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  1. Dylan has transitioned himself in various ways over the course of his career. No one else has gone through so many changes and phases in such mind bending ways. He has been a self made man creating various stages for himself that were unique and mystifying. He has indeed shape shifted himself, not following trends but creating them. Because of the Covid19 virus with which we are confronted, I wondered if Dylan had this in mind when he recorded the album. It turns out that the album was released on June19—an auspicious date because it is the date of Juneteenth and the number of the Novel Covid virus. The recordings were probably made before the virus became a pandemic so it is unlikely that Dylan cast the album with that in mind. Over the years Dylan assumed different personas and sang his songs in different voice pitches. The movie, I’m Not There, with various depictions of Dylan played by multiple actors is a testament to his different personalities. The very listenable Lay Lady Lay and Girl From the North Country or the more raucous Subterranean Homesick Blues show many sides of his style. He has stuck to mostly religious themes throughout his recordings but they have often reflected allegories from both the Old Testament and the New. People still can’t decide if he is a Christian or a Jew, like it matters. Gary Trudeau draws Doonesbury cartoons. One of his panels back in the ’70’s involved trying to navigate through the swamp of Ronald Reagan’s brain. It was impossible because the synapses and neurons went nowhere. Imagine trying to do that with Dylan’s brain. It would be a magic swirling ship traveling through a hallucinogenic trip of images, poetry, abstractions, and indecipherable rhymes which have listeners scratching their heads for meanings. They are as variegated as the hair strands in Milton Glaser’s famous profile. During his Rolling Thunder Revue, Dylan painted his face white. He got the idea from a Kiss concert; for him it was just another facet of his persona: “I’m just a song and dance man”. He knew white men in old time minstrel shows would paint their faces black- -a racist practice. Dylan would do the opposite. No one I know of can take the same song and sing it so differently it becomes almost unrecognizable. When I saw him, I couldn’t tell what song he was singing until I concentrated on the lyrics. It’s a great merchandizing trick but it prevents him from getting bored singing the same piece over and over again even though his repertoire is vast and varied. His unreleased bootlegs are so precious because of this and because he decided not to allow recordings or taking pictures at his concerts. In his latest album, Bob conjures up currents from his past songs but most of the selections are more morose. He takes melodies from the Blues, the American Songbook classics, and Folk. His voice no longer has the timber or resonance it once had but Dylan manages to craft songs that meld with it. It is a rough and rowdy voice; gravelly and forlorn but it works. In R&RW, as in most of the songs in his albums, Dylan hangs fragments of ideas for the listener to interpret. In Black Rider, for example, the lines: Black rider, black rider, hold it right there The size of your **** 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 Is Dylan referring to Trump in these bawdy couplets? Trump ridiculed Marco Rubio in the 2016 Republican debates for having small body parts. Some enchanted evening is a song reference written by Richard Rogers from “South Pacific.”Dylan sang it in his Shadows of the Night album. I wonder if he is inferring that Trump, the Black Rider, has been on the job too long. in I Contain Multitudes and Murder Most Foul Dylan throws references all over the place. Woody Guthrie wrote but never recorded a song called In Multitudes. Besides the obvious tribute to Walt Whitman, perhaps Dylan was also thinking of his old hero. Dylan free associates in these songs a litany of people, movies, and songs all bundled around the assassination of JFK. Dylan has memorialized people before, but never this profusely or profoundly. Murder is 17 minutes long, his longest song ever. Anyone who bothers to understand all the references Dylan deals out in that song will learn a lot. As we glean from his Theme Time Radio Hour, Dylan has a wealth of musical knowledge. He has traveled widely; from Key West: “If you lost your mind, you will find it there; Key West is on the horizon line,” and all points beyond. It is a beautiful song that I think is more uplifting than many other places he refers to in previous songs. “Been in Mississippi a Day too long,” “Oxford Town,” Patterson, NJ., along Highway 61, Memphis and Mobile and many other examples. When he sings, “I travelled all around the world boys; Tryin’ to get to heaven before they close the door,” he says it all. The album cover of R&RW leaves much to be desired. It shows two almost headless Black dancers and a man leaning over what appears to be a juke box. It does not reflect rowdiness or roughness. Even the title, in my mind, does not suggest the theme of the album. His backup band is low key, even stark but appropriate for the tone and mood he creates. It is neither flashy or heavy on percussion and guitar. The music does not get in the way of the lyrics and the lyrics are amazing in most of the songs. Dylan makes rhymes when one wonders how he fits the words together. He draws from authors, poets, musicians, and all kinds of artists that show just how deeply influenced he is by the rich trove of literature and musical genres with which he is familiar. It is no wonder why so many books have been written about him. Let’s take a look at the songs: “False Prophet” is riddled with revenge against an unseen enemy: You don’t know me darlin’ You never would guess I’m nothing like my ghostly appearance would suggest I ain’t no false prophet I just said what I said I’m just here to bring vengeance on somebody’s head. Dylan plays Dr. Frankenstein in “My Own Version of You.” He constructs an avatar of someone he wants to have. The song begins: 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’m gonna create my own version of you This is an amazing song. Dylan gathers references from everywhere and fits them together like pieces of a puzzle: I’m gon’ bring someone to life, someone I’ve never seen You know what I mean, you know exactly what I mean Do we? As usual, Dylan takes us on a journey like a pinball bouncing off images, references, ideas, and people: And I ask myself, “What would Julius Caesar do?” I’ll bring someone to life in more ways than one Don’t matter how long it takes, it’ll be done when it’s done Dylan conjures Julies Caesar in his other song “Crossing the Rubicon” which we discuss later. After Dylan has created his own version of his construction, he decides to give himself to her. It’s a beautiful song: I saw the first fall of snow I saw the flowers come and go I don’t think that anyone ever else ever knew I’ve made up my mind to give myself to you. This is one of many lovely love songs Dylan has written over the years. He sings it with sentiment and a sincerity that comes from the heart. Dylan chose to write about Jimmy Reed, the black Blues singer who led a hard scrabble life typical of many Bluesmen from Mississippi. He certainly influenced many white rockers such as The Rolling Stones, Steve Miller, and The Grateful Dead among others. Dylan couches this song in religious allegory: For thine is the kingdom, the power, 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 Goodby Jimmy Reed, godspeed Thump on the Bible, and proclaim a creed. In the first line above, Dylan is obviously referring to the Lord’s Prayer. This is in keeping with his many biblical references and themes. Yet, it’s not one of the best songs on the album. Dylan seems ambivalent about Reed. To whom is he referring when he says: 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 Goodbye Jimmy Reed, goodbye and so long I thought I could resist her but I was so wrong I’m at a loss to figure out who this woman is or how it relates to Jimmy Reed. Yet Dylan acknowledges Reed’s contributions to the Blues: You won’t amount to much, the people all said ‘Cause I didn’t play guitar behind my head Never took off my shoes, threw’em in the crowd Goodbye Jimmy Reed, goodbye, goodnight Put a jewel in your crown and I put out the lights Dylan has always been cognizant of muses in his life. In “Mother of Muses” he pays homage to the mother of them all in a beautifully crafted love song: Mother of Muses sing for my heart Sing of a love too soon to depart Sing of the heroes who stood alone Whose names are engraved on tablets of stone Who struggled with pain so the world could go free Mother of Muses sing for me. As I write these lines I’m thinking of the passing of two civil rights icons—C.T. Vivian and John Lewis—two heroes who stood alone. Dylan is no false prophet; he is prescient in his ability to see around the corner of what will be. He knows he is mortal and his time line is nearing an end but his music will last for an eternity. Lastly, in “Crossing the Rubicon” Dylan is referring obliquely to the decision by Julius Caesar to move his armies across the Rubicon River in 49 B.C. As in his other songs about the women in his life (“Visions of Johanna,” “Sara, “Boots of Spanish Leather, “To Romana,” etc.), Dylan mentions a woman named Mona: Mona, baby, are you still in my mind I truly believe that you are Couldn’t be anybody else but you Who’s come with me this far The killing frost is on the ground And the autumn leaves are gone I lit the torch, I looked to the east And I crossed the Rubicon Dylan might be giving a passing nod to the Mamas and the Papas from their song “California Dreaming,” All the leaves are gone and the sky is gray. California dreamin’ on such a winter’s day. In any event, Dylan has made his decision to cross the Rubicon and there’s no turning back. Meanwhile, we are still searching for the mysterious Mona. Dylan is a shape shifter. He is like a chameleon that can adapt to an environment he creates and can shed his skin to create something new. If he lived to be 100, he would never become stale. He would continue to be innovative, creative, and unique. Dylan has been called the voice of a generation. He despises being labeled. Yet there is something iconic about him. His career has spanned over 50 years; a long time for any artist to remain relevant. Whether it was intentional or not, R&RW reflects the difficult times of the present in tone and atmosphere. Rough and Rowdy Ways is a tour de force. I don’t know how many more songs Dylan has left. At 79 years old, he is cognizant of death lurking in the shadows. If this is his last album (I hope it isn’t) and is unable to tour on the road because of the pandemic (I hope he can), this album will be a lasting testament to his greatness as a brilliant artist who has had so much to say and given us so much to think about. I’m certain he and his music will stand the test of time.
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