The Philosophy of Modern Song

[Amazon Link]
(paid link)

In these book reports, I mainly discuss my personal reactions, and avoid making explicit recommendations. That changes here: reader, if you like popular music, you would like this book. I (further) recommend you read it with one of those smart speakers nearby, so you can try to listen to the songs Bob Dylan references here. ("Alexa, play 'Detroit City' by Bobby Bare.") Or you could keep this Spotify playlist open in a tab in a nearby web browser.

Trust me, you'll have fun. I'm not sure you would enjoy any book by any Nobel Prizewinner more.

Dylan reflects on an eclectic selection of songs and artists. He tells stories in his offbeat stream-of-consciousness style, sometimes expanding on the stories the songs tell, sometimes with trivia about the artists and their times. And sometimes he'll just wander into hyperspace. Don't worry, the trip is worthwhile.

Example: When discussing "Black Magic Woman" by Santana, there's a long aside about Leigh Brackett. Didja know that she wrote the first draft of the screenplay for the best Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes Back? And that she also co-wrote the screenplay for The Big Sleep with William Faulkner, based on the detective novel by Raymond Chandler? And that when the puzzled star, Humphrey Bogart, asked her who killed the chauffeur, she realized she didn't know? And she asked Chandler whodunit? And that Chandler replied that he didn't know either?

I'm currently re-reading The Big Sleep, as it happens. Chandler's known for his colorful style and pungent similes. But let me tell you, Dylan turns Chandler up to … eleven? More like 37, I think. At least.

But what did Leigh Brackett have to do with "Black Magic Woman"? Well, she wrote science fiction too. Including one story where she observed "Witchcraft to the ignorant, .... Simple science to the learned." There you go. A good enough connection for Bob.

Another example: "Saturday Night at the Movies" by the Drifters? Nice song, but Dylan uses it as a springboard for discussing the decline of American cinema. No, they don't make movies like 12 Angry Men or Cool Hand Luke any more.

The book is filled with old-time pictures and illustrations, many of (at best) glancing relevance to the songs under discussion. E.g., the chapter discussing Dean Martin's version of "Blue Moon" has a full-page bigger-than-actual-size cover of the $1.75 paperback edition of Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. (Not that it matters, but I have that very edition on my shelf.)

Which reminds me, I also have a paperback of Leigh Brackett's The Long Tomorrow on my shelf. I don't think I ever got around to reading it; I should.

The cover has Little Richard and Eddie Cochran flanking Alis Lesley, who had a brief career as "the female Elvis Presley" back in the 1950s. I'm pretty sure she doesn't appear in the book otherwise.

Does this report seem disjointed to you? Dylan's style is infectious, I think.

Last Modified 2024-01-14 4:41 AM EDT