The title of the new book of Bob Dylanthe first published by the Minnesota singer-songwriter since in 2016 he was distinguished with the Nobel Prize for Literature, it’s a lie. Philosophy of modern song, is named. Actually, in this collection of 66 short essays on as many musical pieces there is very little philosophy (what Dylan cares to share with the world about the process of writing or performing songs is almost negligible) and even fewer modern songs: of the 66 titles chosen, only two were written in this century, and their authors John Trudell and Warren Zevon are no longer even with us to thank for the recognition.
Illustrated with a rich panoply of great pictures whose relationship with the compositions analyzed is often beyond the reader’s comprehension (portraits of artists, advertising posters, stills from films, landscapes, comic strips and iconic images by photographers such as Dorothea Lange and William Klein), the book is far from give what its title promises, but that does not mean that what it offers is not equally valuable. With its array of keen musings, wry observations, hallucinatory digressions, historical notes, hyperbolic similes, and epigrams sharp as a trapper’s knife (“gypsies, vagabonds, and thieves” might very well be the answer to the question: ‘Name three kinds of people? with whom you would like to go out to dinner’& rdquor;), Philosophy of modern song provides a strange but fascinating immersion into the dylanian worldthat landscape of impenetrable darkness illuminated fleetingly by bursts of writing of blinding brilliance.
A singer who “was everyone”
After working on it for more than a decade, Dylan doesn’t even bother to explain the reason for the book or the criteria he followed to choose the songs, if there were any beyond personal whim.
With very few exceptions, the team is american to the marrow and premium the genres that were already in vogue when Robert Zimmerman had his first teeth as a musician in his days as a student at Hibbing High School: blues, countryprimal folk, rockabilly, bluegrass… There’s also a generous space set aside for pre-pop era standards and for crooners like Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Perry Como, Vic Damone and, twice, Bobby Darin, whom he considers “the most ductile & rdquor; of all the singers of his time. “The guy was everyone, if he was anyone,” he says of him.
As usually happens in this type of work, the most striking are the absences. On the list The Beatles do not appear (who made some contribution to the concept of modern song) neither the Rolling Stones nor any other British group of the 60s with the sole exception of the Who, to whose hymn my generation Dylan dedicates a very peculiar gloss to it that opens with a phrase to frame: “This is a song that doubts everything and does nobody any favors& rdquor ;. my generation is one of the four non-American songs included in a catalog of 66. The other three are two English (Pump It Upby Elvis Costello, and London Callingfrom The Clash) and an Italian (I will fly, by Domenico Modugno). In his writing about the latter, Dylan assures that “there is something extremely liberating in listening to a song in a language you don’t understand & rdquor ;. It is not something that he took into account when making the selection.
Where are the women?
The other great deficit of Philosophy of modern song is the ridiculous female presence. Of the 66 recordings he refers to, only four are performed by women: Gypsies, Tramps & Thievesfrom Cher; Come On A My Houseby Rosemary Clooney; Come Rain Or Come Shineby Judy Garland, and Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstoodd, by Nina Simone. The meager quota is aggravated by the inclusion of some somewhat extemporaneous reflections, such as the author’s defense of prostitution –“When you pay for sex with money, that is perhaps the cheapest price that exists& rdquor;- and polygamy: “What downtrodden woman, without a future, beaten by the whims of a cruel society, would not be better off as one of the wives of a rich man? Properly maintained instead of alone on the street at the expense of government aid& rdquor;.
In Dylan’s defense, it can be said that the entire book seems written from temporal and geographical coordinates in which statements like these should not cause the slightest surprise. A time and place where mothers warned their daughters that a man’s shoes say a lot about him and country singers rode lawnmowers to the liquor store because their wives hid their car keys.
It is not strange that almost half of the songs dissected here (28) belong to the 50s, the time when teenager Robert Zimmerman decided to change his name after discovering, in this order, blues, country, rock and roll, folk and poetry. That is, the world.
a long decline
Judging by the content of Philosophy Of Modern Song, it would seem that everything that has come since has been a long and inexorable decline. “Rock and roll went from being a brick against a window to being the status quo: from the slicks in leather jackets that made rockabilly records to the Kiss-monogram belt buckles they sell in malls or stickers with the motto Thug Life. Music is relegated to the background while bureaucrats constantly reassess the risk-reward ratio of popular taste & rdquor ;, writes Dylan in the chapter dedicated to Poison Lovethe first single from the Tennessee duo Johnnie & Jack.
To the 81 years old, Bob Dylan is decidedly a man from another era who doesn’t mind displaying his anachronismperhaps because he knows that, in the end, his genius ends up redeeming him. And he is right. It is difficult not to succumb, for example, to the atomic torrent of images that the author chains on account of the long live las vegas by Elvis Presley. Or not laugh at the parallels that Dylan draws between bluegrass and heavy metal, “two musical forms that haven’t changed visually or aurally in decades& rdquor; (from the fast-paced Osborne Brothers classic Ruby, Are you mad?, from 1956, writes: “This is speed metal without the embarrassment of Lycra leotards and adolescent satanism& rdquor;). Or not admire his audacity when, when talking about the Blue Suede Shoes by Carl Perkins, notes: “These shoes are powerful. They can predict the future, find lost objects, cure illnesses, identify criminals, and more.”
In the end, the new book by the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature (the first he has published since Chronicles. Volume 1of 2004) holds very few revelations but is a source of much joy and wonder. He says it himself, with his ancient wisdom: “The stories are simple. We know them all. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy steals a piece of bread. Chico is gunned down in the town square. Girl kills boy’s wife. Chico grows up looking for the murderer of his father. Girl marries boy. Chico sets fire to the town & rdquor ;. The stories are always the same, yes. The important thing is how they are counted. And no one tells them better than Bob Dylan.
‘Philosophy of modern song’
Publication date: November 30
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The modern song, according to Bob Dylan: American, masculine… and very little modern