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ON ROUGH AND ROWDY WAYS,
BOB DYLAN PLAYS THE
ROLE OF A LIFETIME

After digging into Bob Dylan’s sprawling Rough and Rowdy Ways over the weekend, a contemporary of mine—someone who, like me, was around to experience that inconceivable instant in Dallas on November 22, 1963, when the world turned upside down—said of the album’s 17-minute closing opus, “Murder Most Foul,” “It feels like the story of our generation.”

It does indeed.

“On first listen to the album,” my colleague Phil Gallo noted in a Sunday morning email, “‘Crossing the Rubicon’ and ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’ made my ears perk up. Having heard ‘Murder Most Foul’ a dozen times, it feels like it exists on a separate plane, like a coda.”

It does indeed.

This epic song, the longest of Dylan’s six-decade career—and that’s saying something—is the beginning and the end, the main event. It could only be the last track—placed by itself on the second disc of the CD and the fourth side of the LP. Roping in—by name or song title—Etta James, John Lee Hooker, Little Walter, Robert Johnson, Marilyn Monroe, Henley and Frey, Buckingham and Nicks, Oscar Peterson and Stan Getz, Carl Wilson, Randy Newman, The Who, The Allman Brothers, Queen, Wolfman Jack, Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole, Debussy and Bud Powell, as well as Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, Bugsy Siegel and Pretty Boy Floyd amid a cast of hundreds, “Murder Most Foul” is a wildly allusive, free-associative slice of autobiography. The jukebox on the album cover is as straightforward a metaphor as you’ll ever get from this master of disguises.

In releasing this fascinatingly intricate piece out of the blue back in late March, two weeks into the lockdown, Dylan was setting the template for the album as a whole, with its cavalcade of pop-cultural and literary references, a warmer, less grizzled vocal approach and far more worked-out arrangements than we’ve come to expect from a bandleader known for winging it both onstage and in the studio.

(Upon the surprise release of “Murder Most Foul,” Phil painstakingly assembled a 56-song Spotify playlist of songs and artists namechecked in the song. It serves as a fascinating companion piece to the song and album. You’ll find it embedded below.)

Dylan first came into the public eye and ear during John F. Kennedy’s administration, and he was more than a mere bystander as America was opening up to new ideas; as the voice of youth, reluctant as he may have been playing that role, he helped shape the changes that were taking place, beginning in the midst of the “New Frontier” JFK had envisioned and set in motion.

Dylan was there, raising his voice alongside Joan Baez, Peter, Paul & Mary, Harry Belafonte and other luminaries, in August 1963 for the March on Washington, a massive Civil Rights rally organized by Dr. Martin Luther King. Four months later, he was glued to his TV, along with the rest of America, as Walter Cronkite broke the news of the Kennedy assassination.

I was in an economics class at Notre Dame that afternoon—atypically sunny and mild for late fall in South Bend—and after being informed of the President’s shooting, the professor went back to his lecture as we sat there, gobsmacked.

Just three weeks after that, Dylan, along with the rest of us, witnessed the nation being lifted from its gloom by the arrival of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” At that point, we knew very little about The Beatles beyond news reports that they were huge in Britain. It was just before Christmas break, and the campus radio station, viewing it as a novelty record, played “I Want To Hold Your Hand” nonstop for 24 hours. At the time, the notion of a bunch of skinny English kids with funny hairstyles playing good old American rock ’n’ roll seemed ludicrous, and we listened to the record for as long as we could stand it on the dorm-room radio, skeptical but intrigued.

By the time the Notre Dame student body returned from Christmas break in early January, our derision and skepticism had turned to budding fascination. Capitol wasted no time readying an album, titling it Meet the Beatles and rush-releasing it on Jan. 20, at which point it became a must-have item for virtually every American under 21. When The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show on Feb. 9 (the first of three consecutive Sunday night appearances), the TV rooms across the campus were packed with newly minted fans eager to get their first look at the moptops—a microcosm of the phenomenon that was gripping the country as a whole, as a sense of growing elation overcame the collective sense of impending chaos. So it was that in less than two months, The Beatles had exploded from a semi-obscure curiosity to a nationwide sensation.

As with Dylan himself, it’s impossible to imagine what the ’60s—or history in general—would have been like had The Beatles not come on the scene. Together, they transformed not just the popular arts but culture and politics as well.

Now, as the narrator of “Murder Most Foul,” Dylan is reliving that interconnected series of events. He leaps backward and forward through time, like Billy Pilgrim in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, but he keeps circling back again and again to that darkest of days like a moth to a flame. Wherever he alights, Dylan finds a song that captures a particular moment, and he strings them together into a soundtrack that spans a century. At the same time, he’s flitting through literature and film from Lady Macbeth to Jackie Kennedy, finding ecstasy and mortal dread, beacons of truth and cauldrons of lies, a reason to keep on keepin’ on.

In other songs on Rough and Rowdy Ways, Dylan keeps adding to this kaleidoscope of references, frequently pairing them in seemingly random ways—as if setting up riddles for the listener to attempt to solve. The Rolling Stones, William Blake, Edgar Allan Poe, Anne Frank and Indiana Jones make cameos on the opening track, the wryly magisterial “I Contain Multitudes.” “My Own Version of You,” a black comedy in jaunty 3/4 time, draws on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Shakespeare, throws together Leon Russell, Liberace, St. John the Apostle and a pair of iconic actors: “I’ll take the Scarface Pacino and the Godfather Brando,” the jokester sings. “Mix ‘em up in a tank and get a robot commando.” But there's a method to his madness, as we learn in the final couplet: “I wanna bring someone to life, turn back the years/Do it with laughter and do it with tears.” “Mother of Muses” mentions Generals Sherman and Patton, Elvis Presley and MLK, while “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” contains a tip of the hat to “Ginsberg, Corso and Kerouac.”

On “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” the late, great bluesman stands in for Dylan himself, as he and his band transport themselves back to 1966, lifting the blistering central riff from “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.” That track and “Across the Rubicon” have such a Blonde on Blonde flavor that the parallel has to be intentional. For the latter song, Malibu Bob tapped Malibu native Blake Mills, a wizardly young guitarist, to play the slippery blues lick alongside longtime bandmember Charlie Sexton, hard-panned left and right in the mix.

Mills is listed as one of the “additional musicians” in the credits, but he blew his cover on 6/21 by playing the riffs of “Rubicon,” "Jimmy Reed,” “False Prophet” and five other tracks in a series of Instagram posts, in effect adding several intriguing pieces to this musical jigsaw puzzle.

It makes sense that Dylan would bring himself into this massive tableau, since his music and ever-shifting persona are so much a part of the American fabric he’s so masterfully bringing to life.

There’s a line in “I Contain Multitudes” that seems to directly express the attitude of this 79-year-old artist toward his own mortality: “I sleep with life and death in the same bed.” When asked by historian Douglas Brinkley during an unusually straight-shooting recent interview in The New York Times if he thought about mortality often, the words Dylan chose were those of a prophet.

“I think about the death of the human race,” he said. “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.”

Shortly thereafter, he reflected on this moment in history in terms of his generation. “There’s definitely a lot more anxiety and nervousness around now than there used to be,” he acknowledged. “But that only applies to people of a certain age like me and you, Doug. We have a tendency to live in the past, but that’s only us. Youngsters don’t have that tendency. They have no past, so all they know is what they see and hear, and they’ll believe anything. In 20 or 30 years from now, they’ll be at the forefront.”

So maybe Rough and Rowdy Ways in general and “Murder Most Foul” in particular were meant in part as a message to the younger generation. On his 39th studio album, this master of space and time—a role he’s spent 60 years preparing for—is truly bringing it all back home. The timing couldn’t be more perfect.

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