Author: Bob Dylan
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Price: $27.00 (Hardcover)
When Robert Allen Zimmerman (b. May 24th, 1941) dropped out after his first year of college in the spring and left his small hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota in the fall of 1961, he couldn’t have predicted the incredible arc his songwriting and singing career would take – nobody could have; even in their wildest dreams. Hitting New York, he immediately began spending time at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital visiting his hero folk singer Woody Guthrie who was slowly dying of Huntington’s disease which is a degeneration of cells located deep in the brain causing loss of motor skills and memory loss. Guthrie was the balladeer for the poor, the disenfranchised, the forgotten, the oppressed, and Zimmerman was determined to honor his life’s work and doggedly follow in his footsteps. For material, Guthrie had the misery of America’s Great Depression (1929 – 1939), and Zimmerman had the onset of America’s tumultuous sixties, the decade that laid the thin scabs covering our scars riven and changed everything. If Guthrie can be viewed as inventing the protest song, Dylan can be credited with perfecting it.
Legally changing his name to Robert (Bob) Dylan in August of 1962, he found representation and released his first album entitled: Bob Dylan which was mostly a compilation of covers and only contained two of his own songs. It sold 5,000 copies and barely broke even. That changed significantly by the time he released his second album early in 1963 entitled: Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, and that it was by containing 11 of his own compositions out of the 13 songs provided. “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna’ Fall” announced that this was an empathetic man of substance who wouldn’t take a back seat to anyone, not even Woody Guthrie, and his career was off and running with barely a hiccup save for walking out on The Ed Sullivan Show later in 1963 over censorship issues, and causing his folk fans to strip a gear when he went electric in 1965. Thereafter, Dylan was a musician of many genres and refused to be pigeonholed into any box. He performed anywhere, with anyone, singing anything that he chose to. Dylan rubbed shoulders with bluegrass, folk, and rock royalty and all admired him. And he has the skins on the wall to prove it: Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Song Writers Hall of Fame, a special Pulitzer Prize; you name it – he has received it. Then came the truly big ones. In 2012, President Barack Obama hung the Presidential Medal of Freedom around his neck and he was the first songwriter to win the Nobel Prize in 2016.
All of which brings us to his most recent offering, not a record, but a book entitled: The Philosophy of Modern Song. Much has been written about Dylan ad Infineum, including a two-part biography by the man himself entitled Chronicles I(2005) and Chronicles II (2019), but all are mostly a timeline of his life as opposed to what music he was most impacted by during his life. In many ways, this book reveals more about the man 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 than 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 worldview. While he may reference British songs, especially those written by John Lennon, he profiles none. The entire book is most definitely American at its core especially when he delves into the work of Stephen Foster, our nation’s first truly American songwriter. Sifting through his snippets of admiration and tidbits of nuanced advice here are just a few of his illuminations on the art (or should I say his philosophy?) of songwriting:
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 in On the Road (1957). 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 Merle 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.
“Pancho and Lefty” is an epic panoramic tale, beautifully sung and beautifully produced, featuring two of the most iconic singers in the modern era. Willie Nelson could, as they say, sing the phone book and make you weep –he could also write the phone book, and Merle is pretty much the same…
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 song’s writers, 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. Dylan is right, everything about this song radiates a humble and tragic beauty.
The Philosophy of Modern Song is an exhilarating and no-holds-barred romp into the world of the songwriter, into the minds and craftsmanship of those who are in reality the true poets of these chaotic and tempestuous modern times, those to be appreciated by anyone who can take their nose out of their phone long enough to listen to a three-minute song. This book grabs your attention quicker than nails on a chalkboard and hits harder than a cattle prod enema. While we certainly hope that this won’t be the last we will hear from Bob Dylan, it would suffice as a perfect ending if it was. Long live Bob Dylan, and God bless him.