Dylan ruminates on quintessential songs of our time in his inimitable, wily way
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What was it you wanted from Bob Dylan’s new book?
Those who wanted an autobiographical follow-up to Chronicles, Volume One, will be tangled up in blue because The Philosophy of Modern Song, with its short essays and odd collection of photos and illustrations, isn’t it.
Dylan the author, it appears, is exactly like Dylan the famously elusive singer-songwriter: someone who follows his own muse with little regard of what the world wants, or expects, from him.
That’s not to say Dylan fails to reveal a few slivers of his thoughts when he writes about some of his favourite songs or artists.
When Dylan tackles Willie Nelson’s country standard On the Road Again, he revels in the tricked-out tour bus and the life a musician leads on it — the 81-year-old wasted little time returning to the road once the COVID-19 pandemic subsided — and it’s no shocker that his love of other artists’ music has played a key part in his life and career.
That’s about it, however. Dylanologists will try to parse other less obvious parallels between the 66 tunes Dylan’s chosen to explore in The Philosophy of Modern Song and the man himself, but they would miss the point: in Dylan’s world, it’s the music that matters.
Dylan knows a good song when he hears one, and as someone who’s written songs as memorable as Blowin’ in the Wind and Like a Rolling Stone (as well as more forgettable ones, like Handy Dandy), he has a grasp on what it takes to create a work of art and what must be sacrificed in the quick-and-dirty effort to get a hit.
He does this well when analyzing two protest songs — Dylan knows a thing or two about the genre — by the Motown songwriting duo Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong.
He shows his adulation for Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World is Today), a 1970 Temptations song on civil rights that is a deep track when compared with songs such as I Heard it Through the Grapevine that became huge sellers. It avoids “the trap of easy rhymes,” is Dylan’s verdict.
He’s a bit more critical of War, the more famous anthem by Edwin Starr, questioning whether it exploited the peace movement. It also allows him opine on war for five pages, a War and Peace among Dylan’s bite-sized riffs on other songs and themes.
Some of those riffs on recent songs such as Pump it Up by Elvis Costello or The Clash’s London Calling are cool for Generation X readers, but they are less memorable than Dylan’s takes on older songs, many of which require a Google search.
Johnnie and Jack, who recorded the 1951 country hit Poison Love, deserve to be in most music hall of fames, Dylan says, but belong to none, prompting the multiple hall-of-famer to say these institutions “celebrate sanitized versions of raw life.”
A young Robert Zimmerman was a big Little Richard fan when he attended Hibbing High School in Minnesota’s Iron Range in the 1950s, writing in the school’s yearbook he aspired to play in the outlandish singer’s band.
He gives the rock ’n’ roll pioneer his due when writing about Long Tall Sally and Tutti Frutti, and he discusses the latter’s many double entendres that focus on Richard’s homosexuality.
Sadly, Dylan’s book studies none of his own songs, nor any by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones or the Beach Boys, and only a precious few he philosophizes on are written by women and sung by women.
Like most of his concerts in recent years, he offers no introduction, aside from dedicating it to Doc Pomus, another songwriting legend, and there’s no reason given why these songs get Dylan’s special attention.
He reveals exactly what he elects to reveal and nothing else, very much in keeping with the Bob Dylan persona he’s carefully curated for more than 60 years.
Alan Small is a Free Press arts and life reporter.
Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.