Like many, I have discovered that there are small joys to be found in the midst of pandemic—a morning coffee that is savoured rather than frenetically downed. Ample time for reading for sheer pleasure. Evenings spent strumming a guitar. A quiet midnight ramble with my favourite canine.
And then there are miracles. These are gifts so shot through with grace you sense the heavens and the earth meeting. One can only feel grateful to be alive to witness such things. Such is Bob Dylan’s 39th album, released on the threshold of his eightieth birthday and in the midst of a global pandemic. This miracle does not bring relief from our current suffering precisely, but consolation–in the literal sense of experiencing solace with the poet. We experience consolation as Dylan leads us through the rough and rowdy ways that have brought us to this place. Along the way, as in any good American road narrative, we meet friends and foes. And along the way, again like any good road narrative, we encounter that most enigmatic of friends or foes, our past.
In many ways, this album falls in line with much earlier Dylan classics, such as his epic American travelogue, Highway 61 Revisited, released 55 (!) years ago. But this album represents a much less straightforward journey than that ribbon that cut its way from Dylan’s native Minnesota to the South. If “Rough and Rowdy Ways” is an odyssey, it is not that of a young man longing for meaning and adventure, but neither is it that of an old man looking wistfully backward. The past is alive in the present, and the future does not promise any neat redemption. Our hero/guide refuses any final destination; he simply points us to fragments, some of which show us precisely how rough the Via Americana is:
I’m in the red light district they got a cop on the beat
Living in a nightmare on Elm Street
When your down on deep Ellum put your money in your shoes
Don’t ask what your country can do for you
Cash on the barrel head, money to burn
Dealey Plaza, make a left-hand turn
I’m going to the crossroads, gonna flag a ride
That’s the place where faith, hope, and charity died
Shoot him while he runs, boy. Shoot him while you can
See if you can shoot the invisible man
Goodbye, Charlie. Goodbye, Uncle Sam
Frankly, Miss Scarlet, I don’t give a damn
What is the truth, where did it go?
Ask Oswald and Ruby, they ought to know
“Shut your mouth,” said a wise old owl
Business is business, and it’s murder most foul
These lines are taken from the seventeen-minute final track on the album, “Murder Most Foul.” This is a song about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but it is also about the death of something more far-reaching, which is the optimism that the Kennedys represented (“That’s the place where faith, hope, and charity died.”) Kennedy’s death is linked loosely to other acts of violence that will require political reckoning, like the Vietnam War (“Goodbye Charlie. Goodbye, Uncle Sam”) and the murder of Ahmaud Arbery and countless other black men in the name of vigilante or police justice (“Shoot him while he runs, boy. Shoot him while you can. See if you can shoot the invisible man”).
The title itself is revealing. “Murder most foul” are the words uttered at the beginning of Hamlet by King Hamlet’s ghost, who cannot find rest until his murder is avenged. As Timothy Hampton put it in his masterful review:
His murder was most foul, and that event paved the way, in Dylan’s mind, it would seem, for the process of long decay, the rootlessness and suspicion, that we have lived since then.
These past moments are alive yet in the present, and yet the present is also haunted by happier ghosts, small sacraments which are shored against America’s ruin:
Play Oscar Peterson
Play Stan Getz
Play “Blue Sky”
Play Dickey Betts
Play Hot Pepper, Thelonious Monk
Charlie Parker and all that junk
All that junk and “All That Jazz”
The past is alive in the present in ways that might have yet something to show us about the less than straightforward path to redemption. It is a trajectory that relies not on messiahs, but instead upon generous guides, human signs to help us stave off calamity.
If messiahs will not deliver us, what sort of redemption is this? For one, it does not appeal to a golden age or a city on a hill. Refreshingly, Dylan holds no romantic notions about the past. Even the Age of Aquarius is surveyed with a skeptical eye:
I’m going to Woodstock, it’s the Aquarian Age
Then I’ll go to Altamontand sit near the stage
The past is not the Golden Age; neither is the future devoid of hope. In “I Contain Multitudes,” Dylan alludes to Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself 51, in which Whitman, too, mixes past and present, which are “fill’d” and “emptied” through poetry. In Dylan’s song, the path to redemption remains open while each of its sojourners are offered promise:
I’ll keep the path open, the path in my mind
I’ll see to it that there’s no love left behind.
I began this essay by claiming that this album represents something of a miracle. In one sense it is miraculous because grace is carried so lightly, so expertly. Not only does overt theology make bad music, it also makes bad theology. Dylan’s so-called Christian period (from the late 1970s to the late 1980s) gave rise to three of his most uninspired albums (“Slow Train Coming,” “Saved,” and “Shot of Love”). “Rough and Rowdy Ways” is more deeply theological than these because of its indirect approach to such eternal themes as the nature of grace and of evil. In terms of grace, that an artist whose career spanned sixty years can create a work so timely, novel, and generative is testament to its working still in this tired and broken world. In terms of evil, Dylan has reminded us of old wounds such as JFK’s assassination haunt us still. More than this, he has constellated the death of Kennedy with the ascent of the anti-Christ in our present time. He has done all this without any easy roadmap to a promised land. Thus at the very moment when he could easily claim prophetic voice, our companion of solace retreats just enough for the rest of us—the rough and even the rowdy—to find our ways.
Altamont Free Concert, the much-touted “Woodstock West” held in December 1969 ended in the tragic deaths of four people and the injury of many others.