Review: The Philosophy of Modern Song by Bob Dylan

Did I think this was a transcendent work of indescribable genius? No, I did not. Did I think this was as good as Chronicles I? Nope, not that either. But it’s worth five stars because it is worth five stars to me, a lifelong Dylan fan, to know what Bob Dylan thinks about popular music and sundry other topics, ranging from the natural advantages of polygamy and the bland evil of divorce lawyers to the radical complicity of average citizens in war crimes, from the evolution of the “witchy woman” archetype to the disgrace of HUAC, from Tin Pan Alley to Laurel Canyon. It’s an enormous mess, a rambling assortment of insights and semi-fictionalized factoids. In other words, it’s classic Bob Dylan.

So what if some of the more fact-based passages (e.g., the list of classical compositions whose motifs were incorporated in famous pop songs) could have been (and quite possibly were) lifted more or less verbatim from Wikipedia pages and other public sources? Bob Dylan has the soul of a magpie. He understands that to be distinctively American is to be a gypsy, a tramp, and a thief (one of several songs he surprised me by writing about). 

I’m glad my generous friend Phoebe gave me the audiobook; I loaded the CDs into iTunes and, over a few weeks, listened to Bob Dylan read his own words, along with a weird but effective collection of guest readers, including Helen Mirren, Renée Zellweger, Jeffrey Wright, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Alfre Woodward, and Sissy Goddamn Spacek, of all people. I know there will be listeners who will want more of Bob’s voice than they get, but to me it made perfect sense to have such a diverse array of readers interpreting his sentences for him. That’s more or less the theme of the book: the philosophy of modern song, you might say. 

A great song inhabits a different space, or it creates a new world. It both exists within time and beyond it, in our minds, after it has transformed us. Dylan loves to quote Whitman’s iconic “I contain multitudes” line (which I understand, having fallen back on it many times myself when writing record reviews). He even wrote the song “I Contain Multitudes” a few years ago. He clearly dgaf if you think his intertextual approach is a form of cultural or artistic appropriation, and I guess when it comes right down to it, neither do I (sorry, anonymous Civil War poets et al.). If he’s a plagiarist, he’s the generous kind who returns on the intellectual-property investment tenfold. 

Love and theft indeed.

Goodreads review, January 23, 2023

Nietzsche, Strauss, Dylan

Among other things, Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra is the 19th-century version of  “Subterranean Homesick Blues”:

“Verily,” says Zarathustra to his flock, “I counsel you: go away from me and resist Zarathustra!…. Perhaps he deceived you. The man of knowledge must not only love his enemies but also be able to hate his friends…. You are my believers—but what matter all believers… All faith amounts to so little. Now I bid you to lose me and find yourselves.”

—Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

(From Digressions I Must Omit from my Program Notes, a work in progress)