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"There’s no philosophy, not really, in 'The Philosophy of Modern Song.'"

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"There’s no philosophy, not really, in 'The Philosophy of Modern Song.'"

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"There’s no philosophy, not really, in 'The Philosophy of Modern Song.'"

Writes Dwight Garner in "Bob Dylan Breaks Down 66 Classic Tunes in His New Book/'The Philosophy of Modern Song' offers commentaries on a range of music, written in the singer’s unmistakable lyrical style" (NYT)

I'm reading the book, and I've been asking myself, as I go, where's the philosophy? My working answer is the reader has to put together the philosophy. Dylan is providing a lot of raw material, but can't you see what he's saying?

You know there's a philosophy, but you don't know what it is, do you?

Mr. Garner writes:

These riffs, which he flicks like tarot cards through a distant cactus, sound a lot like his own song lyrics....

Much of the book is Dylan paraphrasing lyrics from songs, and it's only subtly obvious that Dylan's words are better, deeper, more mysterious. What I'm seeing is that for every song — or almost every song — he heightens the inward emotional structure of the main character in the song.

But Garner gets weary (book reviewers do get weary):

The tone becomes repetitive. In a lot of the cases, you could switch Dylan’s commentaries around, apply them to different songs and not know the difference....

But that's why there's a philosophy to be extracted by the reader. He's looking at different songs and seeing the same thing. 

He suggests that the Who’s “My Generation” is sung from the perspective of an 80-year-old man in a nursing home, that Ricky Nelson and not Elvis was the true ambassador of rock ’n’ roll and that Rosemary Clooney’s “Come On-a My House” is about a pedophile mass murderer. There’s an analysis of Bing Crosby’s version of Yale’s “Whiffenpoof Song.” Sometimes you only hope he’s kidding.

Is this where it is? Sorry, I need to hand in my ticket and go watch the geek.

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44 Comments on Althouse: "There’s no philosophy, not really, in 'The Philosophy of Modern Song.'"

  • Duke Dan
    on November 07, 2022 | 06:25 Duke Dansaid :
    "Haha. Mr Garner. That must be triggering. "
  • Gerda Sprinchorn
    on November 07, 2022 | 06:27 Gerda Sprinchornsaid :
    ""Mr. Garner"

    Good one."
  • Tom T.
    on November 07, 2022 | 06:37 Tom T.said :
    "Basically, if you're the kind of fan who found profundity in his lyrics, you'll find it in his book as well. If you're not, then you won't."
  • John henry
    on November 07, 2022 | 06:54 John henrysaid :
    "I saw an excerpt from the chapter about little Richard. Downloaded the Kindle sample based on that.

    Not terrible but very uneven in the 6 or so chapters I read. Some interesting some gibberish.

    One would have to be a hard core fan to shell out $16.99 for the book.

    It seems like a bathroom book to me. Keep it on the tank, dip in at random while taking a dump. No disrespect intended. Just that it doesn't strike me as a book to read as anything other than a random bunch of loosely related observations.

    I'd love to read it but not at that price.

    John stop fascism vote republican Henry "
  • tim in vermont
    on November 07, 2022 | 07:09 tim in vermontsaid :
    "He's not wrong about Ricky Nelson. "
  • Václav Patrik Šulik
    on November 07, 2022 | 07:22 Václav Patrik Šuliksaid :
    ""...Mr. Jones."

    (Sorry, I have stuck song syndrome.)"
  • Ann Althouse
    on November 07, 2022 | 07:32 Ann Althousesaid :
    ""Not terrible but very uneven in the 6 or so chapters I read. Some interesting some gibberish."

    I recommend the audiobook, where key portions are read by Dylan. It has the feeling and rhythm of singing.

    Other sections are written by famous actors — Steve Buscemi, etc."
  • Lem Former Twitter Aficionado
    on November 07, 2022 | 07:34 Lem Former Twitter Aficionadosaid :
    "The philosophy is whatever the listener infers. Take for instance the song by The Police "Every Breath You Take". Sting intended an anti-stalking song. Listeners interpreted a romantic lyric; the kind one fan played at his wedding.

    We can't all have enough in common to see what's happening and interpret it the same way, be on the same page, if you will (Jan6, for example). Scott Adams calls it watching the same movie. It happens all the time and it's the source of much unnecessary trouble."
  • Ann Althouse
    on November 07, 2022 | 07:37 Ann Althousesaid :
    "Here's a Spotify playlist of the songs in order, so I recommend playing each song as you go."
  • walter
    on November 07, 2022 | 07:50 waltersaid :
    "https://twitter.com/bob_notes/status/1074850015011635200"
  • traditionalguy
    on November 07, 2022 | 07:51 traditionalguysaid :
    "The performer in Mr Dylan always put out a show for any audience, but he also always held back something in one on one interraction. He kept you intrigued with what he was about to say…but never did. I loved that."
  • Amexpat
    on November 07, 2022 | 07:54 Amexpatsaid :
    "He suggests that the Who’s “My Generation” is sung from the perspective of an 80-year-old man in a nursing home

    That's not correct. He starts out from the perspective of an insecure young man. Then he humorously changes it to the perspective of an old man. And he ties those two perspective together. That's what Dylan often does. He changes the perspective in the song by changing the protagonist or the propagandist's point of view."
  • Ann Althouse
    on November 07, 2022 | 07:59 Ann Althousesaid :
    ""The philosophy is whatever the listener infers. Take for instance the song by The Police "Every Breath You Take". Sting intended an anti-stalking song."

    Dylan talks about "On the Street Where You Live" as a stalking song:

    "Maybe that’s as close as you can get with somebody. Being on the street where they live. Maybe you’re thinking that anytime that person could appear, you are that close. Maybe you just wait all night and all day too. Maybe a cop car would come by and ask you what you’re doing there. If you tell him the truth, that you’re just waiting to see somebody, you’ll probably be arrested for stalking. Depends on who it is. You could be stalking somebody in the South Bronx—being on the street where they live. How long you are going to be waiting there is anybody’s guess.""
  • rhhardin
    on November 07, 2022 | 08:00 rhhardinsaid :
    "There's _Debussy on Music_, a collection of his critical columns, in one of which is that Wagner is a beautiful sunset that has been taken for a sunrise."
  • Robert Cook
    on November 07, 2022 | 08:01 Robert Cooksaid :
    ""Take for instance the song by The Police "Every Breath You Take". Sting intended an anti-stalking song."

    I don't think he intended it as an "anti-stalking" song, as such. This suggests Sting intended and hoped for the song to inspire people to gather together in some way and do something to stop stalking, (as if there's much, if anything, that can be done).

    He wrote a song about a stalker, from the stalker's point of view.

    You're right that some (many? most?) people completely misunderstood the song. Frightening and sad."
  • Saint Croix
    on November 07, 2022 | 08:18 Saint Croixsaid :
    "ha ha ha

    I ran into a Garner the other day and (not kidding) almost called him "Get."

    Brain worms are dangerous."
  • Temujin
    on November 07, 2022 | 08:20 Temujinsaid :
    "(book reviewers do get weary).

    Funny. Now that song will be playing in my head all day."
  • Iman
    on November 07, 2022 | 08:21 Imansaid :
    "“But Garner gets weary (book reviewers do get weary)”

    …Wearing that same old shaggy dress, yeah, yeah"
  • Hunter Biden's tax payer funded Hooker
    on November 07, 2022 | 08:34 Hunter Biden's tax payer funded Hookersaid :
    ""Hand in my ticket and go watch the geek."

    what is Meade doing today? Tearing tickets again? ;-]"
  • JAORE
    on November 07, 2022 | 08:43 JAOREsaid :
    ""... subtly obvious ..."

    OK, sure.

    Can a second Nobel prize for lit be far behind."
  • Hunter Biden's tax payer funded Hooker
    on November 07, 2022 | 08:56 Hunter Biden's tax payer funded Hookersaid :
    "world hits 8 billion people mark. All while we are told the population is stalling.
    Strange.

    Now - take your 7th vaccine, please. Pfizer needs to pay more insiders. "
  • Roger Sweeny
    on November 07, 2022 | 09:11 Roger Sweenysaid :
    ""world hits 8 billion people mark. All while we are told the population is stalling."

    Because the population of successful people is stalling. Most all of them now have two or less children. But poor people in poor countries are rarely stopping at two."
  • B.
    on November 07, 2022 | 09:25 B.said :
    "Fond as I am of Dylan, Eddie Gordetsky was the real genius behind Theme Time Radio. He produced the shows and provided 90% of the vintage recordings."
  • Lurker21
    on November 07, 2022 | 09:40 Lurker21said :
    "That is so last week, Dwight.

    Everyone else figured out that there was no philosophy in the book before you even finished reading it."
  • Biff
    on November 07, 2022 | 09:49 Biffsaid :
    ""He suggests that...Rosemary Clooney’s “Come On-a My House” is about a pedophile mass murderer."

    My mom used to sing that song when I was a kid. There goes another childhood memory..."
  • cassandra lite
    on November 07, 2022 | 09:53 cassandra litesaid :
    "I refuse to read criticism from someone who conceives of and doesn't immediately delete, "These riffs, which he flicks like tarot cards through a distant cactus..." "
  • Narr
    on November 07, 2022 | 10:06 Narrsaid :
    "Thanks for posting the list.

    Since I have never heard or heard of many of the songs, and some of the artists listed, I think I'll stay ignorant.

    "
  • Lurker21
    on November 07, 2022 | 10:07 Lurker21said :
    "If Sting had put his heart and soul into writing an anti-stalking song, it probably wouldn't have been as good or had as much appeal. I suspect there was some ambivalence in him and listeners picked up on what they wanted to hear. Now he gets angry when people think it's a love song, but when he wrote it his frame of mind might have been more romantic than he wants to admit now. One story is that it's only after he'd written much of the song that he looked at the lyrics and saw how creepy they were. Listeners and readers have a way of finding all kinds of things in songs and stories and reinterpreting them according to their mood at the moment. So do creators. "
  • Lurker21
    on November 07, 2022 | 10:10 Lurker21said :
    ""Come On-a My House" is a song performed by Rosemary Clooney and originally released in 1951. It was written by Ross Bagdasarian and his cousin, Armenian-American Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Saroyan, while driving across New Mexico in the summer of 1939. The melody is based on an Armenian folk song. The lyrics reference traditional Armenian customs of inviting over relatives and friends and providing them with a generously overflowing table of fruits, nuts, seeds, and other foods.

    ...

    Bagdasarian, as David Seville, went on to much fame with his Chipmunks recordings.
    "
  • John henry
    on November 07, 2022 | 10:45 John henrysaid :
    "Ann, interesting comment about listening vs reading the book. I'd not thought of that but I think you are probably right.

    Now I'm going to have to listen to the audio sample.

    Shakespeare is like that for me. Deadly dull to read but I always enjoy live performances.

    I've been told the trick is to read him out lod but I've never been motivated to

    John stop fascism vote republican Henry "
  • mccullough
    on November 07, 2022 | 10:48 mcculloughsaid :
    "Flicking Tarot cards at a distant cactus. TS Eliot as Harry Potter."
  • Sebastian
    on November 07, 2022 | 11:03 Sebastiansaid :
    "I get Garner.

    Sorry. Sorry."
  • Jupiter
    on November 07, 2022 | 11:07 Jupitersaid :
    ""There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

    At the time that was written, "philosophy" was a broad term that included what we would now call "science". Horatio has been off at the University, and Hamlet is mocking his book-learned materialism. Dylan may well be using "philosophy" to mean simply, careful and methodical investigation. "
  • Robert Cook
    on November 07, 2022 | 11:14 Robert Cooksaid :
    ""Now he gets angry when people think it's a love song, but when he wrote it his frame of mind might have been more romantic than he wants to admit now."

    Sting is too smart to not have known what he was writing. He certainly intended to write a lyric that seems like a love song in the first few seconds, but quickly becomes clearly the depiction of a stalker's obsession as it proceeds. That obsessed perspective is the point of the song."
  • Ann Althouse
    on November 07, 2022 | 11:39 Ann Althousesaid :
    "Lots of song lyrics are evil/insane if you think about them from a different angle. Detach from your liking of the singer, your sense that he or she must be a good person, and think deeply about the character behind the words of the song. That's what Dylan is doing here. It's very interesting to restate the words of a song — a good song — and examine what is really going on there.

    Some people think this is a really frivolous activity. It's something I did a lot when I was young, and I've been around some individuals who when you try to examine a song like that will look at you with contempt for caring about something so stupid. Ironically, these people were big Dylan fans. I'm sure if they read the book and hear Dylan taking the character in the song seriously, they won't think of what an asshole they were to me... long ago."
  • Iman
    on November 07, 2022 | 11:51 Imansaid :
    "Don’t forget “Kimono My House”, a popular album by Sparks."
  • Njall
    on November 07, 2022 | 14:19 Njallsaid :
    "I was born in 1966, but I think that Bob Dylan was a lyrical and philosophical genius. Ironically, my favorite albums of his are the two 1965 ones, before I was born. But I love all his work 1961-1969.

    I read a cool interview with Dylan where someone asked him how did he come up with all those great songs? And his answer was, I don’t know myself, I read those lyrics and I’m amazed.

    I think the Muse took him."
  • Earnest Prole
    on November 07, 2022 | 14:52 Earnest Prolesaid :
    "Sting intended an anti-stalking song.

    Um, no. Sting was in the depths of despair and self-pity when he wrote "Every Breath You Take" -- at the time he was involved in a love triangle much like the one that inspired Eric Clapton to write "Layla" and other famous despairing love songs. The two songs that follow on Synchronicity, "King of Pain" and "Wrapped Around Your Finger," make clear his selfish state of mind. "
  • boatbuilder
    on November 07, 2022 | 17:28 boatbuildersaid :
    "Another couple of stalker songs that have catchy melodies are Steve Earle's "More Than I Can Do" and Jon Dee Graham's "Restraining Order Song" (which doesn't sound totally creepy until you listen to it closely, or know the title before you hear it). "
  • Andrew
    on November 07, 2022 | 17:42 Andrewsaid :
    "Surfing through the Internet, I came across this quote from Noam Chomsky about Bob Dylan. It was genuinely surprising.

    "Just the other day I was sitting in a radio studio waiting for a satellite arrangement abroad to be set up. The engineers were putting together interviews with Bob Dylan from about 1966-7 or so (judging by the references), and I was listening (I’d never heard him talk before — if you can call that talking). He sounded as though he was so drugged he was barely coherent, but the message got through clearly enough through the haze. He said over and over that he’d been through all of this protest thing, realized it was nonsense, and that the only thing that was important was to live his own life happily and freely, not to “mess around with other people’s lives” by working for civil and human rights, ending war and poverty, etc. He was asked what he thought about the Berkeley “free speech movement” and said that he didn’t understand it. He said something like: “I have free speech, I can do what I want, so it has nothing to do with me. Period.” If the capitalist PR machine wanted to invent someone for their purposes, they couldn’t have made a better choice."

    This quote makes me respect Dylan even more. Yay, capitalism! Yay, individualism!

    As for Chomsky, while I laughed at his description of Dylan's speech, he remains a self-important left-wing asshole. "
  • Andrew
    on November 07, 2022 | 17:49 Andrewsaid :
    "Sting intended Synchronicity II to be an anti-Loch Ness Monster song. But people thought it was pro-monster.
    "
  • Lurker21
    on November 07, 2022 | 18:11 Lurker21said :
    "They say that when creative people are in the zone or the flow or the rush they just follow their inspiration and aren't being self-critical. That comes later. It kills the inspiration. We may never know the true story behind Sting's song, and if we ever do, he'll just deny it.

    Standards change with time. Don't tell me that 60 years ago a young, lovesick Bob Dylan didn't walk down the street where someone he loved lived and look up longingly at her window and think the whole thing was romantic.

    60 years ago Dylan wrote and recorded, “A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," which isn't necessarily about nuclear fallout and isn't necessarily not about nuclear fallout. Today we are supposed to be closer than we have been to nuclear war than we have been at any time since. The celebrated "Atomic Scientists" had their meeting this month to reset the hands on the doomsday clock, but we won't know what they decided until January 20th. Hmmm ... they decide in November and it goes into effect in January. I wonder how they hit on that timetable."
  • Narr
    on November 07, 2022 | 18:53 Narrsaid :
    "I think the Atomic Scientists should set their Doomsday Crock back an hour, like civilized folk."
  • Eric Hammerbacher
    on November 09, 2022 | 09:16 Eric Hammerbachersaid :
    "I loved it--made me think of Christopher Ricks's book's framing of Dylan's songs as "visions of sin" which is what a lot of these essays felt like too, especially so for being written in the 2nd person; like Bob (and like also eg Fiona Apple) has a window into my own breed of BS that I wouldn't be able to see nearly as clearly without him. And at the same time some of them felt like a confidence boost, like no you're not crazy for looking at this this way, lol. Like Patti Smith says "God bless him"

    "

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