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Book Review: The Philosophy of Modern Song by Bob Dylan

by Ted BurkeJanuary 2023

Bob Dylan won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, an ironic designation if only because Dylan wasn’t a man of books, but rather a songwriter. The gist of the argument for the musician being awarded the prize was that his lyrics, in a brief span of time, evolved from clever imitations of the folk and blues artists he admired and imitated to become a rich libretto for his age. Surrealist nightmares, black humor, rhapsodic tone poems, acute observations of ingrained varieties of bad faith revealed in personal lives and in the political sphere, songs like “Like a Rolling Stone,” “I Want You,” and “Positively 4th Street” brought a new, serious poetry to the jukebox, leading the way for a generation of other songwriters. It was a common sight in nearly any graduate student’s apartment that Dylan discs like Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde cozily nestled next to the typically dog-eared paperbacks of Pound’s Cantos, One Dimensional or a coffee table book about Max Ernst or Diane Arbus.

As the songwriter’s lyrics became darker, more mystical, expressively abstract, the deeper the appreciation of the baffling brilliance of his work became—and soon enough the serious vanguard of modern American poetry—Ginsberg, McClure et al., counted the man from Hibbing as one of their own, a sage who could see beyond the flat appearance of the material world and provide glimpses of what’s behind the veil. Dylan née Zimmerman had a run of genius, the length of which wholly depended on how dedicated one is to the continuity of the songwriter’s brilliance. My interest is more about his earlier career, 1962 (Bob Dylan) through 1969 (Nashville Skyline). In my quizzical estimation, his work has been inconsistent since that time, occasionally animated with outbreaks of energy and verbal intensity (Blood on the Tracks). But Dylan zealots are a bright and well-read part of the listening population, and those who found worth, insight, and inspiration from albums from Street Legal or Empire Burlesque (two random selections from the years I call “the Great In-Between”) defend the later work with energy, solid thinking, and good writing. That’s the Dylan whose work and reputation provokes an alarming amount of cogitation.

An endless variety of books have been published about Dylan and his songwriting in the six decades since the release of his first album, some purely for pop music fans, others gossipy, and many that are a kind of interpretative analysis that approach the inscrutability of the maestro’s best stanzas. But Dylan, again, is a songwriter, not a writer of books in the main. His catalog of songs abounds with much of the most original, penetrating, and innovative lyrics of the 20th century, and many achieve the status of High Art, genuine and compelling poetry. “Visions of Johanna,” “Desolation Row,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Memphis Blues Again.” “Spanish Harlem Incident,” and the full version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” reveal a man in love with the varieties of idioms available to him; he loved language enough to ignore the formalities in front of him and merge the styles he loved in the simple melodies he often borrowed from others. He could rhyme and his couplets were adroit and left you saying “oh, wow” as he finished each verse. This virtuosity didn’t carry over to books, as the pair he’s written up to now wind up head scratchers at best.

Tarantula, an experimental prose poetry collection Dylan wrote between 1965 and 1966, wasn’t intended for publication, but its existence became an underground legend, and bootleg editions began to circulate. Tarantula was finally printed in 1971. The book wasn’t a coherent thesis but rather reflected Dylan’s method and influences, which characterized his most baroque and lyrics, similar in style to the “cut up” technique fashioned by William Burroughs in his novels Naked Lunch and The Wild Boys: a major transgression against grammar and punctuation and notions of continuity, rough-hewn character sketches, in jokes, odd conflations of vernaculars that constitute Dylan’s most hallucinogenic writing. It remains a head scratcher even for the most faithful of his flock, although there are some rather striking and evocative tributes to a woman named Aretha, most likely Aretha Franklin. This lane-changing collection of idiomatic invention and deconstruction is, if nothing else, an odd and sometimes exhilarating landmark in on the Dylan bookshelf.

Dylan’s next book Chronicles Volume One, published in 2004, is said to have started as the author’s attempts to write liner notes for his then-forthcoming reissues of Bob Dylan, New Morning, and Oh Mercy. The project grew larger and became what is described as part one of a three-part memoir. While fascinating to read the usually opaque lyricist convene in readable prose, his recollections are limited to some worthy remarks about the making of his first album and then protracted memories of the relatively obscure New Morning and Oh Mercy. Chronicles spent four months on the New York Times best seller list and was generally well reviewed, though there was disappointment in the matters he chose to talk about and not discuss. Worse, there were rumblings that Dylan had fabricated much of what he did bother to disclose. Clinton Heylin, a thorough Dylan biographer, who has published eight books on the singer in the last 30 years, has been quoted as saying that while he enjoyed reading Dylan’s book as a work of imaginative literature but that “… almost everything in the Oh Mercy section of Chronicles is a work of fiction…”

So, we arrive at Dylan’s new book, The Philosophy of Modern Song. It’s a handsome, oversized tome that has Dylan bringing us a stream of brief essays that discuss an odd, seemingly random set of 66 songs that were popular through American history. As expected, the songs are a confounding selection of tunes, as he opts not to opine or analyze the landmark music of the last century or so but instead goes for a good many tunes that are painfully obscure and not necessarily worth dwelling on at length. From 2006 to 2009, the singer had Theme Time Radio Hour, a weekly, one hour satellite podcast where each program’s playlist centered around a theme instead of a specific genre. The song choices were unusual in large part—the odd, the quirky, the gorgeous, and the amazingly bucolic varieties of American music played to whatever the mood of the week the week was, the music on each program peppered with Dylan’s off hand remarks, jokes, anecdotes, historical trivia, and brief biographies of the musicians. The Philosophy of Modern Music appears to take the same strategy and avoids a traceable thesis through the essays where Dylan chats about the songs he’s chosen for elucidation. A fascinating assortment, including three songs by the Eagles (“Life in the Fast Lane,” ”New Kid in Town,” “Pretty Maids All in a Row”), Rosemary Clooney (“Come on a My House”), Johnny Taylor (“Cheaper to Keep Her), Little Richard (“Tutti Frutti”), Cher (“Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves), and other songs of far-reaching style, attitude, and subject matter that are, truthfully, perfectly fine, and often brilliant classics but that have little obvious connection other than the Nobel Prize winner selected for a book.

The book is hailed in promotion materials as a masterclass in songwriting and refers to the essays, while being nominally about music, as being “meditations and reflections on the human condition.” “Essays” is perhaps too generous a term to describe what Dylan has written for these songs, as their lengths and depth of thought don’t particularly rise above an average blog post. What’s revealed is that Dylan is not really the philosophical sort to take apart concepts and deal with them critically in archly specialized language, and that he wasn’t awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature on the basis of his prose. Anyone desiring weighty and eloquent clarity on the purpose of existence will find the book wanting, but those who consider Dylan to be a gifted artist with interesting things to say about some musical landmarks that got and kept his attention, The Philosophy of Modern Song is an intriguing, frequently surprising set of remarks and musings from one of the 20th Century’s most enigmatic figures. The individual pieces are remarkably poetic and literate on their own terms. What connects this wide swath of tunes is Dylan’s skill at putting himself in the narrative at hand rather than analyze the melody and lyrics for subtler inclinations and nuance or hypothesize how a hymn offers a critique of a social relations; Dylan imagines cinematic scenarios, sees archetypes of modern myth negotiating their respective terrains, and finds the souls of errant knight of endless variation questing for a greater glory with what gifts or curses that mark their lives.

The lyricist hasn’t the prose polish of John Updike or James Baldwin, but his language is vivid, colorful, and skillfully emphatic as he delineates the dilemmas and joys each song undertakes to describe in a short expression. A theme does emerge as he runs through a host of the music, the notion of perseverance and persistence even in the face of hardship, heartbreak, and the cold inescapability of a certain fate. A random selection of the essays brings this. Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” has a strong feeling of a classic movie western as Dylan writes of the narrator—a lone cowboy at a border town to meet up a challenge he cannot forestall, puts emphasis on the weight loneliness of the gunslinger, an existence where every joy is fleeting, and the shadow of death lurks in every unlit corner. “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” was a 1971 hit for Cher, a torrid bit of fanciful exploitation that was considered to be a cardboard pathos at best, but Dylan thought deeper on the matter and found resonance. It stretches credulity, but his insistence on this song makes for reading you can’t draw away from. He uses the pronoun “you” in writing about the title’s tawdry trio, the intended effect being to imagine yourself as a member of this wandering community, the only home being the wagon that carries you at the outskirts of every town. He lays it own a little too thick by essay’s end, with his penchant for stringing three or more adjectives together when one would have been just as effective, but he does what he sets out to do to give you a strong impression of what life at the edge of society would be like. To that end, it reminded me of my time as a carnival worker, going from town to town up the coast, selling chances to win dusty stuffed animals to townies who obviously held the orange shirted show folk in contempt. It was a rush of memory, a chill in the bones, and an adventure I consider myself lucky to eventually walk away from.

These are songs of perseverance and persistence are again short testimonials that crop up on the radio, in movie soundtracks and music videos of individuals of many origins, backgrounds, and varying degrees of stress, who are determined to stand their ground lest the final remains of what is truly theirs vanishes in self-loathing rituals of compromise and surrender. That seems what has found in 66 songs, wildy disparate in era, style, and sentiment; it’s the one tangible thread I’ve found. He is at his best when he gives vent to the full range of ironies contained in the Who’s 1965 proto punk rock anthem “My Generation,” with its famous line “I hope I die before I get old…”

The fact that the singer and songwriter who brought us the line, Roger Daltry and Peter Townsend are neither dead and are, in fact, old reflects on the arrogance of youth. The stuttering youth of the song is barely articulate and has no idea of what he wants to do, has no idea about why he’s angry and impatient, and is happy to simply be that way. It’s a grand and immature f**k you of self assertion, a declaration that shocked and inspired a generation of kids to think that things will get better when they take over after the last wicked adult dies. But Dylan writes that you’re in a wheelchair being pushed around to the places you need to get to—doctor’s offices, the bathroom, the community meal hall; your mind is alert, but the body fails in subtle and significant ways every day. You’re eerily close to whatever dying day will award you, and you hear noise and brash men having their own good clamorous time in the thrall of their youth. You’re annoyed, you’re sleepy, you fall asleep. Dylan’s writing is particularly effective in this essay that should have aged well. At 81, I suppose Bob Dylan hear what the lyrics declaim and vividly recalls being the speedy, in-your-face Dada King, who rarely missed a chance to confound and confront the Old Squares who didn’t get it, a character in full sympathy with the romantic tragedy of a genius poet’s early demise. But his musing takes him to the next thought, which is that he’s far older than he might have expected, his memories are fuller, richer, more far reaching than he thinks he has any right to, and the songs he’s paid attention to aren’t merely audio postcards of long-ago places but rather a means to remain connected; he intends to live fully and well and on his own terms, in his own words. Meandering and off the wall and syntactically awkward as it is at times, The Philosophy of Modern Song is wonderful glimpse into how this perennial mystery man thinks.

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