- “Masters Of War”, Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
- “John Wesley Harding”, John Wesley Harding
- “Positively 4th Street”
- “Ain’t Talkin'”, Modern Times
- “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”, Blood On The Tracks
- “Romance In Durango”, Rolling Thunder Revue
- “Narrow Way”, Tempest
Considering his all-encompassing fascination with American music, you’d figure Bob Dylan would have a fairly deep understanding of ownage. The gun is not a uniquely American invention, but no other country has made them so central to their identity, and they’re all over both American music in general and Dylan’s music specifically (which makes it hilarious and frustrating that, as far as I can tell, he’s never been pictured with a gun, robbing me of a cool header picture for this article – so far as I can tell, the only time he’s expressed an opinion either way is that he was given a gun in the Sixties when fans were invading his property, and that he doesn’t enjoy hunting). He gives them to heroes and villains alike, letting them stand in for an expression of power. And yet, when I downloaded “Masters Of War”, I was still shocked by how raw and powerful the ownage of it was. Hearing a pop singer declare “I hope that you die” has a certain shock value to it, all the moreso with Dylan’s wide-eyed certainty behind it; this is a song where he’s not playing any games.
As the song goes on, his insights get more piercing and vicious. It’s common to decide this is a world too evil to bring a child into, but Dylan twists that from a despairing emotion into white-hate preemptively paternal wrath with a single target – how dare you make this world into something too frightening to bring children into? From there, his insults get more spiritual and existential; I know he apparently dropped “even Jesus would never forgive what you do” upon greater religious study, deciding this was incorrect, but it’s still a vicious insult, and for my money the entire “Let me ask you one question” verse is absolute salt-the-earth fire. There’s a scorn in the line “Do you think that it could?”, and in theory, saying that someone traded their soul for money is trite, but Dylan’s wording conveys the panic one will face one day when that debt is paid. After that, all Dylan can do is bury his enemy.
“John Wesley Harding” is an odd track that’s nothing like what I expected. Like most people, my exposure to the album is mainly through “All Along The Watchtower”, which is an edgy track riddled with dread; most people prefer Jimmy Hendrix’s testerical rocking, but I prefer the sparseness of the original, as if a message from the other side was coming out of some ramshackle three-piece band. In this case, “JWH” is as ramshackle as the band itself; I totally believe Dylan’s story that it was unfinished because he didn’t know where to go with it, because it doesn’t sound finished at all, neither as long as it should be nor as polished (“he traveled with a gun in every hand” is less of a poetic line and more of a dumb one). One of the things that attracts me to Dylan’s work is that there is a relentless sense of purpose behind it, even if I don’t get to fully know what it is; this is a rare example of a Dylan song (outside the late Eighties) where even he doesn’t seem sure why he’s doing it. That said, from the perspective of ownage, it’s extremely useful, sketching out a basic folk hero story. Much like my usual complaints with his country music, I’d say my main problem with the song is that it doesn’t feel fully digested – this is just a straightfaced folk hero song with no twists or frills or sense of what makes Dylan unique, which makes it easier to spot how he usually shoves the concept in a larger set of concepts, as we will at other points in the playlist.
“Positively 4th Street” is one of the most vicious and biting entries in Dylan’s canon next to “Idiot Wind”. I’ve read that people who knew Dylan took it as directed at them and were very angry and insulted, which makes sense because, depending on my mood, I can feel angry and insulted by the song. Unlike a lot of Dylan songs, especially around this time, it doesn’t elevate itself with either fancy words or fancy action; this is a very direct confrontation over things that happen every day, which only makes it all the more impressive that it still avoids describing almost all the action. Dylan’s target is a false friend who betrayed him, perhaps in a passive way, which is enough for him to bring his full withering contempt down on them. We can feel like our every day social lives are the most important thing in the entire world, and this is another great example of Dylan’s music playing to that.
I picked up some of these songs by asking around other Dylan fansites, which is always risky when trying to stick to a theme but also means great payoff when you hit something that wasn’t quite what you were looking for but nevertheless exactly what you needed. “Ain’t Talkin'” strikes me as a song from the perspective of an old man who has spent a lifetime owning, moving from one situation to another, reflecting on everything he has lost and the little he has gained, and ultimately realising that whatever he says, does, thinks, or feels, he’s going to keep moving forward and keep owning. It’s funny to compare with the young man rage in “Masters Of War”. The two songs are almost a before and after, as if “Ain’t Talkin'” is the result of ten thousand “Masters Of War” situations.
“Lily, Rosemary, And The Jack Of Hearts” is exactly what I meant when I said Dylan fuses concepts with other concepts – the Jack Of Hearts is totally in the same league as John Wesley Harding, a folk hero with a gun in every hand, but he’s one smaller part of a larger story. It’s funny, looking over the lyrics and realising how little actually happens and how heavily the lyrics rely on atmosphere; the action doesn’t actually happen until twelve verses in, and much of the lead-up involves a mixture of sketching out the various characters and building up a sense of dread (in ironic counterpoint to the music, which is infectiously cheery). I’ve noticed a lot of Dylan’s songs can be described as a series of observations that builds up into a single decision – I first noticed this with “Just Like Tom Thumbs Blues”, which describes a town that seems exhausting and miserable to live in and concludes with the narrator deciding to go back to New York City, but it’s also present in things ranging from “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)” to “Just Like A Woman” to Tangled Up In Blue”, and “LR&tJoH” feels like a particularly extreme and subtle version of that, building up to Rosemary killing Big Jim and getting hanged for it.
In terms of raw musical ownage, it’s hard to get better in Dylan’s catalog than the Rolling Thunder Revue, and “Romance In Durango” absolutely emphasises the ownage of the music; if “Isis” is the sound of a circus exploding, “RiD” never quite loses control in the same way, crooning and screaming and dragging its sound around the exact same way Dylan does with the lyrics. The story is of two lovers on the run, and for reasons best known to himself, Dylan mixes in a strong sense of Mexico despite the story explicitly being about them trying to get to a place in Colorado. Being fascinated by America, I’ve always been interested in the place Mexico has in American culture; if America’s appeal can be summed up as “free markets, rule of law”, Americans see Mexico as dropping the “rule of law” part. It’s a place more free than America but in exchange more dangerous, and I think that’s a view Dylan is playing with for “RiD” (theory: Spanish is the coolest second language a white American can speak). “Narrow Way” feels like an emotional flipside to “Ain’t Talkin'”. Both are songs by old men looking back on a lifetime of ownage and riffing on the thought – there is a small but impossible-to-ignore extent to which Dylan has evolved into Grampa Simpson – but “Narrow Way” is more at peace and more excited about the future. This Dylan still has work to do and still sees somewhere he could rise to, even if he’s okay with it being dragged down to him. This is the threat of ownage that carries the knowledge of a lifetime and more behind it.