FIRST AMONG EQUALS: The Taliesin of Our Times.
'ROUGH AND ROWDY WAYS' BY BOB DYLAN Reviewed by Eric Maddern
I came of age listening to Bob Dylan. Just nine years older than me he was like a mentor, an older brother. Now, following him into older age, I’m still listening to him, to his ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’. He’s been the main musical thread in my life, full of great tunes, complex rhymes, savage wit, crazy humour, mysterious images, passionate challenge, provocative insight, extraordinary stories, sublime poetry, sweet love and spiritual wisdom. So many of his lines and phrases are lodged in my mind. It’s not that I don’t love other musicians but he has been the towering presence. He has been called the ‘American Shakespeare’. I think of him as the romantic poet of our era.
And the singer too. I doubt if anyone has ever sung as much as him. Sixty years worth, and a ‘never-ending tour’, only now paused until ‘this too shall pass’. He’s never tried to make his voice ‘beautiful’. Some have dismissed it as nasal and rough. But he’s been capable of incredible power, sensitivity and tenderness. And to play the harmonica the way he does requires exceptional breath control. Now, despite the ravages of the years, he can still sing. In fact he’s singing with more delicacy, verve and skill than he has for years. He can hit and sustain those notes. And his words? Still mysterious. Still inspired. Still poetic genius.
A few years ago Hugh Lupton and I ran a course for storytellers on the theme of ‘Poets, Prophets and Priests’. The poet we had in mind was, of course, Taliesin, the Welsh druid-bard who spawned a tradition that has lasted from the Dark Ages to now. Taliesin’s key power – inspiration – enabled him to channel verses from an apparently divine source. He is renowned for his “I am… I know why…’ poetry. He seems to remember having lived many lifetimes. He knows the ‘why of things’ from the inside. He has a radical empathy with Nature and the World. He doesn’t shirk from speaking about the dark side. Nor is he shy of bigging himself up. ‘Primary Chief Bard am I’, he says. His original bardic role was also to remember the genealogies of his people, to write praise poems for great leaders and to satirise those who fell short.
According to the tale, Taliesin’s inspiration comes from imbibing three drops of a brew stirred for year and a day, followed by a flight through the elements and animals. Swallowed and birthed by the goddess, he was cast adrift onto the waters where he absorbed the wisdom of the deeps. Finally washed ashore and cut from a leather bag, at once he began speaking poetry. The story of Taliesin’s birth is an echo of an ancient Druidic initiation process that aimed to achieve the ‘fiery higher power’ of inspiration. It is a power Dylan has in spades.
At the beginning of our retreat on ‘Poets, Prophets and Priests’ we played the group a song: ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’, one of Dylan’s early classics. This, we were saying, is an example of an inspired poet at work. We could have played others. ‘It’s Alright Ma’ is one of my other favourites from that time. (Check out the rhyme scheme!) But with ‘Hard Rain’ there’s that touching refrain: ‘Where have you been my blue-eyed son?’ Where have you been my darling young one?’ Each lyric, Dylan said, was the start of a song he’d ‘never have time to write’. It’s in a traditional ‘question and answer’ ballad form. We asked our storytellers to write their own answers.
Like Taliesin, Dylan has lived many lives. He starts ‘Shelter in the Storm’: ‘It was in another lifetime, one of toil and blood…’ He knows the insides of people and things. His soul wanders from the everyday (‘the time the doorknob broke’) through the surreal (‘Einstein playing the electric violin on Desolation Row’) to the mystical (‘Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl’). He has absorbed a myriad of influences: from the Bible, the Classics, Shakespeare, the Romantic Poets and English literature, to the great folk, blues, rock, jazz, gospel and swing musicians of his age. This gives him an immense cultural hinterland and a mythic depth. Like Walt Whitman he ‘contains multitudes’, as he sings on the opening track of his new album.
I go right to the edge, I go to the end,
I go to where all things lost are made good again.
I sing songs of experience, like William Blake,
I have no apologies to make…
I’m a man of contradictions, I’m a man of many moods,
I contain multitudes.
(Later, in the same song, he may be satirising a certain infamous tweeter.
Hello stranger, a long goodbye,
You rule the land, but so do I.
You lusty old mule, you’ve got a poisoned brain
I’ll marry you to a ball and chain.)
Like Taliesin, Dylan is not shy of proclaiming his own pre-eminence. In ‘False Prophet’ he rasps:
I’m first among equals, second to none,
The last of the best, you can bury the rest…
What are you looking at, there’s nothing to see,
Just a cool breeze that’s encircling me.
Like Taliesin, Dylan receives songs through ‘divine inspiration’. In a recent interview with the New York Times (read it here) he says many of his songs ‘come out of the blue, out of thin air… They just fall down from space… I write on instinct, in a kind of trance state… The songs kind of write themselves and count on me to sing them.’
Like Taliesin, Dylan knows about the creative process. In ‘My Own Version of You’ he seems to be engaged in a ghoulish Frankenstein creation. But perhaps it’s more about exploring the ingredients for inspiration.
All through the summers into January
I’ve been visiting morgues and monasteries…
If I do it right and put the head on straight,
I’ll be saved by the creature that I create…
I study Sanskrit and Arabic to improve my mind
I wanna do things for the benefit of all mankind…
I can see the history of the whole human race
It’s all right there, it’s carved into your face…
I’ll bring someone to life, use all of my powers,
Do it in the dark in the wee small hours.
Like Taliesin, Dylan also does praise, satire and genealogy. In the final song on the new album, ‘Murder Most Foul’ – Dylan’s longest ever at 17 minutes – he rolls them all into one, starting with the assassination of JFK.
The day they blew out the brains of the king
Thousands were watching, no one saw a thing…
Greatest magic trick ever under the sun,
Perfectly executed, skilfully done.
In that moment, he says, ‘the soul of a nation was torn away, beginning… a slow decay.’ He takes us on an impressionistic ride through 50 years of American history and satirises those who plotted this ‘murder most foul’. The second half is like a musical and literary genealogy highlighting origins and influences on his work, concluding with a reference to this very song, ‘Murder Most Foul’.
Like Taliesin (and other bards), Dylan takes us, in his penultimate song, to the ‘Land of the Ever-Young’ or, in his case, Key West. In Eire and Cymru this ‘Tir Na Nog’, where people never grew old, was a kind of Celtic heaven, an island to the west beyond the horizon. As Dylan puts it:
Key West is the place to be
If you’re looking for immortality
Key West is paradise divine.
Key West is fine and fair,
If you lost your mind you’ll find it there,
Key West is … on the horizon line
In this song, he rhymes ‘inspiration’ with ‘pirate radio station’. Maybe that’s fitting. The subtitle of the song is ‘Philosopher Pirate’, an apt epithet for Dylan if ever there was one.
This late album in Dylan’s career proves once again that he is the Taliesin of our era, whether he knows it or not. He’s still making original and profound work. If ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’ were to be his last album it would be a fine swansong. But he’s a man of such immense energy, talent and dedication – a painter and sculptor too – it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he has more surprises up his sleeve.
Bob Dylan is an artist too. Here is his illustration to go with 'A Hard Rain'd A-Gonna Fall'. From his book 'Mondo Scripto' it's based on the lyric: 'Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley...'
He also sculpts, specialising in welding iron gates. Here's one from his book 'Mood Swings'..