Monday, November 21, 2022

Dylan in Winter, Part I: The Philosophy of Modern Song

Bob Dylan performing in stage in Los Angeles in 2012. (Photo: Chris Pizzello)

I.

Each of the 66 chapters in Bob Dylan’s The Philosophy of Modern Song (Simon & Schuster; 339 pp.) is devoted to a single musical composition, and almost all are split into two parts—a second-person monologue, which reviewers are calling a “riff,” inspired by the song; and a slightly more sober and pedantic critical-historical essay. The playlist (obscure Fifties rock, some R&B and soul, a lot of country, some European imports, pages from the Great American Songbook) is various and appears whimsical. Many songs seem selected as the excuse for some tangent—on money, drugs, women, crime, divorce, our treatment of the elderly—that Dylan has been wanting to deliver. Everyone knows his head is stuffed with songs, and these only scratch the surface of the surface. On a different day he’d surely list other songs, launch other tangents.

The riffs find Dylan inhabiting a song as its second voice, alternately sympathetic and taunting, speaking truth to a protagonist who is always identified as “you.” Most are written in a noir-speak familiar from Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour podcasts; divested of his vocal delivery, the style is often just dull—someone laying back too comfortably into something that comes too easily. In another nod to Theme Time, some riffs list the folk beliefs, sayings, and songs that exist around household objects (keys, shoes). Occasionally a nice Chandleresque line surfaces (“Like a lot of small men, he was wrapped tighter than the inside of a golf ball and hit just about as often”), while the more rhapsodic riffs often read like Nik Cohn’s captions for the Rock Dreams of Guy Peellaert, assigning cosmic proportion to pop ephemera: Carl Perkins’s blue suede shoes “can foretell the future, locate lost objects, treat illnesses, identify perpetrators of crimes, all that and more.”

Only a few riffs score as organic pieces, memorable apart from construct and conceit. The one on Webb Pierce’s “There Stands the Glass” has the sordid kick of the sick-fantasy interludes in Nick Tosches’s Country (1977). For The Who’s “My Generation,” Dylan provides a redundant précis of the song’s self-apparent text—then pulls an astonishing turnabout: “In reality, you’re an eighty-year-old man, being wheeled around in a home for the elderly, and the nurses are getting on your nerves. You say why don’t you all just fade away. You’re in your second childhood, can’t get a word out without stumbling and dribbling.” Has Dylan rewritten this song for all time, at least in my head? Perchance. “The atmosphere around you is exploding into pieces,” runs the riff for The Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion.” “More brutality more bloodshed, mob rule patrolling the streets. It’s grossing you out and making your flesh crawl. Sonny and Cher are in your ear as well, and the beat doesn’t stop. Besides that, your wallet is missing.” The hilarity and anxiety mount, the debris grazes your scalp, and you pray to “the great Googa Mooga,” which is both a Fifties exclamation meant to express awe and a novelty song once recorded by numerous Black vocal groups. If Jordon Peele filmed a Coasters record, this would be the scenario.

When it comes to the essays, some read as if written by their own clichés—but damned if Dylan couldn’t do straight cultural studies if he wanted to. (“It was in this context that Brackett presaged the third of Arthur C. Clarke’s three laws of science fiction .  .  .”). He has read his critics, taken what he needed, and left the rest. “Truckin’” inspires a subtle breakdown of The Grateful Dead’s eclecticism and musical depth, convincing so long as you don’t test it against their records. The invisible yet palpable line connecting Uncle Dave Macon to Chuck Berry is critical fly-fishing at its best: “The invention of language, from ‘ham of meat’ to ‘coolerator,’ is evident in both. The blip/zip of gun to bullet is echoed in the ‘bolt of thunder and streak of heat’ in Chuck’s ‘Jo Jo Gunne’ . . . So, is Uncle Dave Macon rock and roll? No more and no less than Chuck Berry.” The abundant cultural arcana that fills out the essays goes from simple facts (the invention of Velcro) to trickier ones: The Platters’ “My Prayer” began as “an instrumental crafted in 1926 by a French salon violinist with the title ‘Avant de mourir,’ which translates to ‘before dying.’” That Dylan doesn’t hesitate to apply to other artists the same sort of biographical interpretation he has always resented critics applying to him is a thing to be noted with some irony.

The essays are far more successful than the riffs at fixing on precise ideas and themes, at luring out a song’s dark associations and intriguing connections. “Mack the Knife” posits Frank Sinatra as the Italian Catholic superstar-crooner who was, while tracking Bobby Darin as the one who could never be—the shadow of Sinatra’s success, the flesh of his own failure. “This song is the grinning skull” is how Dylan introduces “The Whiffenpoof Song” (Bing Crosby’s is the credited version), and you may need a moment to recall that, yes, the Whiffenpoofs are the a cappella group of Yale University, home of Skull and Bones, the Ivy League’s most infamous secret society, seedbed of the CIA and who knows what other unholy fellowships. Ignoring The Drifters altogether, Dylan uses their hit “Saturday Night at the Movies” to write about the movies, and the moviegoing experience, of his youth. (The illustration, a Weegee photograph shot with infrared light in a WWII movie house, shows a sailor boy mauling some poor faceless girl.) The chapter on Johnny Paycheck’s “Old Violin”—no wise-guy riff at all, only direct response, sincere description—may be the best one of all.

Graphically, the book has the flash of a thing that knows everyone who sees it will want to look through it. The cover bears a beautifully ambisexual 1957 image of package-tour bedfellows Little Richard, Eddie Cochran, and Alis Lesley (a rockabilly gamin known as “the female Elvis Presley”). Inside is a feast of colorful imagery and creative layout combining a folklore treasury, a history of commercial photography, and a 1955 Sears Roebuck catalog. There are vintage images of Hollywood stars, peepshows, circus acts, neon streets. There are some sweet juxtapositions (“Tutti Frutti” next to Carmen Miranda at her fruitiest). Some photos function, two-dimensionally enough, as visual puns—Jack Ruby’s mugshot illustrating The Osborne Brothers’ “Ruby Are You Mad?”; chanteuse Julie London with telephone for, you guessed it, The Clash’s “London Calling.” (Great song, but was it chosen to justify the photo?) Sometimes an image’s visual mystery resides not in meaning but in context. A smiling woman of color receives a fat spread of greenbacks from two suited, horn-rimmed white guys in a Sixties office; no hint of who they are, but the portrait on the wall shows John V. Lindsey, mayor of New York from 1966 to 1973. Another photo, looking like early-Forties Manhattan, shows a record-store shopfront from across a midday street. Several men walk past, but a solitary woman is walking in. Less than “Who was she?” you may wonder: What was she looking for? What did she find?

Many photos emphasize the mechanical aspect of “modern song”—microphones, marquees, advertising, and especially the manufacturing, selling, and purchasing of records. The book is proudly vinyl-centric (it begins and ends in record shops), although radio, the other dominant medium of Dylan’s generation, is likewise privileged over later technologies. So much of the imagery reaches back for some mirage of midcentury Americana, even if several of the songs discussed come from other lands. Photos are full-page, half-page, color, black and white, sepia-toned or tinted; people in motion, people posed; movie stills, magazine covers, record sleeves. And in the blank spaces, printed too small and pale for easy reading, a plethora of advertisements from old newspapers and trade rags, reminiscent of similar items in Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music booklet. The ads exploit the aspiration of non-musicians to become musicians—to sing, play, entertain, express; they promise refunds if not satisfied, with seven days the universal deadline for results. No talent required. “SURE ROUTE TO HAPPY-LAND.”

Dylan never directly lays out the “philosophy” of the title, but you can try assembling one from stray pieces. Crucial to it, we must assume, is an ethic of personal response and interpretation: “It’s what a song makes you feel about your own life that’s important.” The “philosophical point of view” of one song is said to be simply this: “Keep moving .  .  . Let’s go. Let’s go forever. Let’s go till the glacial age returns.” That might be it: Keep moving. Modern song is the bottomless basket, the everything and anything, with every pop song implying or touching every other, some strand of living tissue shooting from Bing Crosby across to Pete Townshend, from Uncle Dave Macon to the Italian guy who first sang “Volare.” The modern song is always aslant, it ducks here and darts there, hides behind B-movie furniture or desert rock, speeds down the highway or across the sky. Never predictable in its trajectory, never soft in its landing. Keep moving. That “philosophy,” which seems validly applied to the oceanic expanse that is popular song, also makes sense applied to Dylan’s whole career, which has been built around it.

Reading his memoir, Chronicles, Volume One, when it came out in 2004, I felt Dylan had reached for, and risen to, the level of a great American literary and folk archetype—the crank. The grizzled poet-bullshitter, as famous as Walt Whitman and as obscure as the town hermit, who has seen it all, and in the right mood might tell you about it. In the mind and mouth of the crank, direct reference and abstract memory come together; words don’t define or even express, they bloom and bounce. Scenes unfold, cryptic and teeming. Chronicles read like the oral history of a man in late middle age who was still capable of amazement and delight, for whom the world had only gotten bigger, the darkness more alive with the distant peckings of birds. The Philosophy of Modern Song is the work of that same crank nearly twenty years on, now embittered and gasping for joy. Whatever this book’s minor graces or true philosophy, the whole settles in the mind and stomach as a compendium of rants, ravings, declamations, denunciations, complaints, and cavils—as well as stories and enthusiasms. And at some point, those crankier impulses, not merely starved for but opposed to joy, begin to take on critical mass. They agglomerate into a dominant voice, the voice speaks a mind, and the mind sucks up every generosity that has been tangible or possible in the pages. After greeting us in air and space, the bright overland of commerce and congress, the crank goes inside and betakes himself to the basement; you aren’t aware until halfway down the stairs, when the dankness fills your nostrils, that he’s been leading you there too.

 

Elvis Costello performing in 2018. (Photo: Tabatha Fireman)

II.

You can’t claim you were misled. The insults and offhand swipes have registered from the beginning. Of Elvis Costello, Dylan writes: “When you are writing songs with Burt Bacharach, you obviously don’t give a fuck what people think.” Which is a compliment to EC, and a back of the hand to Bacharach. Several darts are tossed at that easy collective target, the baby boomers, “the generation that thought they invented drug use,” which in an ecstasy of generational arrogance carried “picket signs against hatred and war. Well, that certainly ended that, thank you for your service.” There are numerous swipes at liberal ideology or lifestyle, or some cartooned aspect of same. Like some Beat poet of the Right, performing in shades and goatee at Tucker Carlson’s costume party, Dylan derides the “sociopolitical-humanitarian-snobby-foodie consumer .  .  . Enjoy your free-range, cumin-infused, cayenne-dusted heirloom reduction.” In a chapter on the Santee Dakota Indian activist and musician John Trudell, Dylan laments the white man’s history of slaughter and betrayal against American Indians, and then utters this: “People who go on nonstop about civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, animal rights and on and on need to take a look at what America has done to the people who were here from the beginning.” Does Dylan not perceive the multivalent foolishness and dishonesty of that? I think he does. But he’s cranky, he’s got a bad case of crotch-rot, and in this basement it’s getting dark, too dark to see.

It lands like a one-ton irony, then, when his essay on Edwin Starr’s “War” ends with this: “If the people we elect are sending people to their deaths or worse, sending other people half a world away—whom we never even consider because they don’t look like us or sound like us—to their deaths and we do nothing to stop it, aren’t we just as guilty? And if we want to see a war criminal all we have to do is look in the mirror.” Tough stuff—and straight out of the Sixties Peace Creep playbook, where it was inscribed by those “people who go on nonstop about civil rights,” et cetera. As in so many other places and times throughout his career, you may either take Dylan at his word, which puts him in direct contradiction with much that he says or implies elsewhere; or you may construct some twistier meaning which, rather than resolving the contradiction, elevates it to an art statement—often the same as concluding that it has no meaning at all. Good contradictions produce possibilities; Dylan’s cancel themselves out.

He scatters insults against other musicians, too, not just generations. These are often a form of zero-sum game, that tired resort of hacky critics and logical antithesis of all human decency. “Little Walter,” Dylan writes, “did not call himself the Back Door Man and he didn’t dig nineteen-year-old chicks. Out of all the artists on Chess [Records] he might have been the only one with real substance.” Which sweeps Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Etta James, Chuck Berry, Otis Rush, Albert King, Bo Diddley, Billy Stewart, Koko Taylor, and many others right off the table. Like Sam Cooke, Tony Williams of The Platters began in gospel and “took his spirituality with him into the pop world”; but as against Cooke, “you couldn't picture [Williams] getting shot, bare-naked in a motel room.” (As if a belief in God were any guarantee against unsavory outcomes on the temporal plane.)

Dylan’s misogyny is both alarming and dispiritingly predictable. He not only repeats the defensive know-nothingisms of male chauvinists who haven’t won Nobel Prizes, he also builds on every anti-feminist aspect of his own music. (You may realize, at some point in this book, how fond he has been since his Christian conversion of the word “harlot.”) Dylan’s 66 performers include just four women—Cher, Rosemary Clooney, Judy Garland, and Nina Simone; his comments on their artistry are crowded into single paragraphs in essays otherwise devoted to the men who wrote the songs, or who made some history which Dylan associates with it. (The piece on Cher’s “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” says nothing about her singing, in fact closes with a paean to Sonny Bono for sponsoring, as a conservative representative from California, the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998—a significant blow to American folk culture, but a boon to songwriters with lucrative catalogs. Folk culture will recover, it always has.)

Upholding a linguistic convention that went out of date forty-odd years ago, Dylan presumes maleness to represent all people: “Folks from Trinidad to Atlanta, Georgia, sing of the benefits of making an ugly woman your wife and the cold hard facts of life.” The “you” to whom the riffs are addressed is invariably male, and the male often has a woman who needs—as Grady the ghost waiter of The Shining would say—“correcting.” Sympathizing with “you”’s romantic and sexual travails, Dylan, like Grady, whispers poison in his ear. Violence is sometimes necessary, inevitable: “And what about the little she goat that won’t go away? You want to maim and mangle her.” The chapter on Johnnie Taylor’s “Cheaper to Keep Her” really pours it on, starting with its illustrative still from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? of a sodden and pathetic Elizabeth Taylor pawing at a disgusted-looking Richard Burton. Dylan dances around the real issue, albeit cloddishly, before working up the requisite lather to unload on his ultimate target of the moment—“women’s rights crusaders and women’s lib lobbyists [who] take turns putting man back on his heels until he is pinned behind the eight ball dodging the shrapnel from the smashed glass ceiling.” The sentences which follow, meant as mitigation, are only a doubling down: another familiar tactic.

Dylan doesn’t heroize women who play the hellion and push the limit, as he does the outlaws of country or the redneck firecrackers of rockabilly. Women with that same hunger, who act on the same prerogatives, deserve what they get, and no funeral wreaths. Referencing the Salem witch trials, Dylan tells us that “there was extremism on both sides.” (And “very fine people,” he needn’t add.) The book’s imagery emphasizes woman as femme fatale, drunk, shrew, and vamp. Or angel, or maiden—but only sometimes, and those are hardly archetypes of freedom either. Brace yourself for Dylan’s riff on a certain Eagles hit: “The witchy woman is the homeless woman, the woman with the world view—the progressive woman—youthful, whimsical, and grotesque. The woman from the global village of nowhere—destroyer of cultures, traditions, identities, and deities. The lips of her cunt are a steel trap, and she covers you with cow shit . . .” It gets less offensive from there; how could it not?

Misogyny is inextricable in this book, as it often is in life, from religious zealotry. Dylan retains an Old Testament sense of right and wrong which he is determined to transport whole across the millennia, like the opera house dragged through the jungle in Fitzcarraldo. He sounds the sad plaint of the professional pietist who wants his Lord restored to the schools, the public square, television—anywhere others will have to live each day in its shadow: “One of the reasons people turn away from God is because religion is no longer in the fabric of their lives.” Yes, I suppose that might be one of the reasons; another might be that it so often comes in the form of male supremacists who spread shame and damnation wherever they go. Marriage in Dylan’s mind means “till death do us part. Right there is the reason that God-fearing members of the community regularly gave divorced folks the skunk-eye.” And were right to do so, he asserts without saying. All that matters is the institution of marriage, the holy principle; the miseries of those, usually women, who are entrapped by it—economically, culturally, physically—carry no evident weight with him, they are not real. Someone so willing to ignore or excoriate certain forms of human unhappiness shouldn’t reproach anyone for not bowing to his personal idol.

Once or twice, I felt I’d had enough. When Dylan averred that “a couple who has no children [are] not a family,” I wrote Fuck you, asshole in the margin and checked how many pages were left in the book. Then I remembered that in Chronicles he’d told someone, “I pray that I can be a kinder person.” We all fall short in the end, don’t we?

 

Bob Dylan, in 1968. (Photo: Elliot Landy)

III.

Any time a sentence in Philosophy begins with the word “Today,” get ready: Dylan is going to tell us how much better things were, back in whatever day he thinks they were better in. Once famous for saying, “It used to be like that, now it goes like this,” he’s been saying for many years now that he wants it to be like “that” again, that he’s had it with “this.” Waylon Jennings’s “I’ve Always Been Crazy” becomes the occasion for a sound-off on mental illness, its many dimensions and distinctions—too many, Dylan believes, though to say so “would be deemed politically incorrect.” Progress, he reckons, is good in the abstract, but “one of the potentially dangerous side effects is that as the field of knowledge gets wider our skin is stretched thinner.” Undeniable, and worth thinking about. But the thinking won’t be Dylan’s: he wants everything, including diagnostic guidelines for the treatment of mental and emotional disorders, returned to the maximal ideological comfort of a white Christian male whose values were formed before the progressive onslaught of whatever is currently the modern age. As for how to “make America great again” (yes, he uses that phrase), Dylan proposes Sonny Burgess’s 1957 rockabilly rave “Feel So Good” as some kind of conceptual model. The thing is, his riff has just rhapsodized the record as a rocket of lust, greed, and insatiable hunger, an ode to scorched earth and the glory of ripping out others’ guts in the name of instant personal gratification. Which it may well be—and great records can certainly be about that—but only a lunatic or MAGA goon would advance werewolf ethics as a social blueprint. Though, come to think of it, lust, greed, and insatiable hunger don’t unfairly characterize the American doctrine of Manifest Destiny; is that the connection we’re meant to be making? Doubtful. “This is the sound that made America great,” Dylan ends, with perfect solemnity.

It’s been instructive to watch the generation of Sixties rockers—Dylan’s generation—grow elderly. The universal leveling of decrepitude has brought them from mythic proportions to life size, if they weren’t there already. It turns out that rock stars, like anyone else on earth, get old, cranky, narrow-minded, truculent, and fearful: look at Eric Clapton and Van Morrison with their anti-vaxxing campaigns. They decide they’re fed up with others’ sensitivities; they play with the idea of closing down, crumpling inward, becoming a paper bag. To the extent that these or similar evolutions are manifested in The Philosophy of Modern Song, they can be understood as a new installment in the contrarian project that has been Bob Dylan’s entire career. Going electric, going country, going Christian; performing in leathers, whiteface, and sequins; recreating his classics as breakneck barnstormers, here and gone so fast that few in his audience knew what they just heard. But they can also be understood as the full emergence of the social reactionary that has always lived in Dylan, and that he has never worked very hard to disguise. (1968: “Anyway, how do you know I’m not, as you say, for the war?” 2004: “My favorite politician was Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, who reminded me of Tom Mix.”)

Whatever is the case, Dylan means to provoke. And does. There’s poison in this book, and if you’re reading it, you’re drinking it. To keep from swallowing it, you need to spit it back in the form of complaint, question, dialogue. You need to consider that words might mean what they say. You need to grapple with the possibility that the great Bob (“Blowin’ in the Wind”) Dylan, like Atticus Finch, may have aged into a wretched bigot. Or—worse in a way? better?—that he is merely playing that role in this book, thus to extend a career-long compulsion to alienate the affections of his audience, leave turds for his followers to step in.

As Dylan writes on an early page, “Art is an argument.” So let me close out my half of this one. The Philosophy of Modern Song is, both cumulatively and in many of its parts, ugly, hostile, bellicose, and tiresome. Its impetus is not to broaden and deepen but to scold and exclude. It takes more than it gives, and it doesn’t earn the depth of indulgence required to rationalize or minimize that fact. Chronicles was, and is, a great folk book. It’s a serious book, and a comical one; it cares about facts, but can’t help lying; up to its neck in the past, it has arms and legs that swing free in the present. It is a great folk book because it asks you inside: it opens itself to anyone who opens it. Philosophy is likewise a folk book, but one written by a different kind of American crank—Cotton Mather, say—and its openness is an illusion, a trap. Instead of a room filled with books and windows and furniture and warmth, it is a dank, musty enclosure inhabited by an old man who nurses resentments and clutches his piece of the past like a flag. Only gradually do you realize that his mutterings have become rants, or that the gnarled hand that once molded memories and shaped stories has become a finger pointed at others. Yet you listen, because—because he is Dylan. You shift in your seat, roll your eyes at the outrageous remarks, but you stay with him.

And eventually you see that he has, this whole time, been walling the two of you up together, like damned souls in a Poe story. Closing Chronicles, you walked away breathing fresh air; everything around you felt bigger, more interesting. This book you close with a gasp of relief and the taste of mortar in your mouth, as if having escaped a shrinking room through the last remaining rectangle of daylight. Some people, both less turned off than I by Dylan’s bile and more invested in defending his monumentality, will gaslight themselves and others by making The Philosophy of Modern Song appear, or seem, the exact opposite of what it appears and seems to be. I choose to pay Dylan the respect of believing that he does not talk falsely. Which might make me the biggest fool of all—but I’d rather be a free-breathing fool than a walled-up sucker.

Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics At Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is devinmckinney.com.

 

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