- 17 Nov 22
A Song Is Anything That Can Walk By Itself
While my copy of Tarantula, Bob Dylan’s first book, published in 1971 but written in the mid-sixties when he was probably as high as anyone who has ever staggered upright, sits on the shelf, secure in the knowledge that its patina of dust is unlikely to be disturbed until I sell up and move, Chronicles: Volume One is a different story, as in it actually tells a few stories.
Dylan rarely, if ever, plays it straight, always dealing from the bottom of the deck with a glint in his eye. Chronicles was no linear I-was-born-at-a-very-young-age memoir. Coming out a reissue programme for which Bob had agreed to pen some sleeve notes before he got carried away, it side-stepped through portals from the first record to the New Morning and Oh Mercy years.
Towards its end, Dylan describes hearing the song ‘Pirate Jenny’ “sung by some vaguely masculine woman, dressed up like a scrubbing lady who goes about making up beds in a ratty waterfront hotel.” A song where “each phrase comes at you from a ten-foot drop, scuttles across the road and then another one comes like a punch on the chin.” Taking this song apart, Dylan “could see that the type of songs I was leaning towards singing didn’t exist.”
Then John Hammond gives him an advance copy of Robert Johnson’s King Of The Delta Blues Singers. He goes to a friend’s apartment and puts it on. “From the first note the vibrations from the loudspeaker made my hair stand up. The stabbing sounds from the guitar could almost break a window. When Johnson started singing, he seemed like a guy who could have sprung from the brow of Zeus in full armour.” Dylan felt like “I’d been hit by a tranquilliser bullet.” The words made him “quiver like piano wires.”
Writing about music sounds like the easiest thing in the world, until you actually sit down to do it. Clichés like ‘sophomore’, ‘drops’, ‘gems’, ‘stunning’, ‘soundscape’, and a hundred others howl out from some dark corner, cadging for employment. Dylan floats past these tawdry panhandlers, deaf to their pleading and, like all the best writers, places himself in the picture because music is a two-way street.
Accordingly, there was a general hats-in-the-air reaction to the announcement earlier this year of The Philosophy Of Modern Song, Dylan’s first book since Chronicles in 2004. Hearing it would comprise of his opinions on the songs of others, you were reminded again of ‘Pirate Jenny’ and Robert Johnson. Then excerpts were published in the New York Times on The Who’s ‘My Generation’ and Frank Sinatra’s ‘Strangers In The Night’. They seemed slight, even half-arsed. A fellow Dylan head advised caution, ‘Wait and see how they fit,’ he said. He was right.
The finished book is a thing of beauty in and of itself. The designer, Coco Shinomiya, who has worked with Dylan before on releases such as Together Through Life and Tempest, deserves much grander billing then she gets on the title pages. She’s crafted an objet d’art that explodes on opening with beautiful photos of the artists in question, vintage advertisements, sheet music, wanted posters, magazine covers, movie stills, and store fronts. You would welcome it into your home even if English was as familiar to you as ancient Sumerian and you had no more interest in Dylan than the man in the moon.
The dramatis personae gathers such disparate names as Stephen Foster, Little Richard, and Cher, although ‘modern song’ might be a bit of a misnomer as Bob doesn’t venture too close to the now past Elvis Costello, The Clash, and Warren Zevon. He goes at the majority of the songs in two ways, first he riffs on their meaning, and then, more satisfyingly, he expounds and free associates.
Whether these songs are familiar to you or not, Dylan will have you listening with fresh ears, cocked to catch his conceits. Let’s skip past Costello’s ‘Pump It Up’, a song that “speaks new speak” and The Clash’s ‘London Calling’, although we must, or should, take issue with his statement that “a lot of their songs are overblown, overwritten” but let us pause briefly to admire Warren Zevon’s ‘Dirty Life And Times’ where the backing vocals “sound like they are being done in somebody’s kitchen” and the “artistry jumps out at you like spring-loaded snakes from a gag jar of peanut brittle”, a line that could just as easily apply to Dylan’s writing.
Listening to Little Walter’s version of ‘Key To The Highway’, he gets to the heart of what was so great about the Charlie Parker of the gob iron. ‘Last Night’ “is perhaps the deepest vocal in the whole Chess catalogue”. In Walter’s updated version of Big Bill Broonzy’s song, “the key to the highway is the key to the cosmos, and the song moves in and out of that realm.” If that’s not enough to make you want to hear the song again then there’s this, “Little Walter did not call himself the Back Door Man and he didn’t dig nineteen-year-old chicks. Out of all the artists on Chess he might have been the only one with real substance.” You might not agree with that, and I don’t, but you can tut and shake the head while still admiring the way he says it.
Johnny Paycheck was “the outlaw that all other country singers claimed to be.” George Jones and Waylon Jennings might have been born with their names but Paycheck, according to Dylan, had to sign in with a different one to have any chance of outpacing the demons trying to run him down. The recollection of Paycheck performing ‘Old Violin’, a song he wrote in prison while he was waiting to hear if the governor was going to pardon him, lifts a great song even higher. “The extended metaphor of obsolescence, of the final go-round is so vivid, yet so simple… we all feel the pathos.”
Alchemy At Breakneck Speed
The Philosophy Of Modern Song is marbled with moments like these, where songs prompt Dylan to delve into his great store of knowledge and memory, musical or otherwise. His examination of Foster’s ‘Nelly Was A Lady’ will touch anyone who has felt grief’s cold hand, and he uses Edwin Starr’s ‘War’ to launch a treatise on conflict, digging up obscure figures like two-time Medal Of Honour recipient Smedley D. Butler with his assertion that ‘War Is A Racket’ before making his way to the Bush presidential dynasty. He can even, and this is a good trick, convince you that “bluegrass is the other side of heavy metal” while listening to The Osbourne Brothers’ “Ruby, Are You Mad?’, a “song close to alchemy at breakneck speed”. They are two forms tied to tradition. People still dress like Bill Monroe and Ronnie James Dio. Your head nods in agreement.
I have no desire to hear Santana’s ‘Black Magic Woman’ again but when Bob puts it on, his mind alights on Leigh Brackett, a pulp writer that Howard Hawks hired to help out with The Big Sleep. She went on to work on Rio Bravo and competed the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back just before her death. From her he connects to the mystery of music itself, and the argument that the more you study it the less you understand it, before swinging back around to the song.
Don’t like The Eagles? Neither do I but Bob can extrapolate out from their ‘Witchy Woman’ to Madame Marie Laveau , the Witch Queen of New Orleans, inadvertently giving birth to her hometown’s souvenir industry. Do you want to know why Joe Satriani could have never joined Hank Williams and The Drifting Cowboys? Are you curious about the magic of Jimmy Reed where “you feel you can see the light hitting the dust as it swirls under the sway of the music”. Would you like to discover more in Marty Robbins' ‘El Paso’ then you could have previously imagined? Or perhaps you’re interested in the real reason Dylan stays out on the road and would like to hear it from the horse’s mouth while Willie Nelson’s ‘On The Road Again’ plays in the background? Then form an orderly queue.
With his last paragraph in what could, at a push, pass as Chronicles: Volume Two - insights are there, but you'll have to dig - Dylan gets as close as makes no odds to capturing what it is about music that captivates us so.
“… so it is with music, it is of a time but also timeless; a thing with which to make memories and the memory itself. Though we seldom consider it, music is built in time as surely as a sculptor or welder works in physical space. Music transcends time by living within it.”
Imagine being invited to Dylan’s house for dinner or asked if you fancied a few drinks backstage. In reality, mere mortals would bumble and splutter but The Philosophy Of Modern Song is the conversation we might hope we would have.
The Philosophy Of Modern Song by Bob Dylan is published by Simon & Schuster