The Philosophy of Modern Song

The Philosophy of Modern Song



The Pequod Review:

Bob Dylan's first book since winning the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature is a freewheeling delight — an expansive and impressionistic review of sixty-six modern songs. The songs chosen by Dylan are broadly from the rock genre, but include everything from Roy Orbison ("Blue Bayou") and Little Richard ("Tutti Frutti") to Johnny Cash ("Don't Take Your Guns to Town") and Nina Simone ("Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood"). Here is his exuberant review of Elvis Costello's "Pump It Up":

This song speaks new speak. It’s the song you sing when you’ve reached the boiling point. Tense and uneasy, comes with a discount — with a lot of give-a-way stuff. And you’re going to extend that stuff till it ruptures and splits into a million pieces. You never look back you look forward, you’ve had a classical education, and some on the job training. You’ve learned to look into every loathsome nauseating face and expect nothing.

You live in a world of romance and rubble, and you roam the streets at all hours of the night. You’ve acquired things and brought people the goods.

It’s not like you have a promising future. 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. You thought she was heaven and life everlasting, but she was just strong willed and determined — turned you into a synthetic and unscrupulous person. Now you’ve come to the place where you’re going to blow things up, puncture it, shoot it down.

This song is in full swing. The one-two punch, the uppercut, and the wallop, then get out quick and make tracks. You broke the commandments and cheated. Now you’ll have to back down, capitulate and turn in your resignation.

What is it about you anyway? You want to boost everything up, exaggerate it, until you can grip it and fondle it.

Why does it all seem so crooked and hush hush?

Why all the trivial talk and yakety yak?

Why all the monotonous and lifeless music that plays inside your head?

And what about that little she goat that won’t go away? You want to maim and mangle her. You want to see her in agony, and you want to blow this whole thing up until it’s swollen, where you’ll run your hands all over and squeeze it till it collapses.

This song is brainwashed, and comes to you with a lowdown dirty look, exaggerates and amplifies itself until you can flesh it out, and it suits your mood. This song has a lot of defects, but it knows how to conceal them all.

I also liked his perspective on the Grateful Dead:

The Grateful Dead are not your usual rock and roll band. They’re essentially a dance band. They have more in common with Artie Shaw and bebop than they do with the Byrds or the Stones. Whirling dervish dancers are as much a part of their music as anything else. There is a big difference in the types of women that you see from the stage when you are with the Stones compared to the Dead. With the Stones it’s like being at a porno convention. With the Dead, it’s more like the women you see by the river in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? Free floating, snaky and slithering like in a typical daydream. Thousands of them. With most bands the audience participates like in a spectator sport. They just stand there and watch. They keep a distance. With the Dead, the audience is part of the band — they might as well be on the stage.

The Dead are from a different world than their contemporaries. Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother, all of them together wouldn’t even make a part of the Dead. What makes them essentially a dance band probably begins with the jazz classical bassist, Phil Lesh, and the Elvin Jones–influenced Bill Kreutzmann. Lesh is one of the most skilled bassists you’ll ever hear in subtlety and invention. And combined with Kreutzmann, this rhythm section is hard to beat. That rhythm section along with elements of traditional rock and roll and American folk music is what makes the Dead unsurpassable. Combined with their audience, it’s like one big free-floating ballet. Three main singers, two drummers and triple harmonies make this band difficult to compete with. A postmodern jazz musical rock and roll dynamo.

Then there’s Bob Weir. A very unorthodox rhythm player. Has his own style, not unlike Joni Mitchell but from a different place. Plays strange, augmented chords and half chords at unpredictable intervals that somehow match up with Jerry Garcia — who plays like Charlie Christian and Doc Watson at the same time. All that and an in-house writer-poet, Robert Hunter, with a wide range of influences — everyone from Kerouac to Rilke — and steeped in the songs of Stephen Foster. This creates a wide range of opportunities for the Dead to play almost any kind of music and make it their own.

“Truckin’” is one of their signature songs and lyrically it combines the goings-on of a wild and wide world. The Doo Dah man even appears in this song. “I came down south with my hat caved in.” This could easily be a Dead song from one hundred years earlier.

When you go to a Dead concert you are right there in Pirate Alley on the Barbary Coast, right there by the San Francisco Bay. At any time you could drop through a trapdoor into a rowboat and be shanghaied to China and not even know it. This song, even though it lists some cities, has very little to do with Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land,” Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street,” or even Hank Snow’s “I’ve Been Everywhere.” This song is all on the same street. Chicago, New York, Detroit, New Orleans, Houston, Buffalo. It’s all the same main street. Long before America had actually transformed itself into the same sprawling mall.

Sometimes he gets carried away with himself, but even then he writes in electric prose; here for example is his review of Warren Zevon's "Dirty Life and Times":

The song of the wretch, the contaminated life — a song that corrupts itself and corrupts others — a deathbed confession. Your free lovin’ days are winding down and in the bag. You’ve lived a life of excess, too much soft living. An obstinate life, unhampered by constraint, you’re settling things up and packing it in.

You couldn’t tolerate being told what to do, not even if it was for your own good, couldn’t endure any command, you had your own ideas. Always liked whores and shenanigans better than hard work and glory, you were full of energy and fucked with horsepower. You were the wise man, the guru, the shaman who wears the toga at the Mazola party. The reprobate with the fancy talk who hits everybody up for whatever they have, telling everybody more than they want to know. You were bad as can be and something awful — fantasy heartthrob of every woman, and the horned bull hero of every man, the mad doctor who sucks the milk of wisdom from the nurses. You’re the tomcat with the stiff penis who pisses gold urine and brings ripples of excitement to stodgy old lives, paid your bills with bouncy checks, gives everyone who tries to help you a tongue lashing.

Surrounded yourself with goons and other shitheads, who helped you stay out of jail and that’s how things were — that’s not even the least of it. You swung from one tree to another, had your bread buttered on both sides, the hell-raiser whose wife wrote you off, but you didn’t notice. You were up the street fucking your brains out, with a woman that was hardly anything, on a tiger skin rug, smoking the water pipe.

Now you’re looking for the next woman, poorly made, someone with a heart of gold, a real humdinger, pompous and arrogant. Someone to drag you further on into your dingy life. A woman you can cherish and who’ll kiss your ass, and if you can’t get her you’ll get her blood relative. You’re as crude as can be, world weary and bored to tears. Your entire life has been too much of a good thing, one orgy after another, depending on how far back you want to go.

Now your body is failing — losing fire and virility — there’s an empty space at the center of yourself. You’re saying a long farewell to greatness, piling the ashes of your life into the corner. In view of all this you still have the backbone and audacity to look the endgame straight in the eye and carry on with bravado. Untroubled and tough as nails, you’re not mournful or morose, you’re standing tall, cool, still gritty and filled with spunk. You’re lifting up a life that’s been shot full of holes, going for broke this time, undaunted and unafraid.

This is a song with head turning beauty. This is a daredevil of a song.

This is a great record, but it’s not the Warren we usually know from “Werewolves of London” and things like “Poor Poor Pitiful Me.” This is a different voice, but just as authentic. Listen to the harmony vocals on this record. They sound like they are being done in somebody’s kitchen. Totally unrehearsed and funky as ever. You don’t hear harmony voices like this on too many records. It is a hell of a performance and that includes everybody playing on it. Not one note misplaced; from the guitar player to the bass player. The content of this song is what it’s all about and it’s delivered in its most accurate way.

The braggadocio, the swagger and strut of early Warren is long gone. But unlike in most cases where that’s all the guy’s got to give and when that’s gone, he’s gone, Warren still can get it out there. He shows you the other side and it’s just as strong.

The braggart, the roué, the ironic observer, and the inebriated fool were all roles Zevon chose to play in his songs. And possibly at times in his life. But stripped to the bone, as in this song, the artistry jumps out at you like spring-loaded snakes from a gag jar of peanut brittle.

Being a writer is not something one chooses to do. It’s something you just do and sometimes people stop and notice. Warren was a writer till the very end.

But the writing part only was there to serve his brilliant piano playing. In other words, Warren’s lyrics and piano playing were two parts of the same thing.

That’s Ry Cooder playing here, and Ry Cooder is a man with a mission. There was no road map when he was trying to figure the connection between Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Alfred Reed, the place where conjunto met the gutbucket blues, where even a jake-leg could do a cakewalk.

Ry lived it and breathed it, learning at the feet of the masters and carrying the knowledge like seeds from region to region. He improved every record he ever played on and many that he didn’t.

The passage above is the totality of his entry on Zevon's song and it highlights another strength of the book — it is told in short 750-1,000 word essays that make for perfect reading while you are listening to the song play once or twice in the background. (And it also means the weaker entries are over before you can get too annoyed.) The Philosophy of Modern Song may not have the depth of Chronicles, Vol. 1 (2004) but it's another essential slice of Americana as only Bob Dylan could tell it.