July 6, 2022

Going Places With Bob Dylan’s Song “Key West”

By Stuart Mitchner

Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” the widely acclaimed last track on Bob Dylan’s 2020 album Rough and Rowdy Ways, sent me back to the New York chapter of his memoir Chronicles (2004).

Titled “The Lost Land,” the chapter ends in a Greenwich Village coffee shop where “the waitress at the lunch counter wore a close-fitting suede blouse” that “outlined the well-rounded lines of her body. She had blue-black hair and piercing blue eyes, clear stenciled eyebrows. I was wishing she’d pin a rose on me. She poured the steaming coffee and I turned back towards the street window. The whole city was dangling in front of my nose.” Dylan’s sudden, seemingly impulsive reference to the rose is a whimsical touch of style, like a tip of the derby from Chaplin’s tramp, and the rhyming of rose and nose suggests a song in the making he knows is out there waiting to be found and finished: “I had a vivid idea where everything was. The future was nothing to worry about.” The last word of the chapter’s boyish, wide-eyed last sentence  completes the rhyme: “It was awfully close.”

I think of the waitress and the rose whenever I hear songs like “Absolutely Sweet Marie” and “Tangled Up in Blue,” or lines from “Key West” like “Fly around my Pretty Little Miss / I don’t love nobody — gimme a kiss.” Or “Make me invisible, like the wind” from “Mother of Muses.”

“Feeling Wondrous”

Another place “Key West” sent me was Van Morrison’s Belfast, an easy move along the glowing dial from station WBD to WVAN, from the philosopher pirate searching for “love and inspiration” on that pirate radio station to the kid growing up on Hyndford Street, where you “could feel the silence on long summer nights as the wireless played Radio Luxembourg, jazz and blues,” which leaves you “feeling wondrous and lit up inside with a sense of everlasting life.” 

Stevens and Holiday

Next stop was the poetry of Wallace Stevens, namely “The Idea of Order at Key West,” where a precursor to “Mother of Muses” haunts the first line: “She sang beyond the genius of the sea.” And “it was she and not the sea we heard,” for “she was the maker of the song she sang,” the sea being “merely a place by which she walked to sing.” Stevens wonders “Whose spirit is this?” The image of the seaside singer  brings to mind a statement of Dylan’s quoted by Greil Marcus in his Rolling Stone review of Self-Portrait (1969): “Not all great poets — like Wallace Stevens — are great singers, but a great singer — like Billie Holiday — is always a great poet.

While I doubt that Dylan expressed himself in such exact, neatly balanced terms, I like to believe he made the connection, just as I’d like to imagine Billie Holiday as Stevens’s singer by the sea, or as one of Dylan’s muses. A more Dylanesque quote, one with a hint of Stevens in it, can be found in the 1978 Playboy interview with Ron Rosenbaum, where he expands on the “wild mercury” sound he’s looking for: “That ethereal twilight light, you know. It’s the sound of the street with the sunrays, the sun shining down at a particular time, on a particular type of building. A particular type of people walking on a particular type of street. It’s an outdoor sound that drifts even into open windows that you can hear.” The phrasing reminds me of Stevens’s “heaving speech of air, a summer sound / Repeated in a summer without end / And sound alone.” If you close your eyes and listen to Billie Holiday singing about “all the old familiar places” in “I’ll Be Seeing You,” it’s easy to see her dreaming along Stevens’s seaside, or in Dylan’s “enchanted” Key West, where “Hibiscus flowers grow everywhere” and “If you wear one put it behind your ear,” and pretend it’s Lady Day’s gardenia.

“Under the Radar”

The opening lines of “Key West” about a dying president, from Charlie Poole’s “White House Blues” (“McKinley hollered — McKinley squalled / Doctor said … death is on the wall”) sent me back, back, back to the first two weeks of April 1986 when my dying father’s first and last words were “What’s on the agenda for today?” Although he spent most of his life in Indiana, the last years of the closeted, fragmented “under the radar” life that began in New York in 1936 ended in a little house on a no-sidewalk street in Key West, where the Cubans next door raised fighting cocks and ran drugs, the garbage was picked up at midnight, and passing cars made more noise than the white-noise machine could hide.

The mid-April weather couldn’t have been better. At Mallory Square for the sunset show I saw the Haitian with his torches, the tightrope walker, the sword swallower. Mahi-Mahi was the catch of the day at Garrison Bite. At St. Paul’s, where my father was a lay reader and substitute organist, the gates were locked day and night. 

Hemingway Days

Although Bob Dylan qualifies as the island’s most famous transient, I haven’t mentioned its most famous resident, Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), who finished A Farewell to Arms there in January 1929. His July 21 birthday is celebrated annually during the Hemingway Days festival, July 19-24, which features a look-alike contest at Sloppy Joe’s Bar. Other planned events include a three-day marlin tournament in honor of Papa’s passion for deep-sea angling; a museum exhibit of rare memorabilia; literary readings and scholars’ presentations; Sloppy Joe’s “Running of the Bulls,” a street fair celebrating the Key West spirit, a 5K run and paddleboard race; and the announcement of the winner of the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition coordinated by his granddaughter.

According to the Florida Keys Newsroom, Dylan’s Key West connection is represented by a bar stool with his name painted on it at Capt. Tony’s Saloon, a popular “watering hole” established more than 60 years ago by former mayor Tony Tarracino. Joe Faber, who purchased Capt. Tony’s in 1989, recalled that Tarracino, who died in late 2008, knew Dylan. “I remember Tony speaking about him,” Faber said. “Dylan was a quiet guy and he would come in here, sit and hang out.”

Other literary celebrities mentioned in the same news release are poet Elizabeth Bishop, whose home at 624 White Street was acquired by the Key West Literary Seminar organization in 2019. Robert Frost made winter visits to Key West from 1945 to 1960, where he is said to have written “The Gift Outright,” the poem he read at Kennedy’s inaugural. Wallace Stevens’s poems “were influenced” by stays at the Casa Marina hotel, where he walked on the beach with Frost and once broke his hand in a brawl with Hemingway,” an incident described in a previous column. Not mentioned is playwright Tennessee Williams, who lived in Key West on and off for 40 years and gave readings to benefit the local library.

Dylan at the Beacon

Donnie Herron’s accordion creates and sustains the mood on the recorded version of “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” which is the one I’ve been listening to ever since Rough and Rowdy Ways was released two years ago last month. But, as always, the essence of the mood is in Dylan’s voice, which you don’t hear so much as live inside, especially in lines like “I do what I think is right — what I think is best,” or “That’s my story but not where it ends,” or the last three lines, “Key West is fine and fair / If you lost your mind you’ll find it there / Key West is on the horizon line.”

If you want to experience the song at its strongest, strangest, and most magical, be sure to see the version on YouTube, recorded at the Beacon Theatre on November 21, 2021. Dylan is seated facing the audience throughout most of the nine-plus minutes, microphone in hand, his lamplit face cameoed in the darkness, as if he were reading from an ancient manuscript or, from the book of poems in “Tangled Up in Blue,” written “by an Italian poet / From the thirteenth century” and every word “rang true / And glowed like burnin’ coal / Pourin’ off of every page / Like it was written in my soul from me to you.” Or you might recall the lines from “Mother of Muses” (“I’ve grown so tired of chasing lies / Mother of Muses, wherever you are / I’ve already outlived my life by far”). Meanwhile two guitarists (presumably Charlie Sexton and Bob Britt) play a sort of cyclical, fantastical incantatory accompaniment, moving gracefully around him, leaning close, leaning away, in a slow dreamlike dance, chiming the words, to moving effect.

The Ides of July

was living in New York on July 2, 1961 when Hemingway killed himself, producing some of the most unbelievable newspaper headlines in my memory, right up there with the ones on November 22, 1963, and the one after Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald, the famous photograph shown under a headline that could serve as well today, or any day: A NATION APPALLED. I was in San Francisco 60 years ago today, July 6, when William Faulkner died of a heart attack.

I was not in Pisa 200 years ago on July 8, 1822 when Percy Shelley was drowned, at 29, while sailing with a friend off Viareggio. He was cremated days later on the beach his body washed up on. According to Edward Trelawney’s account, “The fire was so fierce as to produce a white heat on the iron, and to reduce its contents to grey ashes. The only portions that were not consumed were some fragments of bones, the jaw, and the skull, but what surprised us all, was that the heart remained entire. In snatching this relic from the fiery furnace, my hand was severely burnt.” The July 8 entry in my trusty copy of A Book of Days for the Literary Year (Thames and Hudson), reports that Mary Shelley carried the heart with her in a silken shroud for the rest of her life.