Over the course of his six decades of omnipresence in public life, Bob Dylan has manifested many guises: Guthrie-besotted roustabout, silver-tongued enfant terrible, dignified country-western crooner, world-weary gypsy, fire-and-brimstone evangelist, befuddled ’80s artifact, and finally the sly and wizened trickster of his triumphal later years. Dylan’s penchant for personal transformation creates the eerie, quasimystical feeling that there is not one single person dwelling within the singer, but several, that somehow, the strange, enchanted boy from Minnesota’s Iron Range contains all of the multitudes of American music within his diminutive frame.
This notion of Dylan as oracle provides the backdrop for his new essay collection, whose delightfully portentous title, “The Philosophy of Modern Song,” is a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of his mythic status: Aristotle as an A.M. radio DJ. It has 66 brief vignettes about memorable sides cut by performers ranging from the Sun Records also-ran Jimmy Wages to the 1940s multithreat Perry Como to Dylan’s old touring buddies the Grateful Dead to his musical inheritors, like Elvis Costello and the Clash. Some of the analyses, which can already be loose, are accompanied by brief pieces that treat the songs as creative writing prompts.
In keeping with the theme of his omniscient zeal for songcraft, Dylan betrays no sense there is anything remotely odd about zigzagging among Jimmy Reed, Rosemary Clooney and Santana, itself a meaningful insight into the wide open apertures of his powers of expression.
This is Dylan’s first book of prose since “Chronicles: Volume One” (2004), which was a startlingly muscular display of prose writing whose sui generis voice seemed cobbled together from stray parts of Charles Portis, James Joyce and the Book of Revelation. (Collections of his lyrics and his Nobel Prize acceptance speech have been published in the time since.) “Chronicles” was a transporting medley of fever-dream memoir, shaggy dog stories and oddball philosophizing that consecrated, impossibly, yet another way in which Dylan could surprise us.
Readers have eagerly awaited “Chronicles: Volume Two,” but “The Philosophy of Modern Song” is not that. Not remotely. Whereas his previous book was decidedly austere in presentation, evoking the monochromatic sobriety of a black-and-white Bergman film, this new one is more like Fellini. It is bursting at the seams with color in old movie stills, throwback burlesque artwork and pictures of the artists represented within, a visual banquet to accompany the weird majesty of his essays.
And boy, are these essays weird. Longtime Dylan followers are accustomed to the peculiar cast that haunts his songs — scarlet women, jughead criminals, wanton judges, sanctified hobos and unscrupulous gamblers — and they festoon these pages as well.
Describing Webb Pierce’s “There Stands the Glass” (1953), Dylan extrapolates the sad song into something remorselessly bleak: The song’s narrator “must justify and vindicate his entire being, he’s been betrayed by politicians back home, forsaken and double crossed.” He “doesn’t recall ever having a soul, or if he did, it’s long dead at the bottom of a lake.”
Costello’s glam-noir “Pump It Up” (1978) is regarded with similar, delectable dread. “The one-two punch, the uppercut, and the wallop, then get out quick and make tracks. You broke the commandments and cheated. Now you’ll have to back down, capitulate and turn in your resignation.” In its gnomic way, the haunted, hilarious corridors of “The Philosophy of Modern Song” offer the best insight yet into a crucial Dylan paradox: Music is clearly his salvation, but music also seems to scare the wits out of him.
These essays are not all terrifying verdicts on the fate of a corrupted humanity. There are history lessons, too! Charmingly, Dylan appears to have done a great deal of research on the material covered, and maybe even breaks a little news here and there. Did you know the inventor of the rhinestone-covered “nudie suit” was a Ukrainian Jew named Nuta Kotlyarenko who fled Russia ahead of a czarist pogrom? The roots of country music run deeper than we imagine.
Writing of Kotlyarenko’s life, with a sly echo of his own, Dylan says: “Like with many men who reinvent themselves, the details get a bit dodgy in places.” Dylan has been interviewed thousands of times, and has an established reputation for being somewhat surly and stubborn on that front. That is both fair and it is not.
Oftentimes, when interrogated about himself and his views, he is something of a pill: evasive, defensive and not infrequently ornery. But when speaking about peers and progenitors in the field of songwriting, the mood shifts. He has routinely been thoughtful, insightful and uncommonly generous to those with whom he shares the arena.
“The Philosophy of Modern Song” is the great manifestation of that praiseful impulse. Dylan has his nitpicks, but this is mostly a liturgy. Here are 66 instances of beauty, anxiety and deliverance that taken together would make a satisfying last will and testimony, in the unlikely event that Dylan has any designs on dying.
Fittingly, one of the best and most moving essays is a tribute to fellow transformative outcast Little Richard. Dylan describes Richard and his epochal 1955 game changer “Tutti Frutti.” That appreciation surveys the full playing field for the otherworldly talented, closeted gay, strictly Christian Richard Wayne Penniman from Georgia, and articulates the vast gifts afforded us through the psychic pain of one genius:
“He took speaking in tongues right out of the sweaty canvas tent and put it on the mainstream radio — even screamed like a holy preacher — which is what he was.”
How many roads must a man walk down? A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom.
Elizabeth Nelson is a critic, singer and songwriter. The latest release from her band, the Paranoid Style, is “For Executive Meeting.”
The Philosophy of Modern Song
By Bob Dylan. Simon & Schuster. 339 pp. $45
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