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Bob Dylan: The Philosophy of Modern Song


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The Philosophy of Modern Song
Bob Dylan
352 Pages
ISBN: # 978-1451648706
Simon & Schuster

Bob Dylan's The Philosophy of Modern Song is a labor of love by a music lover of unremitting passion. As such, it is hard to put it down once the reading commences, if for no other reason than proceeding through the sixty-some essays provides a rush similar to that of poring through Jack Kerouac's On The Road (Viking Press, 1957). At times the headlong thrust of the prose also recalls the very first Dylan book, Tarantula (Macmillan & Scribner, 1971). But, as filtered through the lens of music, this material is far more focused. The verbiage is as dense with unbridled emotion as with fierce intellect and it constitutes a dual consistency of tone over the course of its three hundred thirty some pages that prompts thoughts about exactly how this collection was put together.

Certainly more than a decade-long gestation period is plenty of time to select and finalize the songs, choose the photos and secure the rights to publish, then design the integration of same that is so eye-pleasing. But that process still begs the question of the actual process that the Nobel Laureate used to write these incisive essays along with the more extemporaneous content that often accompanies them: he simultaneously maintains the airs of deeply thoughtful contemplation and abiding spontaneity.

Of course, the mystery arising from the process of authorship for The Philosophy of Modern Song is in keeping with Bob Dylan's body of work as a songwriter, recording artist, live performer and cultural icon. It is not quite fair to say that "nothing is revealed" here, as in "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest" from John Wesley Harding (Columbia, 1968), but the author certainly doesn't explain everything.

There is no foreword or introduction to outline the concept of the book (even though the very last sentence might suffice). Except for a dedication to singer/songwriter Doc Pomus ("Save The Last Dance For Me," among others), there are only some short expressions of thanks to those who aided in the project. But no captions appear for the multiplicity of photographs sprinkled throughout the book or for the cover shot (a quick web search reveals the trio so pictured are icons Little Richard and Eddie Cochran on either side of female Elvis impersonator from the same era, Alis Lesley).

The man born Robert Zimmerman is not out to teach either the craft or art of songwriting either. Still, anyone who wants to learn about either or both fields of study has plentiful resources of which to avail themselves here. To declare that Bob Dylan has eclectic taste is a vast understatement and his exposition of it here may widen the readers,' especially as it is combined with a clear exhibition of his command of the subtleties of composition and performance. From his reliably expert point of view, the turn of a vocal phrase can be as significant as the drop or add of a single letter ("Twitchy Woman"?) not to mention the prevailing tone of the vocal (Perry Como's on "Without A Song").

There is little if any doubt that the Minnesota native has heard and thought about these tunes multiple times over the course of his now eighty-one years, so it is little surprise he often examines chosen topics such as Dean Martin's "Blue Moon'' in terms of recordings and performances as the compositions themselves. Yet the scholarly formality is often no deeper than the joyous rediscovery of the subjects at hand, whether it be Frank Sinatra, Little Walter or Willie Nelson. And the alternating and/or interwoven pattern of those two main attitudes here is nothing less than delightful, from start to finish, as Dylan moves from Elvis Presley's "Money Honey" to Marty Robbins' "El Paso" and only then proceeding to the Grateful Dead's "Truckin.'"

The writer studiously maintains his attention on the topics at hand, even as he occasionally digresses into personal opinions, allusions to history and pure flights of fancy just often enough to impart pacing to the succession of chapters; it's a progression not all that dissimilar from that of a well-sequenced album or live performance. The generally healthy, good- humored detachment of the author also adds to the thought-provoking nature of this work.

Then again, amateur or professional psychologists (not to mention the most obsessive of Dylanologists) might well have a field day here. The combination of bile and latent sexism is more than just a little disturbing in the pieces on Eagles' "Witchy Woman" and the Allman Brothers Band's "Midnight Rider," while his treatise on Jackson Browne's "The Pretender," to name just one other of many such pieces, may proffer almost as much insight into readers' own psyche as the author's.

Needless to say, these veritable Rorschach tests of Dylan's compel repeated readings too. And, not surprisingly, such nuanced observations also lend themselves as readily to casual skimming as more careful perusal of both text and photos. All of which only adds to the potential durability of The Philosophy of Modern Song: likely as not, each successive exposure to its various element will bring something(s) new to mind (hence the wisdom of leaving the roughly seven by nine inch tome readily accessible for impulse examination).

Similar to but ultimately superior to Bob Dylan's aforementioned first book and quite comparable in its distinctive voice to his autobiographical Chronicles Vol. 1 (Simon & Schuster, 2004), this third effort reaffirms the one-time 'voice of a generation's elevated level of creativity over the last twenty-five years. The Philosophy of Modern Song reminds us how fortunate we are to be living at the same time as he.



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