Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen have long vied for the title as the greatest singer song-writing poet of a lifetime. Now they share the distinction of having produced much of their greatest work on or about the octogenarian decade.
Leonard Cohen played his last concert at 79 and in the next two-and-a-half years - before he died in 2016 - he would deliver two impressive albums. For good measure, there was a wonderful posthumous release, Thanks For The Dance, in 2019.
Dylan turned 79 on May 24 and less than a month later Rough and Rowdy Ways - his first album of original songs for eight years – was released to widespread critical acclaim.
Dylan’s timing was … well, very Bob Dylan.
Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield said it best: “The man really knows how to pick his moments. Dylan has brilliantly timed his new masterwork for a summer when the hard rain is falling all over the nation: a plague, a quarantine, revolutionary action in the streets, cities on fire, phones out of order.”
And in a rare interview with The New York Times just prior to the release of Rough and Rowdy Ways, the Coronavirus pandemic was raised by writer Douglas Brinkley who asked Dylan if he saw it in almost biblical terms. The Nobel Laureate replied: “I think it’s a forerunner of something else to come. It’s an invasion for sure, and it’s widespread, but biblical? You mean like some kind of warning sign for people to repent of their wrongdoings? That would imply that the world is in line for some sort of divine punishment. Extreme arrogance can have some disastrous penalties. Maybe we are on the eve of destruction. There are numerous ways you can think about this virus. I think you just have to let it run its course.”
It was in late March - just as the Covid-19 gloom was deepening - that Dylan released out of nowhere a 17-minute single “Murder Most Foul.” It was instantly labelled an epic.
The song uses the assassination of JFK as a trigger to trawl through popular culture of the late 20th century.
Rob Sheffield : “He uses Kennedy as a departure point for a long fever-dream ramble through cultural memory, sending a prayer out to the DJ, like a cross between Walt Whitman and Wolfman Jack. Dylan ends the song with a long roll call of musical legends: John Lee Hooker, Etta James, Thelonius Monk, Dickey Betts, Bud Powell, Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks. He also salutes his original rock & roll idol Little Richard, in an accidentally timely farewell.”
“Murder Most Foul” swiftly captured the imagination of Dylan fans thirsty for original material and, despite its length, it would become his first #1 song under his own name on the billboard charts.
Dylan told The New York Times he was totally surprised that “Murder Most Foul” had become a number one hit: ” I don’t think of “Murder Most Foul” as a glorification of the past or some kind of send-off to a lost age. It speaks to me in the moment. It always did, especially when I was writing the lyrics out.”
Besides the Kennedy epic, there were two other releases - “I Contain Multitudes” and “False Prophet” – before Columbia Records confirmed what everyone had been speculating that indeed Dylan’s 39th studio album would be released on June 19.
All up, there are 10 songs on Rough and Rowdy Ways and on the CD version, the closing “Murder Most Foul” gets its own disc.
In his preamble to the NYT interview, Brinkley nicely summarised the latest work: “Like most conversations with Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways covers complex territory: trances and hymns, defiant blues, love longings, comic juxtapositions, prankster wordplay, patriotic ardor, maverick steadfastness, lyrical Cubism, twilight-age reflections and spiritual contentment.”
Defiant blues could best apply to “Goodbye Jimmy Reed ,“ an in-your-face, foot-stomping dedication to the Mississippi bluesman who inspired the likes of Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones. Goodbye Jimmy Reed/Goodbye and good luck/I can’t play the record
‘cause my needle got stuck
A less rambunctious but more sinister Chicago blues-style number is “Crossing the Rubicon,” which provides probably the best lyric line of the album: Three miles north of purgatory — one step from the great beyond/I prayed to the cross and I kissed the girls and I crossed the Rubicon.
Mortality is clearly on Dylan’s mind! It emerges again and again.
On the opening track “I Contain Multitudes” he sings I sleep with life and death in the same bed and on the slow and utterly-compelling “Mother of Muses” he states so matter-of-factly: Mother of Muses wherever you are/I’ve already outlived my life by far
When asked by Brinkley whether he thought of mortality often, Dylan replied: “I think about the death of the human race. The long strange trip of the naked ape. Not to be light on it, but everybody’s life is so transient. Every human being, no matter how strong or mighty, is frail when it comes to death. I think about it in general terms, not in a personal way.”
The album can at times appear morbid and cantankerous, but equally it is explorative, down-right fascinating and, at times, plain fun.
How about these lines of levity:
The size of your cock will get you nowhere (“Black Rider”)
I’m the last of the best, you can bury the rest (“False Prophet”)
The Beatles are comin’, they’re gonna hold your hand (“Murder Most Foul”)
Such gems will not only bring a smile to life-long Dylan fans but any music lover waiting for a master artist to paint a blank landscape.
While Cohen stopped touring – his last concert was actually in Auckland, New Zealand – three months into his 80th year, there is no indication that Dylan will do the same. As Rob Sheffield noted “he refuses to rest on his legend” and his Never Ending Tour is certain to resume once the pandemic is contained.
Let us hope that, like Cohen, there are at least another two or three octogenarian albums in him. For Rough and Rowdy Ways proves it is certainly not dark yet!
Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation