Dylan’s new song “I Contain Mutitudes,” too

Bob Dylan (right) proves in his latest song “I Contain Multitudes,” he has much more affinity with iconic American poet Walt Whitman than a stylish way with broad-brimmed hats. Salon.com

 

Because with the distractions of online content, even those most interested in worthy subjects often feel compelled to pick and choose, even in the midde of a reading. So because Dylan’s first new song in eight years, “Murder Most Foul,” has gained extraordinary attention, I decided to give my review of his follow-up song “I Contain Multitudes,” its own forum, a separate blog review. Both songs are included in his new album, Rough and Rowdy Ways.

I discovered, upon examining it that it is well worth one’s time, especially in relation to the JFK song and more contemporary issues. I hope you find it of interest as well. The lyrics are included at the bottom.

Review: Bob Dylan “I Contain Multitudes.”

The epic 17-minute ballad evoking the assassination of John Kennedy and its after-effects to the present, was a well-aimed arrow to the heart of many things evil, without and within.

Russell Crowe as Robin Hood, the mythical but real-life fighter for the underdog. Digital Spy

Released online in mid-March, the song probes into the mysteries of the most presidential and persistent conspiracy theory of modern times.

` The assassination may feel like too long an arc of history for some, especially those not old enough to have experienced the event. But does the arc bend toward justice? That question still troubles many who see the truth lying in Cuba with Fidel Castro, Kennedy’s most immediate mortal political and military foe.

And consider, in the COVID-19 crisis, Las Vegas – the American city arguably most dependent on service industry –– has reportedly not been this deserted since the JFK assassination.

An arc of significance perhaps can be drawn from “Murder” back to “Chimes of Freedom,” a similar type of chanting song, if far more full-throated, with a rise-and-fall wave-like melody. It’s been called Dylan’s “Sermon on the Mount.”

“The assassination was in some ways the culmination of many of the political themes about which Dylan had been singing,” wrote Tom Piazza in 2011, discussing Dylan’s extraordinary 1964 Newport performance, in Devil Sent the Rain: Music and Writing in Desperate America. He references the climactic performance of “Chimes of Freedom” documented in Murray Lerner’s film The Other Side of the Mirror. 1 

Here’s is that extraordinary moment in recent music history:

Piazza wrote that the assassination “signaled a split in the American psyche; a shifting power to a younger, vital generation had been aborted. Kennedy was replaced in office by the dour, older Lyndon Johnson. Then with the new year, came the Beatles, an explosion of fun and irony and sex from foreign shores, just the thing to help a traumatized public forget its trauma for a while.” Dylan acknowledges the Beatles’ 1964 importance in “Murder.” And now we’re amidst a similar trauma where America’s young strive to take the political lead.

Historian Sean Wilentz writes that in 1964 Dylan had already been experimenting in beat-style free verse (a form pioneered in the 19th century by Walt Whitman, the song’s conceptual inspiration, who made famous the grandiloquent idea of “I contain multitudes”)

Not long after (Dylan) met (Alan) Ginsburg, he poured out a poem about the day of Kennedy’s murder which concluded:

The colors of Friday were dull/ as cathedral bells were gently burnin’/ striking for the gentle/ striking for the kind/ striking for the crippled one/ striking for the blind

Pulled together, the lines would form part of what Dylan called the “chain of flashing images” that soon went into ‘Chimes of Freedom.’ ” 3

In the song’s story, a couple ducks inside a doorway to escape and witness a thunderstorm, and much more. The lyric alludes to the church bells tolling on the Friday of Kennedy’s burial procession.

The analogy to an updated Sherwood Forest folk hero comes to mind in a muted yet strangely pointed manner with the most startling lines embedded in “I Contain Multitudes”:

I carry four pistols and two large knives/ I’m a man of contradiction, I’m a man of many moods/ I contain multitudes.

The first impression of the new song is of egocentric boasting, and grandiosity, and the stuff about weapons might disturb the much of the multitudes he proclaims who consider him possibly our supreme living songwriting poet.

But they also should know by now that Dylan never conceded to our idealized versions of him. Nevertheless, let’s think of the songwriter’s weapon as lovable rogue Robin Hood’s flashing cutlass, then as now, catching the sun and twirling, a la Douglas Fairbanks (or Russell Crowe), if that archetypal fighter-for-the-poor were a man of consciousness as much as action, a reflection of what chimes out when the blade clashes.

We might be dealing with what literary critic Harold Bloom calls “the Daemon,” the secular or “daemonic” genius of the American self. But have we had our fill of presumed American exceptionalism? Many on the left would argue hubris and selfishness have let capitalism run rampant, forging the great schism of inequality that America agonizes under.

I’d hardly argue against that point. But Dylan is not really playing a direct political hand here, though he is posturing as a democratic hero, a la Whitman.

As a folk hero, Dylan easily carries the “street-legal” cred. (Speaking of Street-Legal, that 1978 album’s “Senor [Tales of Yankee Power]” is another example of how slyly and deftly Dylan has maintained his role as spokesman for the American conscience through the years, despite his own disclaimers.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VvkosdmNlqo

But in “Multitudes” Dylan essentially declares his somewhat radical cultural role by singing:

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

Um, picturing wispy Dylan as macho, whip-snapping Indiana Jones bends my imagination into a bundle. Maybe he’s more akin to Holocaust diarist Anne Frank. But let’s look at what that risk-taking is couched in. The next line:

I go right where all things lost are made good again

Now imagine, for a moment, if Anne Frank might’ve survived to write about the Kennedy assassination. She would’ve been 34 (the same age as my late father, a great Kennedy fan, who was born about a month after Frank, in 1929). If she could still believe that people are essentially good in the face of The Nazis about to destroy almost everyone in her family and six million more, surely she could nurse a flame of hope as America’s Camelot seemed to burn to the ground.

Holocaust victim and German diarist Anne Frank  Courtesy history.com

Yet, here, the flip side of Dylan’s idealistic Jewish woman is the joker face of Mick Jagger, perhaps singing both “Sympathy for the Devil” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” And such a card hand contains a risky bet on America in 2020. Why can’t we mirror our political poles as neatly as that year does numerically? Why can’t we focus on common goals, a common good with something closer to 20-20 vision? Right now, we’re all in this deadly situation together, but politically cross-eyed.

Part of the implicit challenge: Must we have sympathy for whomever we the perceive as the devil? And yet realize that we may not get what “We the People” want, yet again?

If that’s not motivation enough to come together, what is? As usual Elizabeth Warren speaks to our fundamental principles as plainly as anyone: Today, The American) dream runs into a very hard reality that this is now a world that works better and better for a smaller and smaller number of people. 

So our moment may feel as fraught as Anne Frank’s, facing the clomping of SS boots on the stairs. Or as heart-broken as Walt Whitman’s, as he embraced and nursed dying Civil War soldiers, going “right to the edge, right to the end” along the battlefield of America’s most tragic historic crisis.

Dylan clearly has a sense of his importance, as few of us can, but a person can only see so much of himself amid the often-glaring sheen of ego, the mixed messages of praise and hagiography, showered on him like upon few other pop artists of our time.

The more we reflect on Dylan’s lyrics in question, the more his ostensible egotism falls away. 4 It might be a snake’s skin, but to know Dylan’s history is to know the often-elliptical ways he honors history, especially through music and literature.

Yet also through visual art, as he reminds us here (“I paint landscapes, and I paint nudes”). He’s been an amateur painter at least since he did the gawky, art brut cover for The Band’s debut album Music from Big Pink. in 1968, that seemed to charm us and the depicted elephant with the musicians’ vibrations.

In this sense, his artistic claim may seem self-mocking. It recalls the surprising humility of the late John Updike, one of our proudest and most vivid prose stylists. Updike, a mildly-talented cartoonist for the Harvard Lampoon while attending that school, admitted:

“Drawing can feel perfect the way that prose never does, and a poem rarely. Language is intrinsically approximate, since words mean different things to different people.”

And yet Dylan, like Updike knows he is a better wordsmith than an artist. Updike claimed he gave up on striving for vivid prose imagery in mid-career.

But Dylan can’t give up because, for him, his songs are his best arrow and lance, for how he faces the zeitgeist, whereas his painting is more an escape from it. In the new song, he utters the title phrase the first time with a gruff sigh, as if the multitudes are a burden.

“I Contain Multitudes” is musically modest, hardly even  comparing to the somber, elegiac instrumentation of “Murder Most Foul.” His vocal delivery is oddly poignant and tender. The new song’s first image is pointedly aware of fleeting life: Today and tomorrow, and yesterday, too/ The flowers are dyin’ like all things do

So it feels like is an admission of his artistic limits, and even his compulsive triviality amid his would-be encompassing heroism: I fuss with my hair/ and I fight blood feuds/ I contain multitudes.

And yet, “(I) got a telltale heart, like Mr. Poe.” The man in Poe’s famous story is a killer, and Dylan is even willing to go there, even if metaphorically, to abase himself before us and perhaps his God. He admits he might even betray you (“Judas” they cried when he went electric.)

Yet finally, in a brilliantly simple twist of fate and tone, he seems to snidely defy our Grim Reaping pandemic in one breath, while declaring, in the next, each endeared person tattooed on his soul.

Get lost, madame, get up off my knee
Keep your mouth away from me
I’ll keep the path open, the path in my mind
I’ll see to it that there’s no love left behind

That feels like a commitment whether he survives or not, given that he’s 78, and still seemingly frail, even as he has trucked on his “endless tour” in compromised health since his horrible motorcycle accident decades ago.

So, the artists and writers he names here echo the assassination ballad’s healing litany of songs and songwriters, for people who may remain wounded more than they realize – contributing to today’s traumas. Are they merely scars for the countless from 1963, and 1968, when murder most fouled JFK’s brother Bobby and Rev. Martin Luther King. Jr., two of the greatest leaders of the Civil Rights movement?

In the end, Dylan turns from sentiment back to art. The quintessential rootsy, folk-rock musician/disc jockey even embraces art music.

Otherwise, how could he honestly contain multitudes?

I play Beethoven’s sonatas, and Chopin’s preludes.
I contain multitudes.

These are reasons why we still value Dylan, among such golden incomparables as Whitman and King. Despite the oral or written word’s approximate nature, they can all count on their best storytelling to last. He shows us how poetry can be a foot soldier for truth, its rhythmic mysteries abiding in the wind.

As music historian Ted Gioia comments, on oral traditions going at least back to early Maori tribes in New Zealand: ”Long after visual memories fade, the aural memories of a heard (or sung) tale remain…storytelling shapes our brains in ways that even powerful images, like home movies or family portraits, cannot match. Fieldwork in surviving hunter-gatherer societies tell us that storytelling skills are among the most prized talents in those communities.” 6

_______________

1 Tom Piazza, Devil Sent the Rain: Music and Writing in Desperate America, Harper Perennial, 2011, 122 (Piazza’s title, though an old blues trope, seems to allude to the “Chimes of Freedom” thunderstorm scene, and his subtitle foreshadows our current situation.)
2 “Chimes of Freedom” has been memorably covered many times, including by The Byrds, Bruce Springsteen, Jefferson Starship and Senegalese musician Youssou N’Dour. I was reminded of the song’s power and importance when Madison historian-journalist-radio show host Stuart Levitan recited the entire lyrics onstage at a Madison jazz festival not long ago. Similarly, jazz pianist Lynne Arriale just released a new album titled Chimes of Freedom with a condensed vocal version of the song as its centerpiece. Review of that: mArriale, Chimes

  1. Sean Wilentz, Bob Dylan in America,Doubleday,  2010, 69
  2. Piazza, in Devil Sent the Rain, addresses the dichotomy of artistic ego by quoting Melville’s poem about art: “ ‘Humility – yet pride and scorn/ Instinct and study; love and hate/ Audacity – reverence. These must mate…‘ in order to ‘wrestle with the angel.‘ “, Devil, 130
  3. John Updike, “Lost Art,” from The Best American Essays 1998, Cynthia Ozick, Houghton Mifflin,  1998, 244-45
  4. Ted Gioia, Music: A Subversive History, Basic Books, 2019, 79

 

 

 

 

Lyrics to “I Contain Multitudes” c Bob Dylan

 

Today and tomorrow, and yesterday, too
The flowers are dyin’ like all things do
Follow me close, I’m going to Balian Bali
I’ll lose my mind if you don’t come with me
I fuss with my hair, and I fight blood feuds
I contain multitudes

Got a tell-tale heart, like Mr. Poe
Got skeletons in the walls of people you know
I’ll drink to the truth and the things we said
I’ll drink to the man that shares your bed
I paint landscapes, and I paint nudes
I contain multitudes

Red Cadillac and a black moustache
Rings on my fingers that sparkle and flash
Tell me, what’s next? What shall we do?
Half my soul, baby, belongs to you
I relic and I frolic with all the young dudes
I contain multitudes

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
I sing the songs of experience like William Blake
I have no apologies to make
Everything’s flowing all at the same time
I live on the boulevard of crime
I drive fast cars, and I eat fast foods
I contain multitudes

Pink petal-pushers, red blue jeans
All the pretty maids, and all the old queens
All the old queens from all my past lives
I carry four pistols and two large knives
I’m a man of contradictions, I’m a man of many moods
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
Get lost, madame, get up off my knee
Keep your mouth away from me
I’ll keep the path open, the path in my mind
I’ll see to it that there’s no love left behind
I’ll play Beethoven’s sonatas, and Chopin’s preludes
I contain multitudes

 

Considering Dylan chose these two songs to release and that they encompass nearly half an hour of the album it’s reasonable to conclude that they are representative of the album’s material and viewpoint:
However, a couple more songs from Rough and Rowdy Ways are now available, here:

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.