Dylan Faces the Apocalypse, Again


I took my Harry Choates CD off the player even though that Cajun violin he plays had a lot to say a year after Katrina hit. The new Bob Dylan album was in my hand and it was time to put the little disc on. Modern Times is what he’s calling it. The cover has one of those time-lapse photographs with the car lights a blurry line. In fact, the whole freakin’ car is a blurry collection of lines. Other than that, it’s kind of plain. Picture of Bob on the back. The song titles and a production credit belonging to Jack Frost–just another one of Dylan’s characters from the man called Alias in the film Pat Garret and Billy the Kid. The man born under the sign of Gemini–the sons of Leda and that swan. ONe who dies and is reborn on the condition that one lives in night and the other in day. The shadows of the underworld and the ecstasy of the heavens.

Put it on. Thunderous guitar licks open th e song “Thunder On the Mountain.” The music surpasses the lyrics at times. Mellow blues grooves slashed in two by sterling toned electric guitar. The opener “Thunder on the Mountain” and the finale “Ain’t Talkin'” represent the lyrical highlights of this recording. In between lie a number of new and reworked blues tunes, a rocker or two and even a Forties crooner piece all enhanced by Dylan’s lyrical cleverness.
Owlman Watching From the Pressbox

As part of my purchase package, I received a one hour sample of the radio show that Dylan is currently deejaying on XM Radio. Fortunately for me, the theme of the show is baseball. Dylan the deejay playing the role of the play-by-play and color commentator roiled into one. To borrow Marianne Moore’s phrase from her poem “Baseball and Writing,” Bob’s the owlman in the pressbox. Mel Allen and Gurt Gowdy, Joe Buck, Harry Karry, Joe Morgan, Jerry Remy, even Tim McCarver to the tune of America’s jukebox. The disc is worth it just for the sound of Dylan singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

Anyhow, strike three. Back to the disc in question. There’s a song here called “Workingman’s Blues #2,” which seems to be a nod to Merle Haggard’s song of a similar name. Like everything else on this disc (and on every disc since his 1962 “Freewheelin'”), the song is not overtly political in the sense politicos think of politics. You know, left/right, either/or or compromise and so on. No, he mentions the proletariat by name in the first line or two, but lyrics are more of a lament for the days when the classic US union tool-and-die man could make a real living from his work instead of wondering where and when it all went to hell. The music is gentle–even lilting–but it’s not comforting. Hell, they burned his barn and took his horse. He’s black and blue, but this song he’s singing is to a former lover who he hopes can make that all go away. Haggard found his solace in the barroom and Dylan hopes to find his in love. Like Haggard’s workingman, Dylan’s is gonna’ make the best of a bad situation, cajoling his lover and comrades to “Meet (him) at the bottom,” since that’s where global capitalism is putting him, to hang back or fight all the while singing those workingman blues. As the song ends, a sad fiddle plays…

It’s a collection full of memories of things that could have been or might yet come. Yet, there is no lasting sadness. Even though the “world has gone berserk,” it’s time to travel the world. The man won’t lie down to accept his fate. Or get kicked around. It’s been a while since Dylan held out much hope for human salvation through politics or religion. For those expecting either of those forms, they won’t find it here. It’s okay to believe, he seems to be saying, but trust only yourself. If there was a message in the aforementioned film Masked and Anonymous, it was the same as the one I hear now on Modern Times.

There are old blues numbers here slightly reworked. “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” not only borrows the title of this tune attributed to Hambone Willie, it takes the essential riffs and turns them into serious guitar lickin’. The last time I heard these leads live was at a concert by the Grateful Dead in what turned out to be one of their last shows under that name. Their take was a lazy, hot summer afternoon-after-a-couple-of-beers sound. Garcia spinning out a slow lick here and there while Weir pushed the rhythm section through the humid sounds of the lead. Dylan and his band do something a little different. It’s not as heavy as the version made famous by Muddy Waters, but it shares the tempo. Denny Freeman’s lead guitar has a clarity that cuts through the gravel in Dylan’s throat. Like many a blues song, it’s the woman who’s at fault here, but only in the mind of the singer. Thinking deeper, Dylan acknowledges that the real blame here lies in the doom and gloom of these modern times. Indeed, once the blame is given, the singer takes it back by asking for a mutual forgiveness, since it’s really the times that are at fault.

The song that fascinates me the most is the last one to come on the player. Titled “Ain’t Talkin'”, it is anything but that. A paean to the mother earth and a song to a woman the singer left behind, this lengthy chanson is a mixture of hope and weeping for the state of humanity and the planet us folks inhabit. “Still burnin (yet) still yearnin,” there’s no intention of defeat inside this journey, even though we may be on the “last outback at the world’s end.” This man, this mystic, this old crank with a clever sense of irony and wit to boot, points out the neverending injury to this mother earth and even points out who should take a good deal of the blame–the rich and powerful; those same masters of war that he called out so many moons ago when he was young and had almost boundless hope. It’s desperate for a lot of us–the line from Dylan’s version of “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” — “Some people barely got enough skin to cover their bones”–says that as clear as a freakin’ bell. There’s doom here, just like there is throughout this album and much of Dylan’s work. “Thunder On the Mountain” is more than just a noise after all. In the hills where I live it often means heavy rains and flash floods. Disasters great and small. Bridges washed out and cattle pulled downstream. People moving in to their negihbor’s home while the homestead gets rebuilt.

Back to Marianne Moore’s line about the owlmen in the pressbox. Bob Dylan has often been one of those owlmen. Like a sportswriter, he tells the story of the game as he sees it, yet painted with prejudices derived from his participation in it. The game he’s calling, though, is the game of life. As anyone who has ever listened to or watched a hometown sports broadcast knows, objectivity on the part of the announcers is not even a pretense. The announcer, the writer, the commentator all want the home team to win just like the visitor’s press box wants their team to succeed. The owlman Bob Dylan is like the best of those sports announcers. When he calls the game of life, you know that he’s doing more than just watching. He’s in there just like the rest of us. He cares what happens. His ability lies in his skill to not only call the game as he sees and feels it, but to call it in a way that puts it ina perspective the rest of us relate to. It ain’t always pretty and we often lose. But at least we play. And so does Dylan.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: rjacobs3625@charter.net




More articles by:

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

April 19, 2018
Ramzy Baroud
Media Cover-up: Shielding Israel is a Matter of Policy
Vijay Prashad
Undermining Brazilian Democracy: the Curious Saga of Lula
Steve Fraser
Class Dismissed: Class Conflict in Red State America
John W. Whitehead
Crimes of a Monster: Your Tax Dollars at Work
Kenn Orphan
Whistling Past the Graveyard
Karl Grossman - TJ Coles
Opening Pandora’s Box: Karl Grossman on Trump and the Weaponization of Space
Colin Todhunter
Behind Theresa May’s ‘Humanitarian Hysterics’: The Ideology of Empire and Conquest
Jesse Jackson
Syrian Strikes is One More step Toward a Lawless Presidency
Michael Welton
Confronting Militarism is Early Twentieth Century Canada: the Woman’s International League for Peace and Freedom
Alycee Lane
On David S. Buckel and Setting Ourselves on Fire
Jennifer Matsui
Our Overlords Reveal Their Top ‘To Do’s: Are YOU Next On Their Kill List?
George Ochenski
Jive Talkin’: On the Campaign Trail With Montana Republicans
Kary Love
Is It Time for A Nice, “Little” Nuclear War?
April 18, 2018
Alan Nasser
Could Student Loans Lead to Debt Prison? The Handwriting on the Wall
Susan Roberts
Uses for the Poor
Alvaro Huerta
I Am Not Your “Wetback”
Jonah Raskin
Napa County, California: the Clash of Oligarchy & Democracy
Robert Hunziker
America’s Dystopian Future
Geoffrey McDonald
“America First!” as Economic War
Jonathan Cook
Robert Fisk’s Douma Report Rips Away Excuses for Air Strike on Syria
Jeff Berg
WW III This Ain’t
Binoy Kampmark
Macron’s Syria Game
Linn Washington Jr.
Philadelphia’s Top Cop Defends Indefensible Prejudice in Starbucks Arrest Incident
Katie Fite
Chaos in Urban Canyons – Air Force Efforts to Carve a Civilian Population War Game Range across Southern Idaho
Robby Sherwin
Facebook: This Is Where I Leave You
April 17, 2018
Paul Street
Eight Takeaways on Boss Tweet’s Latest Syrian Missile Spasm
Robert Fisk
The Search for the Truth in Douma
Eric Mann
The Historic 1968 Struggle Against Columbia University
Roy Eidelson
The 1%’s Mind Games: Psychology Gone Bad
John Steppling
The Sleep of Civilization
Patrick Cockburn
Syria Bombing Reveals Weakness of Theresa May
Dave Lindorff
No Indication in the US That the Country is at War Again
W. T. Whitney
Colombia and Cuba:  a Tale of Two Countries
Dean Baker
Why Isn’t the Median Wage for Black Workers Rising?
Linn Washington Jr.
Philadelphia’s Top Cop Defends Indefensible Prejudice in Starbucks Arrest Incident
C. L. Cook
Man in the Glass
Kary Love
“The Mob Boss Orders a Hit and a Pardon”
Lawrence Wittner
Which Nations Are the Happiest―and Why
Dr. Hakim
Where on Earth is the Just Economy that Works for All, Including Afghan Children?
April 16, 2018
Dave Lindorff
President Trump’s War Crime is Worse than the One He Accuses Assad of
Ron Jacobs
War is Just F**kin’ Wrong
John Laforge
Nuclear Keeps on Polluting, Long After Shutdown
Norman Solomon
Missile Attack on Syria Is a Salute to “Russiagate” Enthusiasts, Whether They Like It or Not
Uri Avnery
Eyeless in Gaza   
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Iraq Then, Syria Now