LARB IS THE NEW HOME for “Real Life Rock Top 10,” a monthly column by cultural critic Greil Marcus.
1. Alexis Petridis, “Bob Dylan: Rough and Rowdy Ways review – a testament to his eternal greatness,” The Guardian (June 13). First sighted piece on the new Bob Dylan double album. Would it make you want to read past the headline? With all conceivable questions erased in advance by trumpets of jubilee?
2. David Hepworth, “The Invisible Man,” Q (October 1986). Hepworth opened by contrasting a fifth annual Dylan imitation contest at a MacDougal Street bar with Dylan’s own show with Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers at Madison Square Garden the same night. At the bar people were
clicking their tongues in disapproval when a competitor tried to pass off Bringing It All Back Home material with a Nashville Skyline intonation — but they were probably having a better time than those who’d paid twenty dollars and more to watch a distant silhouette act out the fiction of his rebirth for the umpteenth time.
He had a new album out but he didn’t play a single song from it:
Oh, he found room for Ricky Nelson’s Lonesome Town and ancient gospel corn like That Lucky Old Sun but apparently wasn’t ready to play Brownsville Girl or any of the other tracks that the American press were dutifully hailing as a Return to Form. (He’d probably read the CBS handout calling Brownville Girl “a masterpiece”; all Bob Dylan songs of more than five minutes duration are “masterpieces”).
3. + 4. + 5. + 6. Bob Dylan, “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You,” “Black Rider,” “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” “Mother of Muses,” from Rough and Rowdy Ways (Columbia). Hepworth is writing from the nadir of Bob Dylan’s career — that stretch from Street-Legal in 1978 to the first years of the 1990s, when Dylan reinvented himself onstage as a lead guitar player and went back to the ballads and blues of his first discovery of folk music with Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong. But his sour tone is a tonic when everything on this epochal album is being drowned out with hosannas — and the middle of this 10-song, 71-minute album is a long trough of dead air.
The rhythms are slack and the melodies cookie-cutter, vague whispers, or convoluted. With “Mother of Muses” the title phrase is out of reach — Dylan can’t rise to the u in the third word, the song curdles, and it takes shape. What could conceivably be an interesting idea — that the Civil War liberated Elvis Presley and World War II set the stage for Martin Luther King Jr. — dies when Dylan is unable to get through the word “Presley” and tries to come back by reciting “Martin Luther King” so heavily he sounds as if he’s reading the name off the wall of a public building. Just as music can make a trivial line feel profound, music as weak that infecting these tunes can turn good lines flat. But here the song writing itself is off. If “Sherman, Montgomery, and Scott” “cleared the path for Presley to sing,” whether they did or not, they really didn’t, because the words aren’t real speech: Elvis Presley may be a one-word figure, but the word is “Elvis,” not “Presley.” (Though the more I listen, the more I hear that the certain distancing in the use of the last name grants Elvis the dignity he’s usually denied, making him an actor, a person of intelligence and will, not just a phenomenon.) It’s the same at the beginning of what will turn out to be as rich an epic as Dylan has ever fashioned, the closing, 17-minute “Murder Most Foul.” The song almost dissolves before it starts with “It was a dark day in Dallas / November ’63 / A day that will live on in infamy” — again, even disregarding the Vincent Price intonation, it’s not real speech. The day entered history, and more importantly common memory, as its own day: people say, people think, “November 22, 1963,” so “November ’63” signifies less than nothing — it’d be like saying “Pearl Bay” instead of Pearl Harbor. And Dylan sounds embarrassed repurposing Roosevelt’s words on Pearl Harbor, as if he can feel how moving the phrase from one event to another diminishes both. But “Murder Most Foul” recovers not four lines later, when Dylan, making his way into John F. Kennedy’s deep subconscious in the instant the first bullet hits him, speaking in Kennedy’s voice, addresses his assassins with the instinctual reaction of the rich, the famous, the powerful: “Do you know who I am?” It’s a stunning moment, and it brings you into the song. “Mother of Muses” never recovers, and, running up to it, “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” and “Black Rider” barely start and “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” a big body in an ill-fitting suit bought online, empties out before it’s over.
7. Bob Dylan, “My Own Version of You,” from Rough and Rowdy Ways (Columbia). The album begins with “I Contain Multitudes” and “False Prophet,” two of the three songs released earlier in the year on Dylan’s website; the first seems to fade from its first impression and the second seems made for the long haul. Dylan has developed an interesting way of singing words placed either at a turning point in a line or at the end of it, maybe first surfacing as the “I don’t care” in “High Water (For Charley Patton)” on “Love and Theft” in 2001 — where once he dragged out such words, or honked them, giving Dylan imitators an automatic hook, now he drawls them with such a delicious tear in his voice it’s as if he’s laying a dead hand on the word, and that touch is all over “False Prophet.” Then comes “My Own Version of You”: more inspired, more seemingly emerging out of its own forehead than either. Like Dylan’s exquisite versions of the standard “Once Upon a Time” — on the Tony Bennett 90th Birthday telecast in 2016 or in 2017 on Triplicate, the third (or third, fourth, and fifth) of Dylan’s so-called Sinatra albums — the music gathers itself, and as it rides up at the end of a verse, it begins to sway. That back and forth lets you hear the singer telling you what he wants out of life with an earned, pleasurable cynicism, someone whose main pleasure these days seems to be getting something right. And the mood takes on such body that everything seems right, or fated: with the quietly gruff “You can bring it to St. Peter, you can bring it to Jerome,” the notion of the founder of Christianity passing the baton to Bo Diddley’s maracas player feels sublime, as if history has completed itself.
8. + 9. Bob Dylan, “Key West (Philosopher Pilot),” from Rough and Rowdy Ways (Columbia) and Charlie Poole, “White House Blues” (Columbia). “McKinley hollered, McKinley squalled / Doc said to McKinley, ‘I can’t find that ball’” — so sang D. H. Lawrence in 1915, entertaining friends: “He set our brains jingling,” wrote one, “with an American ballad on the murder of president McKinley with words of brutal jocularity sung to an air of lilting sweetness.” Lawrence wasn’t recording, but in 1926 the North Carolina banjo player Charlie Poole put out “White House Blues” in precisely the same spirit, history as a cosmic joke that this time just happened to fall on a president instead of the ordinary Joe who didn’t even vote for him, but who now gets the last word: “Roosevelt’s in the White House, he’s doing his best / McKinley’s in the graveyard, he’s taking his rest / From Buffalo, to Washington.” The song carried over into John Mellencamp’s 2002 “To Washington”: in the face of the disaster of George W. Bush (“A new man in the White House, with a familiar name”), he couldn’t muster the glee.
Dylan doesn’t try. Coming off of “Crossing the Rubicon,” which comes on strong but is captured by its own cliché, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” begins with a chord so light and golden, a reverberation of the spirit, that you’re all but suspended in its glow. You don’t want the song to move on from that moment, and it barely seems to. When the singer comes in, 16 seconds later, with the same old lines, just slightly shifted — “McKinley hollered, McKinley squalled / Doctor said, ‘McKinley, death is on the wall’” — the balance between tone and pacing is so elegant the assassination from 120 years ago seems present, the event unfinished, a moment in history that is not resolved, that we’re still living out. It’s a sensation that carries over into the next, final song on the album, beginning with the assassination of another president — not in the first clumsy measures of that song, but as it turns its corner into the playlist for the ages, when the singer knows the country needs to hear the right songs to live up to the violation, the unclosed breach in history that opened when Walter Cronkite announced, “From Dallas, Texas, apparently official, President Kennedy died at 1:00 p.m. Central Standard Time,” to live up to it, and, as long as the signal stays in the air, bear the violation away. “Sing it to me,” Dylan sings — speaking to Charlie Poole or history itself, and the road of the song opens up.
The song — the arrangement, the performance — seems to hover over itself, moving slowly over its more than nine-and-a-half minutes toward a receding utopia. This Key West has no Hemingway drinking in Sloppy Joe’s, no Santo Trafficante bringing in heroin, no Cuban exiles plotting their 90-mile trip back. This is the territory of the most luminous and least obvious songs Dylan has made this century: “Sugar Baby” from 2001, “Ain’t Talkin” from 2006, “Forgetful Heart” from 2009, “P.S. I Love You” — not the Beatles song, but the 1934 hit for Rudy Vallée — in 2017. An accordion lifts the music again and again. You could be listening to one of David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti’s songs for Julee Cruise — how in “Falling” and “Questions in a World of Blue,” notes are held up to a distant light in a dark nightclub, the singer listening for the echo of her own voice.
Here whatever story is being told, whatever old friends and heroes are named, slip away into the moral rhythm of the song, the way it seems to unfold and fold back, unfold and fold back, until the way the singer casually, or with a resignation so complete it brings its own satisfaction, lets “Such is life” hang in the air of the song. In the most distant manner, the moment swings. You might not even have to notice it for it to stay with you, the words “Such is life” playing in your head for no reason, with no apparent source, years later, not the words at all, really, but the mystery in the way they’re sung.
10. Bob Dylan, “Murder Most Foul,” from Rough and Rowdy Ways (Columbia). The piece never does settle down, pitching back and forth between history and 78s and 45s and tracks off old LPs, even after the singer calls in to Wolfman Jack, the disc jockey dead like Kennedy, dead like Etta James and John Lee Hooker, dead like Marilyn Monroe and Glenn Frey and Carl Wilson and Warren Zevon and Chet Baker and Charlie Parker and the countless others the singer has on his request list, You do play requests, don’t you, and who said I had to get off the line, just write it down, play “Key to the Highway” and “Anything Goes,” and I’m just getting started, I’m going to go all night.
What you might sense — after you’ve played this record a dozen times, if you do, over a dozen years, if you do, wondering, now, as you imagine doing that, if the person who made it will still be around, if you will be — is a reckoning, someone, or a whole country, or the whole of an era (“I’m a spokesman for our generation,” Dylan said in Rome in 2001, when someone asked him about the words “The future for me is already a thing of the past” in his song “Bye and “Bye” on “Love and Theft”. “I’m speaking for all of us”), taking stock. What is there to leave behind? What is it worth? As the singer says at the very end, “Play ‘Marching Through Georgia’ and ‘Dumbarton’s Drums’ / Play darkness and death will come when it comes” — and if you do what he says, go to YouTube and listen to Jean Redpath sing “Dumbarton’s Drums.” Her song, like “Murder Most Foul” across its last long minutes, will silence the world around you, and a minute or an hour you may not be able to hear anything else.
Thanks to Anne Margaret Daniel and Sean Wilentz.