Dylan’s Rough and Ready Ways

I received digital files of Bob Dylan’s new album on Monday. Rough and Rowdy Ways is a masterpiece, a grand reinvention of his art for Dylan, and packed with sublime moments, great wit, savage violence, unbearable feeling. It’s something else. Now read on – this is the longer version of my review for The Arts Desk

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When “Murder Most Foul” was dropped into an unsuspecting world under lockdown, the surprise among Dylan fans was palpable, given that eight years had passed since Tempest, filled by all those Sinatra covers and seasonal tours.

That it was a 16-minute epic that took Dylan’s writing into new areas (including No1 on Billboard) – and this on the verge of his eightieth year – is also astonishing. Mixing the modes of popular verse with his own telling twists of imagery and narrative, “Murder Most Foul” was at once a widescreen, mythological retelling of the Kennedy assassination, enveloped by a bird’s-eye, camera-obscura view of its impact on the day and in history, all wrapped up in a majestic, seemingly unending ‘king list’ of players, songs and singers, the list of names extending way before and after Kennedy’s death as if to suggest some kind of immortal flow through 20th-century popular music’s Elysium Fields. Against a circling, filigree piano accompaniment and delicate touches of cello and bass, and recorded so that you can all but feel the air in the room, Dylan’s voice and lyric does all sorts of things with time, combining the linear progress of the murder ballad with the circular time of the king list-cum playlist.

Two more songs have since been released, “I Contain Multitudes”, and “False Prophet”. Both have a lot to unpack, and turn out to be bigger on the inside than the outside. “Multitudes”, especially, brushes through a plethora of places, characters and times, and as the first song on Rough and Rowdy Ways, opens the door onto one of the strangest, strongest and plain weirdest of all Dylan’s albums. It’s a first-person song, but the ‘I’ has never felt less individual, packed as it is with the inner multitudes of experience, age, persona, projection, association and shared culture.

And so it is throughout this magnificent album, where the first person singular is a fractured entity, blown open wide, what’s left alive comprising a procession of tiny figures in huge landscapes, cityscapes, timescapes. There’s not a lot of shade in these songs. They stand in direct heat and light, exposed to the elements and tooled up with a striking arsenal of weaponry. At times I feel the influence of Western Lands-era William Burroughs, not that Dylan’s taking from him so much as expanding on the principles and the results of Burroughs’ methods, embedding them in the structure of the songs.

As serene as the surface of the music often is, there’s a restless and protean poetry broiling down below, embracing multitudes and leaving plenty of loose ends to tease out and chew over.

False Prophet” carries Dylan’s heavily barked voice on a slow march, a beat as heavy as nails being hammered into a coffin. The lyrics are a bragging, proclaiming blizzard of end-time tableaux, pulled up in the songwriter’s nets and slopped out without any of the rules of time to separate them, the imagery slipping between Iron Age and classic film noir, peopled by the folk and blues traditions’ stock company of players and settings.

My Own Version of You” is a gentle, funny, creepy, evocative – a weird Frankenstein-meets-Reanimator tale, set to a descending spiral staircase of a rhythm, at times with some of the spirit of Oh Mercy’s “Man In The Long Black Coat”. The opening lines are darkly funny, and brilliantly delivered: “All through the summer into January, I’ve been visiting morgues and monasteries, looking for the necessary body parts, limbs and livers and brains and hearts.” It’s hardly a Valentine’s, and its later verses take in Scarface and Rambo and even slavery in the ancient world (“Stand over there by the cypress tree, where the Trojan women were sold into slavery, long before the first Crusade, way back before England or America were made”). Verse after great verse lead off at tangents into who knows where before returning to the shifting chorus – “I’ll bring someone to life, use all of my powers, do it in the dark, in the wee small hours...” It’s a genius song that roams far but holds tight.

Similarly, “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself To You” is sung gorgeously, captured perfectly, played subtly, and set up on a circling vocal chorus. This slow, stately ballad breathes in all those Sinatra songs from the past few years and breathes out new and strange, Dylan playing with the mores of sentimental verse like a cat plays with its prey. It’s a song of devotion, but not necessarily devotion to any human object of affection, but to something otherworldly, the worlds of death and the Elysium Fields, or as Dylan calls it on the album’s last track, Key West.

But before we get there, meet “The Black Rider”, a song possibly drawing from the play of the same name by William Burroughs, Tom Waits and Robert Wilson, in which Marianne Faithfull starred as The Devil. It’s a song that seems to circle around the figure of death, for sure, its wagons hitched up to all the fleeting and ruling passions emptying out of life – rage, love, suffering, fortitude, fear. It’s beautifully spare in instrumentation – one of the few Dylan band recordings without a drummer – and hauntingly sung.

Cranking it up as the Black Rider departs is a raucous tribute to legendary bluesman Jimmy Reed, a Highway 61-style rocker in which the singer finds a creed in the music of the great man. Along the way, there’s plenty of arresting, crackling, lascivious, vampiric verses to trample through – “Transparent woman in a transparent dress, suits you well I must confess, I’ll break open your grapes and suck out your juice, I need you like a head needs a noose.

Mother of Muses” like “Black Rider”, and “Multitudes” are the only band tracks I know of Dylan’s that don’t feature a drummer. It’s spare and skeletal, slow and stately, its arrangement leaving plenty of air and space in the song, which adds to its profound sense of timelessness. The lyrics are steeped in classical mythology – nymphs of the forest, women of the chorus, a plea to Calliope, the patron of epic poetry. “Take me to the river and release its charms,” he croons, “Let me lay down a while in your sweet loving arms.” He sings, too, of Sherman, Patton and co, the American generals who, for Dylan or at least for this song, “laid the path for Presley to sing, who carved the path for Martin Luther King”. Subjects of epic verse, and epic history, for sure.

Crossing The Rubicon” features the album’s big burst of harmonica, alongside a blow or two between verses in “Goodbye Jimmy Reed”, cranking up to become another highlight, ranking with ease with the best of his work. Dylan is at his mercurial best here, at his own pace but as fast a gun as you ever saw, declaiming vivid tableaux over a blues steeped in the blood of the ancients, the heroes of Homer’s and Julius Caesar slitting the throats of their foe. Over seven and half glorious minutes, verses return again and again to that point of no return, and all the irreversible ways of getting there, and crossing the Rubicon.

Which brings us, in the end, to “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)”, the first disc’s final song (“Murder Most Foul” stands alone on the second), and its longest, at nine-and-a-half minutes. It’s carried on a soft, see-sawing, wave-like riff overlaid by the welcome sound of an accordion, it’s atmospherics summoning up an American road trip into the Elysium Fields, its climate of endless summer casting dark shadows over the brightness and heat. The likes of Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and Shel Silverstein once found homes here. Maybe Dylan has a home there too. Maybe he’s got some real estate he wants to boost, because he sure makes Key West sound welcoming. It’s casual, metaphysical, full of detail, wonderfully sung – I heard touches of Blood on the Tracks and even Nashville Skyline rise out of the music here and there – with Dylan the lyricist making his spring-heeled way through a plethora of times, faces and places, all returning to roost on that two-word sign, Key West.

What to make of it? It’s a masterpiece. Even after many listens, it feels endless and bottomless. What a piece of work. It’s bizarre, eccentric, unlike anything else he or anyone else has done. It ranks with the very best of his work. Entropy is meant to be the third universal law, so for a 79-year-old artist to produce a work of such expansiveness, humanity and mystery – well that might be the greatest mystery of all.

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Dylan audience RAH003

Bob Dylan’s audience at the Royal Albert Hall, 27 November, 2013

Wisteria Time

Continuing garden art in lockdown, where the borders of the known world edge into the unknown, set amid a cascading jewellery of bird song, bee buzz, the evening exhalation of scent and the changing face of the light through the day, and what it does, and so here’s a gallery of this spring’s manifestation of wisteria from first bud and first leaf to flower-fall and the big wind that will take the last of the drying blooms over the hills and far away.

 

Thirteen faces of Spring

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Entering the sixth week of lockdown, May Day now behind us and a midsummer solstice not far off, and confinement under occupation continues with no discernible unlocking. All the while I’ve been painting the spring into colour, followed the daily changes in the greening and the opening up of colour as spring breaks out of her winter wardrobe across the garden and beyond. Now wisteria hangs in the air, breaking open its scent at dusk with an orchestra of undiluted birdsong.

I’ve made a video of the thirteen paintings of Spring, put to brush and board in the act of its becoming, and Metamorph, the poem that goes with it, is itself a reflection on the act of reflecting, in its own medium. We’re moving through interior space, trailing the world we know behind us, towards a world we’re yet to know. I carry the palette you can see above, it’s one I’ve had since I was a teenager, and it’s still here, and I’m still mixing paint on it. It’s what I know …

Here are the stills, the lucky thirteen faces of spring, and the text of Metamorph, follows.

 

Metamorph

Observing the intricacy
of surface appearances
descending through
their wavelengths
to physical manifestation,
I should have been rapt
but I was not all there,
barely solid in fact,
staring into space after
wandering astray through
a passage in a book
about teeth, tongue and skin
in the medieval imagination.
On the radio, chamber
music from Beethoven
and me on the back step,
kitchen door wide open,
with tobacco and wine
and a palette of colours,
barely paying attention
to any other phenomenon
but my own. So is our
reality inlaid with
wonders and signs,
mediums of mind
stretched across the hour
to the tautness
of a drum. I don’t
talk much but
I know the body’s
strongest muscle
is the tongue,
finding its length
and setting into motion
small words to cross
an ocean, wave after
wave flowing through
the head to the hand
like wind through grass,
wine poured into a glass
blown from one lung of air,
filling the head
with hidden rooms
and winding stairs
to lose yourself upon,
to find your place
and settle there.

Politics of isolation II

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Painting the bushes and flowers in your  back yard. Hardly revolutionary, is it? Or is it? Vuillard did it, Bonnard did it – two of my favourite post Impressionists. No one serious does it now, though, do they? Do they? They DO?

We’re a society in lockdown, largely voluntarily, for the good of the greater whole. I can only imagine at what the empty city centre must be like to experience and make art from, but imagine is all I do, being not a key worker but a sub editor and writer, working from home. And when I’m not working, I sit on a stool at the windows onto the back, out to the 60 or so feet of rear garden, private space, secluded self-isolation chamber, its boundaries laid out from orchard land in the 1930s. The bushes are mature – camellias, heavenly bamboo,  jasmine, California lilac.

So garden art becomes political in lockdown. It becomes inner commentary and outer reflection. Who knows how long I’ll be sitting there, as the red blooms die off and the purple reign of May’s wisteria flowering begins, and I slip another board onto the easel, and squeeze out some pigments, and mix them in solitary.

If the pictures are good, I’ll add to them here.

Update, Easter Sunday

We are now entering the third week of Spring in lockdown, a riot of birdsong, pollen, flowering, and bud burst. Traffic is more or less back to 1970s levels, and there’s a quality in the air I haven’t sensed since the 1970s. Olfactory time and space travel amid daily death counts approaching the thousand mark. Terror and a strange peace, rimmed with a dark edge. The immediate surroundings have been fully internalised. Here’s the next five.

 

 

and here are the previous four.

To order K N U CK L E

“Devastatingly acute” – The Irish Times’ books of the year

 

Review, Live Encounters, Ireland

Knuckle from Pitt Street Poetry is Tim Cumming’s eighth collection. The book begins with a stunning sequence on the planets, each one different, each suffused with humour, eroticism and Cumming’s trademark scientific focus.

The title poem ‘The Knuckle End’ comes from the sweetest meat on a leg of lamb and it is equally sweet in the way that great music is sweet. There are no wrong notes, no sentimentality, “I am struck by how little/ food waste there is in Mum’s/slops bucket…’.

A wider sense of waste returns with great force in his fine poem, ‘Bag’, “Nothing says forever like plastic.” All of Cumming’s preoccupations are here— music, destiny, love, travel and history enhanced by his terrific ‘End Note’ which reads like a manifesto, an essay or a lesson for poetry.

Cumming’s clear, cerebral poetry has never been finer while his short poem ‘Stylus’ operates like a coda, ‘The only diamond I ever owned/was set in the stylus of a turntable,/its arm falling into the groove/of one great album after/another. I held them close/as I would a lover.’

Martina Evans

 

To get hold of Knuckle, you can do three things:
Go to The London Review Bookshop in Bury Place near the British Museum,
to Belgravia Books on Ebury Street, near Victoria Station,
write directly to me via this site or at tim.cumming@talk21.com
or write to the publishers, Pitt Street Poetry in Sydney, Australia, and ask them
to put this lovely book of theirs on their website so it can be ordered online!

Thank you

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Three poems

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You can buy KNUCKLE direct from me for a most rare and singular present this Christmas. £12.99 plus £2 for post and packing. Message me, my darlings. The London Review Bookshop and Belgravia Books are also exclusive stockists.

Here are three poems from the book taken for publication earlier this year by The White Review, but never published. So it goes.

The Shake

 

Because what’s been started
won’t stop happening even though
you never noticed these things
happening at all, set them
aside as alternative facts,
and you feeling totally relaxed
like apple blossom draped over a wall.
Sooner or later the fruit is going
to fall, like it or not, and then what?
You can’t look in to space from here
but if you could there would only
be blackness and stars and what does
that suggest about our condition
as world leaders step to the podium,
shoulders shaking in their great coats,
a sickness ascribed to the burdens
of state but actually it was the sheer
appalling scale of the darkness descending
on us all one by one. You couldn’t shake
it off, like apples from a tree.
It hung in the mind and weighted the body.
Very few photographs survive from
this period and those that do are
hopelessly blurred because the world
was not spinning but shaking
and a lot of things fell out along the way.
We couldn’t get them back and eventually
we had trouble even remembering them.

 

Threshold

He was standing in the corner of the room,
making funny shapes with his fingers.
You were at his threshold, unable to move,
draining out of yourself like water from a tank,
the hot tap running cold, me swimming at
your end and between us the threshold.
You stepped through it and left with more than
you wanted to find. There are things you know
you left behind and we are going back there, my love,
so you no longer have to cross the threshold of that room.

 

Stylus

What works depends on your condition
and the setting of your jewels.
I’d not travelled jewellery class,
moved when I had to move.
The only diamond I ever owned
was set in the stylus of a turntable,
its arm falling into the groove
of one great album after
another. I held them close
as I would hold a lover.

Dartmoor dozen

In mid August, I stayed with a friend in Chagford, and on my last day on Dartmoor, headed back to Powdermills Farm, where I had spent many Easters and Summers in the 1960s and 1970s, when it was still a working farm, with Mr George Stephens at the Farm House. It was a typically Dartmoor summer’s day – ferocious rain followed by splashes and sprays of warm sun, when the green of the grasses alongside the Cherry Brook was an almost supernatural, Robin Hood, Greenwood green of ergot hallucination and hypnogogic inner voyages. I made a lot of fast field drawings on the farm, then worked on seven larger acrylics on board, and here’s a selection of them, alongside an account of life on Powdermills Farm almost half a century ago. 

Long summers and fragile Easters largely made up our family’s moorland calendar. The moor I remembered was scored with ancient mine workings, fearsome muses, stone circles, standing stones, kists and dolmens as well as the naturally, spectacularly weathered granites atop the famous tors – the ragged profile of Old Crockern and his ilk. Through the Fifties and the Sixties – the rock n roll years – as each of us arrived from the children’s home, the growing family would bivouac on a patch of emerald green grass, perhaps the only patch on the north moors – beside a little russet brook, the Cherry Brook, on a farm called Powdermills in the middle of the moor, north of the B-road between Mortonhampstead and Princeton, with its prison.

Powdermills had been chosen in the 1840s as a site suitably remote enough for the making of gunpowder, the ripe charge of saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal. The land was littered with ruined granite outhouses, workers’ cottages, two giant chimneys, and leats, channels and clitter-filled drops that once housed water wheels powered by the Cherry Brook to filter out impurities from the finished product. The gpowdermills 09001unpowder was delivered to local magazines by horse or steam and from there to the quarries and mines that blew their way into the earth for metal and stone. Some of the tin workings in these parts are very ancient indeed. Without them, there wouldn’t have been any Bronze Age.

The farmhouse had been the foreman’s house, the farm buildings workers’ cottages. There is a story of one worker, by the name of Silus Sleep, who chose to eat all his day’s meals in the morning – so that in the event of an explosion, he would meet his maker on a full stomach to soften the blow. Two testing mortar were set either side of the track from the road. Three thousands US troops were station at Powdermills in the months before D-Day and a group of them took the cannon with them. They were retrieved at Plymouth Hoe and returned to the moor, and to Powdermills, where we’d clamber over them to play.

Dartmoor Powdermills rainStorms lash Dartmoor even in the height of summer, and there were floods, collapses and other camping calamities until Dad gave up bivouacking for one of the farm cottages, The Blue Cottage, hired from the Duchy for seventy pounds a year, and one of a row of two between milking parlour and barn that looked directly over towards Bellever forest. The forest was thick but young – post war pine and Forestry Commission pathways. It rose up dark and solid towards the summit of Bellever, like a troubling dream, the approach to the peak ringed by wild blueberry bushes yielding handfuls of tiny bittersweet fruit to assiduous foragers and thirsty mouths. I remember following a stream through the forest, as if it were the compelling plotline of a fairy story, taking you deeper into the wood but forever holding the light of the sky below the crowns of the tall dark handsome pines.

The Blue Cottage had a tiny front garden, and a rock strewn paddock ran the full length of farm buildings behind us. In shearing and lambing season, the farmer George Stevens would round up flocks from the moor – whistling and calling his dogs up the slow slopes of Longaford and Higher White. Sleeping through the sound of several hundred sheep in the paddock at night, as if the sound itself took on the properties of wool and pillowy warmth, a quiet Celtic kid like me would feel the whole of the universe expressing its sheepness.

The cottage at Powdermills had no electricity or running water. We drew water from a Dartmoor Aug 19 2well using a long iron hand pump, and lit the rooms with oil lamps and candles and the light of a rayburn. In later years, the landowner Mr Russell had a generator installed, but our cottage was not connected to the 20th century in any direct manner, and I relished the time travel. It was haunted, too. The voice in the ear in our parent’s bedroom. The spirit that troubled my brother in bed by the stair wall. All drowned out by the generator sat shaking and growling in the old barn where dad and Mr Stephens had once tended a dying bull ‘whose blood had turned to water’, like the Mass in reverse, and a bull, too, that creature of the cave wall.

Mr Steven’s farmhouse was a large, square grey shale-covered building of weather-worn Georgian proportions at the end of the row, and through the gate by the farmhouse the path took you to Cherry Brook, and the old gunpowder works, the gorsey slopes that led to Longaford and over the other side, a line of Bronze Age stones leaning towards the westerly sun and the great north moors, the green desert of Britain. The silver flashing Devonport leat wound through the bottom of a valley running east through Wistman’s wood, an acreage of primeval forestry, its gnarled and stunted oaks strewn with boulders, nests of adders and cushions of moss.

These trees, these few little acres of land, were the last remnants of Dartmoor’s original forest, the lay of the land before Bronze Age settlers built and raized and passed. Wistman’s was full of legends, boggy with them – the name from the Celtic for wise man, the Wood of the Wise, and from Wisht, for pixie-led, for haunted, eerie, uncanny. It’s not a place that many care to enter. The Wisht hounds are reputed to thunder through on their wild hunt for the souls of the sinner and the unbaptised. Dartmoor tales wrapped round each other and the landscape like those gnarled, twisted, stunted oaks and made objective truth impenetrable. Dad made studies of the wood, using an impasto of his own making, monochrome miniatures that captured the eerie density of the contorted, wizened oaks that grew as if one creature, wrapped up in itself and admitting few strangers.

I was too far from Powdermills to fold it into my route map, but I was back on the moor, Dartmoor Powdermills pathwaydrawing down the family myths and west country tales, and taking a lunch of shepherd’s pie at The Tors Inn after a walk through a farm gate by a grassy knoll onto the moor, and the widescreen desolation that embedded itself into your expectation of it, so that you had the faint, curious sensation of reliving an older time. There’s little husbandry on the moors today. You’ll find a few heads of sheep, cattle, the wild ponies and adventure sports enthusiasts. The Duchy had turned against digging channels to drain the bog for pasture, preferring the concept of a more natural abandonment.

On Powdermills, what used to be George Stephens’ vegetable garden is waterlogged mire, packed with clumps of pixie grass. A few fresians loll and amble on higher ground, near the road, turning slowly like weather vanes in the wind.

 

Tolmen stone

The Tolmen Stone, Upper Teign River

ERRATUM TO KNUCKLE: A NEW COLLECTION FROM PITT STREET POETRY

Catastrophically, I posted the wrong date for the launch (Thursday 9 July)
It is, of course, Thursday 11 July. Thursday. Thank you.
A picture, and a poem from the new book, in recompense.

wisteria 12 may 3 19

 

Radio Carbon

Cosmic rays stroke the atmosphere,
smoky signals burnished by our passing, wave
after wave spinning the dial of radio carbon
against the background hiss of all creation,
measuring out our time to the core, dancers
at the back of the cave guttering torches
in the mind’s eye. Signals run out beyond here.
From this point on the choir becomes
a murmur then vanishes, water running
silent beneath ice. We bury our dead
in the ground and listen, the gauze curtain
of cosmic forces that calibrate a human hair
rippling like a field of wheat through air,
sackcloth through the ether – another
medium we don’t believe in anymore.

Knuckle: a new collection from Pitt Street Poetry

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Knuckle enjoyed its first launch event in London, at 49 Great Ormond Street, the oldest house in Bloomsbury, on Thursday 11 July, with special guest Martina Evans.

Below is an image cluster of contents, a self portrait with flint figure found near The Grey Mare and Her Colts – what remains of a Neolithic longbarrow on the West Dorset coast – and a draft of one of Knuckle’s poems.

 

 

Knuckle is available at The London Review Bookshop, Bloomsbury Books
and soon, on the publisher’s website. 

And here’s a link to a film of one of the central poems from the book, Earshot

Follow the dog ….. 

Ghost dogs 1