The alchemy of listening

Published : Mar 23, 2023 10:35 IST - 11 MINS READ

Bob Dylan attempts to unravel the mystery of a song—what it is that makes it survive and connect with listeners.

For the best possible experience with Bob Dylan’s latest book The Philosophy of Modern Song, the following procedure may be applied: First make a list of all 66 songs that the author speaks about in the book. Then listen to a song and read what Dylan has to say about it. In most cases, after reading the essay, one may be tempted to listen to the song again.

The Philosophy of Modern Song
By Bob Dylan
Simon and Schuster
Pages: 339
Price: £35

The Philosophy of Modern Song is a unique work of art both in content and in presentation. Through 66 essays, each deliberating on a single song, the art of songwriting is analysed and dissected by one of the greatest songwriters of the world; and, in the process, the reader also receives a valuable lesson on how to seriously listen to and appreciate a song.

For Dylan, the marriage of words and music that makes a song is not a science. “What happens with words and music is more akin to alchemy, chemistry’s wilder, less disciplined precursor, full of experimentation and fraught with failure, with its doomed attempts to turn base metals into gold,” he says. The lyrics from a song cannot be taken out and judged independent of the music or the tune. The words of a song, he points out, “were written for the ear and not for the eye; and the miracle is in the union when words are set to music”.

The mystery of a song

In the book, one of the most enigmatic geniuses of the world of arts attempts to unravel the mystery of a song—what it is that makes it survive the fickle changes of fashion and taste and connects with a listener at a deep personal level. There is no formula behind a great song. Like the thousands of burrs and dogs’ fur that attach themselves to a coat after an outdoor trip, “music naggingly adheres itself in countless pinpoints of memory and emotion.”

The myriad rules governing both the “literature of lyrics and the mathematics of melody”, are of little value to the man who changed the course of popular music and elevated songwriting to the realm of high art. Those who slavishly follow such rules, “who can only color inside the lines, run the danger of never transcending craft to create anything truly lasting,” he says.

And through an eclectic selection, Dylan not only explores the philosophy of modern song, but also provides a fascinating insight into the history of popular culture in the United States and resurrects figures whose names and contributions have been buried and forgotten in the dust of time.

Most of the essays are divided into two sections. In the first section, Dylan strips down the song down to its bare essentials and provides the most basic narrative in the song. In the second, he delves deep into the very soul of the song; talks about the music, the artiste, the writer, the theme of the song; in fact, anything directly or indirectly associated with the song.

Few people can understand a song better than Dylan; fewer still can interpret and present it the way Dylan can. “This song is brainwashed,” he writes about Elvis Costello’s Pump it Up (1970), “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.”

He can sum up an entire song in a single, powerful knock-out sentence—“This is a song about the human condition, and rules don’t apply,” he says, talking about Ball of Confusion by The Temptations. It compels the reader to give the song another listen.

Funny, irreverent, and profound

In the book, Dylan is everything one expects him to be. He is enlightening, knowledgeable, ironic, funny, irreverent, profound, and outrageous. The book can change a song forever for the reader/listener. Dylan’s interpretations can radically alter one’s perception of a song, and open windows to new, alternative ways of understanding lyrics.

“This song is the grinning skull... Not meant for the middle class to understand—seems to house a deep dark secret,” is how he describes Bing Crosby’s Whiffenpoof Song (1948). It is doubtful, if upon first hearing it, the reader would find anything “terrifying and hopeless” about the song. But after reading the essay, the song, in Bing Crosby’s honeyed crooning voice, obtains sinister overtones impossible to shake off.

Similarly, the lovelorn You Don’t Know Me (1956) by Eddy Arnold, an aching number of unrequited love, turns into a song “a serial killer would sing” once Dylan takes you through it. He likens it to Sting’s dark and voyeuristic Every Breath You Take. Even Rosemary Clooney’s sweet and wholesome (and more than a little seductive) Come on-a My House‘ (1951) can transform into a fairytale evil witch’s siren call to lure little children into her house in the dark woods. “This is the song of the deviant, the pedophile, the mass murderer. The song of the guy who’s got thirty corpses under his basement and human skulls in the refrigerator.... This is a hoodoo song disguised as a happy pop hit. It’s a Little Red Riding Hood song. A song sung by a spirit rapper, a warlock,” writes Dylan; and from the opposite page, a black-and-white picture of young Rosemary posing at her doorstep smiles at the reader, the very image of a girl-next-door.

Sometimes it is difficult to know whether Dylan is being serious or just having fun at the reader’s expense. Talking about Little Richard’s rock ‘n’ roll classic Tutti Fruitti (1955), and speculating on the meaning of the song, he says, “Did you ever see Elvis singing Tutti Fruitti on Ed Sullivan? Does he know what he’s singing about? Of all the people who sang Tutti Fruitti, Pat Boone was probably the only one who knew what he was singing about.” An astute reader cannot be blamed for thinking that at times Dylan is taking the mickey out of her.

One of the joys of the books is that the author’s enjoyment in writing is evident in every page. He selects the songs he loves, and explains why he loves them; and, in the process, he talks of practically whatever he wants to through delightful digressions. Even his digressions have digressions which are no less engrossing and fun-filled.

In the second part of the essay on Santana’s Black Magic Woman (1970), Dylan brings up the works of pulp science fiction writer Leigh Bracket and her famous story Sea Kings of Mars (later published as a novel under the title The Sword of Rhiannon), where she wrote “Witchcraft to the ignorant... simple science to the learned.” From there, Dylan goes on to explore the magic merger of words and tunes that create a song.

Similarly, from talking about Nina Simone’s Don’t Let Me be Misunderstood (1964), Dylan deliberates on the subject of language and the Polish ophthalmologist L.L. Zamenhof and the language he created, Esperanto, in the hope that it might become a “universal second language”.

He ponders upon old age and the way various cultures treat their old, when writing on Charlie Poole’s Old and in the Way (1928). The book is much more than just about songs and where they came from; it is also where they take us intellectually and artistically, and the thoughts and ideas they can open up for us. Dylan is also profound, thought-provoking and practical in the book.

For the Dylan fan, the book provides a fascinating insight into the man’s musical preferences and his vast, encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of American popular culture and the arts. His selection practically covers all the major genres down the ages, including blues, folk, country, soul, jazz, rock, pop, and rock ‘n’ roll. From Uncle Dave Macon’s 1924 hit Keep My Skillet Greasy to Elvis Costello’s Pump It Up from his 1978 album This Year’s Model, the book brings back to life songs long dead in public memory. It reminds or introduces to readers artistes now fallen into obscurity, who should never have been forgotten in the first place.

Talking about the native American singer/songwriter/poet/activist John Trudell’s Doesn’t Hurt Anymore, Dylan writes: “Take a moment—read a little more about John Trudell than what is offered here. He deserves it. And after you do, seek out his music. A good place to start would be the AKA Grafitti Man album....”

He reminds the readers of Jimmy Wages, the brilliant rockabilly singer who made a few recordings that were never issued in the mid-1950s. Jimmy grew up with Elvis Presley in Tupelo before Elvis moved to Memphis. “You have to wonder, what if Elvis had stayed in Tupelo, and Jimmy Wages had moved away?” writes Dylan. Talking about Wages’ song Take Me from this Garden of Evil, Dylan says: “This record might be the first and only gospel rockabilly record. This is evil as the dictator, evil ruling the land, call it what you will. Jimmy sees the world for what it is.... This is a garden of corporate lust, sexual greed, gratuitous cruelty, and commonplace insanity.”

Fascinating trivia

Throughout the book, Dylan shares priceless nuggets of information and fascinating trivia. Readers are acquainted with Avo Uvezian, the proprietor of the Avo XO brand of Dominican cigar, who claimed that he had composed the tune for Frank Sinatra’s 1966 classic Strangers in the Night, but was never recognised for it. Avo, a Beiruti immigrant living in New York, was a jazz pianist studying at the Julliard School of Music. “Here is where the story gets Murky,” writes Dylan. “According to Uvezian, he sent one of the little melodies he composed to the only person he knew in the music industry—the German orchestra leader and composer Bert Kaempfert. Today that melody, under the title Strangers in the Night, is listed as a Bert Kaempfert composition.” Avo, however, went on to make millions from his cigar business and continued to play the piano for friends and admirers.

One of the wonderful aspects of the book is that it continues to surprise the reader in different ways. Upon reaching Chapter 64, the diligent reader, following the suggestion at the beginning of the article, may carefully listen to the Drifters performing Saturday Night at the Movies before settling down with Dylan’s essay, only to be acquainted with some of the author’s favourite movies—Cool Hand Luke, Ace in the Hole, On the Waterfront, High Noon, 12 Angry Men, and so on—and his ideas on American cinema.

“America has always been a great melting pot but there are a few things that have been created here and then given back to the world. As much fun as it is to drive a Ferrari, Detroit will always be the automobile’s home. As good a player as Stephane Grappelli is, you have to go back to King Oliver, Buddy Bolden, and Louis Armstrong to find the beating heart of jazz. Likewise, Fellini, Kurosawa and their counterparts around the world have made some terrific movies but we all know where the film industry got its first slap on the ass and drew its initial breath. People keep talking about making America great again. Maybe they should start with the movies,” he writes. Incidentally, there is not a word about the song he selected in the essay.

The book is also a visual delight, full of ironic and cheeky illustrations from old movies and advertisements placed strategically to go with the various themes in the chapters. For example, next to the chapter on Johnnie Taylor’s Cheaper to Keep Her is a picture of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in a scene from the film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?Or, for the essay on Black Magic Woman, there is an old advertisement conning people to order “Hypnotic glasses’ for $2.98. The book, like the songs mentioned in them, unfolds itself with every reading. It is not something that one reads and puts away on a shelf to gather dust. In fact, a little review is not enough for this book; it is a book on which another book can be written.

  • Through 66 essays, each deliberating on a single song, the art of songwriting is analysed and dissected.
  • What it is that makes a song survive the fickle changes of fashion and taste and connects with a listener at a deep personal level? For, there is no formula behind a great song.
  • The reader also receives a valuable lesson on how to seriously listen to and appreciate a song.
  • And through an eclectic selection, Dylan not only explores the philosophy of modern song, but also provides a fascinating insight into the history of popular culture in the United States.

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