January 11, 2023

Bob Dylan — Tangled Up in Blew By You

By Stuart Mitchner

Some things that happen for the first time
Seem to be happening again

“I feel like I’ve already written about this song before,” Bob Dylan says of Rodgers and Hart’s “Where Or When,” which he saved for the last chapter of The Philosophy of Modern Song (Simon & Schuster $45). “But that’s understandable” because it “dances around the outskirts of our memory drawing us in with images of the familiar being repeated and beguiling us with lives not yet lived.”

“It’s a song of reincarnation,” Dylan adds, referring to Dion and the Belmonts’ 1959 rendition of a number first performed in the 1937 Broadway musical Babes in Arms. “History keeps repeating itself, and every moment of life is the same moment, with more than one level of meaning.” At this point, Dylan slips into the second person, as he does throughout the book and in some of his greatest songs, including “Like a Rolling Stone”: “You were having a discourse, rambling on, thinking out loud, discussing things, letting your hair down, having eyeball to eyeball encounters, playing peekaboo — going backwards, forwards, to and fro — without any difference, with an inkling that it all happened earlier, but you can’t pinpoint the location the district or the region, and now it’s happening again ….”

In fact, Dylan’s new book can be read as a coda to his acclaimed memoir Chronicles: Volume One (2004), which features scattered comments on innumerable songs and musicians, a practice he continued from 2006 to 2009 on Sirius XM’s “Theme Time Radio Hour” and again in “Murder Most Foul” (2020), the almost 17-minute-long epic that includes punning riffs on song and film titles and events of the sixties in a powerful reimagining of Kennedy’s assassination.

Dylan’s Women

Some reviewers have criticized Dylan for giving scant coverage to female songwriters and performers and for the crude, pulp-purple language with which he treats the female subjects of songs like the Eagles’ “Witchy Woman” (1972). Dylan offsets his “bad fairy, evil genius” image of Santana’s “Black Magic Woman” (1970), however, with an appreciation of Leigh Brackett, an unheralded female screenwriter who “wrote for the science fiction pulps in the early forties” and helped William Faulkner “navigate the labyrinthine plot” of Howard Hawks’s classic film noir The Big Sleep.

Women also help drive the dynamic of Dylan’s own real-life noir “Murder Most Foul,” with its couplets on Etta James, Dizzy Miss Lizzie, Little Suzie, Patsy Cline and the Acid Queen. All through his work, from “Girl of the North Country” to “Mother of Muses,” it’s the women who charm, disarm, amaze, seduce, betray, illuminate, and mystify you.

Who’s That Girl?

There’s a mystery on the cover of The Philosophy of Modern Song. Even if you aren’t particularly conversant with the history of rock, you’ll probably recognize Little Richard and possibly Eddie “Summertime Blues” Cochran, but what about the girl standing between them holding a guitar and smiling out at you? Imagine all the countless readers who have wondered “Who’s that girl?” during the months the book has been in stores and on the New York Times best-seller list. You’d think the publisher of a tome as abundantly illustrated as this one would provide an identifying caption. Apparently it was Dylan’s idea to keep her identity a mystery; surely he had to realize that curious readers would check on Google and YouTube and find Alys Lesley, billed as “the female Elvis” during her brief career (“Lesley rhymes with Presley”). Alys, also known as Alice, was 19 at the time of Little Richard’s 1957 Australian tour, when a Sydney photographer snapped the photo that landed on the cover of Philosophy of Modern Song well over half a century later.

It’s an odd sort of diversion from the book’s stated purpose — taking time out to investigate this all but unknown performer, this mystery girl, to look through online photos of her hanging out with Elvis and doing charming, acrobatic, barefoot moves onstage, and to wonder why you never heard of her. You can hear her Elvis-style rockabilly single, “He Will Come Back to Me” b/w “Heartbreak Harry” on the YouTube juke box, as well as her more appealing renditions of “So Afraid,” “Handsome Man,” ‘Why Do I Feel This Way” and “Don’t Burn Your Bridges.” In 1959, at 21, she retired (“I don’t want to grow old in show business”), finished her education, did some teaching and missionary work in Arizona, and is still “with us.”

So how is it that Alys Lesley, of all people, has been plucked from obscurity and put on the cover of a book with a weighty title that’s being chastised for its insufficient coverage of female performers?

“Blew By You”

A quick inventory of the women given a place in Dylan’s philosophy includes Nina Simone, Rosemary Clooney, Judy Garland, and Cher. There are full page photos of Elizabeth Taylor in a still from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf; Pier Angeli, who broke James Dean’s heart when she married Vic Damone; Ava Gardner looming over Frank Sinatra. The singer Linda Ronstadt is mentioned in the piece on Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou” (1963), a place “close to heaven that lingers in your head,” and all you want is to get back to “that sweet little angel, the girl next door, who you left standing by the gum tree in the wetland swamps. Back to her music, her religion and her culture.”

Dylan offers only half a page about “the operatic swoop” of Orbison’s voice and Ronstadt’s “terrific” cover version. Next thing he’s telling you is that a baseball dictionary lists “Linda Ronstadt” as a synonym for a fastball because “it blew by you.” Except for when the Twins announcer Herb Carneal was doing play by play, says Minnesota native Dylan, and whenever “the opposing team’s batter would take a strike off a fastball, Herb would giddily exclaim, ‘Thank you, Roy Orbison.’” Whatever that nugget of baseball lore may lack in philosophical weight, it’s an amusing example of the sort of cultural cross-fertilization that enlivens and enriches both Dylan’s lyrics and his prose.

Dreaming of Ruby

The Osborne Brothers’ spectacular “Ruby, Are You Mad?” more than lives up to Dylan’s inspired description. Although his excitement is all about the “Ruby, Ruby honey” of the song, released as a single in 1956, he links its frantic dynamic to the notorious photo of Jack Ruby gut-shooting Lee Harvey Oswald on the facing page: “This song speaks in the mother tongue at breakneck speed — rapid quick fire, hardcore, and irresistible — close as it comes to alchemy and reckons what it’s worth. Right on point, it’s keen to drive you mad, and it’s all about Ruby.”

After all the sound and fury, Dylan doubles down on “Bobby Osborne’s daredevil vocal swoops, sustained notes, and the drive of the twin banjos with lightning runs combined to make something so staggeringly propulsive it would most likely make Yngwie Malmsteen scratch his head. This is speed metal without the embarrassment of Spandex and junior high school devil worship.”

Now go listen to “Ruby, Are You Mad?” on YouTube and be astonished, especially if, like me, you’re a virtual stranger to bluegrass.

Johnny’s Old Violin

When Dylan is personally or philosophically engaged by a subject he’ll often bypass his characteristic performative opening for relatively straightforward prose. He does this with aging and ageism (he’s 81, remember) when he comes to Charlie Poole’s “Old and Only in the Way” (1928), concluding: “There was a time when the elderly were respected and looked upon for their wisdom and experience. But no more. Some people say that the people who make up the modern world are basically disobedient children — they don’t seem to understand that they too someday will be old and in the way.”

Digging into a song with a similar theme, Dylan devotes one of his longest, most thoughtful essays to Johnny Paycheck’s “Old Violin” (1986). After reading it, put your imaginary dime in the YouTube slot — you who, again, are a stranger to both singer and song — and feel a chill every time Johnny looks in the mirror and sings in a voice as big as life of “an old violin soon to be put away and never played again.” And so wrapped up is Dylan in his five-page commentary that he once again skips the customary second-person fireworks display, adds a photo of Albert Einstein playing his own old violin, and closes with a gracious appreciation: “This is as gallant, generous, and faithful a performance as you’ll ever hear.”

Another Mystery

In a Q&A about The Philosophy of Modern Song on bobdylan.com, Jeff Slate of the Wall Street Journal asks, “How do you discover new music these days?” Dylan replies that he walks into things intuitively “when I’m most likely not looking for anything.” Among the examples he mentions (“obscure artists, obscure songs”) is “Janis Martin, the female Elvis. Have you heard of her?”

It gets “curiouser and curiouser” as another Alice once said. You have to think that Slate would have asked about the smiling girl on the cover and that Dylan preferred to leave Alys Lesley, the first female Elvis, “a complete unknown.”