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The Omnivorous Reader

Finding Dylan

A riddle wrapped in a rhyme

By Stephen E. Smith

At 3 o’clock on an August afternoon in 1965, I climbed into a VW bug with two high school buds and blasted up the 200-plus miles of interstate to New York’s Greenwich Village. We‘d been listening to “Like a Rolling Stone” that summer, and we were determined to find Bob Dylan. We were confident he’d be hanging out in the Village, and as we milled about on the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal, I asked a bohemian passerby where Dylan was performing. He laughed in my face. “Good luck finding that guy,” he said.

Like most of my generation, I’ve been half-heartedly looking for Dylan ever since.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? Who is Bob Dylan, and why have we been talking about him for the last six decades? I’ve listened to most of his recordings, watched Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home multiple times and read books by and about Dylan. I’ve even seen him in concert. Now there’s a new book, The Philosophy of Modern Song, supposedly penned by the man himself, and the search continues.

Since Dylan is credited as the author, The Philosophy of Modern Song is an instant bestseller and there are reviews galore in magazines, newspapers, and online that will tell you exactly what you want to hear about the enigmatic songwriter’s literary efforts. But before committing myself to read all 350 pages, I had to be convinced that it was written by Dylan. After all, the guy has been known to mess with us. There were accusations that he borrowed lines in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech from Melville and a brouhaha about autopen-signed copies of the new book. So I plowed through the first five chapters, reread parts of Dylan’s Chronicles and watched the Scorsese film, paying attention to Dylan’s language patterns. And, yeah, what’s written in the book sounds like Dylan. His name is on the dust jacket. I trust Simon & Schuster. Dylan wrote the book.

Here’s what you need to know. First, there’s not an iota of philosophy in The Philosophy of Modern Song. If you’re looking for philosophical thought, pick up a copy of The Essential Kierkegaard. Dylan is all about pop music, and in this latest offering, he’s simply chosen songs about which he’s passionate and written semi-expository/semi-poetic essays (I use the terms “essay” and “poetic” loosely) to accompany the songs. He’s no great shakes as a prose stylist, but he makes up for his lack of finesse with unbridled enthusiasm. He’s fervent about the songs he likes (or loves) and he tells the reader why in a torrent of bewildering but compelling prose. 

Dylan has chosen more than 60 popular songs, and in chapters ranging in length from a few hundred to 3,000 words, he lauds the composers, singers and musicians who created the recordings. It’s impossible to identify a dominant musical style in Dylan’s selection — pop, rock, country, R&B, folk, jazz, soul, rockabilly, gospel, etc. — all are represented. And there’s a mishmash of performers — Bing Crosby, The Fugs, Elvis Presley, Perry Como, Webb Pierce, Tommy Edwards, Vic Damone, Dean Martin, Little Walter, Ernie K-Doe, Charlie Poole, Ricky Nelson. He is, as pop-culture aficionados are wont to say, all over the musical map.

Dylan’s essays follow no discernable pattern. He’s occasionally analytical but more often gushes torrents of expressionistic prose that imperturbable readers are left to interpret. Uncle Dave Mason’s enchanting “Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy,” originally released as a single almost a century ago, is typical of Dylan’s approach to explicating a song.

“In this song your self-identities are interlocked, every one of you is a dead ringer for the other. You’re the Dalai Lama, the Black Monk and the Thief of Baghdad all rolled into one, and the whole world is your city. You’re prowling and shoplifting, going down the East End, back where you came from, to the wilderness and brush — back to Chinatown and Little Italy — saddlebags full of barley and cornbread, rosemary and ivy, and sides of bacon in your pocket. You’re unmuzzled and unleashed, nightwalkin’ up the crooked way, the Royal Road, stealing turkey legs and anything sweet and spicy, roaming through the tobacco fields like Robin Hood, broiling and braising everything in sight.”

Occasionally, Dylan steps from behind his curtain of words and lapses into playfully preposterous insights. He claims Marty Robbins’ classic “El Paso” is a song about genocide; he attacks the divorce business; and lauds Nudie Suits and the supernatural powers of blue suede shoes.

When explicating Waylon Jennings’ “I’ve Always Been Crazy,” he dredges up a piece of history as a metaphor: “. . . and the individual peculiarities of the human condition are sliced as thin as a serving of potato during the Great Irish Famine of the 1840s. Which some people will, no doubt, also view as politically incorrect caricature even though the potato was a cheap staple of the Irish population and was decimated by a fungus that destroyed half the crop in 1845.”

This didactic passage isn’t necessary — anyone who reads Dylan is probably familiar with the Irish Potato Famine — but Dylan can’t abandon his clever illustration and goes on to mix the metaphor with drugs, rabbit meat and buckshot: “People try different ways to insulate themselves as their nerves are rubbed raw — there are various mood-altering substances, some self-prescribed, others classified by the government and only available by prescription. None of these are precise — they are more akin to buckshot than to a sniper’s bullet.”

In the final analysis, we should simply step back and consider Dylan’s jumbled Kerouac-ish prose as one might behold Picasso’s Guernica, not so much as individual lines of text but as a holistic composition, an attempt to transfer emotion and energy without the encumbrance of form.

Even if you’re not a Bob Dylan fan — and there are a lot of you out there — you can make The Philosophy of Modern Song an entertaining and enlightening read. Here’s what you should do. Make sure your smart speaker has a subscription to a streaming music service such as Spotify, Amazon Music, Apple Music, etc., then kick back in your easy chair and start reading Dylan’s chapter on Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City.” Call up the song on your speaker. Read along to the music. Dylan’s wry, incongruous humor will impregnate your cerebrum.  OH

Stephen E. Smith is a retired professor and the author of seven books of poetry and prose. He’s the recipient of the Poetry Northwest Young Poet’s Prize, the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Prize for poetry and four North Carolina Press Awards.