From "Restoration Man: Bob Dylan's Long Songs and the Art of the Turn On."
Like many high school swains—or would-be swains—I was not unaccustomed to being jolted in affairs of the heart. Allowing that we have not experienced parental or sibling death, substance abuse, abandonment—which is to say, tragedy—by that point, these teenage blows are often when life starts to discomfit us. They make us doubt who we are, commencing a lifelong battering of queries as to whether we are good enough.
As with a lot of people, my wound-licking process involved copious amounts of music. I’d roll around town at night in my early driving days listening to Bob Dylan albums. You want the rock and roll, the volume, at that age, which meant heavy doses of 1965’s Highway 61 Revisited and Mike Bloomfield’s screaming lead guitar on the tape deck. But for all of the decibel-laden blues rock harrumphing, it was the album’s closing number, “Desolation Row,” that hit me as what I now think of as the chaos assimilator, a work of art both prolix, protean, and assured, that helps you wrest back a little control in your own life.
The extended song has always served this function in the Dylan canon, continuing to the present day with his latest effort in the long-form medium, the seventeen-minute “Murder Most Foul,” released—in the dead of night in the States—as people across the world hunkered down in their homes during the age of COVID-19. By my count, Dylan has four long songs, from different phases of his career, sharing some traits, differing considerably with others, but executing a similar and invaluable purpose.
“Desolation Row” was entry number one, coming at the close of Dylan’s first all-out electric album, though you won’t detect much electricity with this eleven and a half minute-long number. The texture is that of an English pastoral, with Nashville guitarist Charlie McCoy somehow making his guitar fills resonate with the quality of a lute as Dylan weaves what’s tantamount to a huge, mishmash of a gossip narrative, involving characters from literature, history, the Bible.
T.S. Eliot throws down with Ezra Pound on a ship, Einstein finds it useful to dress up as Robin Hood, Casanova has his ego assuaged by sycophants. You think, “what the hell is going on here?” until the end, when the references flake away and it’s time to get real, as the singer describes receiving a letter from a past lover. It’s not a Dear John note, but rather one of those missives, after the fact, saying how great life is for that other person, with false concern for the individual they no longer know. At which point the singer reveals that rather than read this rigmarole and treat it seriously, he made up what we’ve just heard instead, changing the names, a form of amusement, before he returns to his life. He has better things to do, and sometimes that’s to simply let the creativity roll.
That impressed me as a way to handle someone else’s passive aggressiveness. The next year, to close Blonde on Blonde, Dylan recorded “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” which is almost the exact same length as “Desolation Row,” a copper-y affair, like some citrine, glimmering meadow besides a wheat field. It’s a love note that gains power via repetition of the phrase, “My warehouse eyes/My Arabian drums,” which is the respective manner of orb and make of instrument that the the singer requires to process, store, and signal his depth of feeling for the song’s subject. This is new to him, but right: natural order after a period of unnaturalness in the form of a staid life, lacking for wonder. Dylan thinks humans can be better than that and owe themselves more—but not without the work of the required various voyages of discovery. Helps to have your notes ready to go, too.
As we will see especially with “Murder Most Foul,” these are list songs, in one way. We’ve all been there. Life is out of control, your anxiety is kicking up, so what do you do? You pull out the paper—or the app on your phone—and you make that to-do list. Maybe you make a list of items you need to think about. Factors for a decision that has to be made. You might make lists off of the lists. I do. I am nothing without my lists, whether that is in life or in my work.
In 1997, having seemingly been written off as a past master who was no longer a perpetual one, Dylan returned armed for artistic battle with Time Out of Mind, a record that was going to close with—you guessed it—one of his long cuts, in the sixteen-and-a-half minute-long “Highlands,” a vignette song employing an old Scottish melody with an overlaid timbre of American blues, about a man drifting through daily minutiae—conversation with a waitress in a café, for instance, a debate about whether he reads enough feminist literature—trying to locate himself again, realizing in what is tantamount to a process of comprehension that his core essence had not wandered as far afield as he thought it had.
It isn’t easy to do this kind of thing and not have it be a repetitive grind. The musical backing doesn’t change a ton—in fact, there’s not a single modulation in these performances. These are not jams. So that backing needs to be arresting from the jump and remain so. Musicality in the vocal is crucial—an excitement of forms of phrasing—because the voice becomes the central instrument. Yes, rock and roll songs usually feature someone singing, but the vocal is often not the go-to, the “main” instrument—think of, say, “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones, where the guitar riff, the backbeat of the drums, and Mick Jagger’s voice have a sort of triple billing. These Dylan long cuts, though, live or die with that vocal. You need a clever lyric, which builds upon itself. That is, one line suggests a form of wordplay, a line that follows must deliver the goods, while retaining and developing the sense, the thrust of the story, the vignette, the poem, the series of incidences that will form a totality.
You get a good idea of Dylan’s methodology on “Murder Most Foul,” because he namechecks artists who helped him in this development along these lines. The title refers to John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas in November 1963, an event sufficiently seismic that in a decade rammed with such events, it puts all others in the shade as obscured, lesser, even if some were not. For Americans, Kennedy’s demise was akin to that familial-style death of which we were talking earlier, minus a person having lost their dad or sister or been kicked out on the streets. Let’s call it crossover death.