“Bob Dylan” only actually existed for a couple of years.
Dylan defined himself, created his myth, in the space of three albums released in 1965 and 1966— “Bringing It All Back Home”, “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde on Blonde”. The stuff before these constituted the earnest folkie lead in, the stuff after being the endless dissolution. There was nothing common or normal about those records, they were from another place and still are. This was the moment the match was struck. His most intensely creative. It gave us Queen Jane Approximately, Ballad of a Thin Man, Like a Rolling Stone, Just Like a Woman, It’s All Over Now Baby Blue. These songs weren’t just hot, they were a veritable conflagration. Whether intentionally or accidentally he was burning it all to the ground. And it was fucking beautiful. But nobody can maintain that kind of intensity indefinitely and those records were just three out of 39 studio albums, 15 live albums, 29 compilations, 16 bootlegs, etc. etc… The man’s had a long life and a long career. A slew of kids, couple divorces, property, bank accounts, business deals, affairs……. Normality strikes.
This book is a challenge in part because it reveals a lot of things I’m not really interested in knowing. Like for example how thoroughly banal the man can be. The big takeaway? The shocker? Bob Dylan is terminally normal. He likes Ozzie and Harriet, high school football stars are cool, and Perry Como really lays it down. Doesn’t spend an inordinate amount of time talking about pronouns. Polygamy is A-OK. He states that Sonny Bono’s greatest achievement was the “Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act”, aka the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act”, a bill pushed by Disney to keep copyrighted work from entering the public domain. Which is another way of saying keep the money in the pockets of the rich. An odd position for the poet/troubadour/visionary guy. But this example is typical of the kinds of mindfucks I encountered in attempting to grasp the bigger Bob Dylan picture.
With “The Philosophy of Modern Song” Dylan riffs on, goofs on, and talks trash about some of the songs (most from the mid twentieth century) which for him have a lingering, or maybe loitering, resonance. Songs that, 60, 70 years later still seduce, enchant, and engage his imagination. It’s an investigation of the mythologies and cultural currents that inform the music he loves. A close reading. Almost scene of the crime. His musings, impressions, contemplations are presented as free flowing essays, or Beat informed improvisations that are both rich and compelling. Fever dreams. His take on Marty Robbins’ tune “El Paso” is a good example.
“El Paso — the passageway, the escape hatch, the secret staircase — ritual crime and symbolic lingo… transmigration, deportation, and all in the cryptic first person, the primitive self. The stench of perfume, alcohol, a puff of smoke, the duel, the worthless life…staying in the saddle, love in vain, the grim reaper, and a love that’s stronger than death…The black knight and the white knight, the good luck charm and the evil eye…queen of sin street, diseased prostitute, an apparition that’s solidly real…Rosa’s Cantina…The symbolic Rosa, the black gown and the bishop’s ring, the bread and the wine, and the blood. The blood of Christian martyrs, blood that dyes the white rose red… A Catholic song, universal where no insults will go unchallenged. Where every trail goes cold, where Rome has spoken.”
Taking up Bobby Darin’s “Beyond the Sea” you know he still feels a thrill from the perfection of the phrasing— “He’s a playful melodist and he doesn’t need words. He keeps it simple even when he’s singing about nothing. The sea, the air, the mountains, the flowers. It all floats. It never touches the ground.”
That’s a taste. Maybe we should just play this out with a few non-sequiturs. Some amusing, some perplexing:
“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.”
“When you are writing songs with Burt Bacharach, you obviously don’t give a fuck what people think.”
“Desire fades but traffic goes on forever.”
“…slick as in recorded in a studio with a band that stopped and started at the same time.”
“Sometimes you hear a song so full of emotion that you feel your heart ready to burst
and when you ask someone to translate it the lyrics are as mundane as “I cannot find my
“And if we want to see a war criminal all we have to do is look in the mirror.”
Re “Black Magic Woman” “the ideal woman — summons demons, holds seances, levitates, is skilled in the art of necromancy, conducts ritualistic orgies with the dead…”
“..one place where additional learning does not disentangle the mystery of the subject is music.”
“…the antihero crowded the real heroes off the screen…”
That would probably be a good place to stop.