Having lived with Rough and Rowdy Ways for some weeks now, it’s now clear to me that the standout track is not the 17-minute epic ‘Murder Most Foul’, but the 9-minute mini-epic that ends the main disc, ‘Key West (Philosopher Pirate)’. I’m not sure whether the parenthetical title is a self-reference, with Dylan seeing himself as some sort of Jack Sparrow figure, but for me it is ultimately as elliptical and ambiguous as is the best of Dylan’s massive cryptic content.
Is ‘Key West’ a moral and ethical touchstone, as were, potentially, ‘Desolation Row’ and the ‘Highlands’, or even the ‘Lowlands’ of the Sad-Eyed Lady? “Key West is the place to be, if you’re looking for immortality…Key West is fine and fair, if you’ve lost your mind, you’ll find it there”. It’s also the “gateway to innocence and purity”, so its obviously quite the ‘place to be’. The accordion provides the listener with “that bleeding heart disease” (with shades of Garth Hudson, just as the shade of Scarlet Rivera is evoked elsewhere), but, as ever, what does it all mean? It doesn’t matter; it probably means an unattainable lightness of somewhere/something, but who cares when you have that warm-but-tensile, reassuring voice, basted in six decades of recording experience (and yes, I know that the much younger Paul Weller has achieved five decades of same, but c’mon, this is surely of a different order?)
I’m reminded of the New York ‘Blood on the Tracks’ (BOTT)recordings, which I know many think inferior to the finally released album versions, but ‘many’ would, in this case, be wrong. Dylan is so slippery, you think that you’ve ‘got’ him (as we all did with the initial vinyl release of BOTT, until subsequent bootlegs wrong footed us), but…’Key West’ expands over its nine minutes, and it genuinely feels like it could never end, a “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s” that will eventually eat its own tail/tale. ‘Finnegans Wake’ is itself told from the perspective of old age, just as Dylan’s later works are: Death is everywhere, manifesting appropriately and without sentimentality. Fittingly, Florida is currently one of the epi-centres of the coronavirus pandemic in America, despite the state’s idealised wish that “…winter here is an unknown thing”. Bob Dylan is one artist that continually reminds us that ‘death don’t have no mercy’. Even (and especially?) in the privileged Florida ‘villages’, which were the gone-viral scenes of hatred and division, just a couple of weeks ago (and which Donald Trump encouraged with his ‘White Lives Matter’ re-tweet).
At least one of our elders knows how to behave.