Sunday, October 30, 2022

Book Review - The Philosophy of Modern Song by Bob Dylan

 Book Review by Sam Schraeger


Before I get into this review, I have to confess something. Bob Dylan is now, and has always been, my favorite songwriter. The lyrics he put together are magical to me.

Desolation Row may be the best song ever written, followed by several other Dylan songs, like Highway 61 Revisited, Like a Rolling Stone, All Along the Watchtower and so many others.

But I digress.

In this book, Dylan takes a deep dive and looks at several songs in detail, 66 songs, in fact.

I must digress once more to add that Dylan did not choose to review one Jimi Hendrix song for some reason. I bring this up because it is pretty well-known that Dylan loved whenever Hendrix did his songs, most notably All Along the Watchtower and the live version of Like a Rolling Stone, performed at Monterey Pop in 1967. When I first saw what this book was about, I thought surely Hendrix would be included. Alas, no.

Dylan started working on this book in 2010, according to the “about the author” feature at the end of the book.

Mr. Dylan obviously had a lot of fun writing this book. He got to put words together as only he can about one of his favorite subjects, songs. And he got to say whatever he wanted to say, in his own inimitable style.

This is a wonderful tour through Dylan’s universe of his favorite songs. It is an amazing exploration as he explains why he thinks these songs have something powerful and amazing in them.

The songs themselves, considered modern by the title of this book, actually go back as far as to Stephen Foster in the 1800s. Well, that is fairly modern, I guess.

In describing Elvis Costello, he says, “Elvis is one of those guys whose fans fall somewhere between the two poles of passion and precision. There are people who check off the boxes of his life with the same obsession of someone completing a train schedule, while others don't know anything beyond the fact that he sings a song that accompanied a particularly devastating breakup.”

Here's another snippet: “There's a lot of people in Little Richard’s songs, all the stereotypes; Uncle John, Long Tall Sally, Mary and Jenny, Daisy, Sue and Melinda. They're all slipping by in the shady world of sex and dreams and giving you a run for your money.”

Also: “The only reason money is worth anything is because we agree it is.”

And: “A record is so much better when you can believe it.”

Additionally: “The thing about being on the road is you're not bogged down by anything, not even bad news. You give pleasure to other people and you keep your grief to yourself.”

One of the things that draws me into this book is that, while Dylan is analyzing each of the 66 songs, he is doing each one in a way there's personal, each analysis is a short story. He’ll say something like, “You come home, you're tired, she wants to fight, you just wanna sleep.”

The story he often tells is not how you originally thought of that song, but so often it makes so much sense. You see a whole new dimension you hadn't thought of before.

The man can express himself!

For example, “Desire fades but traffic goes on forever.”

And: “Being a writer is not something one chooses to do. It's something you just do and sometimes people stop and notice.”

Also: “Anyone who has hunted with a shotgun will tell you, you might enjoy the rabbit, but you're gonna spend a certain amount of time biting down on buckshot.”

In addition to the lessons Dylan gives us about the songs themselves, he often takes a detour to give us a history lesson, as he does when he reviews Black Magic Woman, which was done by Santana in 1970. We find out about the script writer Leigh Bracket in a two page aside before being brought skillfully back to the topic at hand, which Dylan does masterfully several times in this book.

Sometimes, he makes a short comment on a song, a few paragraphs that leave you wondering, and other times he goes on for several pages, giving his ideas of the origin of the song, the songwriter and the singers and he passes on some obscure facts that liven up the reviews.

And, of course, he makes several comments such as, “There is nothing scarier than someone earnest in a delusion.”

The book is also replete with many pictures, some photographs of the singers, others representations such as ads for shoes when he reviews Blue Suede Shoes. There are a good selection of these and they are a nice enhancement to Dylan's writing.

In this book, as in his songs, Bob Dylan takes us on a dizzying journey into his vision of the universe, this time as it relates to songs.

And, as usual, it is well worth the trip. Get your copy by clicking here.


The Philosophy of Modern Song by Bob Dylan

Book Review by John Krieg:

In many ways this book reveals more about Bob Dylan by inference than anything ever directly written.  In short, this is rarified air from the mountain top.  Drink it in, hold it until your lungs are about to burst, and then revel in the high.  Drugs such as this don’t come around very often.

The predominately first-person narrative, aimed directly at you lets you know that Dylan is on to you.  That’s intuition on steroids, and he lays it on thick. Personally, I’m humbled and terrified that he seems to know me better that I know myself, or at least that part of myself that I’ll admit to.  Dylan draws back the curtain before we are ready to perform and the audience learns more at that moment than we could ever act out in front of them.

The selection of the 66 songs he profiles is staggering and surprising.  He skips around with the dates with a lot of time spent in the fifties when he was just beginning to evolve into his expansive world view.

Sifting through his snippets of admiration and tidbits of nuanced advice here are just a few of his illuminations on the art of song writing:

“Knowing a singer’s life story doesn’t particularly help your understanding of a song. Frank Sinatra’s feelings over Ava Gardner allegedly inform “I’m a Fool to Want You,” but that’s just trivia. It’s what a song makes you feel about your own life that’s important.”

“A serial killer would sing this song. The lyrics kind of point toward that. Serial killers have a strangely formal sense of language and might refer to sex as the art of making love.”

“Rock and roll went from being a brick through the window to the status quo —from actual leather-jacketed greaseballs making rockabilly records to Kiss belt buckles sold in mall stores, to Thug Life press-on tattoos. The music gets marginalized as the bean counters constantly recalibrate the risk-to-reward ratio of public taste.”

Dylan is most definitely having fun here: lock the editors out of the room, and let it rip like Kerouac did when he taped pages together so that they would flow like a torrent through his typewriter and not interrupt his unencumbered stream of consciousness. A perfect example of Dylan’s still freewheeling riffing would be his profiling of the song “Pancho and Lefty” as written by Towne’s Van Zandt and sung by Willie Nelson and Merl Haggard:

“…The worst thing about a song like “Pancho and Lefty” is that it put enough money in Towne’s pocket for him to poison himself.  He died on New Year’s Day.  Just like his idol Hank Williams had forty-four years earlier.”

“Willie Nelson could, as they say, sing the phone book and make you weep – he could also write the phone book …”

“The underclass (the Honest World), the downtrodden peasants, are scared shitless of the ruthless Pancho. He squeezes them for all they’re worth, and makes them suffer.  Lefty is some kind of backstabber.  Both these guys are nonconformist thieves.  The aristocratic establishment, the upper-class landowners, are too strong for them, and the lower classes have nothing much worth stealing, so they attack the middle class, taking advantage of and exploiting their false values, materialism, hypocrisy, and insecurities…”

“Pancho and Lefty.  Two reflections of each other.  Neither of these guys thought about how to make a successful exit.”

The Philosophy of Modern Song is an exhilarating and no-holds-barred romp into the world of the song writer, into the minds and craftsmanship of those who are in reality the true poets of these chaotic and tempestuous modern times. The songwriters, performers, and subjects are all tied up in a tidy little bow masterfully drawn tight by a man that is at least their equal and their sympathizer. This book grabs your attention quicker than nails on a chalkboard and hits harder than a cattle prod enema. Long live Bob Dylan, and God bless him.

Get your copy by clicking here. 

Other Books by Bob Dylan:

Click on book covers for more info. . .

Other Writings by Sam Schraeger:

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