Bob Dylan Q&A about “The Philosophy of Modern Song”

Dec 20, 2022

From The Wall Street Journal, December 19, 2022

Bob Dylan Q&A
By Jeff Slate

While the book covers a lot of ground, many of the songs were written and released in the 1950s. Was that a significant time in shaping the modern popular song? And did the post war technology boom – the evolution of the recording process, the ubiquity of the radio and television, electric instrumentation – play a part in that, do you think?

I think they all played a part, and they still do play a part. But yes, the book does cover a lot of ground, and the 50’s was a significant time in music history. Without postwar technology these songs may have dissipated and been overlooked. The recording process brought the right people to the top, the most innovative, the ones with the greatest talent.

How did you first hear most of those songs? And do you think the way you first heard them – I’m assuming on the radio, as well as television and in films – play a part in your relationship to them?

I first heard them on the radio, portable record players, jukeboxes. We didn’t have a TV, and I never heard them in films, but I was hearing them in my head. They were straightforward, and my relationship to them at first was external, then became personal and intense. The songs were simple, easy to understand, and they’d come to you in a direct way, let you see into the future.

How do you listen to music these days? On vinyl, CD, streaming? And is there a way you prefer to hear music?

I listen to CD’s, satellite radio and streaming. I do love the sound of old vinyl though, especially on a tube record player from back in the day. I bought three of those in an antique store in Oregon about 30 years ago. They’re just little, but the tone quality is so powerful and miraculous, has so much depth, it always takes me back to the days when life was different and unpredictable. You had no idea what was coming down the road, and it didn’t matter. The laws of time didn’t apply to you.

How do you discover new music these days?

Mostly by accident, by chance. If I go looking for something I usually don’t find it. In fact, I never find it. I walk into things intuitively when I’m most likely not looking for anything. Tiny Hill, Teddy Edwards, people like that. Obscure artists, obscure songs. There’s a song by Jimmy Webb that Frank Sinatra recorded called, “Whatever Happened to Christmas,” I think he recorded it in the 60s, but I just discovered it. Ella Fitzgerald’s “A-Tiskit, A-Tasket.” Janis Martin, the female Elvis. Have you heard her? Joe Turner is always surprising me with little nuances and things. I listen to Brenda Lee a lot. No matter how many times I hear her, it’s like I just discovered her. She’s such an old soul. Lately, I discovered a fantastic guitar player, Teddy Bunn. I heard him on a Meade Lux Lewis – Sid Catlett record.

Performers and songwriters recommend things to me. Others I just wake up and they’re there. Some I’ve seen live. The Oasis Brothers, I like them both, Julian Casablancas, the Klaxons, Grace Potter. I’ve seen Metallica twice. I’ve made special efforts to see Jack White and Alex Turner. Zac Deputy, I’ve discovered him lately. He’s a one man show like Ed Sheeran, but he sits down when he plays. I’m a fan of Royal Blood, Celeste, Rag and Bone Man, Wu-Tang, Eminem, Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, anybody with a feeling for words and language, anybody whose vision parallels mine.

Waterloo Sunset is on my playlist and that was recorded in the 60s. “Stealer,” The Free song, that’s been there a while too, along with Leadbelly and the Carter Family. There’s a Duff McKagan song called “Chip Away,” that has profound meaning for me. It’s a graphic song. Chip away, chip away, like Michelangelo, breaking up solid marble stone to discover the form of King David inside. He didn’t build him from the ground up, he chipped away the stone until he discovered the king. It’s like my own songwriting, I overwrite something, then I chip away lines and phrases until I get to the real thing. Shooter Jennings produced that record. It’s a great song. Dvorak, “Moravian Duets.” I just discovered that, but it’s over 100 years old.

Music is made very differently now, and your grandchildren are hearing songs for the first time in whole new ways, like via Spotify. Does the way you first hear a song matter? Do you think that has changed the relationship of the listener to the song?

The relationship you have to a song can change over time. You can outgrow it, or it could come back to haunt you, come back stronger in a different way. A song could be like a nephew or a sister, or a mother-in-law. There actually is a song called “Mother-in-Law.”

When you first hear a song, it might be related to what time of day you hear it. Maybe at daybreak – at dawn with the sun in your face – it would probably stay with you longer than if you heard it at dusk. Or maybe, if you first hear it at sunset, it would probably mean something different, than if you heard it first at 2 in the afternoon. Or maybe you hear something in the dead of night, in the darkness, with night eyes. Maybe it’ll be “Eleanor Rigby,” and it puts you in touch with your ancient ancestors. You’re liable to remember that for a while. “Star Gazer,” the Ronnie James Dio song would probably mean a lot more to you if you first heard it at midnight under a full moon beneath an expanding universe, than if you first heard it in the middle of a dreary day with rain pouring down.

One of my granddaughters, some years back, who was about 8 at the time, asked me if I’d ever met the Andrew Sisters, and if I’d ever heard the song “Rum and Coca Cola.” Where she heard it, I have no idea. When I said I’d never met them, she wanted to know why. I said because I just didn’t, they weren’t here. She asked, “Where did they go?” I didn’t know what to say, so I said Cincinnati. She asked me if I would take her there to meet them. Another time, one of the others asked me if I wrote the song “Oh, Susanna.” I don’t know how she heard the song, or when, or what her relationship to it is, but she knows it and can sing it. She probably heard it on Spotify.

And since everything is at our fingertips, has streaming democratized music? Are we back to the days when “Strangers in The Night” can top “Paperback Writer” and “Paint It Black” on the pop charts?

We could very well be. There’s a sameness to everything nowadays. We seem to be in a vacuum. Everything’s become too smooth and painless. We jumped into the mainstream, the big river, with all the industrial waste, chemical debris, rocks, and mudflow, along with Brian Wilson and his brothers, Soupy Sales, and Tennessee Ernie Ford. The earth could vomit up its dead, and it could be raining blood, and we’d shrug it off, cool as cucumbers. Everything’s too easy. Just one stroke of the ring finger, middle finger, one little click, that’s all it takes, and we’re there. We’ve dropped the coin right into the slot. We’re pill poppers, cube heads and day trippers, hanging in, hanging out, gobbling blue devils, black mollies, anything we can get our hands on. Not to mention the nose candy and ganga grass. It’s all too easy, too democratic. You need a solar X-ray detector just to find somebody’s heart, see if they still have one.

What’s the gold standard for a song these days? What song will walk off with the trophy? “Paint it Black” is black as black can be, black as a crow’s head, a galvanizing song. “Paperback Writer” sounds good, too. The biographer, the ghost writer, doing it long hand. I can visualize that song; see it in my mind’s eye. “Strangers in the Night,” that, too. A couple of people who don’t know each other on the dark side of things. I don’t know which one I’d vote for. I have sympathies for them all.

There are already dozens of playlists on Spotify of the songs listed in your book, made by fans. Virtually the entire history of recorded music is available to anyone with the few touches of their finger. Try to imagine if you’d had that available to you in the 50s. How does a young creative person navigate that?

You’d just have to cruise through it the best you can, try to unravel it, feel your way in until you get somewhere. There’s a lot of outstanding music in the past. Works of genius, and much, if not all of it, has been documented. It would take more than a few lifetimes to hear it all. Musically, it would be too much to comprehend. You’d have to limit yourself and create a framework.

Do you think there is anything about the technology used today to record music that would have changed the impact or value you place on the songs you’ve included in the book, and especially the performances, or is a great song a great song?

I think a great song has the sentiments of the people in mind. When you hear it, you get a gut reaction, and an emotional one at the same time. A great song follows the logic of the heart and stays in your head long after you’ve heard it, like “Taxman,” it can be played with a full orchestra score or by a strolling minstrel, and you don’t have to be a great singer to sing it. It’s bell, book, and candle. Otherworldly. It transports you and you feel like you’re levitating. It’s close to an out of body experience.

A great song mutates, makes quantum leaps, turns up again like the prodigal son. It crosses genres. Could be punk rock, ragtime, folk-rock, or zydeco, and can be played in a lot of different styles, multiple styles. Bobby Bland could do it, Gene and Eunice, so could Rod Stewart, even Gene Autrey. Coltrane could do it wordless.

A great song is the sum of all things. It could be the turning point in your life. Louis Armstrong does it like a scat singer, Jimmie Rodgers can yodel it. It’s timeless and ageless. It’s a field holler, it’s blood and thunder, it’s on easy street and in the land of milk and honey. It’s everywhere. It can be sung by a lead singer or a backup vocalist; it’s non-discriminating. A great song touches you in secret places, strikes your innermost being, and sinks in. Hoagy Carmichael wrote great songs, so did Irving Berlin and Johnny Mercer. Some people you wish had written songs: J.Frank Dobie, Teddy Roosevelt, Arthur Conan Doyle, people like that. They probably could have written great songs but didn’t.

You write in the book that “everything is too full now; we are spoon-fed everything.” Do you think that technology aids or hinders everyday life, and especially creativity?

I think it does both. It can hamper creativity, or it can lend a helping hand and be an assistant. Creative power can be dammed up or forestalled by everyday life, ordinary life, life in the squirrel cage. A data processing machine or a software program might help you break out of that, get you over the hump, but you have to get up early.

Technology is like sorcery, it’s a magic show, conjures up spirits, it’s an extension of our body, like the wheel is an extension of our foot. But it might be the final nail driven into the coffin of civilization; we just don’t know.

Creative ability is about pulling old elements together and making something new, and I don’t believe silicon chips and passwords know anything about those elements, or where they are. You have to have a vivid imagination.

Let’s not forget, science and technology built the Parthenon, the Egyptian pyramids, the Roman coliseum, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Eiffel Tower, rockets, jets, planes, automobiles, atom bombs, weapons of mass destruction. Tesla, the great inventor, said that he could take down the Brooklyn Bridge with a small vibrator. Today, we can probably do the same thing with a pocket computer. Log in, log out, load and download; we’re all wired up.

Technology can nurture us, or it can shut us out. Creation is a funny thing. When we’re creating or inventing something, we’re more vulnerable than we’ll ever will be, eating and sleeping mean nothing. We’re in “Splendid Isolation,” like in the (Warren) Zevon song; the world of self, like Georgia O’Keefe alone in the desert. To be creative you’ve got to be unsociable and tight-assed. Not necessarily violent and ugly, just unfriendly and distracted. You’re self-sufficient and you stay focused.

Keypads and joysticks can be like millstones around your neck, or they can be supporting players; either one, you’re the judge. Creativity is a mysterious thing. It visits who it wants to visit, when it wants to, and I think that that, and that alone, gets to the heart of the matter.

You write about how so few songs of the video age went on to become standards.
Do you think music videos – which are still prevalent – ultimately hurt songwriting and songwriters?

Who is going to write standards today? A rap artist? A hip hop or rock star? A raver, a sampling expert, a pop singer? That’s music for the establishment. It’s easy listening. It just parodies real life, goes through the motions puts on an act. It’s a computer model.
A standard is something else. It’s on another level. It’s a song to look up to, a role model for other songs, maybe one in a thousand.

As far as videos go, they can hurt an artist if there’s no justification for them. For some artists, videos are necessary, they can recreate an emotional state of a song. Death songs would make great videos, like “Tell Laura I love Her.” Car songs too, like the one about the sky-blue Jaguar and the Thunderbird. There’s a Creedence song, “It Came Out of the Sky,” that would make a great science fiction movie. If you think about it, films have become the new pop music videos. Hans Zimmer, John Williams, they’re a new kind of superstar.

It doesn’t seem to me that many of the songs included in the book were written “for hire.” Do you think that them coming from a place of inspiration, rather than on deadline, helps elevate them?

Having a deadline can be terrifying. You got to pay back a loan by 12 o’clock on Thursday, have a song ready to record by 9 in the morning. Things can get completely out of hand if you don’t think it out ahead. Sometimes, you have to play for time, be cool, and believe you can do anything, then do it on your own terms.

Still, many of the writers here did work in a goal-oriented manner, or scheduled time to write / create. Do you think that’s conducive to great songwriting?

Most of the time you do it when the mood strikes you, although some writers might have a set routine. I heard Tom Paxton has one. I’ve wondered sometimes about going to visit Don McLean, see how he does it. My own method is transportable. I can write songs anywhere at any time, although some of them are completed and redefined at recording sessions, some even at live shows.

What inspired this book? Do you read books about songwriting and/or music history (and what are some standouts, in your mind)? Also, how did you choose the songs and how did you narrow your choices? Did you learn anything about the songs / artists – or even the art of songwriting – while writing the book?

I’ve read Honkers and Shouters, Nick Tosches’ Dino, Guralnick’s Elvis books, some others. But The Philosophy of Modern Song is more of a state of mind than any of those.

Some of the artists here had pretty colorful – and sometimes checkered – histories. What do you think about the current debate separating the art from the artist? Do you think a “weakness of character” can hold a songwriter back?

People of weak character are usually con artists and troublemakers; they aren’t sincere, and I don’t think they would make good songwriters. They’re selfish, always got to have the last word on everything, and I don’t know any songwriter like that. I’m unaware of the current debate about separating the art from the artist. It’s news to me. Maybe it’s an academic thing.

Is there a technology that helps you relax? For instance, do you binge on movies via Netflix, because you mention streaming films in the chapter about “My Generation”; or do you use a meditation app or workout app, especially while you’re on the road?

My problem is that I’m too relaxed, too laidback. Most of the time I feel like a flat tire; totally unmotivated, positively lifeless. I can fall asleep at any time during the day. It takes a lot to get me stimulated, and I’m an excessively sensitive person, which complicates things. I can be totally at ease one minute, and then, for no reason whatsoever, I get restless and fidgety; doesn’t seem to be any middle ground.

Two or three hours in front of the tube is a lot of binge watching for me. Too much time to be involved with the screen. Or maybe I’m too old for it.

I’ve binge watched Coronation Street, Father Brown, and some early Twilight Zones. I know they’re old-fashioned shows, but they make me feel at home. I’m not a fan of packaged programs, or news shows, so I don’t watch them. I never watch anything foul smelling or evil. Nothing disgusting; nothing dog ass. I’m a religious person. I read the scriptures a lot, meditate and pray, light candles in church. I believe in damnation and salvation, as well as predestination. The Five Books of Moses, Pauline Epistles, Invocation of the Saints, all of it.

As far as being physically active, boxing and sparing are what I’ve been doing for a while. It’s part of my life. It’s functional and detached from trends. It’s a limitless playground, and you don’t need an App.

You mention how important Ricky Nelson being on TV every week was important to his career and to rock and roll. That has been replaced by a whole new set of technologies. But, as you write, it “turns out, the best way to shut people up isn’t to take away their forum – it’s to give them all their own separate pulpits.” Do you use social media, and what do you think of Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and TikTok, which you also mention a few times?

I’m only name dropping those names. I’ve everything to learn when it comes to that. I only know the basic elements.

I think these sites bring happiness to a lot of people. Some people even discover love there. I think it’s a wonderful thing. These sites can bring pleasure and infinite joy to millions. It’s like opening a window that’s been shut forever, and letting the light in. It’s fantastic if you’re a sociable person; the communication lines are wide open. A lot of incredible things you can do on these forums. You can refashion anything, blot out memories and change history. It’s boundless. But they can divide and separate us, as well. Turn people against each other.

What was your lockdown like? You made a highly acclaimed album and released a streaming special that was quite elegant and elaborate, plus, you wrote this book, but I have to imagine a lot of it was spent at home trying to find outlets for your creativity. Did technology play a role in that?

It was a very surrealistic time, like being visited by another planet or by some mythical monster. But it was beneficial in a lot of ways, too. It eliminated a lot of hassles and personal needs; it was good having no clock. A good time to put some things to an end. I changed the door panels on an old 56 Chevy, and replaced some old floor tiles, made some landscape paintings, wrote a song called “You Don’t Say.” I listened to Peggy Lee records. Things like that. I reread “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” a few times over. What a story that is. What a poem. If there’d been any opium laying around, I probably would have been down for a while.

I listened to The Mothers of Invention record Freak Out!, that I hadn’t heard in a long, long time. What an eloquent record. “Hungry Freaks, Daddy,” and the other one, “Who Are the Brain Police,” perfect songs for the pandemic. No doubt about it, Zappa was light years ahead of his time. I’ve always thought that.

The book makes it clear that you’re a true fan of most of the artists included. But are you able to listen to music passively, or do you think maybe you are always assessing what’s special – or not – about a song and looking for potential inspiration?

That’s exactly what I do. I listen for fragments, riffs, chords, even lyrics. Anything that sounds promising.

You write about how lyrics are not necessarily poetry; that they are “meant for the ear and not for the eye.” But how important is the first line of a song?

Very important. It might not sound like something you know, but if you trust it, it will get you closer to what you do know.

Ringo Starr told me that he believes being a good musician – and songwriter – makes you good at other things – in his case cooking – because you’re in tune with your senses. What are your thoughts on that idea?

I love Ringo. He’s not a bad singer, and he’s a great musician. If I’d had him as a drummer, I would’ve been the Beatles, too. Maybe. Didn’t know he was a cook, though. That’s encouraging.

You write that, “the thing about being on the road is that you’re not bogged down by anything. Not even bad news. You give pleasure to other people, and you keep your grief to yourself.” Is that why you keep doing it?

No, it’s not the reason you do it. The reason you do it is because it’s a perfect way to stay anonymous, and still be a member of the social order. You’re the master of your fate. You manipulate reality and move through time and space with the proper attitude. It’s not an easy path to take, not fun and games, it’s no Disney World. It’s an open space, with concrete pillars and an iron floor, with obligations and sacrifices. It’s a path, and destiny put some of us on that path, in that position. It’s not for everybody.

What style of music do you think of as your first love?

Sacred music, church music, ensemble singing.

What’s your favorite genre of music these days?

It’s a combination of genres; an abundance of them. Slow ballads, fast ballads, anything that moves. Western Swing, Hillbilly, Jump Blues, Country Blues, everything. Doo-wop, the Ink Spots, the Mills Brothers, Lowland ballads, Bill Monroe, Bluegrass, Boogie-Woogie. Music historians would say when you mix it all up it’s called Rock and Roll. I guess that would be my favorite genre.

Would you like to discuss the significance of any of the artwork used in the book? 

They’re running mates to the text, involved in the same way, share the same outcome. They portray ideas and associations that you might not notice otherwise, visual interaction.

Why is the “crew from Dunkin’ Donuts” thanked?

Because they were compassionate, supportive and they went the extra mile.