Somewhere in the intervening years Dylan delved into the Christian Christmas songbook and what is generally considered the Great American Songbook.
I have listened to and thoroughly enjoyed the Christmas album, I have however avoided the Sinatra years. These are critically acclaimed albums and I should probably get to but I have to admit I come over all funny when I think about Dylan crooning his way through Sinatra classics. It feels a bit like watching your dad drunkenly warbling The Lady Is A Tramp during a holiday family party.
Rough and Rowdy Ways will be the soundtrack to the pandemic as far as I am concerned. There was a moment in March that coincided with the release of Murder Most Foul when I realized that shit was getting serious. I fought with Asda in the UK to set up online shopping for my mum. I had to convince Boots that I was in the UK so she could get her prescriptions delivered and connected with family members to ensure that someone was checking in with her, all to the soundtrack of Murder Most Foul, a litany of pop culture references a history lesson in popular music and conspiracy theories.
It fitted in with the mood of the times, it was apocalyptic and steeped in the history of the country and name dropped like a fool. It managed to distract and inspire, the internet fired up with explanations of what it all meant, it sounded to me like the ramblings of an old drunk sitting at the end of the bar as he philosophized and rambled his way through the crannies of his memory. It was simultaneously the most profound and ridiculous song ever. A nonsense poem for the times.
It was also long and lock down meant people could actually listen again for awhile it seemed. That time has past with the urge to get back to normalcy, as if we will ever experience that again.
Then from nowhere came I Contain Multitudes with seemed to offer another view of who Dylan was. The pandemic was beginning to rage and I wanted Dylan to take his guns and knives to the establishment and make them pay attention. It was a life all lived in song out there for all to hear. Then came False Prophet basically reminding us to doubt the man, or maybe acknowledge that he maybe knows who he is, he’s just not willing to show us.
Like all of the other 21st Century Dylan it’s an album addressing mortality and life and all the the other bits and things that go along with humanity. Lyrically Dylan steals happily from anywhere he feels like, warping meanings and twisting pre-conceptions, self referential at times and disdainful of what the fan wants it to be.
So now we are over six months into the most significant historical event I have lived through. It has shone a spotlight on my suspicion that profit is more important than people and that public health is not a priority in the country I chose to live in. This is a time when the truth is stretched beyond the boundaries of any form of belief, when opinion is more important than fact. It is a time that working people are more actively than any other time in my memory making decisions that are so obviously contrary to their best interests. It is a time when racism is praised and actively promoted by our leaders and lies more than ever are the currency of politics. A time of despair, fear and loathing.
Mother of Muses sounds like some alternative anthem to forgotten history:
“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 they went on their way
Man, I could tell their stories all day”
When Dylan crosses the rubicon with us we realize that this is the end of something, a changing a time for renewal and rebirth, the old heroes are leaving and we need to find our own courage now.
It’s been a trying year and we are just over half way through it all. It would be easy to fall in line with the conspiracists that this is all about control. Life is simpler if there’s a conspiracy to believe in, we can then blame someone or something else for all our troubles. That way lies authoritarianism, racism, bigotry and hate.
Rough and Rowdy Ways grounds us in the pithy world of the shadows and doubts and hope that we can keep going.
It really is the soundtrack to the apocalypse, good luck people and be good humans.
At least the scoundrels in the songs are honest ones.
Because at the end of the day as Zimmy might say:
“I’ve never lived in the land of Oz
Or wasted my time with an unworthy cause
It’s hot down here, and you can’t be overdressed”