With the release of his 39th studio album “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” singer and songwriter Bob Dylan builds on a career dense with memorable verbiage. Long regarded as a master of both free and rhymed verse, his lifetime’s work is so impressive that most Americans have been told this at least once a month since birth, don’t need to hear it again and are already reading past this introduction.
Whether coupling “flowers on your tomb” with “curtains in your room” in “Idiot Wind,” “Botticelli’s niece” and “masterpiece” (“When I Paint My Masterpiece”) or “murmur of a prayer” and “it’s getting there” in “Not Dark Yet,” Dylan’s Nobel-winning way with the English language has connected his 58 years worth of studio recordings.
Unlike “Like a Rolling Stone” and any number of rhyme-less classic works in the Dylan canon, the 10 new songs on “Rough and Rowdy Ways” rely heavily on metered verse and ear-pleasing connections.
Within his lyrics, Dylan name-checks Julius Caesar, East L.A., Wolf Man Jack, Harry Truman, Patsy Cline, Indiana Jones, St. Peter, Karl Marx, Don Henley, Frédéric Chopin, Leon Russell, John F. Kennedy, Calliope, Cadillacs, Georgy Zhukov, Sigmund Freud, Glenn Frey, Elvis Presley, Ludwig van Beethoven, Deep Ellum, the Holy Grail, “Scarface Pacino and the Godfather Brando,” Trojan women, Carl Wilson, Scarlett O’Hara, Gower Avenue and the Acid Queen, among others.
Below, in honor of the 17-minute-long album closer, “Murder Most Foul,” here are 17 of the best lyrics from “Rough and Rowdy Ways.”
1. After three studio albums of other writers’ work, Dylan seems to race out of the gate in the album’s opening song, “I Contain Multitudes”:
You greedy old wolf, I’ll show you my heart
But not all of it, only the hateful part
I’ll sell you down the river
I’ll put a price on your head
What more can I tell you?
I sleep with life and death in the same bed.
2. Beatles or Stones? Dylan’s previous studio album of new material, “Tempest,” closed with “Roll On, John,” about John Lennon. “I Contain Multitudes” references another British Invasion band:
I’m just like Anne Frank, like Indiana Jones
And them British bad boys, the Rolling Stones
I go right to the edge, I go right to the end
I go right where all things lost are made good again.
3. Few songwriters write lyrics that read as well on the page as coming out of the speakers, especially when they’re indicting America’s greediest as on “False Prophet”:
Bury them naked with their silver and gold
Put them six feet under and pray for their souls.
4. Despite the sheer volume of proper names that populate “My Rough and Rowdy Ways,” the songwriter doesn’t mention anyone in the current U.S. administration. But given his long-running contempt for politicians and liars, perhaps the vague references that populate “False Prophet” are enough:
Put out your hand, there’s nothing to hold
Open your mouth, I’ll stuff it with gold
Oh you poor devil look up if you will
The city of God is there on the hill.
5. Across the album, Dylan delivers his lyrics with a notable melodicism. “My Own Version of You” finds him employing a sing-song delivery to invite an unknown other to what sounds like a terrific bar:
I’ll play every number that I can play
I’ll see you maybe on judgment day
After midnight if you still wanna meet
I’ll be in Black Horse Tavern on Armageddon Street.
6. “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” is as pure a love song as Dylan’s ever written (with apologies to “Forever Young”):
I saw the first fall of snow
I saw the flowers come and go
I don’t think anyone else ever knew
I made up my mind to give myself to you.
7. Need more proof that “I’ve Made Up My Mind … “ is among Dylan’s best love songs?
If I had the wings of a snow white dove
I’d preach the gospel, the gospel of love
A love so real, a love so true
I’ve made up my mind to give myself to you.
8. “Black Rider” alone contains more essential lyrics than most songwriters craft in a career:
Let me go through, open the door
My souls is distressed, my mind is at war
Don’t hug me, don’t flatter me, don’t turn on the charm
I’ll take a sword and hack off your arm.
9. Face-first in burning embers, the mysterious journeyman in “Black Rider” is a menacing figure who seems to tail Dylan, and might or might not represent America itself:
Black rider, black rider you’ve seen it all
You’ve seen the great world and you’ve seen the small
You fell into the fire and you’re eating the flame
Better seal up your lips if you want to stay in the game.
10. Mississippi blues guitarist Jimmy Reed is best known for writing the song “Bright Lights, Big City,” and “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” is one of two barroom blues numbers on “Rough and Rowdy Ways”:
“You won’t amount to much,” the people all said
‘Cause I didn’t play guitar behind my head
Never pandered, never acted proud
Never took off my shoes and threw them into the crowd
11. The record’s loveliest song, “Mother of Muses” is a precisely rendered ode to the creative life.
Mother of Muses unleash your wrath
Things I can’t see, they’re blocking my path
Show me your wisdom, tell me my fate
Put me upright, make me walk straight.
12. Elsewhere on “Mother of Muses,” Dylan pens a pair of couplets that seem to drift off the page:
Take me to the river, release your charms
Let me lay down a while in your sweet loving arms
Wake me, shake me, free me from sin
Make me invisible like the wind.
13. Pushing 80, Dylan weaves much candlelit gloom through “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” as if he’s staring at the reaper himself. When he does open the curtains, as on “Crossing the Rubicon,” grace and hope rush in:
I feel the holy spirit inside, see the light that freedom gives
I believe it’s in the reach of every man who lives
Keep as far away as possible, it’s darkest before the dawn
I turned the key and broke it off and I crossed the Rubicon.
14. To save you a visit to Wikipedia, here’s the first sentence of the entry for “crossing the Rubicon”: “Julius Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon river in January 49 BC precipitated the Roman Civil War, which ultimately led to Caesar becoming dictator and the rise of the imperial era of Rome.”
The Rubicon is a red river, gently as she flows
Redder than your ruby lips and the blood that flows from the rose
Three miles north of purgatory, one step from the great beyond
I pray to the cross, I kiss the girls and I cross the rubicon.
15. There aren’t enough songs about southern Florida. Dylan confesses love for the place on “Key West (Philosopher Pilot)”:
Hibiscus flowers, they grow everywhere here
If you wear one, put it behind your ear
Down on the bottom, way down in Key West.
16. On the album’s 17-minute closing song, “Murder Most Foul,” Dylan focuses on John F. Kennedy’s assassination and its aftermath.
I’m going to Woodstock, it’s the Aquarian Age
Then I’ll go over to Altamont and sit near the stage
Put your head out the window, let the good times roll
There’s a party going on behind the grassy knoll.
17. The last couplets on “Murder Most Foul” are a playful set of rhymed requests. They close with a sly nod to the song he just finished singing:
Play “Misty” for me and “That Old Devil Moon”
Play “Anything Goes” and “Memphis in June”
Play “Lonely at the Top” and “Lonely Are the Brave”
Play it for Houdini spinning around in his grave
Play Jelly Roll Morton, play “Lucille”
Play “Deep in a Dream” and play “Driving Wheel”
Play “Moonlight Sonata” in F-sharp
And “A Key to the Highway” for the king on the harp
Play “Marching Through Georgia” and “Dumbarton’s Drums”
Play “Darkness” and death will come when it comes
Play “Love Me or Leave Me” by the great Bud Powell
Play “The Blood-Stained Banner,” play “Murder Most Foul.”
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