At the start of 2020 Bob Dylan might have been looking forward to a quiet year. He had a few new recordings lined up or completed. There would be around 100 concerts – par for the course. He might weld a few gates, sip a little more whiskey, and rest a while. He was going to be seventy-nine, after all. Why not just sit back on that bank of sand and watch the river flow?
Dylan more than merits his own entry in this series of reviews of the year. Quite aside from rewriting the popular song (again) and ending up one of the richest musicians on the planet, stuff just kept happening. Here are my notes on a remarkable year for Bob.
Never Ending Tour – Bob Dylan has been on tour continuously since 7 June 1988. It’s not exactly like that; the term ‘never ending tour‘ itself Dylan dislikes, but nevertheless, since he launched into a period of intensive touring over three decades ago he has given every impression of not being able to stop. He has played over 3,000 concerts across the world since 1988 (while recording nine studio albums, one of them a triple, invariably with his current backing band). Doubtless he would have chalked up a few hundred more … until COVID-19 called an end to the endless, and he had to cancel his US tour dates. Much like London’s The Mousetrap, that play run that could not end, the music had to stop. If he starts up again (if we all start up again) it will be Never Ending Tour # 2. It’s inevitable.
Murder Most Foul – then, on 27 March, when so many of us had retreated indoors and were staring out of the windows at emptiness, a message came from Bob. He wrote: “Greetings to my fans and followers with gratitude for all your support and loyalty across the years. This is an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting. Stay safe, stay observant and may God be with you.” The song was ‘Murder Most Foul‘. It was seventeen minutes, the longest song he had ever recorded. It was astonishing: a drone-like reverie on the assassination of J.F. Kennedy, which turned into a music playlist for the twentieth century. No one had previously imagined a song like this. I frenziedly wrote a blog post on the song, seeing all sorts of fanciful things in its construction (Hebrew antiphonal verse, that sort of thing). It went to number one in some Billboard digital chart. Whatever next?
Rough and Rowdy Ways – We found out in June. It was generally believed that Tempest from 2012 was going to be Dylan’s last album of original music. That turned out to be no more true than The Tempest being Shakespeare’s last play – though, frankly, Rough and Rowdy Ways is a somewhat greater work of art than Henry VIII or The Two Noble Kinsmen. The jury is out on just how great, perhaps because the album is unlike anything else, in that there are no reference points. It’s a mixture of fairly generic blues numbers alongside songs that roam strangely over time and space: ‘I Contain Multitudes’, ‘Black Rider’, ‘Key West (Philosopher Pirate)’ and ‘Murder Most Foul’. Lyrically, he may have done nothing finer. I wrote what I could about it, riffing on one of many compelling lines on the album, ‘What would Julius Caesar do?‘ I concluded that it was a young man’s record, for all of its looking back on time past. Six months on, ‘I Contain Multitudes’ is my favourite track: it’s the key to unlocking the rest.
Girl from the North Country – Conor McPherson’s Broadway musical based on Dylan’s songs, Girl From the North Country, opened on Broadway on 5 March 2020 and closed nine days later, silenced not by the critics (far from it) but by the virus. Dylan got to see it; he admitted to having shed a tear (it had played off-Broadway in 2018, and in the UK in 2017 at the Old Vic, where I saw it. There will be a live streaming event featuring cast members, hosted by the Bob Dylan Center (of which more below) on December 15 (that’s today, if you are reading this promptly).
The interview – The confession of tears was included in a rare interview for the New York Times, with Douglas Brinkley. It wasn’t the greatest of interviews, but the interviewee was on prime form. Of COIVD-19 he said,
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.
Was that a knowing or unknowing reference to the Dylanesque Barry McGuire?
Little Richard – Maybe the greatest thing Dylan did all year was pay tribute to the musician inspired him, maybe more than any other. Little Richard died on 9 May. On his Twitter account (which seldom has any words from the man himself) Dylan wrote:
I just heard the news about Little Richard and I’m so grieved. He was my shining star and guiding light back when I was only a little boy. His was the original spirit that moved me to do everything I would do.
— Bob Dylan (@bobdylan) May 9, 2020
I played some shows with him in Europe in the early nineties and got to hang out in his dressing room a lot. He was always generous, kind and humble. And still dynamite as a performer and a musician and you could still learn plenty from him.
— Bob Dylan (@bobdylan) May 9, 2020
In his presence he was always the same Little Richard that I first heard and was awed by growing up and I always was the same little boy. Of course he’ll live forever. But it’s like a part of your life is gone.
— Bob Dylan (@bobdylan) May 9, 2020
The sentiments have the quality of those Ben Jonson epigrams that sum up a world of loss in a few spare lines. It is the epitome of grace.
Time Out of Mind – Early this year my sister was amazed to hear her five-year-old daughter singing the Beatles’ ‘Blackbird’ – amazing because of the perfect rendition of a complex melody, and amazing because she had never played the song to her. And so she found out about Beat Bugs, the Netflix show in which cute animated characters have simple adventures which end up with everyone singing along to a Beatles tune. And the Dylan connection? Well, the ingenious Australian producer behind Beat Bugs, Josh Waklely, having scored one extraordinary coup in getting the rights to the Beatles music, went out and secured them for Dylan’s songs too. Not that we’re going to get cute animals singing along to ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, intriguing though that might be. Instead he is pitching a drama series based around characters from Dylan’s songs, entitled Time Out of Mind. Says Wakley,
Maggie from ‘Maggie’s Farm,’ Joey Gallo, Peggy Day, ‘Hurricane’ Carter, Tambourine Man — what if they all collided in the day after JFK’s assassination, found themselves in Greenwich Village for different reasons, and were propelled along a journey at this time of deep turmoil in the streets, where the world was changing?
What indeed? And I wonder if there was some sort of subliminal influence that made Dylan come out with the Kennedy-themed ‘Murder Most Foul’? Stranger things will always happen.
Calico Joe – And if that wasn’t enough, Dylan is working with George Clooney on a feature film version of John Grisham’s baseball-themed novel Calico Joe. Just so long as he doesn’t act…
Theme Time Radio Hour – Back to what happened in 2020, as opposed to what is being prepared in 2020, we have the revival of Theme Time Radio Hour with Your Host Bob Dylan. Unquestionably the greatest radio series in the history of the entire medium (well, possibly), the show where DJ Dylan introduced songs on particular themes in a witty, surreal and moving manner, ran 2006-2009. Then it came back again, for one episode only, in September, brazenly designed to promote Dylan’s whiskey brand, ‘Heaven’s Door’. And from the start, where Dylan speculates on the oddity of a radio show in these times and whether his audience might instead being listening on “a smart toaster”, it is the drollest two hours you could hope for. And he picks Laura Cantrell’s ‘The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter‘. Respect.
Heaven’s Door – Talking of the whiskey brand, this year Heaven’s Door ceased being available only in the UK and can be purchased in the UK. The Tennessee Straight Bourbon is the cheapest option, if you are thinking it might make the ideal Christmas gift. “A unique mash bill from Tennessee, the heaven’s door Tennessee bourbon utilises 30% ‘small grains’ to complement the character imparted from spending nearly 8 years in new American oak barrels. The result is smooth and lasting with notes of vanilla and baked bread layered over a bed of toasted oak.” That’s what they say. Currently £69.85.
Bob Dylan Center – And then there’s the Bob Dylan Center. Incongruously located in Tulsa (a place to which Dylan has no connection at all, but a local businessman knows what he is doing), it hosts the Bob Dylan archive and will become a visitor attraction in 2021. It’s building up to this with a series of events, one of which was a webinar on the archive, which I attended (along with thousands of others, I assume – of course, we couldn’t see ourselves). I wrote about the intriguing experience in one of four blog posts on Dylan this year (this is the fourth).
The Best of The Bootleg Series – There was, of course, a compilation. There’s always a compilation. This was The Best of The Bootleg Series, being highlights from the ‘bootleg’ series of rare and unreleased albums that have given us an alternative history of Dylan for years now. It’s only available on streaming platforms, though.
Pete Hammill – Hammill (not the British musician, note) was a revered American journalist and novelist. He died in August of this year. He wrote the Grammy award-winning original liner notes for Dylan’s 1975 album Blood on the Tracks, which I remember coming across at the time, reading them with a mixture of bewilderment and awe:
In the end, the plague touched us all. It was not confined to the Oran of Camus. No. It turned up again in America, breeding in-a-compost of greed and uselessness and murder, in those places where statesmen and generals stash the bodies of the forever young. The plague ran in the blood of men in sharkskin suits, who ran for President promising life and delivering death. The infected young men machine-gunned babies in Asian ditches; they marshalled metal death through the mighty clouds, up above God’s green earth, released it in silent streams, and moved on, while the hospitals exploded and green fields were churned to mud.
Kinky Friedman – I had a tweet liked by country music satirist-turned-nostalgist Kinky Friedman. I can’t remember what it was that he liked, but this was my stunned reaction:
— Luke McKernan (@lukemckernan) June 16, 2020
The highlight of a humble year.
Diana Krall – What else? The Dylan cover versions keep on coming, with artists starting to tackle some of the most recent songs. I’m not aware of any covers of the Rough and Rowdy Ways songs as yet, but Diana Krall (who spoke the intro to the ‘Whiskey’ episode of Theme Time Radio Hour) did particularly well with ‘This Dream of You’ (from Dylan’s 2009 album Together Through Life).
Universal – It’s quite possible that, while welding those gates back in January, Dylan had a sense that he would end up marginally wealthier by the end of the year, as the negotiations over the sale of his songwriting catalogue must have taken quite a while. So it was that this month, we who thought we could not be any more gobsmacked that we had been already were totally floored by the news that Dylan’s back catalogue had been bought for a reputed $300,000,000 by Universal Music. Cannier than most in the popular music industry, Dylan had held on to the rights to his own songs from the beginning. There were regulation expressions of dismay, but the man has a family to care for, and in case the deal does not cover rights in the recordings themselves or the writing of any future songs. If they were that specific over the details, then he’s got more up his sleeve, and we should celebrate. Meanwhile, Universal have bought some 600 songs, so that means they paid $500,000 for ‘Wiggle Wiggle’. Ha!
Who’s gonna throw that minstrel boy a coin?