This idea of Dylan as an oracle forms the backdrop for his new collection of essays, whose wonderfully ominous title is “The Philosophy of Modern Song.” is an ironic acknowledgment of his mythical status: Aristotle as AM radio DJ. It features 66 short vignettes on memorable sides, clipped by artists ranging from the Sun Records co-ran Jimmy Wages to 1940s multithreat Perry Como to Dylan’s old tour buddies The Grateful Dead to his musical heirs like Elvis Costello and the Clash. . Some of the analysis, which may already be loose, is accompanied by short bits that treat the songs as creative writing prompts.
In keeping with the theme of his omniscient zeal for songcraft, Dylan does not betray any sense that there is anything strange about the zigzagging between Jimmy Reed, Rosemary Clooney and Santana, which in itself is a meaningful insight into the wide-open gaps of his expressive power.
This one is Dylan’s first prose book since “Chronicles: Volume One”” (2004), which was a startling muscular display of prose writing whose sui generis voice seemed cobbled together from stray parts of Charles Portis, James Joyce and the Book of Revelation. (Collections of his lyrics and his Nobel Prize acceptance speech have since been published.) “Chronicles” was a riveting mishmash of fever-dream memes, gritty dog stories, and eccentric philosophizing that, impossibly, dedicated yet another way Dylan could surprise us.
Readers have been eagerly awaiting “Chronicles: Volume Two,” but “The Philosophy of Modern Song” is not. Not remotely. Where his previous book was decidedly austere in its presentation, evoking the monochromatic austerity of a black-and-white Bergman film, this new book is looks more like Fellini. It’s bursting at the seams with color in old movie stills, old-fashioned burlesque artwork and photos of the artists represented in it, a visual banquet to accompany the strange majesty of his essays.
And boy, are these essays weird. Long-time Dylan supporters have been used to the idiosyncratic cast that haunts his songs—scarlet women, jughead criminals, rowdy judges, hallowed bums, and unscrupulous gamblers—and they adorn these pages, too.
In describing Webb Pierce’s “There Stands the Glass” (1953), Dylan extrapolates the sad song to something brutally bleak: the song’s narrator “must justify and justify his whole being, he has been betrayed at home by politicians, abandoned and deceived .” He “doesn’t remember ever having a soul, or if he did, he’s long dead at the bottom of a lake.”
Costello’s glamorous ‘Pump It Up’ (1978) is viewed with the same, ravishing dread. “The one-two punch, the uppercut and the blow, then go out quickly and make spurs. You’ve broken the commandments and cheated. Now you must back off, capitulate and resign.” In its gnomic way, the haunting, hilarious corridors of “The Philosophy of Modern Song” offer the best insight yet into a crucial Dylan paradox: music is clearly his salvation, but music also seems to scare him.
These essays are not all terrifying statements about the fate of a depraved humanity. There are also history lessons! Charmingly enough, Dylan seems to have done a lot of research on the material covered, and maybe even bringing some news here and there. Did you know that the inventor of the rhinestone-covered “nude suit” was a Ukrainian Jew named Nuta Kotlyarenko, who fled Russia for a tsarist pogrom? The roots of country music run deeper than we can imagine.
Dylan writes about Kotlyarenko’s life, with a sly echo of himself, saying, “As with many men who reinvent themselves, the details get a little unreliable in places.” Dylan has been interviewed thousands of times and has a reputation for being a bit gruff and stubborn in that area. That’s both fair and not.
Often, when questioned about himself and his views, he is a kind of pill: evasive, defensive and often vulgar. But when we talk about songwriting peers and ancestors, the mood changes. He has routinely been thoughtful, insightful, and extremely generous to those he shares the arena with.
“The Philosophy of Modern Song” is the great manifestation of that laudatory impulse. Dylan has his nitty-gritty, but this is primarily a liturgy. Here are 66 examples of beauty, fear and redemption that together would make a satisfying last will and testimony, in the unlikely event that Dylan has plans to die.
One of the best and most moving essays is fittingly a tribute to fellow transformative outcast Little Richard. Dylan describes Richard and his seminal 1955 game changer “Tutti Frutti.” That appreciation spans the entire playing field for the otherworldly talented, closeted gay, strict Christian Richard Wayne Penniman of Georgia, and articulates the tremendous gifts we have been afforded. through the psychic pain of one genius:
“He took the speaking in tongues straight from the sweaty canvas tent and put it on the mainstream radio – even screamed like a holy preacher – and that’s what he was.”
How many roads should a man walk? A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom.
Elizabeth Nelson is a critic, singer and songwriter. Her band’s latest release, the Paranoid Style, is ‘For Executive Meeting’.
The Philosophy of Modern Song
By Bob Dylan. Simon & Schuster. 339pp. $45
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