Every headline of every review I’ve seen about this album has treated it the way I’ve characterised Dylan’s Sinatra period: as a warning from a man at peace with the fact that he’s a relic. As a public figure, he has traditionally been the victim of people seeing him as an extension of themselves (see: people surprised he believes in God), and the response to Rough And Rowdy Ways has felt like either a collective mea culpa on the part of music journalists everywhere who have finally grasped the grounds on which he has always wished to be taken, or music journalists intuitively responding to the image of an elderly rock star releasing an album. Of course a successful elderly rock star would write about his whole life, reflecting back on it, dropping nuggets of wisdom from his vast compendium of experiences! But when I sat down to listen to this album, my decision to treat every word and sound as an expression of my own emotions and worldview wasn’t just contrarian amusement; I feel like having quantified an image of Dylan in my head so clearly has left exploring the way his music expresses my identity is the next logical step – having quantified who Dylan is, perhaps I can now most successfully pretend to be him. In fact, I had already picked out a few songs that I thought expressed a particular feeling or state of mind I had been in; “Narrow Way” clicked into another level for me when I realised it laid out, point-by-point, the time I had to break off a friendship that was slowly draining me of life as I gave and gave and saw nothing for my efforts (“Nothing back there anyway I can call my own”), and it occurred to me one day that “High Water (For Charly Patton) was an excellent breakdown of my father’s battle with dementia despite being written over a decade and a half before the fact.
A big part of my journey right now is the solidifying of identity and the conception of not just who I am, but who I am effortlessly, and that involves coming to terms with impulses and desires that seem hypocritical at first glance, but which I know now are the inevitable contradictions of being alive (“I’m a man of contradictions, I’m a man of many moods.”). “I Contain Multitudes” bases itself on a cliche, but it’s a cliche because it’s true; the music conveys the peace that can come with self-knowledge, even as it takes you to a dangerous place (“I drive fast cars, and I eat fast foods.”), because you can also know what you can survive (“I go right to where all things lost are made good again.”). “False Prophet” gleefully pushes that self-knowledge into straight-up swagger (“I’m first among equals / Second to none / The last of the best / You can bury the rest!”). If “I Contain Multitudes” looked inward, “False Prophet” looks outward, ready to stake its claim on the world. One of the nice things about self-awareness is being able to tell when you’re underestimated (“You don’t know me darlin’ / You never would guess / I’m nothin’ like my ghostly appearance would suggest!”). I love the line “I climb the mountain of swords with my bare feet” because it so well conveys the sense of satisfaction with knowing how simple the path forward is by virtue of having taken the long, needlessly difficult way first.
The beautiful thing about my identity at this age of my life is that I can steal things from people who died or vanished a long time ago, robbing them of gestures and expressions and philosophies and jokes knowing they and everyone who knew them are long gone and unable to call plagiarism, and “My Own Version Of You” is a really great layout of that process. One can, of course, work some pop culture into the mix (“I’ll take the scar-faced Pacino and the Godfather vandal / Mix it up and attack, get a robot commander”); this goes with the final verse of “Desolation Row” in articulating Dylan’s creative process, I think, and the way he’s constantly bringing back old techniques and styles he’s picked up over the years. Certainly, another little aspect of reaching this age is that I’ve squared away the art I love most in this world, which has left me more willing and able to search out the stuff I’m not head-over-heels for and being able to recognise what does work from it and reinterpolate it into my own work. “I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You” was resonant to the point of embarrassing me; it’s easier to say “I asked someone out this week and it reminds me of that” than to admit that the lines and mood matched up to the grandiose visions and feelings I’ve been having (oddly, I was most moved by the simplicity of “My heart’s like a river, a river that sings / Just takes me a while to realise things”). It even still ties with identity in general in how now I have someone to give to someone else.
“Black Rider” was one of my favourite songs on the album, not just because I like its poetry the best or because I think it sounds pretty boss music-wise, but because it genuinely changed my perspective on an aspect of identity. One part of redefining your sense of self is letting go of an old image you were trying to live up to, and it’s hard to face up to the level of shame that comes with recognising you’ve gone down a wrong path for too long. Characterising that particular image as a ‘black rider’ softens the blow; it’s not stupid to have been seduced by the romantic image of the Black Rider, but it was ultimately a shadow that could never have existed in reality (“The path that you’re walking, too narrow to walk”) and it’s best to leave it behind – to create and follow a more realistic image. I am most moved by the final line, so perfect to end the song on, because it’s an acknowledgement that the Black Rider did serve a purpose at one point and got me through a difficult situation, he was just, you know, on the job too long. “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” feels like walking away from something more literal; the verse containing “I can’t sing a song that I don’t understand” makes me think of the job I walked away from, and the whole song has the energy of gleefully walking away from an unwanted responsibility.
One small Young Person problem I think I’ve grown out of is the need to invent; to flip it over, I have gained an appreciation for things that became tradition because they work – not just techniques or institutions, but stories, songs, and legends, and “Mother Of Muses” taps into the awe that comes with that. It’s very Dylanesque that he intermingles artists with warriors and activists; it’s a lie to pretend they aren’t all exactly the same and don’t all have exactly the same feeling of meaning and haven’t had the same effect on the world today. I wouldn’t have as much potential at my incoming career in aged care if I hadn’t watched all that TV. I love the verse of Calliope especially, because he’s staking a claim on that history; I’ve had to acknowledge how much – though not all – of my values are rooted in white and male archetypes, like the witty, well-spoken intellectual (random example: Douglas Adams). The now-popular narrative of this acceptance, at least in leftist circles, has been one of feeling shame at the POC and women we’ve left behind, but there’s also peace that comes with admitting that you love something.
“Crossing The Rubicon” was a hard one to interpret until I had to cross my own Rubicon shortly after buying the album. It was unsettling, actually, to find it fit my situation practically line-by-line; it was the effect I described in my “Desolation Row” article in real time, where suddenly my problem and feelings were elevated into Myth, a life-and-death situation in which a choice had to be made and there’s no going back. “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” is a song about a particular place just as much as “Desolation Row”, but this time it’s about home. In terms of identity, I’m only old enough to be in the process of my first reinvention, but I have been in enough situations to recognise which ones I’m nostalgic for and which I’m not, contextualising the emotion with nuanced differences. Key West for me was drinking hot chocolate at my couch, asking my mother about the themes of the Stargate: SG-1 episode we just watched in 1998, and it wasn’t the nights (or worse, days) I spent working in the dingy, disgusting, freezing potato cake factory in 2013, although that night off that job that I spent slamming through Spec Ops: The Line in one marathon session wasn’t that far from it. It’s easier to find Key West when you know what it’s called.
“Murder Most Foul” is the hardest to project onto, and that was the goal. “My Own Version Of You” lays out the theory, and “Murder Most Foul” is the practice; taking my cue from the sheer, endless list of references, I think this song is made up entirely of words and phrases Dylan picked up over the years, from television, radio, speeches, casual conversation, and wherever else people said things. In one of Scorsese’s documentaries, Dylan remarks that he puts little value on the meanings of words because he knows they’ll shift with time – that something will mean one thing today and perhaps its opposite in ten years. I wonder if the side effect of this is that he values words and their varying unique combinations more strongly. “We ask no quarter and no quarter do we give” meant one thing the first time he heard it, and something very different in the context of “Murder Most Foul”. This may be the purest and most complete picture we’ll ever get of what it’s like in Dylan’s head, starting with the image of John F Kennedy getting shot in the head and following the related images like we’re following links on Wikipedia. What this does do, though, is nudge me into reflecting on how my “Murder Most Foul” would look – both in the sense of wondering what images I would put in my version, and in wondering if I’d use imagery at all. Bob Dylan has lived a life you can make an I’m Not There story about, chewing through meanings and looking for the images that last. That doesn’t sound like me; I think of myself as more of a personal dictionary, accruing definitions rather than throwing them away. Dylan doesn’t question his identity; I do nothing but. Perhaps my “Murder Most Foul” would be not too distant from those Seven Simple Rules – sixteen and a half minutes of explanation. I’ll find out and get back to you all when I turn 79.