Who but Bob Dylan could write a song at once so pre- and postlapsarian whilst barely registering a change in tone? It seems to enter us from a quirk in its own brilliance, or a chink in our own fallen nature, and expand to fill the troubled times in which we move.
Time-shifts: ‘Key West’ – the penultimate song on his most recent album of original music, Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020) – opens with an evocation of nineteenth-century American violence:
“McKinley hollered, McKinley squalled,Key West (Philosopher Pirate), Rough & Rowdy Ways
Doctor said, ‘McKinley, death is on the wall,
Say it to me, if you’ve got something to confess…’”
I think of Dan Cody from The Great Gatsby, whom the narrator Nick tells us brought back “the savage violence of the frontier brothel and saloon.” It is testament to the economic powers of Dylan’s story-telling that he can suggest a “pioneer debauchee” (Gatsby, p.97) in so few words. He quickly shifts, mid-verse, into the Twentieth Century:
“I heard all about it, he was going down slow,
Heard it on the wireless radio,
From down in the boondocks – way down in Key West.”
Before shifting again to later in the century: “I’m searching for love, for inspiration/ On that pirate radio station…” The signal becoming “as clear as can be” as we approach his own time; the idealism, the troubled politics, the consolations of music.
In this way, he instinctively weaves time, voice and perspective into neat six-line verses. The rhyme-scheme – which also resembles something nineteenth-century (squalled, wall, confess; slow, radio, west) – creates a cycle of hope and renewal, decay and death. The setting of Florida – ground which is contested both historically and culturally – is telling. Both paradise, and the place where the dream might flicker and die.
Voices: As with his other albums, Dylan plays around with autobiography, feeding us reflections on his life and work:
“I was born on the wrong side of the railroad track
Like Ginsberg, Corso and Kerouac…”
“I’ve never lived in the land of Oz
Or wasted my time with an unworthy cause.”
Nevertheless, he also experiments with this wandering first person narrator, stating variously to be “so deep in love, I can hardly see,” and “I don’t love nobody – gimme a kiss!”
In Why Dylan Matters (p. 96), Richard F. Thomas points out that the singer’s memoir, Chronicles (2004), alternates between autobiography and fiction in different chapters. In ‘Key West’, he switches to an imagined historical narrator, coerced as a child into marrying a prostitute – “there were gold fringes on her wedding dress,” he remembers, in another brilliant touch of story-telling. Certainly Dylan is no stranger to shifting voices, something we have often seen across his body of work. If we listen closely, we might catch oblique glimpses of the man.
Touch of Southern Gothic: The chorus promises that the “sunlight on your skin/ And healing virtues of the wind” will cure mortality and madness: “Key West is fine and fair,/ If you’ve lost your mind, you’ll find it there.” But the ballad also warns that the very natural world itself which is so restorative also has a corruptive power, almost through its hypnotic beauty – ponds, trees and blossoms all contain the power of decay.
The repetition of the chorus at the end of the song promises ‘paradise divine’, while Key West itself remains elusive as the song fades out. Meaning is not ironic in this ballad, but elegiac and full of pathos. Alexis Pedritis describes the song as ‘lambent’ – and lyrically it is saturated in light. The warm bass and plaintive accordion – above all Dylan’s living voice – give this ballad its haunting air.
I previously reviewed Dylan’s song ‘Murder Most Foul’, from the same album (8 May 2020), here: https://benedictgilbert.com/2020/05/08/the-blood-stained-banner-bob-dylan-review-murder-most-foul/
Some commentators have suggested that McKinley refers to President William McKinley, assassinated in 1901, which might suggest that the song is a kind of forerunner for ‘Murder Most Foul’, the final song on the album.
Lyrics: © 2020 by Special Rider Music: https://www.bobdylan.com/songs/key-west-philosopher-pirate/
Richard F. Thomas, Why Dylan Matters (Williams Collins, 2017)
Alexis Pedritis, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2020/jun/13/bob-dylan-rough-and-rowdy-ways-review, 13 June 2020
Feature image: Pexels free photos
© Benedict Gilbert 2020