Bob Dylan’s philosophy of song

Bob Dylan's book The Philosophy of Modern Song. Photos Supplied.

Bob Dylan has written another book; it's one every songwriter will want to read.

Let's take time off this week from the local. Why not? Things continue apace and a week won't hurt.

I could mention Sean Bodley has launched another single, ‘Asylum', in all digital places or that the Acoustic Music Club is holding a spring concert at McLaren Falls Park this Sunday, November 13, lunchtime, but how about for one week we pause? And instead take a glance at what Uncle Bob's been doing.

Dylan is now 81. He released his first album in 1962 and his most recent, ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways' in 2020. It debuted at No.1 on the Billboard charts, which marked the seventh decade he has had a top 40 album, the first person to do that.

His current European tour wrapped last week, during which he played 29 dates in 42 days, his third such tour this year. That's a helluva work rate for an 81-year-old. What's equally extraordinary is that of the 17 songs played nightly – the concerts lasted roughly two hours without intermission – nine were from the latest album, meaning he plays the entire thing except the 16-minute ‘single' (which of course also topped the Billboard charts). Dylan firmly refuses to be a nostalgia act.


Meanwhile, the Frost Art Museum in Miami is currently exhibiting more than 180 of Dylan's paintings, drawings and sculptures, an exhibition called ‘Retrospectrum' which premiered at the Modern Art Museum in Shanghai, becoming the most visited exhibition there in 2019.

Dylan's works have showed at the National Portrait Gallery in London, the National Gallery of Denmark, the Palazzo Reale in Milan, and throughout the world. The 26-by-15-foot iron archway he built for MGM's National Harbour Casino in Maryland reportedly cost US$250,000.

Leaving aside the more-than-100 collectable one-hour radio shows and his award-winning bourbon – Heaven's Door, sadly not available in New Zealand – we get to the new book, Dylan's third. By comparison, according to the website Come Writers And Critics, which keeps a list of 'documents related to Bob Dylan printed on paper”, by the end of 2021 there were 829 books about him in English and 723 in 36 other languages (from 175 in German to one each in Bulgarian and Vietnamese).


Dylan's first book, a rather free-form curio, ‘Tarantula', was published in 1971. An autobiography, ‘Chronicles Volume 1', arrived in 2004, which is remarkably both for the quality of writing and the way it freely mixes fact and fiction.

There are no such veracity problems with the new book however. It's all opinion. It is called ‘The Philosophy Of Modern Song'. In it Dylan picks 66 songs – actually 65 songs and one poem – and writes about each of them. Most of them twice. It is available as a book, an ebook and an audiobook, which Bob reads, along with Jeff Bridges, Helen Mirren and more.

And it is every bit as intriguing, perceptive, poetic, baffling and infuriating as you would expect. Dylan doesn't really do things the regular way. The songs run from ‘Mack The Knife' to ‘London's Calling', from Stephen Foster's to Johnny Cash's. There are songs by crooners (Perry Como, Sinatra), blues tunes (‘Big Boss Man', ‘Key To The Highway'), country songs, pop songs, punk songs, an altogether eccentric A-Z that sets ‘Blue Moon' alongside ‘My Generation', ‘Volare' with ‘Midnight Rider'.

Most songs have two separate commentaries. One is sort of factual, fascinating pieces ranging from discussions of copyright to Dylan's spot-on analysis. His insight into songwriters such as Elvis Costello are razor sharp. On Costello's ‘Pump It Up': 'It's relentless, as all of his songs from this period are. Trouble is, he exhausted people. Too much in his songs for anybody to actually land on”.

The other commentary is Bob 'riffing”, as he puts himself inside the actual song and, again, you see both his unique vision and fertile imagination. This is his craft and he is a serious student. These songs are hugely personal to him and seeing them through Dylan's eyes offers a rare and special experience.

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