Dylan’s Philosophy

If it weren’t already trademarked, copyrighted and patented, Bob Dylan’s new book could have been titled, Riffs by Bob, for that’s what The Philosophy of Modern Song is–in spades. He takes 65 songs–not greatest hits or his own favorites, just 65 songs–and riffs on a subject in, or suggested by, the lyrics. For example, “I Got A Woman” by Ray Charles opens with the line, “I got a woman, way across town, she’s good to me.” Dylan picks up on “way across town” and riffs on that long ride, the hassle of traffic, the hot afternoon sun, the thoughts going through the man’s head, the way excitement has given way to routine. “It’s not like he was gonna be great company either after driving way over town.” And the final kicker: “Desire fades but traffic goes on forever.”

After he riffs, for many of the songs but not all, he offers a history lesson, or an essay in musicology. And these flabbergasted me. I’m not surprised that Bob Dylan is a student of music, especially early blues and other influential sources, but even so the range is overwhelming. The most songs are from the 1950s, when Dylan was learning his craft, but he also writes about three songs from the 1920s. And in addition to blues, he covers doo-wop, pop, country, soul, punk, barbershop, Broadway and every blade of Americana. And by “cover” I mean he gives the inside story, something I’d never heard before, something I don’t know where he got it. But that’s nothing. Beyond music he puts songs in their context: what else was going on in America. Open any page and you come across a subject someone had to research: what drugs truck drivers were taking in the ’50s to stay awake; the travails of the Santee Dakota Indians; the myth of lemmings perpetrated by a Disney nature film. Maybe Dylan had a bunch of interns doing the research for him. I can’t see how anyone could write this book without working on it full-time for years–yet Dylan, all the time, is writing and recording songs, endlessly touring, and even painting.

The book is a tour-de-force, but I’m not sure it’s much more. I know a lot of songs, but I didn’t know a third of Dylan’s selections, and if you don’t know the song his riff isn’t all that interesting. In fact, the riffs are so similar–maybe written by ChatBot?–that you don’t want to read more than one or two at a time. Nor is the song selection terribly interesting. I mean, “Ball of Confusion,” by the Temptations? “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves,” by Cher? “Viva Las Vegas” by Elvis? My biggest complaint, though, concerns the illustrations, period photographs and posters. They are fantastic and evocative, but there are no captions, and the only photo credits are crammed microscopically onto one spread at the back of the book. How can Bob Dylan, a consummate artist, be so dismissive, so cavalier, about the intellectual property creations of other artists? When was the last time a book jacket’s back cover flap was blank? And I don’t even know who’s pictured on the book’s cover!

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