Bob Dylan’s new e book is a Jewish masterpiece
I’m twelve years outdated, and it’s my birthday.
My birthday present: my first guitar.
Days later, on Hanukkah, I received one other present — my first songbook, with phrases, music, and guitar chords. It’s a quantity of Bob Dylan’s songs. Every week later, I had already discovered the best way to play “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
The remaining is historical past — my very own musical historical past, cultural historical past, private historical past. Bob Dylan has been a part of my life for 56 years — a continuing presence, and a continuing query.
That’s what makes his new e book, “The Philosophy of Modern Song,” so compelling — that I can not flip it off. (Usually, I’d say that I can not put it down, however I’m listening to the Audible model).
Dylan takes us on a tour of 66 of his favourite songs — not his personal compositions, however songs by others — which turns into his personal odyssey by way of the world of recent standard music. He brings us from Stephen Foster to Bobby Darin (“Mack the Knife”) to Little Richard (“Tutti Frutti”) to the Fugs (“CIA Man”) (when was the final time you considered The Fugs?) to Ricky Nelson (“Poor Little Fool”) to The Who (“My Generation”) to Elvis Costello (“Pump it Up”) to Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes (“If You Don’t Know Me By Now”) to the Conflict (“London Calling”) to the Osborne Brothers (“Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man?”) to the Grateful Lifeless (“Truckin’”) to Jackson Browne (“The Pretender”).
His checklist is loopy, eclectic, spanning greater than a century of standard track. It’s dizzying.
So, why do I say that this e book is a Jewish masterpiece?
Overlook, for a second, Dylan’s twisted, sophisticated, on once more off once more relationship with Judaism. The e book is “Jewish” in its very form and texture, its very really feel, its voice. For every track, Dylan riffs on its which means — its internal which means to him — full with free associations. He then analyzes the track in its authentic context, with biographical details about the composer and the performer.
So, sure: for every track, there may be drash (its internal which means and infrequently fanciful interpretation) and peshat (what is actually occurring in it). Dylan has carried out nothing lower than treating these songs — lots of them obscure — as trendy texts, and has dug deeply into them, in exactly the best way that Jews are accustomed to treating our sacred literature.
There may be this factor that Dylan does, by which he takes a phrase within the track’s title, after which free associates from it to different songs. At one level, he makes a listing of each track that he can recall, by which the singer breaks down in tears whereas singing it.
When he teaches about “Blue Suede Sneakers,” each shoe in each track comes into the dialog. “There are extra songs about sneakers than about hats, pants, and clothes mixed,” he writes. Sneakers reveal character and persona. Dylan takes a detour into the correct care of sneakers, the historical past of sneakers, the white buck that was pristine and unblemished, even moving into foot binding in China. To step on somebody’s sneakers is to invade their house, their freedom, their sense of self, and to take action is harmful to the stepper.
Who, apart from Dylan, may mentally join “London Calling” by the Conflict, with its fierce apocalyptic sneer, to that candy track by Roger Miller, “England Swings,” an homage to mod Britain? Solely Dylan may see that the Conflict have been clashing with that model of Britain, savaging the Beatles, and placing themselves down by the river — this time, not the Mississippi of American standard track, however the Thames.
When he involves “Poor Little Idiot” by Ricky Nelson (his interpretation of Ricky/Rick Nelson’s household life and later story is sort of definitely worth the worth of the e book — when you enjoy completely obscure stuff), he makes a big, psychological checklist of each time the phrase “idiot” exhibits up in standard track.
For “Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man?” by the Osborne Brothers, he goes on a riff in regards to the title “Ruby.” He winds up visiting the Rolling Stones hit, “Ruby Tuesday,” then detours to “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Like to City.” “A rube is a straightforward mark,” Dylan says — and that’s earlier than he involves Jack Ruby, the killer of President Kennedy’s alleged murderer, Lee Harvey Oswald.
When he assesses the which means of the track “Lengthy Tall Sally,” he means that she was one of many nephilim, the legendary biblical giants who make a quick look within the early chapters of Genesis, after which once more in Numbers, after which once more in Ezekiel.
When he writes in regards to the Eagles track “Witchy Woman,” he notes that it started as “twitchy lady,” after which free-associates to “Black Magic Lady,” and in the end, a meditation on the historical past of the Salem witchcraft trials.
Who does this kind of factor, you ask? Effectively, sure, apparently, Dylan — frenetically.
Dylan is strolling within the path of the traditional sages — who may take the biblical textual content, flip it into one large textual content, and will hyper-text from one utilization of a phrase to a different. They may take the concept of a mountain and soar from Mount Ararat, the place Noah’s ark got here to relaxation; to Mount Moriah, the place Abraham virtually sacrificed his son, Isaac; to Jacob’s ladder, which is kind of a mountain; to Mount Sinai, the positioning of divine revelation…
Ah, however let’s save the most effective for final.
That will be his discourse on “The Pretender” by Jackson Browne, which he thinks is Jackson’s greatest track, and which he textually hyperlinks to “The Nice Pretender” by the Platters.
It occurred to me why this, of all songs, touches Dylan probably the most.
It seems that I’m no much less adept at intellectually multi-tasking than Dylan himself. So, whereas listening to the e book the opposite night time, I re-watched the 2005 Martin Scorsese documentary about his adolescence and profession, “No Direction Home.”
Its fixed theme? Tommy Clancy of the Clancy Brothers, the Irish people group, put it this fashion: Dylan was a form shifter. His complete life was one lengthy strategy of self-erasure and re-invention — beginning along with his pretension of being Woody Guthrie.
Everyone knows the actual story — or, one model of the actual story.
Robert Allen Zimmerman was born in Hibbing, Minnesota, on Might 24, 1941. His mother and father, Abe (brief for Abram) and Beatty (for Beatrice), have been youngsters of Yiddish-speaking immigrants that had settled in Minnesota early within the 1900s. His childhood in that far-flung outpost of the Diaspora was as Jewish because it might be. The Zimmermans attended the native synagogue. Abe Zimmerman was the president of the native Bnai Brith lodge. Beatty was the president of the native Hadassah chapter. Younger Bobby went to Camp Herzl. On the College of Minnesota, he was a member of Sigma Alpha Mu, a nominally Jewish fraternity.
Bobby Zimmerman might need had a Jewish training adequate sufficient to have discovered the historical past of Jewish disguises. That narrative would come with: Jacob masquerading as his twin, Esau, with the intention to obtain his father, Isaac’s, blessing (Gen. 27: 34-40); Tamar disguising herself to entice her father in regulation, Judah (Gen. 38); Joseph concealing his id from his brothers (Gen. 42ff); David feigning madness to achieve entry into the Philistine camp (I Samuel 21).
Bobby might need discovered, additionally, in regards to the conversos of medieval Spain, the so-called Marranos, who lived outwardly as Christians, however inwardly and secretly as Jews.
Bobby Zimmerman adopted these Jewish paths. He modified his title, his type, his voice, his music – the whole lot was in a continuing state of flux. Just like the Jewish folks itself, his life was a sequence of evolving personae. In “I’m Not There,” the cinematic interpretation of Dylan’s life, we discover a sequence of tales about Dylan’s numerous personae over time, as a result of, in reality, he actually is just not there.
It was as if his life was a sequence of midrashim, of sacred Jewish explorations and commentaries, on an older and way more elusive textual content: himself.
It was as if Dylan is saying that the hidden topic of “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” is himself.
It was as if Dylan is saying that “The Pretender” is actually Dylan himself.
Lastly, Dylan is aware of that he’s not “Eternally Younger,” that he’s now 81 years outdated. That’s the reason his riff on ageing is so poignant. He writes about John Prine’s “Hello In There,” which is about an ageing couple, however it’s nonetheless written from a younger man’s perspective. (Prine himself would die earlier than reaching something resembling outdated age). Dylan smiles at how Jerry Garcia named his short-lived bluegrass band Old & In the Way, although Garcia himself would die lengthy earlier than he would turn into, nicely, outdated and in the best way.
As Dylan sang: “I Contain Multitudes.”
This e book accommodates multitudes as nicely.