Roadhouse on the River Styx - The TU Institute for Bob Dylan Studies

Roadhouse on the River Styx

In this essay, Dylan Institute director Sean Latham offers his reflections on Dylan’s streamed Shadow Kingdom concert film released on July 18, 2021.

 

It starts like Dylan’s Nobel address–with the feeling that you’ve wandered into some out-of-the-way bar, drawn to the light and sound in this otherwise desolate place. Smoke hangs dramatically over everything in an uneasy mix of artful rings and demonic columns.  So you light up yourself, grab a drink, and turn to the stage.

There’s an old man up there, oddly if snappily dressed, clenching his fists and every once in a while blowing some notes on a harmonica or stumming a guitar.  When he opens his mouth, the sound is more arresting than beautiful, his voice broken by age yet colored by some alchemy of will and experience.  There’s a backing band as well and they’re the only ones here wearing masks.  In this place where the past and present plunge into one another they hope to protect themselves from something: maybe the law, the Spanish flu, or Covid 19.

Whatever the case, no one else seems to share their worries and so the performance begins amid smoke, anxiety, and confusion in this roadhouse made to feel liie one of those places where the blues began.  But the place we’ve found is not a crossroads; its a ferry crossing and the River Styx, the boundary between this world and the next, flows insistently just outside the door.  A superimposed title reminds us this is a film, that the entire thing is an act, and that we’ve entered this shadow kingdom to hear “the early songs of Bob Dylan.”  Over the next hour, the music will mingle life with death and hopefulness with mourning as we wait our turn for the relentless boatman.

***

Just over a year ago, Dylan released Rough and Rowdy Ways, his first album of original material in eight years and those gothic songs are like the smoke in this imagined space, hanging over everything in the room.  One track, “My Own Version of You,” echoes the story of Frankenstein, with the singer in the role of the scientist made desperate by grief who’s been

visiting morgues and monasteries

Looking for the necessary body parts.

It’s among the strangest love songs ever written, in which the singer plunders not just charnel houses but the fragments of a past where the Godfather mingles with the Book of Revelation, the sack of Troy, and the blood-trade of American slavery.  In his epic poem The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot called such a collection of history’s shards “the fragments I have shored against my ruin.”  Dylan does more than just gather a treasure horde; instead, he attempts the impossible: “I wanna bring someone to life, turn back the years” the final couplet proclaims, “do it with laughter do it with tears.”

Eliot too was a poet of plague years, writing in the aftermath of both the first world war and the Spanish flu pandemic.  And it’s easy to hear Dylan trying something similar: gathering up bits and pieces of an irreconcilable past in an effort to mourn not just those we lost but some larger sense of national and communal identity.  This same album after all, includes “Murder Most Foul,” Dylan’s rambling meditation on the assassination of John F. Kennedy, another of those events—like war, like pandemic—that marked the end of something.  Across that song’s seventeen minutes, Dylan fashions the epic catalog of a culture shattered by a moment of explosive violence, only to find that the pieces don’t fit together at all. “Murder Most Foul,” in some sense, is an answer song to “My Own Version of You.”  It turns out that he can’t bring the dead to life, can’t turn back the years.  Instead, he’s more like a film noir detective, trying and failing to piece together a murder that refutes and refuses sense.

We are therefore not listening to Orpheus in this shadowy place, and so should not count on the music to carry us away, back to the world of the living.  In Shadow Kingdom, Dylan tries to make the ghostly past talk by conducting a séance with his old songs to see if they might yet have something new to say.

Building on the gothic mode he cultivated on Rough and Rowdy Ways, Dylan continues his life-long battle against nostalgia as we encounter a performer who, though haunted by the mystery of own words, nevertheless bends them again to new purpose.  Although the show opens with an up-tempo version of “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” we shouldn’t be fooled about what’s to come.  That song, after all, is all about the shadow history casts over the present and the future.  “Someday everything’s gonna sound like a rhapsody,” he sings, “when I paint my masterpiece.”  The structure of the song itself, however, means that such a moment will be infinitely deferred and so the performance ahead is less a rhapsody than a confession—maybe even a dirge.

Maybe that’s why the next song Dylan selects is all about saying farewell.  “Most likely you’ll you go your way and I’ll go mine,” he tell us, charting a course that leads across the river outside this club.  He then rouses himself for a love song from 1967, “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” but he transforms it—as he does nearly every other song in this performance.  On screen, Dylan sings as two women—muses, prophets, furies or fates—stare straight into the camera and then, midway through the song, the lively tempo that carried us through the first part of the show abruptly ebbs. The camera closes in tightly on Dylan’s face: the thinned hair, the sagging flesh, the deep furrows etched by time.  Once a song about seduction, sexuality, and one-night stands, this tune suddenly becomes about the performance itself. Dylan will be our baby one more time up there on stage, but look at what it costs.  How long can this go on?

We suddenly becomes aware of the funereal air we’ve been breathing in this roadhouse, finding ourselves now counted among the lost souls at the tables as the opening lines of “Tom Thumb’s Blues” ring out.  The camera angle shifts, positioning us amid a group of indifferent men smoking and drinking in imperfectly concealed desperation.  “I cannot move, my fingers are all in a knot,” Dylan sings, transforming a line that once seemed about drug use into a lament about age made all the more poignant as we watch him throughout the evening struggle to coax a few chords from the guitar.  “I don’t have the strength to get up and take another shot,” he continues, and yet here he is at the microphone, taking his shot again despite the toll it takes on his now eighty-year-old body.

No wonder that he follows this song with an extraordinary rendition of “Tombstone Blues,” chanted as a spoken-word poem.  The audience has abruptly disappeared as Dylan and his small band shift into what feels like a corner of his own mind.  The delivery is a nod both to Ginsberg and the Beat poets as well as to the Nobel committee—an admission that yes, he really is a poet as well as a performer.  And as he recites the song’s nihilistic lines, he evokes “Murder Most Foul,” which he delivered in almost exactly the same way.  Both songs travel through time, the 2020 lyrics looking back to Kennedy’s death and the lines from 1965 strangely fitted to our world of pandemic and insurrection:

I wish I could write you a melody so plain

That could hold you, dear lady, from going insane.

Like the wishful thinking of “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” this now comes across as an abject confession of defeat—an admission that the lyrics couldn’t stop the pressure of history. We’ve all got a case of those “Tombstone Blues.”

The crowd then returns as the band leads us into one of the concert’s genuine surprises: a fundamentally reworked version of the otherwise forgettable “Alone With You” from Nashville Skyline.  The original is a sweetly sung country rocker that evokes the easy-going seduction of “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” but Dylan no longer has love on his mind. In the original recording, he sings about holding each other tight the whole night through, but he drops this line and replaces it.  “I know you’re alive and I am too” he instead proclaims—as if there might be some doubt about that fact in this odd time and place.  And from there things only get stranger.  An entirely new verse at the end of the song asks

What happened to me darlin?

What was it you saw?

Did I kill somebody?

Did I escape the law?

It’s an extraordinary set of questions with the singer himself uncertain about what has happened as he pleads finally that his one “mortal desire” is to be alone with you.

The confusion of this song seeps into the next, itself the most surprising selection of all.  “What Was It You Wanted” is by no means and “early song,” having appeared on 1989’s Oh, Mercy.  Relocated into this context, it becomes the most haunted and haunting performance of the evening.  The singer appears to be dying before our eyes, nearly raving at the edge of life and death.  He’s not certain who he sees or if he’s addressing the same person from moment to moment.  “Did the needle skip?” he asks? “Is the whole thing going backward?”  “Is the scenery changing?” It’s another bewildering set of questions that again evokes the thickly-knotted mysteries of noir: the fearful recognition that things never really cohere into stories, that in this place we are left only with questions, dreams, and doubt.

Such gothic reverie is then interrupted briefly by a deeply moving performance of “Forever Young,” the confused performer of the previous song having gained a moment of sudden clarity as he puts song to one of its oldest uses: prayer.  The camera again focuses tightly on Dylan to create perhaps the most beautiful and striking moment of the show, one made all the more powerful when he follows it up with “Pledging My Time to You.”  And here again, this one-time love song morphs so the “you” now encompasses the entire audience.

This brief interlude of promises and prayers, however, fades as we return again to the club, which has now grown cramped, claustrophobic, uncanny.  The inconclusive prophecies of “Wicked Messenger” give way to another surprise inclusion, the 1971 single “Watching the River Flow.”  Once treated as a kind of meditation on Dylan’s stardom and his struggles to reinvent himself, the song now transports us from the pastoral rivers of the New Morning era to the banks of the Styx.  The boatman waits outside the door as Dylan again craftily revises the lyrics, weighing them down with the burdens of this place.  In the original, he sings about “people disagreeing,” but that changes now to

People disappearing everywhere you look.

Only yesterday I seen somebody who said goodbye.

This subtle modification speaks directly to an age of pandemic where so many people have indeed vanished.  And as Dylan sings these lines, we realize that here, in this haunted place, we too are counted among the disappeared.

Fittingly then, the show concludes with an elegy as Dylan once more turns to the spoken-word style to deliver the devastating lines of “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.”  No longer a farewell to the folk world, Dylan transforms this instead into a soliloquy addressed to his aged self.  The song he once used to snarl at others now snaps back at him–and he stoically suffers its bite.  In his Nobel address, Dylan evoked the broken figure of Achilles, lost in the underworld, in no way redeemed by his heroic acts.  Knowing he too is doomed to this place, Dylan abruptly affirms that “songs are alive in the land of the living” and “they’re meant to be sung, not read.”  In this concert, Dylan has brought them to life for us one more time, if only to show that they live on this human side of that mythic river just beyond the door.

And so we have passed an hour with this 80-year-old artist in the roadhouse of his mind.  Outside in the darkness are assassins, plagues, warfare, racism, and hatred—those gothic monsters of our modernity.  Dylan’s music is brilliant, in part, because it does not try to hold such dangers at bay.  Instead, it ushers them into this same strange place so we can watch him wrestle with them—and discover that means also wrestling with ourselves. The cracked voice reveals that even in the “early songs of Bob Dylan” a shadow kingdom has always loomed—a mythic ferry crossing where the living are forever in commerce with the dead.