What would Julius Caesar do?

Julius Caesar, via Wikipedia

Among the many allusions, startling images and examples of mischievous wordplay that litter Bob Dylan’s new album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, this gem from ‘My Own Version of You’ is a favourite:

I pick a number between one and two
And I ask myself, “What would Julius Caesar do?”

What is Dylan asking the listener to do here? It could be a deliberate philosophical conundrum, worthy of a Zeno, inviting us to choose a whole number where one does not exist. Or else the options are one or two (that use of the word ‘between’ is ambiguous), a simple binary choice, much as Julius Caesar faced when he came up to the Rubicon and could choose whether to cross the river, which meant war and possible glory, or not. Maybe his mind wavered over one and two. Maybe his mind saw only the impossible bound up with the inevitable, the number that lies between one and two which only the philosophical mind might comprehend. From now on, when faced with any impenetrable problem, I shall be asking myself, What would Julius Caesar do?

It is characteristic of Rough and Rowdy Ways that what stands out as a striking line, seemingly there for its own sake, finds resonances through the album. Most obviously, a subsequent song is entitled ‘Crossing the Rubicon’. But in crossing the river Julius Caesar became leader of Rome, which led ultimately to his assassination. Assassinated leaders occur through Rough and Rowdy Ways, most prominently the American presidents William McKinley in ‘Key West (Philosopher Pirate)’ and John Kennedy in the epic lament ‘Murder Most Foul’. ‘My Own Version of You’ itself is a song about bringing the dead back to life, turning from a mocking love song with Frankenstein-like gruesomeness (“All through the summers, into January / I’ve been visiting morgues and monasteries / Looking for the necessary body parts / Limbs and livers and brains and hearts / I’ll bring someone to life, is what I wanna do / I wanna create my own version of you”) to a fierce determination to reverse the order of time (“I can see the history of the whole human race / It’s all right there, it’s carved into your face / Should I break it all down? Should I fall on my knees? / Is there light at the end of the tunnel, can you tell me, please?”)

The cross-references and the motifs are worth noting, because this is an album which has been designed with great care. The opening song, ‘I Contain Multitudes’, a statement about Dylan’s imaginative world, so heavily peopled with names, songs, scraps of literature and fallen leaders, finds resolution in the incantatory, 17-minute final number ‘Murder Most Foul’ (a song I explored in detail back in March), in which a parade of the people in the singer’s mind, conjured up by thoughts of Kennedy’s assassination, turns into a playlist for our times.

Play “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”
Play it for the First Lady, she ain’t feeling any good
Play Don Henley, play Glenn Frey
Take it to the limit and let it go by
Play it for Carl Wilson, too
Looking far, far away down Gower Avenue
Play “Tragedy”, play “Twilight Time”
Take me back to Tulsa to the scene of the crime
Play another one and “Another One Bites the Dust”
Play “The Old Rugged Cross” and “In God we trust”.

‘Murder Most Foul’ is on a second disc, a part of Rough and Rowdy Days and yet separate from it (the disc itself names the song but not the album). Being at the end of the set, it serves as recapitulation of the themes and imaginative world that the nine songs on the first disc explore. They each operate as views of time past being something forever in the present, seen from the perspective of someone who cannot be but different to the rest, not least because he is a survivor. It is a singularly egocentric collection of songs, each one on the first disc dominated by the personal pronoun, save for ‘Black Rider’, though the menacing central figure in that mysterious song could easily be read as being Dylan’s shadow. Only on the coda, ‘Murder Most Foul’, does Dylan become observer rather than subject.

Time past and present experienced from a single viewpoint is central to the final song on disc one, the linchpin of the set, ‘Key West (Philosopher Pirate)’. This is the most singularly poetic song Dylan has produced in a long time, at least since 2003’s ‘Cross the Green Mountain, which similarly explores time and a world lost, from the viewpoint of a dying American Civil War soldier. In ‘Key West’ (the words ‘Philosopher Pirate’ overstate the point), Dylan pursues a radio signal, maybe Radio Luxembourg (was it ever possible to pick up Luxembourg from Florida?), maybe a pirate station. Initially he hears the blues standard ‘White House Blues’ before taking us to his particular point in time, Key West:

McKinley hollered, McKinley squalled
Doctor said, “McKinley, death is on the wall
‪Say it to me, if you got something to confess”
‪I heard all about it, he was going down slow ‬
‪I heard it on the wireless radio ‬
‪From down in the boondocks way down in Key West

Key West is some perfect spot (“the place to be ‬/ ‪If you’re looking for immortality”) from where that sound could be heard, floating over the airwaves, where connection and resolution might be found. Everyone has their own Key West, if they can but find it. That seems to be the song’s message, yet it is buried in such elusiveness of thought and imagery. The words alone cannot express the effect created the drifting music and Dylan’s wistful tone. Key West seems nearly there, yet always just out of reach.

Rough and Rowdy Ways

It might seem too obvious a point to make, but Dylan’s songwriting has been shaped by his voice. That voice has changed over time, moving from pleading, to snarling, to crooning, to croaking, to the voice of his old age. The harsh rasp has gone, now that he has given up smoking; the voice is mellow, reflective, but with a limited musical range. Some of the songs have a clear melody that Dylan just about manages to hold (‘Black Rider’, ‘Mother of Muses’) but the style where he seems most comfortable is a gentle musical undertow over which his trance-like vocals float ruminatively. He talks about this trance-like state in a recent New York Times interview, discussing ‘I Contain Multitudes’:

It’s the kind of thing where you pile up stream-of-consciousness verses and then leave it alone and come pull things out … Obviously, the catalyst for the song is the title line. It’s one of those where you write it on instinct. Kind of in a trance state. Most of my recent songs are like that. The lyrics are the real thing, tangible, they’re not metaphors. The songs seem to know themselves and they know that I can sing them, vocally and rhythmically. They kind of write themselves and count on me to sing them.

The lyric comes out of the vocal style, at least partially so. The sort of control that he has over his voice, its particular steadiness with the occasional residue of a rasp, has determined style and tone. At no other point in his musical life could Dylan have sung, or imagined, a song such as ‘Key West’. It’s a song whose time is now.

Rough and Rowdy Ways is an album filled with allusions to history and myth, as Dylan surveys the ragbag memories from a lifetime of reading, listening and singing. Some recur regularly, pointing to a larger design, or at least a consistent line of thinking. Fallen leaders is one such theme. Violence is another – “I’ll cut you up with a crooked knife and I’ll miss you when you’re gone” he tells an enemy in ‘Crossing the Rubicon’; “I’ll take a sword and hack off your arm” in ‘Black Rider’. Figures from mythology, on the fringes of history, turn up again and again – “Hello, Mary Lou / Hello, Miss Pearl / My fleet-footed guides from the underworld” he sings in ‘False Prophet’; “I got up early so I could greet the Goddess of the Dawn” in ‘Crossing the Rubicon’; “I’ve travelled from the mountains to the sea / I hope that the gods go easy with me” in ‘I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself To You’; and most strikingly ‘Mother of Muses’, with its invocatory lyric coming from another age:

Mother of Muses sing for me
Sing of the mountains and the deep dark sea
Sing of the lakes and the nymphs of the forest
Sing your hearts out, all your women of the chorus
Sing of honor and fate and glory be
Mother of Muses sing for me

‘Mother of Muses’ is the oddest song on the album, a song whose sentiments are more suited to Julius Caesar’s time, though characteristically Dylan moves the carpet from under our feet, name-checking assorted World War II generals (it must be the first mention Georgy Zhukov has received in an American popular song) before thanking them for paving the way to Elvis Presley and Martin Luther King. The song’s oddity makes it a potential weak point, but thematically it has its essential place in the design. Dylan expresses love for Calliope, chief among the Muses of Greek mythology, specifically the Muse of epic poetry. A useful person to invoke, if you have ‘Murder Most Foul’ in mind.

The allusions in Rough and Rowdy Ways are variable in their significance. Dylan regularly name-drops Shakespeare, but references to “To be or not to be”, “Winter of our discontent” and “Murder most foul” do not suggest any close familiarity with the works. Dylan’s preferred poetic reference points come from the Blues – “White House Blues”, the rambunctious “Goodbye Jimmy Reed”, the bluesmen and women invoked in the playlist of ‘Murder Most Foul’ (Etta James, John Lee Hooker, Guitar Slim) and in the Bluesy workouts of three of the songs: ‘False Prophet’, ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’ and ‘Crossing the Rubicon’. For Dylan, he who gave us ‘Big Boss Man’ has more to say than he who gave us Julius Caesar.

Jimmy Reed (1980 reissue single)

So how does this all connect? Is there an intricate design in place, or are we just led from one extraordinary man’s jumble of memories? There is some design, in the structure of the album and in the interplay of allusions. But what makes Rough and Rowdy Ways work, for me, is that viewpoint of all things past and present occurring simultaneously. There is a view down the line of time, and there is no time at all. It could be Kennedy in that funeral cortege, it could be Julius Caesar. That radio could be playing ‘That Old Devil Moon’ or ‘All the Young Dudes’. It’s the viewpoint of someone who has lasted beyond many of his contemporaries, who admits in ‘Mother of Muses’ that “I’ve already outlived my life by far”. It is a mind that has seen much, and does not know how to forget.

Yet the curious thing about Rough and Rowdy Ways is that it is not an old man’s record. Commentators have spoken of the 79-year-old Dylan’s view of things as being bound up with the nearness of death, but he has not sounded so young in a long time. For sure, the voice has a meditative tone that suits his years, but he is profoundly engaged with the world of now. The music is alert, insistent, eager; the words are absolutely clear. He wants them to make us stop dead in our tracks. Why else write something like this?

Twelve years old, they put me in a suit
Forced me to marry a prostitute
There were gold fringes on her wedding dress
That’s my story, but not where it ends
She’s still cute, and we’re still friends

That from ‘Key West’. Or this showstopper from ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’:

Transparent woman in a transparent dress
Suits you well, I must confess
I’ll break open your grapes, I’ll suck out the juice
I need you like my head needs a noose

But Dylan’s now is not the one of Trump, or China, or Europe, or Facebook, or viruses. His now is where the past is present, where nothing is wasted so long as we can remember it. The album opens with a couplet that is resigned to death, but also sees no tyranny in time:

Today, tomorrow, and yesterday, too
The flowers are dyin’ like all things do

The clues are there in ‘I Contain Multitudes’, that opening song:

I go right to the edge, I go right to the end
I go right where all things lost are made good again
I sing the songs of experience like William Blake
I have no apologies to make
Everything’s flowing all at the same time

Rough and Rowdy Ways has received instant acclaim. It is a fine collection. It is an astonishing collection, especially given that few ever expected to hear any more original songs from Dylan after Tempest, which was all of eight years ago. Maybe he has astonished himself that the songs are still there, waiting to be found and sung. It has some weaknesses. ‘Mother of Muses’ is an oddity, albeit a pretty one. ‘Crossing the Rubicon’ has one of the richest lyrics on the album, but they have been set to a formulaic blues tread which deadens their power. Should Dylan ever play live again, ‘Crossing the Rubicon’ is one song you can imagine being completely remade in performance.

Whether others will end up singing these songs, I don’t know. One of the great measures of Dylan’s worth has been the degree to which other have felt the need to sing his songs, for they have been songs to hand on. But Rough and Rowdy Ways seems an entirely personal affair. To try and sing them yourself might be an imposture. Maybe the lively ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’; more likely the sweet, lilting ballad ‘I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You’ will inspire cover versions. It’s a song that looks back, as with the others, but returns in the last line of each verse to the way forward, to the inspiring now.

I’ve travelled a long road of despair
I’ve met no other traveller there
Lot of people gone, lot of people I knew
I’ve made up my mind to give myself to you

That’s what Julius Caesar would do.

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