BookLovers: Bob Dylan’s new book is a witty, wild ride in Classic Dylan Style
Come gather ‘round people wherever you roam:
While there are infinite books about the man, the myth, the legend Bob Dylan, only a handful come from the horse’s mouth.
This week, the horse spoke.
Dylan’s “The Philosophy of Modern Song,” hit shelves Nov. 1, marking the Nobel Prize winner’s first book since 2004’s “Chronicles Vol. 1.”
It is Dylan at peak-Dylan for a few reasons.
The obvious: Like many Bob fans I’ve waited 18 years for Vol. 2 of his memoir. In classic Bob fashion, he waited 18 years to write … a totally different book.
“Philosophy” is at once rock criticism, pure Dylan prose — wit, hilarious out-of-the-blue one-liners, raucous colorful language — and glimpses into the magical brain by way of 66 songs and artists he cares enough to write about.
I also got a kick out of his dedication page — “For Doc Pomus” — where his list of special thanks includes “all the crew at Dunkin’ Donuts.” (I guess we know what the Never Ending Tour runs on.)
If you were a fan of Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour, you know the 81-year-old’s tastes bend toward ‘50s rock and rockabilly, and old-time country jukebox hits. So there are songs you might expect — like honkey-tonk jukebox-staple Webb Pierce’s “There Stands the Glass” (1953), or his long-time hero Little Richard’s classic “Tutti Frutti.” (In his 1959 Hibbing High School yearbook, teenage Robert Zimmerman wrote that his goal was to “join ‘Little Richard.’”)
There are also names associated with Dylan in some way, shape, or form — the Grateful Dead, Hank Williams, Warren Zevon, Frank Sinatra. But there’s also “Nelly was a Lady,” an 1849 song by Stephen Foster, and “Viva Las Vegas” and Perry Como’s “Without a Song.”
Each is a band of light, the whole is a spectrum exploding from the prism that is Robert Zimmerman’s magnificent brain.
If you know Dylan at all, you know not to take anything he says or does at face value. He’s never far from a grain of salt, a brush-covered trap, a giggle in the corner.
Remember that Dylan is an ever-changing creation, a seed that fell off Woody Guthrie, that sprouted at first in Guthrie's image and likeness, slowly morphing, shaped by light and shadow into some all-together new phyla within the kingdom.
What songs might his twisted roots and leaves have grown on, twirled around?
That is the question here.
I’ve seen headlines blaring that Dylan seems misogynistic in the way he writes about women and complaints about how few women artists he selected.
But when it comes to personal history, you can’t force someone to fudge the songs and artists that shaped them just to be politically correct. I would hope that, at the very least, this is an honest account of songs that moved him, not just tracks cherry-picked by a PR team looking to appease the most readers.
As for the language, again: grain of salt. It’s colorful, hardboiled, bee-bop. It’s Dylan-prose.
On Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up,” Dylan writes:
“It’s the song you sing when you’ve reached the boiling point… You’ve learned to look into every loathsome nauseating face and expect nothing… You’re the alienated hero who’s been taken for a ride by a quick-witted little hellcat, the hot-blooded sex starved wench that you depended on so much, who failed you… Now you’ve come to the place where you’re going to blow things up, puncture it, shoot it down… The one-two punch, the uppercut, and the wallop, then get out quick and make tracks… Why all the trivial talk and yakety yak?
This is bang-pop-boom sparkle, leave-em-laughing-when-you-go jazz.
This is what you’d hear spoken into some beer-soaked microphone in some smoke-filled Greenwich Village coffee shop circa 1963, a drunk pianist tickling ivories in the background.
His language shines, and it’s what makes the book as a whole a fun ride. Like “Chronicles” it’s written in that distinctive Dylan bee-bop prose. Of Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City,” he writes:
“In this song, you’re the prodigal son. You went to sleep last night in Detroit City. This morning you overslept, dreamt about white snow cotton fields, and had delusions about imaginary farmsteads… From the postcards and junk mail that you dashed off, everybody assumes you're a bigwig, that things are cool and beautiful, but they’re not… your life is unraveling… You’re going to take your foolish self-love and egotism and go back to what’s familiar…Time to say adios.”
You can all but hear Dylan introducing the song this way during “Theme Time Radio Hour.”
There are also lines and insights that are just legitimately good music criticism.
On Costello, for example: “At the point of ‘Pump It Up,’ he obviously had been listening to Springsteen too much. But he also had a heavy dose of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues.’” In time, he says, Costello would prove “too big for this type of aggressive music to contain.”
Dylan famously covered Sinatra on his 2015 album “Shadows in The Night.” Of old Blue Eyes and “Strangers in the Night” Dylan hits the ball out of the park with this noir paragraph:
“The song of the lone wolf, the outsider, the alien, the foreigner, and night owl who’s wheeling and dealing, putting everything up for sale and surrendering his self-interest. On the move aimlessly through the dingy darkness — slicing up the pie of sentimental feelings…You’ve got a tough persona, like a side of beef, and you’re aroused and stimulated, with an ear-to-ear grin, like a Cheshire cat, and you’re rethinking your entire formless life, your entire being is filled with a whiff of this heady ambrosia.”
This is the voice of an old-time late-night radio disc jockey poet.
And I love that he can go from that, to this Larry David-esque complaint:
“And it’s not just songs—movies, television shows, even clothing and food, everything is niche marketed and overly fussed with. There isn’t an item on the menu that doesn’t have half a dozen adjectives in front of it, all chosen to hit you in your sociopolitical-humanitarian-snobby-foodie consumer spot. Enjoy your free-range, cumin-infused, cayenne-dusted heirloom reduction. Sometimes it’s just better to have a BLT and be done with it.”
Never change, Zimmy.
Lauren Daley is a book columnist and freelance writer. Contact her at email@example.com. She tweets @laurendaley1. Read more at https://www.facebook.com/daley.writer
This article originally appeared on Standard-Times: BookLovers: Bob Dylan’s new book is a witty, wild ride in Classic Dylan Style