On the Off-Ramp to Weirdness City with “The Philosophy of Modern Song”

Fred Bals
18 min readDec 11, 2022

This one is for Sonny Webster, Ben Rollins, Nina Fitzgerald-Washington, Lester Hawkins, and all the gang at Elmo’s.

“Being a writer is not something one chooses to do. It’s something you just do and sometimes people stop and notice.” ~ Bob Dylan

The Holy Trinity

“There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”

The ghost of Elvis Presley haunts Bob Dylan’s “The Philosophy of Modern Song.” If you count the chapter featuring his namesake, the word “Elvis” appears 57 times in “Philosophy.” The King himself claims 47 of those mentions. In comparison, the next closest contender is Frank Sinatra, whose name Dylan invokes a mere 15 times.

The frontispiece of “Philosophy” features Presley — or a Presley look-a-like — in a Memphis record shop contemplating “Here’s Little Richard,” a long-playing album which includes both “Tutti-Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally.”

“A Tribute to James Dean,” a quickie exploitation LP of instrumental selections from Dean’s three movies issued after his death, can be seen directly under Little Richard’s album.

You could guess that both records might be found in 16-year-old Bobby Zimmerman’s Hibbing bedroom in 1957. If there had been a photo of the Holy Trinity of Little Richard, Elvis, and James Dean together — the artist the young Dylan wanted to become; the artist he later feared he could become; and the artist who stopped time when he died in a road accident — that photo might be gracing the cover of “The Philosophy of Modern Song” instead of the next-best substitute that designer Coco Shinomiya could find.

The “Go-Go Guy” and the “Bye-Bye Gal” in the Fun Capital of the World

Ironically, there’s no picture of Elvis accompanying the “Viva Las Vegas” essay. Instead in we get a photo of mop-top Paul McCartney trying his luck against a one-armed bandit as well as some stock shots of gamblers. You kinda wish there was at least…

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Fred Bals

Corporate Storyteller. Tech enthusiast. Mini Cooper fanboy. One-time chronicler of Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour. Husband of Peggy. Human of Lily Rose.