Reflections on Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways Show by Sean Latham, Director of the TU Institute for Bob Dylan Studies
“I stood between Heaven and Earth,” the shattered voice growled, “And I crossed the Rubicon.” I sat in the front row of the Tulsa Theater, a storied venue that, like the performer on the stage just in front of me, showed all the marks of age: a wheezing ventilation system, peeling paint, and a damp, sticky floor. I’d never been this close to a major performer in concert before and so wasn’t prepared for just how totally the rest of the audience fades away—an easily forgotten thing that would erupt periodically into cheers then fade into a silence punctuated only by the few desperate, if habitual shouts of “We love you Bob!” It created a strange intimacy amid the dark and the noise—and so I slipped, perhaps too easily, into the mystic world of Rough and Rowdy Ways.
The Tulsa Theatre has a haunted history of its own. Designed originally as convention center and classical performance arena, it hosted glitzy performances during the peak of the oil boom, when all the money in the world swiftly flowed through this upstart city in Indian Territory. Enrico Caruso performed here in 1920 and died shortly afterward; his ghost supposedly still wanders backstage. And just a year later, it became a concentration camp for Tulsa’s Black residents after murderous vigilantes burned their homes then herded them in here for “protection.” For decades, the place bore the name “Brady Theater,” in honor of one of the man who helped found the city—and its chapter of the Klan. The name has finally been stricken from the marquee, but those ghosts of racial terror still jostle with Caruso backstage.
I doubt Dylan knows such details, but Rough and Rowdy Ways deliberately courts ghosts from that era—and I felt them more than I felt the warm, human audience around me. As the house lights went down at 8:00pm on the dot, smoke machines began to pump out fog across a stage upon a stage—a giant, shrouded box designed to light the performers from below. All the usual pieces were in place: drums, a stand-up bass, electric and steel guitars. The band shimmered into hazy view while the fog whispered, curled, and crept under the dingy red curtains. Dressed in dark suits and shirts, they looked like different faces of the Black Rider Dylan would sing of later in the show. The lights then rose—from above and below—as the band organized its overture into “Watching the River Flow.”
But where was Dylan? Amid the fog and noir lighting, I could just see his head poke above a stand-up piano. It looked like someone had dragged the thing down the street from an old Tulsa roadhouse—one of those not-so-secret places from the Jim Crow era where white audiences could hear Black music. He spent almost the entire evening there, concealed behind the thing, his face obscured by a pair of small lights shining on a banner for the local AA baseball team and a phalanx of water bottles. He stepped from this musical fortress only three times, shuffling to center stage, putting one hand on his hip, and striking the defiant gunfighter pose that has become a trademark in recent years. After staring for a moment into the lights, motionless, Dylan returned to the piano as the band lazily organized a new song.
This setup lent a painterly feel to the evening. The strangely lit stage produced the kind of glow that could only exist in a dream or on a canvas. And aside from the smoothly talented Charley Drayton, who spent the evening teasing our eerie chimes and thumps from his kit, the rest of the band seemed almost entirely immobile. The guitarists and bassist clustered tightly on one side and locked their eyes on the piano, the fog and the dark evoking those old Renaissance paintings of anatomy theatres where everyone leans in to see the wonders on display. The theatrical and cinematic elements of earlier touring shows has vanished—along with the little statue of Pallas Athena and the Academy Award. As the recent exhibition in Miami suggests, Dylan spent much of the pandemic with a paintbrush in his hand—and it shows in the whole design of the show. Time stopped for the evening, stranding us in that moment when a hoof splashed in the Rubicon and broke open the world.
Tulsa marked the penultimate stop on this leg of the tour and I had a sense that the entire show had reached a high state of polish—as if everything from the brief solos to the rapid strike of the stage when the lights came up had been choreographed by stopwatch. It was a smartly made thing—its crystalline structure disturbed only by the haze of that fog. And this spare structure opened a unique space to be filled only by the voice itself. I’ve compared Dylan’s Nobel Speech to the sound of an old man rambling on in a smoky bar. In this show, it morphed, the old man become a ghost: disembodied, eerie, powerful.
For the first time in decades, Dylan actively toured an album, the grab-bag of the Never Ending Tour giving way to a setlist drawn largely from Rough and Rowdy Ways. So if this was a ghost, it was not one particularly worried about either guarding or betraying its past. Instead, we got the same kind of haunted, bluesy sound that emerged in Shadow Kingdom. It carries with it the weight of a shared musical, cultural, and racial past—a point driven home in the striking performances of “I Contain Multitudes” and the gothic “My Own Version of You.” Dylan wrapped around these songs a swirl of sound and emotion. The old, welcome snarl leapt out from “Crossing the Rubicon,” but was immediately bottled back up with a smooth transition into “Key West,” the contradictions of the line “Such is life, such is happiness” still troubling my mind.
The abrupt return of two Christian era masterpieces—“You Gotta Serve Somebody” and “Every Grain of Sand”—stood out sharply, but also reminded us just how deeply ideas of faith, betrayal, and debt run through Rough and Rowdy Ways. The anchor of his more recent setlists, “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” emerged early in the show as a gentle, up-tempo country rocker, lending a note of optimism, even joy to the gloom. The final chorus rang out: “Someday everything will be beautiful, when I paint my masterpiece”—a line made melancholy as his voice strained for a desperate, aching moment to sustain the note. It hung there in the crowd—like the fog and the shadows—an earthly reminder of hope amid inevitable decay.
I’ve come to Dylan later in life. Or perhaps it’s better to say that Dylan came to me thanks to the arrival of his archive here in Tulsa. So I’m better steeled than most against the lure of nostalgia when I see the man or hear his voice. This particular ghost has no power to lure me back to the past and I see no need to imagine that I’m hearing anything other than the wrecked voice of an aged man. And yet, in this haunted theatre, I finally crossed the Rubicon between critic and fan to discover my Bob Dylan. “Take me to the river, release your charms,” he pleads in “Mother of Muses,” and there the shade ensnared me. For the first time, I pulled an old Dylan concert tshirt from the closet this morning and wore it to work. Amid the welter of the day, I feel my mind pulled out of time and into that chiaroscuro painting where an eighty-year-old Virgil says everything, and explains nothing.
–Tulsa, Oklahoma, April 2022