Culture & Criticism Since 2003
“It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.”Jack Kerouac, from the essay. “Are Writers Made or Born?”
Longtime fans are well aware that aspects of Bob Dylan’s music and literary consciousness was shaped by the Beat Generation movement that took America by storm in the middle 1950s. In turn, Dylan’s new book, The Philosophy of Modern Song, pays homage to that influence via a compendium of 66 essays the famed musician penned on songwriters and songs that have inspired and affected him over the years.
In terms of literary style, Dylan’s book is close kin to a style of composition novelist Jack Kerouac employed when he wrote a series of pieces for Escapade (in addition to other periodicals) in the late 1950s and early 1960s. This incarnation of Dylan’s prose also recalls the work of William Burroughs – a controlled stream of consciousness illuminating the hidden powers of song.
In sum, these short stabbing “chapters” feature Dylan in the role of critic. Accordingly, he dissects the driving forces of his own artistic inspiration via the way the music of the day struck him. For decades, pop journalists have been trying to push Dylan to tell all and talk about what his songs actually mean. And in The Philosophy of Modern Song, he offers up a frank response – that being, to not over-think the process, but instead, to just be satisfied that the music exists in the first place.
And Dylan writes:
“Maybe that’s as close as you can get with somebody. Being on the street where they live. Maybe you’re thinking that anytime that person could appear, you are that close. Maybe you just wait all night and all day too…How long you are going to be waiting there is anybody’s guess…” (Chapter 28 at page 135; “On The Street Where You Live”).
In the poet’s world, it’s simply enough to to let a song move you from the earthly plane to points beyond time. As such, Dylan dedicated this work to the great hit-maker Doc Pomus. And Pomus’ greatest gift as songwriter was found in his ability to transport us to an alternate universe. Pomus’ epic “This Magic Moment” (written with piano player Mort Shuman) is about just that – letting the moment open up a new door and remove you to a place of wonderment and awe.
And Dylan writes:
“You get the mental picture, Utopia, and it’s painted blue. Oil paint, cosmetics and greasepaint, frescoes with blue slapped on, and you’re singing like a canary. You’re tickled pink and walking on air, and there’s no end to space.” (Chapter 32 at page 153; “Volare”).
At its best moments, The Philosophy of Modern Song adheres to the Pomus example. In the chapters “Jesse James,” “Ball of Confusion,” “Money Honey,” “On the Road Again,” “Old Violin,” “Big River,” “Saturday Night at the Movies,” and “War” we find Dylan lost in the wonderment of the moment as he explores music as the perfect art form. As Dylan ponders his own existence in relation to where he’s traveled as a musician, passages strike with a wild rambling tone. But in the end, that’s really only the austere beauty of the process as he links us as a nation back to Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs and McClure for a last ride though the fields of our collective musical history.
And Dylan writes:
“THE SONG OF THE SUFFERER, one that penetrates to the heart of the matter…Where do you go? How do you identify with a world that has set you aside, a world that took everything from you without asking, a world that’s asleep, bedded down and deep into slumber-land taking one long siesta. You’ll go to the mythic land of rebirth, stare up into the mirror of the night sky and talk to your ancestors. They’re wide awake.” (Chapter 40 at page 195-196; “Doesn’t Hurt Anymore – John Trudell”).
As is the case with all worthwhile criticism, you won’t agree with the writer’s every particular observation. And this work will be no different. But in the end, it’s certainly worthwhile, as Dylan compels our attention and leaves us thinking about our own history in relation to the music that drives us.
The audio version of this book features various artists and actors reading select chapters of the book, serving as a compelling sibling to the print release. Here, Dylan’s thoughts are given ‘voices’ and interpreted in spirited and bold ways. Featuring Bob Dylan, Jeff Bridges, Steve Buscemi, John Goodman, Oscar Isaac, Helen Mirren, Rita Moreno, Sissy Spacek, Alfre Woodard, Jeffrey Wright and Renée Zellweger. The Goodman, Spacek and Moreno chapters stand tall as they capture the rhythm and passion of Dylan’s prose in elegant tones. Running time 6.5 hours.