MUSIC. RESPONSE. | “Rough and Rowdy Ways” by Bob Dylan
Twenty-twenty. The year when hugging was outlawed, and I may have started talking a lot to my fern. What’s that you say, Fergus? Oh, you don’t like today’s record. Right, back in the cupboard. Please note for the record that Fergus the Fern has been purged from the voter registry and frond prints you see voting against today’s album – one that helped me survive 2020 – is obvious voter fraud.
Now, please stand and hit play on my 4th record-elect, Bob Dylan’s “Rough and Rowdy Ways“.
Once upon a time, I decided that I deserved a special treat and for my birthday gifted myself a ticket to see Bob Dylan play in New York City. This would have been some time in the mid-noughties. I didn’t go nuts and fork out a shit ton of money to get a great seat, but it was a seat in the same room as him and that’s all that mattered to me. One of my biggest writing heroes, right there in front of me. The chance to see that, “Oh, hey, he’s just a man,” and leave knowing he was not just a dream.
I was hyped. Sitting way up high in the steep balcony of an ancient theatre—if memory recalls, it was the Beacon—I was perched on the edge of bliss, looking down upon its beautiful stage with the lights still up and the weight of some pretty heavy architecture around me. Ready for anything, that was me. Good show, bad show, I didn’t really care.
At that time, Bob was still doing the Neverending Tour. Like, hundreds of gigs, year after year after year, and if the rumors were true, you had a one in ten chance of catching a good show. But I didn’t care. Time moves forward and not back, and Bob’s life clock kept (and keeps) on ticking higher. For someone as central to my life from a lyrical and musical perspective, I figured if I didn’t go see him while I had the chance, I would forever kick myself after he was gone.
While waiting for the show to begin, two older ladies sat down beside me and started chittering to each other. One lady opened up a folder—a clear binder like you’d get from Staples, with the hard plastic cover and clear sheets inside. I sat looking straight ahead, but you know, totally creeping with a side eye as to what was unfolding beside me. Inside each of these little plastic sheets was a setlist from what was obviously every Bob Dylan concert this lady—or maybe even both of them—had ever been to.
These were real fans, in possession of their own Bible of Bob. It stood as a testament to their devotion to him. I didn’t have anything like that, and it made me feel—I won’t say smug, but I was kind of happy that I hadn’t reached that level of Dylan Tragic. Yet.
I’m like, mid-level Dylan Tragic at most. Not upper echelon.
I know where I am on the tragic scale because when it was announced that Dylan’s new album, Rough and Rowdy Ways—his first album of new material in eight years—was available for pre-order, I hesitated. Do I really need another Dylan album? How much good mumbling into a microphone with a kick-ass band behind him could he possibly do? How many more times would sad saps like me fall for this? What more could he possibly have to say?
My hesitation stemmed more from this: I was nervous for Bob. What if it sucked? What if these were the last sad croonings of an ancient rambler committed to vinyl for us all to witness and lament the sad demise of? What if the suck-ups, caught up in their adoration of a man, didn’t have the guts to say it was pure garbage and let him think it was gold, keeping the wheel turning FOREVER? But mostly, I didn’t think I could take the disappointment of listening to not just the overhype of fans for it, but the realization that my King had lost his gift. So, I hesitated, and then of course I pre-ordered—I’M NOT MADE OF STONE! —but was already psyching myself up for the possibility of a terrible record.
Nervous. But ready. Just like at the concert.
In March, when the 17-minute epic Murder Most Foul was gifted to the world, I didn’t listen to it. Too anxious. I avoided diving headlong into the gushing hype, preferring to catch only headline glimpses and keep on scrolling. Time passed. Pre-orders started showing up on Twitter feeds. The anticipated disappointment loomed ever closer.
Tweets would proclaim: “I have it, it’s fucking incredible!” and I’d roll my eyes and sigh into my cereal. “It probably sucks,” I’d mutter, then wonder why my copy hadn’t shown up yet. With each person’s, “This is amazing!” my dread needle would tick up a notch.
About a week after all the gushing praise had died down, my copy turned up. I didn’t open it, choosing instead to leave it just inside the front door for a week, then moving it (still in its shipping packaging) to the floor near the turntable. It stared at me nightly, but I ignored it. Crushing disappointment can wait, I thought, and I just couldn’t seem to work up my courage to give it a go. I didn’t want to feel sorry for Bob. Rich Bob. Rich Nobel Prize-Winning Poet God, Bob. Rich Nobel Prize-Winning God of My Record Collection, Bob.
Me? Able to resist opening new Dylan? Who dis?
Just so you know, my favorite Bob Dylan song of all time is Tombstone Blues. No, wait. It isn’t. It’s Idiot Wind. Shit, no. It’s Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall. Dammit, not it’s not, it’s Gates of Eden. Wow, how could I forget about the gob-smacking brilliance of It’s Alright Ma, I’m only Bleeding? I’m sorry. Picking my favorite song is hard. Bob Dylan has the gift of the alive phrase. Ideas as my maps. The sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken. He not busy being born is busy dying. This is why I love Dylan. And my heart simply was not ready to watch my word wizard fall from the sky.
Until I cracked. Finally. Got sick of that record accusing me from the corner and ripped it open. Soaked in that new record smell, I fired up the turntable and committed to the moment as that first song filled the room.
The band noodled notes. Bob noodled words. The first song—I laughed for some reason. The lyrics of it were…just funny to me. It broke the idol spell. The anxiety bubble. Janeen, these are just words, arranged in a certain way, and Bob Dylan is just a man, playing with them. Playing with us all. There is no secret word well that only he has access to. All the interpretation and expectation, all the praise and worship and bullshit you project on him, Janeen, the meanings and weight of those words—that’s on you.
Relax, dammit. Listen. Just listen. Enjoy it. Listen once, twice, three times. Sit and listen. It’s what I did that day, and random days the weeks and months following. And so now I’ll come right out and say it—I am FAR from disappointed. This album has gotten me through those not yet awake, pottering about in my slippers mornings. Saved me in those early ‘shit, I don’t have a job anymore!’ days. It’s had me strutting down my hallway to songs like False Prophet, has let me close my eyes and washed me clean with meditative tunes like My Own Version of You, and has set me down at sunset in the desert next to a cactus and told me the story of Black Rider.
It is blues and country and rock and whimsy and comedy and drama and murder and mystery and man-oh-man, it is great. These are great words. Yes, I love Dylan, so take it with a grain of salt. But know that grain of salt is stuck on some high-quality dark chocolate and is de-bloody-licious.
Throughout, Dylan is sleep/dream singing like has been for years now, but there’s a sharpness to the voice. A cheekiness and looseness. He’s a sly old fox AND a jester. He knows who he is, and it always feels like we never will. He keeps us guessing. Rough and Rowdy Ways is a wonderful word drabble of an album with soft, relaxing, sharp-as-a-tack musical arrangements. Give in to it and allow yourself—give yourself permission—to just have it in your life. Have it be there for you, waiting like it was for me in the corner of my room. At the ready for those ‘sky is falling’ mood emergencies. In 2020, if you’ve been looking for an ointment to put on the wound of uncertainty, I am advocating for this. It is a Dylan comfort quilt. A Bob Blanket. An emergency support animal for your anxious days.
To close, I’m just going to mention one more thing.
There are more cultural references and flat-out name drops on this album than any mortal has a right to know. Has anyone counted them? In the first song alone he drops Poe, Anne Frank, Indiana Jones, The Rolling Stones, William Blake, Beethoven, Chopin, and what I assume is subtle a nod to David Bowie (or perhaps Mott the Hoople?). Jump right to the last song and trust me, no one packs more names into 17-minutes of a history lesson than Bob Dylan. It’s a massive “I know everything that has ever happened and you should get some knowledge if you wanna fly with me” flex. I can’t remember the last time I even heard the name Jelly Roll Morton, but when he dropped that one ZOOM! Instant flashback to teen Janeen buying some JRM cassette on a whim (I had a ragtime obsession for a hot minute there), and I wonder to myself: wtf happened to THAT girl? What’s she doing now? How many multitudes does SHE contain?
Soak it in, suck it up, drink everyone’s milkshake and keep on chugging. He’s a puzzle, he’s a shapeshifter, he’s forever and always muther-fucking Bob Dylan. Bob, you didn’t make my favorite album in 2020 (more on that tomorrow), but you’ll always be my guy.