Sitting on the Terrace, Lost in the Stars
Gray’s essay is easily the best thing I have read on Rough and Rowdy Ways. It’s enthusiastic but balanced, offering a sweeping appraisal but also zeroing in on piquant details, alive to its shortcomings as well as its successes:
From the freedom to list some multitudes contained stems one of the album’s large weaknesses – a sometimes unsatisfying fragmentedness – that is at the same time the major part of its fundamental strength, charm and charismatic appeal, as lines and phrases and fragments from within one song call across to their twins of siblings in other songs, and we can hear them calling and spot their resemblances.
In that opening song, for example, ‘I’ll lose my mind if you don’t come with me’ calls across to ‘Take me out traveling, you’re a traveling man’ and to ‘I’m going far away from home with her’ in the very beautiful fourth song, ‘I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You’, and to “Mona babe… / Couldn’t be anybody else but you who’s come with me this far’ in ‘Crossing The Rubicon’.
And again, Gray is willing to define what he terms the “political thrust” of the album:
It’s full of dark, veiled but clear commentary on the contemporary dreadfulness of American political life. You can’t hear all these allusions to the age of the Antichrist, violence, and political assassination without Trump, his encouragement of fascists and the dangerous disruption of democracy lurking in your consciousness behind what’s being said.
Gray welcomes the fact that, whatever else ‘Murder Most Foul’ might or might not be, it is a pretty unambiguous assertion “that Kennedy’s slaughter was a political conspiracy and not, as we were for so long urged to think, the apolitical act of an unstable loner.” What’s perhaps most striking about all of this is that at the time of the album’s release, in June 2020, with Trump and his cabal of fascist ghouls squatting in the White House, it fell to Dylan – fully six decades on from his ’60s debut – to call this out. And of course, Dylan’s songs were written and recorded before a White Supremacist coup, incited by Trump and fully supported by the GOP, was attempted at the Capitol; and before George Floyd was, in Dylan’s words, “tortured to death” on the street for the crime of having black skin.
Considering Dylan’s fragmented narrative technique, Gray remarks on how “Dylan gives us his own statement about” the way in which he often “obliges the listener to make the connections” between “fragments of stories” and “glimpses into worlds, into pictures, into moods and states of mind” in order to “discern the narratives.” Of ‘My Own Version of You’, he notes that what Dylan presents to us is “a witty confession of what has been his main working method ever since Love and Theft (2001) and Chronicles Volume One (2004), gathering “bits and pieces to make a new whole”.
Compare this pensive assessment to, say, the 20 June 2020 review in The Guardian, ‘Bob Dylan: Rough and Rowdy Ways review – enthralling, mischievous – and very male’, which assumed the song was about Dylan creating some sort of lubricious sex robot, and then used that preposterous, palpably facile interpretation to beat him over the head with charges of misogyny. Instead, Gray writes of how the song takes as its model Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, with both Shelley and Dylan “re-telling the Ancient Greek myth of Prometheus, a Titan who made humanity from clay and then stole fire from heaven to give us civilization.” All of which adds up to:
…his objective correlative (a phrase T.S. Eliot made popular), the specific imagery on which he can hang so resourcefully his thesis about making things new by assembling and re-ordering the old. It’s yet another way to insist on the omnipresence of the past within the present. Some of the times it comes around, ‘My own version of you’ means a version of the past: of history and of humanity.
So no, Kitty Empire of The Guardian, this isn’t “a last boomer hurrah” in which Dylan fantasises about creating a “Frankenbride” who “is some ghoulish fantasy of a woman without aesthetics of her own, much less a mind.” This is a deeply felt yet puckishly meta commentary on the artist’s own method, wrapped around a meditation on human history, time, and artistic renewal; it’s not some adolescent, sub-Robert Crumb wank fantasy.
It’s typical of Gray to politely demur from the consensus that ‘Key West (Philosopher Pirate)’ is the best song on the album, preferring instead ‘I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You’. While finding much to enjoy in ‘Key West’, seeing it as a dreamscape in which Dylan unfurls “a long and pleasing beguilement, the old sea-dog pleasantly adrift, enacting that in slow, switching rhymes,” he wonders whether it’s enough to say “if it offers an authentic Dylan performance, believe it”.
In other words, we can’t afford to lower the critical bar just because we’d so rejoice in acknowledging yet another genuine Dylan masterpiece. “As F.R. Leavis insisted, form is inseparable from content, so what is sung affects whether the voice can ring true. And voice can cover many a deficiency. Dylan knows he gets away with a lot in this way.” Asserting that there is “probably no masterpiece on Rough and Rowdy Ways, and ‘Key West’ isn’t one,” Gray feels that ‘I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You’ is the nearest the album comes to offering “a great song, a great track”, by dint of being:
…a moving, mature and multi-layered song that comes closest of any on the album to the high impersonality of great art, while remaining expressively personal, charged with a majestic warmth. It’s complex, vulnerable, perhaps a real farewell, and I find it utterly, bravely beautiful.
It’s typical of Gray, too, to tease out threads from the fabric of a song which, while seemingly trivial, are revealed to be emblematic of the whole:
He holds so wide a range of feeling across the song, and such sweet, specific touches. In the opening line – ’I’m sittin’ on my terrace, lost in the stars’ – it’s the terrace, or the my terrace, that gives it that strength – and in the choice of ‘terrace’ there’s extra pungency: and not only because it’s comically pleasing to picture Bob Dylan on his terrace. He could have opted for ‘garden’ or ‘staircase’, or been altogether vaguer, but terrace enfolds terra, as in terra firma, so that its juxtaposition with ‘the stars’ is acute.
To say much more about what else Gray has to say about this song would be superfluous. Just get the book and read (and reread) the essay for yourself. I’ll treat you to just one more quotation:
There’s one more hugely endearing line in the song, and which is a further part of Dylan’s self-referencing: the candid and realistic ‘I’m not what I was – things aren’t what they were’. It’s a lovely, and in most ways truthful, thing to hear Bob Dylan sing; and it echoes something he said in an interview almost a quarter of a century earlier: ‘We try and we try and we try to be who we were… Sooner or later you come to the realisation that we’re not who we were. So then what do we do?’
What indeed? As the artist himself said long ago, “We sit here stranded, though we’re all doing our best to deny it.” All we can do is keep on keeping on. It was a pure delight, during the political and epidemiological horrors of 2020, to be unexpectedly gifted with this album from Dylan, possibly his last album and one on which, more perhaps than ever, there is an unmistakable sense of culmination, even valediction. (Yes, I am aware we all said that about Time Out of Mind.) Equally, it’s a rich pleasure to have this wonderful collection of insightful, subtly forceful, wide-ranging, thoroughly entertaining writing from Michael Gray.
As with the Dylan album, we recognise it’s getting late in the day – “the killing frost is on the ground” – and naturally we hope there will be time for more while taking comfort in the fact that if these prove to be parting shots, they’ve more than hit their marks. Bob Dylan is Bob Dylan, a genre unto himself, the sine qua non. Michael Gray is the Bob Dylan of Bob Dylan studies, a man whose Dylan criticism has done more to augment and illuminate Dylan’s art than all of his rivals combined.
Outtakes is, in a way, Gray’s equivalent of Dylan’s Bootleg Series. Why deprive yourself of it, or any of his books? This is a must-have for anyone with the slightest interest in intelligent music criticism, not just Dylan fans. Do yourself a favour: don’t miss out. Get these Outtakes into your life.