looking for immortality
Key West is paradise divine
Key West is fine and fair
If you lost your mind, you'll find it there
Key West is on the horizon line
To me, “Rough And Rowdy Ways," released in the summer of 2020 by a 79-year-old Bob Dylan, is the best-case, natural progression of the person who wrote the songs on the remarkable “Blood On The Tracks” album in 1975. He still has the same unmistakable and unique talent for creating a catchy melody and stringing clever lines together to make songs with deep meaning... songs that tap into the current zeitgeist. The musicianship on all of Dylan's albums has been top-notch because he always has some of the best players on the planet playing on them. This one is no different, although the playing here is restrained so as to not overshadow the lyrics and delivery. You can almost sense the band waiting to show off their skills — like they do on "Goodbye Jimmy Reed." The album features Charlie Sexton (guitar), Bob Britt (guitar), Donnie Herron (steel guitar, violin & accordion), Tony Garnier (bass), and Matt Chamberlain (drums).
Tick all the boxes — "Rough And Rowdy Ways" is one for the ages!
Buy this poster here.
Mnemosyne — goddess of memory and remembrance — as painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1876 to 1881)
ALBUMS BY BOB DYLAN:
1962 BOB DYLAN
1963 THE FREEWHEELIN' BOB DYLAN
1963 THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGIN'
1964 ANOTHER SIDE OF BOB DYLAN
1965 BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME
1965 HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED
1966 BLONDE ON BLONDE
1967 GREATEST HITS
1967 JOHN WESLEY HARDING
1969 NASHVILLE SKYLINE
1970 SELF PORTRAIT
1970 NEW MORNING
1971 GREATEST HITS Vol. 2
1973 PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID
1974 PLANET WAVES
1974 BEFORE THE FLOOD
1975 BLOOD ON THE TRACKS
1975 THE BASEMENT TAPES
1976 HARD RAIN
1978 STREET LEGAL
1978 BOB DYLAN AT BUDOKAN
1979 SLOW TRAIN COMING
1981 SHOT OF LOVE
1984 REAL LIVE
1985 EMPIRE BURLESQUE
1986 KNOCKED OUT LOADED
1987 DYLAN & THE DEAD
1987 DOWN IN THE GROOVE
1989 OH MERCY
1990 UNDER THE RED SKY
1992 GOOD AS I BEEN TO YOU
1993 WORLD GONE WRONG
1994 GREATEST HITS Vol. 3
995 MTV UNPLUGGED
1997 THE BEST OF BOB DYLAN
1997 TIME OUT OF MIND
1999 BOB DYLAN LIVE 1966
2000 THE BEST OF BOB DYLAN Vol. 2
2000 THE ESSENTIAL BOB DYLAN
2001 BOB DYLAN LIVE 1961-2000
2001 LOVE AND THEFT
2009 TOGETHER THROUGH LIFE
2009 CHRISTMAS IN THE HEART
2015 SHADOWS IN THE NIGHT
2016 FALLEN ANGELS
2019 LOVE SONGS OF BOB DYLAN
2020 ROUGH AND ROWDY WAYS
*Note — I haven't included the 15 Bootleg Series albums.