Reckoning with Dylan’s forthcoming double LP against the future of the Never Ending Tour
In about a month, Bob Dylan will release Rough and Rowdy Ways, his 39th studio album and his first record of original material since 2012. You know that already. I am not here to talk about that.
We know, in very rough terms, what the experience of a new Dylan album will bring. There will be a handful of songs of great grace and power, painted in the autumnal brush-strokes that have flavored his best work for the last 25 years. There will be a few heavy-handed late-night blues rockers that will be overly-praised in the early days, overly-dismissed in the later analysis, and re-visited and cautiously celebrated a few years hence. And there will be a few things in between, each with curious aspects to be analyzed, damned, or praised. Needless to say, the three tracks Dylan has already released from Rough and Rowdy Ways correspond precisely to this formula (hint: “I Contain Multitudes” is the song of “great grace and power”). Oh, and there will likely be a dark horse, a song whose genius may only be revealed with the passing of time. For instance, in 1997 who would have thought that “Not Dark Yet” would emerge as a clear-cut Dylan classic; or that “Early Roman Kings,” one of the lesser songs on 2012’s wonderful Tempest album, would be the pummeling, rocking and rattling heart of his live set for the last few years, played with a “Sister Ray”-like intensity? Or that “To Serve Somebody,” much maligned at the time of its’ release a generation ago, would transform into a searing set-closer, a tribute to an entire life served at the altar of rock’n’roll?
So I look forward to the new Dylan album, I truly do. But I will also mourn its release. Here’s why:
The release of Rough and Rowdy Ways will likely signal the end of one of the most fascinating, challenging, and rewarding stages in the career of any significant recording artist, of this or any other era. It would seem unlikely that the Never Ending Tour will renew again, in any recognizable form; by the time venues across the world open enough to accommodate the near-constant road warring that has been Dylan’s bread and butter for the last 32 years, Dylan will be at least 80, and probably a bit older. The long-awaited release of an album of original material would seem to be a concession, an admission that this extraordinary stage in the great man’s career is coming to a close.
On the Never Ending Tour (especially in the form it took in the last decade), Bob Dylan did something virtually unique for a legacy artist (or any recording artist who has a reasonably high profile). He created an entire stage of his development, a completely independent body of work, which existed only on the concert stage, and only for the concert stage. The Never Ending Tour was its own animal, its own completely unique artistic object, with little connection to any released recordings (these were always only used as reference points, a platform for the unique qualities of the live show, not as something to be presented for their own sake). And with its relatively strictly enforced prohibition of photos or cameras, it was meant to bring the ticket holder into the moment, and to trust the record of memory. This is especially meaningful, since the work itself – the evolving New Orleans/Austin/Memphis/Frenchman Street-meets-6th Street-meets Highway 61-meets-WDIA ashtray-rattling radiator-knocking booze-can rent party that was the Never Ending Tour – was both about memory, and about recreating the moment when memories are born. I will repeat: The Never Ending Tour was, more than anything, about the artists’ memory, and sourcing the moment when the artists’ memories were born.
AUDIO: Bob Dylan’s first show of the Never Ending Tour in Concord, NH in 1988
So that you can fully understand the singularity of the phenomenon I am trying to honor, let’s spell that out a little bit. Imagine an artist famous enough to sell out 10,000 seats in any city in the world solely because he or she is so legendary that people will pay a fairly significant price solely for the privilege of sitting in the same room as them. Then imagine that this artist using their time on stage only to explore their own relationship with rock’n’roll and pop, to retrieve the same joy and intrigue in and between the notes that drove them to first pick up an instrument.
Bob Dylan, alone amongst first rank legacy artists (and when I use the word “legacy”, I am including anyone active for over 25 years who can fill a large room solely on the strength of their name), performs on stage to please only himself, and to find, recreate and expand upon the feeling he got when they first fell in love with rock ‘n’ roll. This was the message and meaning of the Never Ending Tour. If you have ever played in a band, or in a bedroom or basement with a few friends or even by yourself, you distinctly recall that sense of ecstasy and one-ness you felt when you first hit that chord at that volume. You also remember how it felt when the floor underneath you lifted as the bass frequencies reached into the wood, and the kick drum whomped you in the place just below your belly. You remember the origin of these feelings like you remember your first kiss. I guarantee that you have always sought to attain that feeling again, every time you picked up an instrument and every time you dropped a needle on a record.
Bob Dylan went on that search every night of the Never Ending Tour. First, he wanted to locate the memory of the very first time he heard the rolling New Orleans rhythms and quadruple time Morse Code S-O-S of “Tutti Frutti.” Then he wanted to recreate, in his fingers, thighs, and the tightness at the back of the jaw, what it felt like to recreate that sound with his own hands. The Never Ending Tour was a two-fold dialogue with memory: Retrieving the moment of discovery, and remembering the moment you knew you would give your life to the pursuit of recreating that moment of discovery.
On The Never Ending Tour, Dylan did not merely summon the spirits of Marty Robbins, Bob Wills, Sinatra, Johnny Cash, Hoagy Carmichael, etcetera. He also summoned the moment these artists made him fall for the sway and sand, cocktails and fireworks of music. He never sought to recreate their sound, but to rouse and conjure the sound of him falling in love with them.
Bob Dylan did this, for himself, every night, at every show, largely through the medium of his own material, which he used merely as a platform for the recreation of feeling and memory. Every night, he summoned the memories of the hum of the high-tension wires and the warmth and sizzle of the Clear Channel radio stations, bringing him hot, high and lonesome music up the Mississippi and across the prairies. Each night he scratched his heart and soul for what it felt like to be transformed by Buddy Holly, Son House, Johnny Cash, cool Sinatra, neon Sinatra, and always Little Richard. Whether he was playing in front of 3800 or 12,000, he was his own most important listener, he was playing for himself, in front of the arena of memory, the arena of joy, the arena of heartbreak, the arena he first discovered, inhabited, and explored in in overheated bedrooms and cold cellars somewhere in Ike-era north country.
AUDIO: Bob Dylan live at Messhalle Erfurt 9/7/19
It is – or was – so overwhelming and original a feat that it is hard to conjure, hard to find anything to compare it to. Dylan did not go on stage to play the hits. Dylan did not go on stage to defy time. Dylan did not go on stage to assuage a folio of insecurities. And, due to the extraordinary value of his publishing catalog, I think it’s safe to say Dylan didn’t play a hundred or so shows a year just to make money. Bob Dylan went on stage to explore the babel of memory. He went on stage to search, in every song on every night, for the origin of his life’s obsession with the thump and twang and shimmer of American music. He went on stage to recreate the feeling he felt when he fell hopelessly in love with the high lonesome and the down and dirty.
It is – it was – the most pure pursuit. Whatever it is I have done related to music (writing about it, producing it, spinning it, playing it, acting as a midwife between artists and the industry), I am always conscious of that moment I fell in love with rock’n’roll (for this, I thank the Kinks); that moment that I realized The Beat was mesmeric, transcendent, and able to take you beyond your mind and body (for this, I thank the Velvet Underground, and a few bars of the Beatles’ “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide”); and that moment I realized that music told the story of America (the only story about America worth telling) better than any schoolbook (for this, I thank Bo Diddley, Louis Armstrong, and Elvis). And always, in the back of my mind, when undertaking all of my strange tasks in the land where songs are bought and sold, I remember this: The mystery of the song heard on a car radio when you’re small and sitting in the back seat in the dark on the way home from someplace that is not home. And if you have any sense at all, if you love rock’n’roll at all, you are forever trying to recreate that sense of wonder, no matter what medium you work in.
The Never Ending Tour did nothing but explore that sense of wonder.
And Rough and Rowdy Ways, and the despicable virus that fogs and encourages its release, will very possibly mark the end of that tour, the end of that era when one of our greatest artists chose to use the public stage as the venue where he would dance with his very private angels and devils.
VIDEO: Bob Dylan “False Prophet” (lyric video)