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I guess Dylan enjoys the unpredictability

More people have been influenced by Bob Dylan’s music than have actually heard him sing his songs or bought his records.

Dylan has never sold as many albums as the really big stars of popular music. I would be surprised if the total number of all Dylan records ever sold was more than the units that Michael Jackson shifted of just one album: Thriller.


Some of this has to do with Dylan’s voice: nasal, droning, often melody-free with words italicised and tunes mangled. Some of it has to with his arrangements. He has never tried to sound sweet to get radio play. When he first became famous in the early 1960s, it was because other people covered his songs. Blowin’ In The Wind was never a hit for Dylan; it was the sweeter, more harmonious Peter Paul and Mary version that rose up the charts. Even when he tried to make his music more accessible, using such talented musicians as The Band (who started out as his backing band) he never found the sales that his reputation suggests he should have.


   But, more than any other songwriter, Dylan influenced other musicians, most notably The Beatles. ‘You've Got To Hide Your Love Away’ could well have been a Dylan song and both John Lennon and George Harrison have spoken about how much their song writing owed to Dylan. (Paul McCartney was, arguably, less influenced.) Could John Lennon ever have written the lyrics to A Day In The Life had he not been listening to Dylan? Would there ever have been a Bruce Springsteen if there never had been a Bob Dylan?


   For all that, Dylan’s own records were often unfairly overshadowed by the cover versions. Most people now think of All Along The Watchtower as a Jimi Hendrix song and anyone who covers it (including Dylan himself) reproduces the Hendrix arrangement. But the Dylan original (now hardly ever heard) has a haunting quality that Hendrix’s guitar solos could not quite capture. Listen to the Rolling Stones cover of Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone. This is the self-proclaimed greatest rock and roll band in the world trying to do its best with one of Dylan’s most iconic songs. And yet, as much as Mick Jagger snarls and wails, he never quite manages the vicious edge that Dylan brings to such lines as “How does it feel to be on your own, with no direction home?“


   The current wisdom, however, is that Dylan’s main contribution to modern music was that he transformed the way in which lyrics were written. It was for this achievement (we think) that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and his way with words is justly admired.


   So when Bob Dylan writes a book about pop songs, you wonder what he is going to say. Is he going to tell us why he likes certain songs? Is he going to explain why some songs work better than others? Is he going to trace the development of popular music through a bunch of old songs?


   Actually: none of the above.


"But I guess Dylan likes it that way. He enjoys the unpredictability; the sense of being enigmatic and the sheer craziness of it all."

   The Philosophy of the Modern Song is a strange, slightly self-indulgent romp through songs that have been selected (at least as far as I can tell) with no particular theme in mind. Generally, each chapter works like this: Bob names the song and tells us what goes through his mind when he listens to it. Sometimes, he thinks about the singer and the times the song was written in. But mostly, it’s just Bob being Bob.


   Here, for instance, is his take on The Who’s My Generation:


   “You are an eighty-year-old, being wheeled around in a home for the elderly, and the nurses are getting on your nerves. You think: why don’t you all just fade away. You’re in your second childhood, can’t get a word out without stumbling and dribbling…”


   Er, right Bob.


   This is Dylan on Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti:


   “Little Richard is the master of the double-entendre. Tutti Frutti is a good example. A fruit, a male homosexual and Tutti Frutti is all fruit. It’s also an ice-cream.”


   When he gets to Peter Green’s Black Magic Women, he is well and truly away: “She’s your champion bull-dyke, your spider woman, your hoochie coochie queen, and she puts you on the top-level—there’s no heights you can’t ascend.”


   What can you say to that except perhaps, “I’ll have what you are smoking”?


   The trouble with this stream of consciousness stuff is that when it takes the form of music, you can sink a few drinks, perhaps partake of a few mood-altering substances and enter Dylan’s world. But when you have to read it, you need to stay sober. And then, the words lose their spell.


   Nor are all the songs (some nearly a century old) that he chooses to comment on particularly interesting. There is lots of country, lots of shmaltz and very little that’s really contemporary. But that should be no surprise to anyone who has followed Dylan’s career. He likes weird songs. Or he takes good songs by other people and does weird things to them.


   For instance, take his cover of Paul Simon’s The Boxer on the Self Portrait album. If we didn’t know that Simon and he were friends, it could easily pass for a send up. Or his version of The Lily of the West: he adds nothing to the standard and nobody can figure out why he recorded it.


   But I guess Dylan likes it that way. He enjoys the unpredictability; the sense of being enigmatic and the sheer craziness of it all. If you are a really hard core Dylan far, then this book is for you. If not, listen to the music instead.



Posted On: 03 Dec 2022 05:35 PM
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