Dylan, Unencumbered

"How long can it go on?"

Bob Dylan. Rough and Rowdy Ways. Columbia Records, 2020.

Before the Covid-19 lockdown began, I had spent the year doing research in the Library of Congress, where, in their large collection of feminist ephemera, there are a series of pamphlets that take their name from Bob Dylan songs. In the first issue of Just Like A Woman: A Publication of Atlanta Woman’s Liberation in 1970, the editors called for readers to overturn patriarchal stereotypes and to “join the movement which is demanding emancipation—Just Like a Woman! The masthead of the Berkeley Liberation journal It Ain’t Me Babe included a drawing of a ball and chain, set against their own adapted version of the hit. “To subsume me in your shadow” replaced “to gather flowers constantly” in the original, before continuing with the familiar “to come each time you call / a lover for your life and nothing more / it ain’t me, babe.” The addition was clumsy, and more heavy-handed than Dylan’s, but it got the point across. The women of Dylan’s first few albums were unappealing. They were clawing, childish, neurotic, and demanding, women who wanted too much or took what he didn’t want to give. (As he howls in “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” (1965), “I want to be your lover, baby, I don’t want to be your boss”). The feminist invocation of Dylan inhabited the uncomfortable terrain between critique and homage: could they use his words to transcend the relations of a world that he described so well yet also embodied? When Ellen Willis later revised her classic 1967 essay on Dylan, she wrote that he exemplified the “bohemian contempt for women.” By then he had a lot of contempt for everyone else too.

My favorite versions of Dylan are the two I like to think of as Romantic Bob and Contemptuous Dylan. The former is the most lovable of love-song writers, the latter the cool guy who scorns his fans. They came together best in the classics of the 1970s that are now rather unfashionable among Dylan obsessives, especially Blood on the Tracks (1975) and its outtakes recently released as More Blood, More Tracks: Bootleg Series Vol. 14 (2018). “Any fool could find whatever he wanted inside the vast Dylan songbook: drugs, Jesus, Joan Baez,” David Kinney wrote in The Dylanologists. It’s impossible to disagree, but I’ve always foolishly enjoyed the search for the traces of “real” women in Dylan’s life. There are the wistful, bittersweet Suze Rotolo songs of the 1960s; the stories of his first marriage and divorce to Sara Dylan (who is the presumed inspiration of one of his greatest love songs, “Abandoned Love,” an outtake off Desire (1976)); the tortured ballads of the 1990s (which of them are odes to Mavis Staples?); and the special sentimentality seemingly reserved for Baez: “We could sing together in our sleep,” Dylan says of her in Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue (2019). She seemed to remember things a little differently in “Diamonds and Rust” (1975): “My poetry was lousy, you said.“ A man I once loved used to tease me for my clichéd preoccupations with Dylan’s most mawkish of songs about bad love, “Idiot Wind,” but its portrayal of cruelty and masochism is also Dylan at his most usable for feminists.

Still, for much of Dylan’s repertoire, the women of the love songs only exist as parts of him: twins, mirrors, reflections, conjoined and constraining his freedom. Many are flat and lifeless; romance and contempt don’t make the best portraits. For those, look to the hustlers, the mourners, the sex workers, and the women who are closest to god. “Sweetheart Like You,” for example, on Infidels (1983), the album often seen as closing Dylan’s “religious” phase, contains his most reactionary line: “a woman like you should be at home, that’s where you belong.” But that sits alongside characterizations of violence (“just how much abuse will you be able to take? Well, there’s no way to tell by that first kiss”), and one of the most memorable images of his catalogue (“you can be known as the most beautiful woman who ever crawled across cut glass to make a deal”). Cate Blanchett’s performance of Dylan in I’m Not There (2007) set aside the problem of Dylan’s actually existing women to dramatize the question of whether the narrators of his songs could be women: could Dylan’s “I” also be me? Could I live through it, sing it, write about it, or should I just want to throw out the whole contemptuous bohemian lot and resist being the kind of woman for whom this is an available desire? (When I mentioned to a male critic friend and fellow Romantic Bob fan that I was considering writing this, he suggested that perhaps writing about Dylan wasn’t my kind of piece, so I take it the answer to at least one of these questions is still no.)


There’s no doubting that Dylan’s new album, Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020), is the work of an aging man. He has been that a while already; he’s been singing fairly constantly about death since at least Time Out of Mind (1997). When Tempest (2012) was released, many took the reference to Shakespeare’s last play to mean that it was his last album. (Adept at keeping open possibilities—whether it’s the post-“motorcyle crash” release of John Wesley Harding (1967), his evangelicalism, or the Christmas Songs, surprise and strangeness are his favorite tools in the grand project of refusing to be known—Dylan insisted the absence of the definite article disrupted the analogy). Now the surprise seems to be that he is still alive, and something—the Nobel Prize? Covid-19?—has put him in a good mood. It’s contagious.

Rough and Rowdy Ways is not an album about love or relationships or women or even characters. There’s a scattering of women: the “women of the chorus”; the creations of other songwriters (Ricky Nelson’s Mary Lou, Jimmy Wages’ Miss Pearl); and, pleasingly, to millennial women like me, Stevie Nicks gets a mention. There’s one gentle rolling love song, “I’ve Made up My Mind to Give Myself to You.” It’s an easy refrain: “A love so real, a love so true / I’ve made up my mind to give myself to you.” Dylan perfected the crooner style with his Frank Sinatra studies in Triplicate (2017), his covers of the American Songbook. He’s turned the standards into his own songs you swear you’ve heard before. In one respect, this is a love song that fits into a pattern, from “Oh Sister” (1976) onwards, in which the other is both God and lover. But it also marks a change. Compare Romantic Bob for whom love was mania, restlessness, and hearing voices, or, later, the thing to be repressed and outrun (as in “Most of the Time” (1989): “I can survive / and I can endure / and I don’t even think / about her”). Or compare the more recent bitterness of “Long and Wasted Years” (2012): “It’s been such a long, long time/ since we loved each other and our hearts were true.” Relatively speaking, Dylan is all ease and contentment: “I’ve seen the sunrise, I’ve seen the dawn / I’ll lay down beside you when everyone’s gone.” What’s new is how settled it all feels.

But it’s relentless, nonetheless. I suppose it’s in keeping with Dylan’s two-decade preoccupation with death, but it sounds to me more like he finds himself in a kind of grateful American purgatory—still outrunning death, but also letting life wash over him. It’s a touching album; it feels good to listen to it. This was not obvious from the first single “Murder Most Foul,” a 17-minute ballad about the assassination of John F. Kennedy released online in March at the start of the Covid-19 lockdown. With its heads-up to the “12 million souls that are listening in,” it’s already repetitive to say its relentlessness confirms Dylan’s knack for timing and celebrity. “Murder Most Foul” is a romp through Kennedy’s life and the United States of the postwar. What it shares with the rest of the album is a nostalgia for those sounds, and those of an earlier America; with its ballads, blues, and show tunes, it never looks forward, only back.

But despite its roots in the music of Dylan’s childhood, the overall effect of the album is a heavy flattening of everything into a timeless stasis. Dylan has always sung songs about time, about losing it and getting stuck and having “no sense” of it (“Stuck Inside of Mobile” (1966)). He said of Blood on the Tracks that “there’s no sense of time. There’s no respect for it: you’ve got yesterday, today and tomorrow all in the same room, and there’s very little that you can’t imagine not happening.” In Rough and Rowdy Ways time collapses again in the opening lines: “Today and tomorrow and yesterday too / the flowers are dying like all things do.” Slow decline has also been a recurring theme. As he sang in one of his bleakest and best songs, “Not Dark Yet” (1997), “I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still.” That was more than two decades ago. Now instead of trying to get to heaven, he’s sleeping, “with life and death in same bed.” Dylan has lived in the eternal present tense for a lot longer than the lockdown. There’s much talk these days about the end of history being over, but he hasn’t heard the news.

That’s partly because, in these songs, Dylan doesn’t just sing about living in the end of history. He is the end of history: in the Whitmanian “I Contain Multitudes” he says, straight-faced, that “I’m just like Anne Frank, like Indiana Jones / And them British bad boys, The Rolling Stones.” This is Dylan as world spirit. He is William Blake, “Ginsberg, Corso and Kerouac,” and (at least twice) Julius Caesar. In “False Prophet,” a song in keeping with the antagonistic blues of recent albums, Dylan asserts his primacy: “I’m first among equals / second to none / the last of the best / you can bury the rest.” He outlives his peers and creates immortal objects, including his own Frankenstein’s bride. In “My Own Version of You,” Dylan conjures a lover or a song who will save him: “I wanna bring someone to life, turn back the years.” In one verse he growls:

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?
Stand over there by the cypress tree
Where the Trojan women and children are sold into slavery
Long before the first Crusade
Way back before England or America were made
Step right into the burning hell
Where some of the best-known enemies of mankind dwell
Mr. Freud with his dreams, Mr. Marx with his ax
See the raw hide lash rip the skin from their backs

Screw postwar nostalgia, screw modernity! Say no to the death drive and the class war, and yes to transhistorical life with monsters and without end. Romantic Bob is gone, but Contemptuous Dylan isn’t: “you don’t know me darlin’ / you never would guess / I’m nothing like my ghostly appearance would suggest.” Instead of portraits, there is the dominating sadist (“I don’t love nobody / give me a kiss”), unforgiving (“I have no apologies to make”), brutal and bleak (“you won’t find any happiness here / no happiness or joy”). In “Crossing the Rubicon,” he asks “How much longer can it last? How long can it go on?”

This was not the only time I laughed out loud listening to this album. Dylan has asked a version of that question so often that when he references immortality it sounds like a joke, though at whose expense is never clear. He’s not exactly begging for it to stop. The fatalism is erratic: humor creeps in and there is plenty of tenderness and solace. Stars of postwar music and culture like blues guitarist Jimmy Reed appear more as ancestors than ghosts, or as old friends who Dylan keeps around. Yet “Key West,” the song which sounds most like classic Dylan, is the only one in which the prosaic geographies of the US appear as something more than a homage to the traveling motifs of the folk tradition. It’s a song about the southernmost point of the continental US—the end of the road, the last stop, the “horizon line,” “the gateway key / to innocence and purity.” Dylan wouldn’t be the first retiree to want to spend his last days in Florida (with Covid-19 cases exploding, it will soon be an apocalyptic sort of resting place), but it’s hard not to smile at his enjoyment in letting us know he’s solved the puzzle of purgatory by moving to the beach. There are other laughs too: when he sings “I’ll take the Scarface Pacino and the Godfather Brando / mix it up in a tank and get a robot commando.” And, just in case anyone thought Dylan the creator would produce a feminist cyborg to outlive him, in “Black Rider” he also introduces what, to my knowledge, is his first explicit penis reference, when he snarls (to death, to rivals, to himself) that “the size of your cock will get you nowhere.” Is he laughing too? Who cares!

Dylan fans have always asked whether he’s faking it or fooling us, and if he’s a “sponge” or he means it. The proper response has become that it doesn’t matter much either way. But, of course, it matters to the fans. To be a fan of anything is to embrace an overinvestment in weird objects. Being a Dylan fan involves a nonchalance about the object: the pose of carelessness among his most knowing admirers allows for a disdain of celebrity and a disavowal of Dylan’s function as one. It’s a way of letting him get away with it, but it can also cover over an investment in an old order of things. A number of critics have greeted Rough and Rowdy Ways by summoning a long-gone Dylan, the Minnesotan writer of protest songs who flinches at racial injustice and speaks to our desires for change. Yet listening to Dylan in all his versions, the artist who has shapeshifted so many times throughout his career, is also an education in how change is not the same as progress. Change can itself perform a reconciling function. The peacefulness of Rough and Rowdy Ways makes it feel not like an embrace of the new but its defeat, a way of reconciling listeners not to the slow death of liberal America but its permanence amid rot and decay.

So the more pressing question is the one he keeps repeating: how long can it go on? Let’s put it another way: why can’t he stop? Dylan’s gifts have long coexisted with his compulsion to repeat, his humility with his arrogance. “No one else could play that tune / you knew it was up to me,” he sings—a little mournful, part playful, and always deadly serious—in the closing lines of “Up to Me” (1975), the best outtake off Blood on the Tracks. It’s the combination that is his special charm. In earlier phases of Dylan’s career, he gave the sense things were obstructing him: women, fear, the sermon on the mount, the world, his better self. Take “Up to Me,” again: “It frightens me the awful truth of how sweet life can be”; and: “when you bite off more than you can chew / you’ve got to pay the penalty.” After all, as he sang later, “you might be somebody’s landlord, you might even own banks / But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” Dylan today is serving no one. The unencumbered “I” keeps on going. I am writing this in Washington DC, where there are still regular protests—struggles for the birth of a new world. He’s stuck in the old one, and he’s enjoying it; he’ll carry on for as long as no one stops him. And who would care to? Yet there is danger in this—in the shrug at the unstoppable I who reconciles us to an outdated world, who has himself shrugged off all sorts of people and things along the way. The Berkeley Liberation feminists chose the right word: who wants to be subsumed by a man like that? Not me. But there is still an uneasy pleasure in listening as it all plays out.

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