Context is everything, Bob Dylan says. As usual, he’s right. How does it feel to be ‘reviewing’ a book written by the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature? No pressure, yeah? Well, let’s kill that angle. The award is a joke. The Nobel committee has zero credibility. When they gave the prize to Dylan, who benefited? Not Bob. If anything, recognising him burnished the Nobel Committee’s reputation. They needed Dylan much more than he needed them because he didn’t need that shit at all, and his delayed, begrudging acceptance eradicated any doubt. The Nobel Prize! Hell, a couple of years after Dylan received that dubious honour, they gave the award to Peter Handke, a genocide denier who gave an oration at Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic’s funeral. Nice, ha?
As for Dylan’s The Philosophy of Modern Song – his first published prose work since Chronicles: Volume 1’, way back in 2004 when a Nobel for Dylan was just a pipe dream shared by a few widely-mocked academics – well, that title is a bit of a joke too. There’s very little of what we could sensibly consider ‘modern song’ in The Philosophy of Modern Song, and any ‘philosophy’ is strictly of the cracker barrel variety. That’s ok, though, because we’ve learned never to take Dylan at face value, and the title was just too pretentious to have been meant seriously. The book’s content, though, is another matter. The puzzle facing the reader as they wade through this text is whether the ‘essays’ within are intended entirely or only partly as a piss-take.
The 66 chapters in The Philosophy of Modern Song are mostly split into two distinct segments: one offers a fairly ‘straight’ account of the song or the artist, although tangential digressions (the origins of velcro; the history of the Nudie suit, etc.) are common; the other one presents what the publisher calls ‘riffs’, often written in the second person, in which Dylan indulges in free-associative musings whose relation to the song at hand ranges from spurious to nonexistent. According to the flyleaf blurb, these “dreamlike riffs” cumulatively amount to “an epic poem”, and “add to the work’s transcendence”. Transcendence, yet! Come on, Simon & Schuster, don’t sell your man short. Not every chapter contains straight and riff sections – some consist of just one or the other – but most are structured this way, with the wild and wooly riff preceding the more (but never wholly) straight writeup.
You’ll have seen other reviews, no doubt. Most have been raves. This book’s 66 chapters may just constitute the most effusively received numbered list since Moses came stumbling down the hill with his stone tablets. Spoiler alert: if you’re the sort of Dylan fan who cannot bear to think of anything he does as undeserving of 5-star reviews, look away now. Go flick through the Mondo Scripto catalog, or give Modern Times a spin. Personally, Bob Dylan is my favorite artist, from any field, from any era. However – and I’m conscious this can be a controversial statement – he’s a human being, and his work is of varying quality. There, I said it. Critics are falling over each other to compete for superlatives to garland this book. The reality, though, is that it just isn’t very good.
The length of each ‘essay’ varies quite a bit, the quality even more so. Some are quite interesting if only inasmuch as anything Bob Dylan chooses to write for publication is quite interesting. Some of these essays seem to have had some thought put into them; many feel phoned in. The riffs, in particular, are written in prose that comes across as sloppy, undisciplined, and dashed off. Atmospherically, they often read like sub-par noir pastiche. The sort of thing Raymond Chandler might have scribbled down if he’d suffered a concussion during a bad acid trip.
Artistic Deification and The Philosophy of Modern Song
As we’ve said, context is everything. The context here is one in which Dylan, once written off as a has-been, is now so universally exalted that he has long since transcended objective criticism and achieved a sort of artistic deification. This process began quite suddenly in the late 1990s. With the release of Time Out of Mind in 1997, directly following a widely publicized health scare where Dylan had reportedly ‘almost died’ of histoplasmosis, the entire mainstream media performed an abrupt, en masse volte-face, and began pretending they’d never regarded Dylan as a washed-up old has-been after all.
For long-term fans, this process was bittersweet. Watching the media turn turtle and prostrate themselves at the knobbly feet of Robert Allen Zimmerman offered endless entertainment (and no doubt gave Dylan a lot of laughs too). There was a flip side: not only did the media’s accounts of Dylan switch from being completely unreliable because they failed to appreciate him to completely unreliable because they had now begun to worship him with blind devotion. This tended to stick in the craw of those of us who had stuck with him throughout the ’80s and ’90s. As Michael Gray, who has for decades been far and away the most perceptive Dylan critic, wrote, we couldn’t help finding it “exasperating to be preached at” by the (Murdoch owned, UK) Sunday Times in 1997 “about how important an artist Bob Dylan was, after they’ve spent the last twenty years deriding hm and anybody who had kept faith with him”.
One of the weirdest aspects of this phenomenon, in hindsight, is that it didn’t fizzle out, leaving a blip in Dylan’s later career where he’d briefly been flavor of the month. Instead, it endured and intensified as time passed, to the point where today, a quarter of a century after the release of Time Out of Mind, Dylan is more universally acclaimed than in his ’60s heyday.
Indeed, Dylan is now the single most lauded, unimpeachable artist alive. Maybe even the single most unimpeachable person alive. Who could compete? Queen Elizabeth II of England might have given Dylan a run for his money had her reputation not been tarnished by standing by her egregious offspring Prince Andrew after his sleazy friendship with billionaire nonce Jeffrey Epstein. Epstein, as we know, had been exposed and had to reach an expensive out-of-court settlement to avoid going on trial to face charges of raping a teenager. Anyway, the Queen passed away recently, so all bets are off. Close, Liz, but no tiara.
Enough preamble. Let’s sample some of Dylan’s ‘poetic’ riffs. (One of these is fake: can you spot it?)
Around the globe you skyrocket, through the labyrinth. No wonder your happy heart sings. Sings the melodies with all the tonality and vibrations of the senses, Ragtime, bebop, operatic and symphonic. The sounds of violins, it’s buzzing in your ears, and it’s all in tune, in tune with your mercurial self, the bright lights of the great millennium, nowhere to go but up.”– Bob Dylan on Domenico Modugno’s “Volare“
Your desire and imagination are weathering thin, and the longer your lifeline is, there’s less guarantee that either will hold up. You question everything about yourself, but you don’t know what you’re questioning – renounce and relinquish all your thoughts, thoughts that crash into a heavy cloud of fog – thick as a brick wall, split into a million pieces and goes missing – powerful thoughts that explode like the big bang!– Bob Dylan on John Trudell’s “Doesn’t Hurt Anymore“
In this song you’re hemmed in, going round and round the loop, doing full turns – empty-headed, blind to where you’re going and stumbling through the dark. You’re loaded to the rafters, smacking and slapping at things, buttoned down, no holds barred, going nonstop in a direct line, and everybody’s patting you on the butt.– Bob Dylan on Mose Allison’s “Everybody Cryin’ Mercy“
In this song, you’re flying solo. No turning back. The rear view mirror is just a void. You trusted her, but she flew the nest first. Left you holding your dick. So now it’s just you. Help ain’t coming, and neither is rest. No cigar-chomping cops, no nightingale nurses out here amid the burning stars. No competition – except yourself. This song is feline, and its claws are out. It’s roadkill, a landslide, history’s portents spiraling in its snake eyes. She’s out there somewhere, and you just have to hope she has the faith to ring true, your treacherous little vixen.– Bob Dylan on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird“
Long Tall Sally was twelve feet tall. She was part of the old biblical days in Samaria from the tribe called the Nephilim. They were giants that lived back before the cataclysm of the flood. You can see shots of these giants’ skulls and such. There were people as tall as one-story buildings. They’ve uncovered bones of these giants in Egypt and Iraq. And she was built for speed, she could run like a deer. And Uncle John was her counterpart giant. Little Richard is a giant of a different kind, but so as not to freak anybody out he refers to himself as little so as not to scare anybody.– Bob Dylan on Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally“
That’s the entire ‘essay’ on “Long Tall Sally”, by the way: one paragraph of irrelevant twaddle. Little Richard, a titan of rock ‘n’ roll and one of Dylan’s great heroes, actually gets two entries in the book. The other one, on “Tutti Frutti”, is again very brief, makes much snickering play on the word ‘fruit’, as slang for ‘male homosexual’ and is accompanied by a photo of Carmen Mirada (the Chiquita Banana Girl) and a Cezanne still life of, you guessed it, fruit. Ho ho! It’s all a bit sophomoric and stale: is there anyone alive who likes early rock ‘n’ roll but needs to be apprised of Little Richard’s erotic proclivities or the song’s overtones of non-vanilla sex?
The So-Called Modern Song in The Philosophy of Modern Song
The song selections are eccentric. Sure, nobody expected Dylan, if he’s going to write about 66 songs, to just dutifully tick off all the obvious choices. Nonetheless, there are some perplexing inclusions. Eclecticism is all very well, but: Perry Como? Cher? Ricky Nelson? The Eagles? Come on! Odder still are the exclusions. Hank Williams makes the cut, as do Elvis and Johnny Cash. Yet here’s no Woody Guthrie, no Leadbelly, no Robert Johnson, no Chuck Berry, no Buddy Holly, no Blind Willie McTell. Very little blues, folk, or traditional song. What there is, is a surfeit of middle-of-the-road mid-century crooners. The chronological range is extremely limited. Song after song is from the ’50s. Again, critics love that this book exists not just as a text but also as a playlist. It’s perhaps surprising there is no official Spotify playlist, but there are several put together by fans, so you can listen along. Frankly, the songs discussed in The Philosophy of Modern Song don’t make for a great collection. Yes, Dylan has done the expected by doing the unexpected, but I’d rather he wrote about a much more obvious list of artists, and I’d rather listen to them too.
Eddie Gorodetsky, the Los Angeles television writer and producer who worked with Dylan on Theme Time Radio Hour and who was widely believed to have had a significant hand in writing Dylan’s scripted patter for those shows, not to mention compiling the playlists, gets a gnomic nod on the book’s dedication page: “Special thanks to my fishing buddy Eddie Gorodetsky…” So far, we can only speculate about the extent of Gorodetsky’s role. Was he involved in choosing the songs here? Did he help write the text? There are certain aspects of the ‘straight’ sections that suggest a more thorough, research-driven writing method than we might expect Dylan to have the patience for, and the prose in those sections also exhibits much more rigor and coherence. Rumors are already circulating about who may have ghostwritten some of The Philosophy of Modern Song, which is a shame. Scripting Dylan’s words for Theme Time Radio was fair enough, and we all know now about the magpie patchwork method Dylan used – very skilfully and effectively – to construct Chronicles; but presenting as his own text that of a ghostwriter would be another step, for Dylan, down the path to inauthenticity.
A similar conjecture surrounds Dylan’s paintings. Particularly with the recent ones, which mimic film stills, we may wonder where Dylan somehow finds the time, and energy, to produce so many of them. Is Dylan actually painting them at all? Is it the work of Richard Prince posing as Dylan? Or is some kid in an 87th-floor apartment in Shanghai churning them out to order? The worst aspect of all this is that the real question becomes: does it matter?
There was a minor scandal around The Philosophy of Modern Song‘s publication when expensive signed copies had to be pulled from sale at the last minute because the ‘signatures’ turned out to be AutoPen fakes. While this could have been a publisher screwup or a retailer’s con job, it’s far from difficult to conceive of Dylan knowingly perpetrating such a scam.
If any ghostwriters were involved in the ‘riff’ sections, Dylan should – like the unfortunate early purchasers of those fake signed editions – be asking for a refund. Not only is this the worst prose ever produced by a recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature, but it’s also safe to say that no novice, anonymous author would ever be able to get this stuff green-lit by a reputable publishing house.
The writing is formulaic, lazy, and repetitive. Particularly when you read many chapters in a row, you can’t help noticing this. Take, for example, that Little Richard entry and the claim that “so as not to freak anybody out, he refers to himself as little so as not to scare anybody.” There’s a lot of that sort of redundancy in these riffs, a lot of tautology. A few examples (there are dozens more): “Nobody needs to be in a quick rush, no emphasis on speediness”; “You want to be flung into a distant realm… You want to be piggy backed into another dimension”; “No other man could step into your shoes, no other man can swap places with you”; “obsolete and out of date”; “You’re never going to be sunk or go under”; “it’s time to pay, payment’s long overdue”; “Flashbacks from the past”; “Take your pick, and be selective”. Etc.
The Philosophy of Modern Song‘s So-Called Philosophy
Ah well. We are still dealing with a Bob Dylan book here, and inevitably, there are some nuggets of gold hidden in the dung heaps. When not being a crusty old curmudgeon, Dylan is still capable of coining a pithy phrase or two, and his sense of humor seems intact.
“The thing about life is it keeps going even after the headlines stop.”
“Desire fades but traffic goes on forever.”
“He was wrapped tighter than the inside of a golf ball.”
“Because, ultimately, money doesn’t matter. Nor do the things you can buy. Because no matter how many chairs you have, you only have one ass.”
Bob’s clearly been having a bit of a time at IKEA. One of the better entries is the chapter on Stephen Foster’s “Nelly Was a Lady“. Addressing the topic of bereavement, Dylan writes: “All life’s colors have darkened, and your bones feel like they’re on the body of a ghost.”
More often, though, there are statements like this: “Art is a disagreement. Money is an agreement.” It’s a good line, but does it stand up? Would it not work just as well if it were reversed? “Money is a disagreement. Art is an agreement.” One of the few chapters in The Philosophy of Modern Song that could conceivably be thought of as fitting the ‘modern song’ billing is about Elvis Costello’s “Pump it Up“. (I say ‘modern’, but it’s all relative. This is still a 44-year-old song.) Dylan manages to get in a dig at both Costello and Bruce Springsteen by suggesting that by the time he was writing this song, Costello had “obviously been listening to Springsteen too much.” By the same token, when reading instance after instance where Dylan throws out a one liner that sounds profound at first blush but ultimately leaves you wondering what – if anything – it means, you have to wonder if Dylan has perhaps been reading too much Greil Marcus.
Probably the most ridiculous of these non-sequiturs come during Dylan’s discussion of Edwin Starr’s “War“: ruminating on legacy, the sins of the father, etc. Dylan lights upon the George H.W. Bush family, which he calls “the only presidential dynasty we have had so far”. (What about the Roosevelts, Bob?) Praising – yes, praising – Bush the elder for being “swift and surgical in responding to Saddam Hussein’s aggression” (while ignoring the fact that Hussein was not toppled, and Iraq’s people, having been encouraged to revolt, were abandoned), Dylan laments that in the second Gulf War, Dubya Bush’s “eye was not as clear, nor his hand as steady as his father’s”. This then degenerates into a deeply embarrassing peroration about collective guilt, culminating in the ersatz aphorism: “And if we want to see a war criminal all we have to do is look in the mirror.” Heavy, man! It’s the sort of jejune bollocks that the ’60s Dylan would have yanked out of his typewriter, scrumpled into a tight ball, and tossed into somebody else’s trash. Maybe Donovan’s. Or Barry McGuire’s.
There are, very occasionally, sections in The Philosophy of Modern Song that touch upon the subject of songwriting, and insights can be found. “A big part of songwriting, like all writing,” Dylan tells us, “is editing – distilling thought down to essentials. Novice writers often hide behind filigree.” In the ‘straight’ section on Marty Robbins’ “El Paso“, there’s an interesting, if brief, discussion of song structure and the importance of “the pickup phrases between the end of the bridge and the next verse, short preludes that propel you into the ongoing story.”
The “El Paso” chapter may be the best entry in The Philosophy of Modern Song – one of the very few pieces of writing here that might repay prolonged analysis. One of the more intriguing aspects is how Dylan weaves the word ‘you’ in and out of the text, phasing back and forth between you as in ‘one’, you as in the second person protagonist, and you as in the listener. This, and the mixing of tenses, recalls the Norman Raeben-inspired ‘cubist’ narrative techniques Dylan employed so successfully in Blood on the Tracks.
Those more complex, thoughtful entries are the exception to The Philosophy of Modern Song, though, not the rule. Elsewhere, there are a lot of scatologies, violence, and general unpleasantness. Some reviews have hailed the prose as being of a piece with Chronicles, Theme Time Radio Hour, or even the gnarly, epigrammatic weirdness of the World Gone Wrong liner notes. None of those are very valid comparisons, though. Tonally, we are closer here to the more repugnant aspects of “Tempest”, or that batshit crazy interview Dylan gave to Mikal Gilmore of Rolling Stone in 2012, where he railed against “wussies and pussies” and blathered on about ‘transmigration’ (a word that crops up again here, in fact, along with reincarnation).
Dylan, for reasons best known to himself, spends the riff on Webb Pierce’s “There Stands the Glass” inhabiting, in third rather than second person this time, what appears to be the mind of a US soldier during and after the Vietnam War: “He sees shadowy figures in black pajamas and conical hats. He sees a little boy two years old and he murders him, he sees his buddies slit a little girl open with a knife, strip off her clothes and rape her, then he shoots her with an automatic, his horny buddy.”
You can argue that war is hell, that atrocities have to be acknowledged, and that such narratives ought not to be sugar-coated. Yes, these screeds are written ‘in character’. But the song has nothing to do with war, and the grisly narrative is purely a product of Dylan’s fevered imagination. Context is everything: writing this sort of thing in such an unserious book, one that may ultimately be nothing more than an elaborate joke, is extremely distasteful.
Is that Just Like a Woman, Bob?
The worst and most striking facet of the book is its rampant misogyny. It’s also the starkest indicator of just how much leeway people are willing to give Dylan these days. Some reviews have called the misogyny out, but mainly as a flaw in an otherwise great book. Many have simply refused to admit its existence. There’s a curious history here. Dylan has never been much of a feminist, to say the least, and in recent years (or decades), many female writers have – quite understandably – bemoaned the fact that the vast majority of ‘Dylanologists’ and critics who focus on Dylan have traditionally been men. There are, thankfully, also a lot of very successful female songwriters these days. Some of them even approach Dylan studies from a feminist perspective, which presents interesting challenges. One of the traps to be avoided is revisionism driven by wishful thinking; another inheres within the disconnect between the contemporary urge to celebrate Dylan and the reality of his current output.
Unfortunately, the online world plays host to many self-appointed Dylan gatekeepers – big fish in shallow pools – whose blind devotion to Dylan, and absolute refusal to recognise any gradations in the quality of Dylan’s output, results in them attacking, often quite viciously, anyone with the temerity to criticize anything Dylan does. These gatekeepers tend to have coteries of followers whose devotion to their social media idol is as assiduous and obsequious as the gatekeeper’s Dylan worship. Woe betide you if you dare to disagree with them. You will find yourself being monstered on social media. One self-proclaimed Dylan sage told me recently that I had no right to a view on this book’s treatment of women because I’m not a woman. No, I’m not a woman. Mea culpa. It just so happens, though, that my mother is. As is my wife, as is my daughter. Anyway, do I have to be a woman to find misogyny unappealing? Do I have to have dark skin to abhor racism?
Meanwhile, some among such gatekeepers profess to have no problem at all with, and to even enjoy, passages such as this:
“The lips of her cunt are like a steel trap, and she covers you with cow shit – a real killer-diller and you regard her with suspicion and fear, rightly so. Homely enough to stop a clock, she’s no pussycat.”– Bob Dylan on Eagles’ “Witchy Woman“
This is one of the ugliest, most offensive chapters in the book (which is saying something), and it’s difficult not to regard that dreadful, life-sapping song’s very inclusion as merely an excuse to unleash a particularly pungent blast of the sort of naked loathing of women that would make Donald Trump blush. (Yes, Dylan did praise the Eagles in his ‘interview’ with The New York Times‘ Douglas Brinkley a few years ago, but come on: can the greatest singer songwriter of all time really be an Eagles fan? Hasn’t he seen The Big Lebowski?)
The “Witchy Woman” entry may be the peak of The Philosophy of Modern Song‘s misogyny, certainly in terms of blunt language, but it’s no isolated case. Dylan’s rambling second person ‘riffs’ predominantly inhabit the viewpoint of a harried man, eternally beset by the pernicious female. In the songs, men may often be seeking, even yearning for, a woman; but the women, as depicted by Dylan, very rarely turn out to be worthy of such positive attention. This is a book that describes female characters in the songs as: “Quick-witted hellcat”; “hot-blooded sex starved wench”; “crazy bitch”; “foxy harlot”; “gold-digging showgirl”; “bare-breasted, blue veined _ short, powerful, and ugly”; “that little she goat that won’t go away”. Of one of these wretches, Dylan writes: “You want to maim and mangle her. You want to see her in agony.”
The chapter on Johnnie Taylor’s “Cheaper to Keep Her” says little about the song but does offer a five-page fulmination on alimony and lawyers, along with the complaint that “women’s rights crusaders and women’s lib lobbyists take turns putting man back on his heels until he is pinned behind the eight ball dodging the shrapnel from the smashed glass ceiling.” Dylan bemoans that while proponents have “rightly lobbied” to legalise mixed and gay marriages, “no one has fought for the only one that really counts, the polygamist marriage”. Conscious that this sort of talk may cause feminists to “chase me through the village with torches”, Dylan points out that a polygamous marriage can cut both ways, that there’s nothing to stop a woman from marrying multiple men: “Have at it, ladies. There’s another glass ceiling for you to break.”
Yet again, the reader is left wondering why this sort of thing has been published. Yes, it can be published because Dylan sells (these days) and can seemingly do no wrong. But why would anyone want to write this garbage, particularly under their name?
It isn’t just the amateur Dylan critics on Twitter, though, who seem unable to recognise, or cannot bring themselves to admit, Dylan’s long history of misogyny and, in particular, the shocking, pervasive misogyny in this book. Big name mainstream critics are at it too. As a contributor to DYLAN FM’s 25th-anniversary celebration of Time Out of Mind I was invited to attend a Reviewers Roundtable event discussing The Philosophy of Modern Song. The panel consisted of critics David Hadju, David Yaffe, Anne Margaret Daniel, Seth Rogvoy, and Allison Rapp. Respected names all. Predictably, they rhapsodized over the book and tied themselves in knots trying to deny the misogyny. The topic was discussed and acknowledged as “the elephant in the room”, but the thrust of the conversation was overwhelmingly towards shrugging it off.
At one point, Daniel pointed out that James Joyce had used the ‘c’ word in Ulysses. As is always the case with these sorts of arguments, the facts used to back them up are adduced in a highly condescending way – as if the person questioning the misogyny is an uncomprehending hick who has never heard of James Joyce. In any case, even if mentioned only as a way of excusing or eliding the undeniable, indefensible misogyny in Dylan’s book, comparisons to James Joyce are utterly preposterous. Did Joyce use the ‘c’ word in the context of a book about ‘song’ which shunned women artists? Almost every chapter The Philosophy of Modern Song focuses on a male artist singing a song written by men, featuring a male protagonist. If the near-total exclusion of blues artists is noticeable, even more striking is the failure to feature female ones. Where, for example, are Billie Holiday, Memphis Minnie, Bessie Smith, Karen Dalton, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Patti Smith, Deborah Harry, Cat Power, Fiona Apple, Aimee Mann, Kirsty MacColl, PJ Harvey, or Phoebe Bridgers?
What’s Wrong With Bob?
Many have got themselves worked up into a giddy lather over what they see as the autobiographical overtones in The Philosophy of Modern Song. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that this book is more of an autobiography than Chronicles. That’s ridiculous, of course, but there are scattered passages and recurrent themes here that can be read as relating to Dylan himself. It could scarcely have been otherwise, when the greatest songwriter of all time writes a book, however eccentric and tangential, about songs and songwriting.
Some have seized on the very first song in the book, Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City“, which Dylan describes as the story of an outsider traveling to the big city and vainly attempting to maintain the veneer of success. The very first sentence in the book is: “In this song, you’re the prodigal son.” It’s tempting to see this as a thinly veiled version of Dylan’s arrival in New York in the early ’60s (even if the protagonist here fails whereas Dylan succeeded spectacularly), and Dylan heightens this by throwing in the leading question “What is it about lapsing into narration in a song that makes you think the singer is suddenly revealing the truth?” This sort of thing really gets the Dylan idolatrars’ antennae twitching. Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” contains a number of hints that its real subject might be why Dylan has toured so much. Discussing Johnny Paycheck’s “Old Violin“, when Dylan points out that “people thought of Johnny Paycheck as a lost cause. But time and again he proved them wrong”, it’s hard not to think about how many times people wrote Bob Dylan off, and how often he proved them wrong.
Perhaps most intriguingly of all, in the chapter on Waylon Jennings’ “I’ve Always Been Crazy“, Dylan teasingly suggests that “Sometimes songs show up in a disguise.” This is grist to the mill for anyone wondering whether these essays might be about Dylan’s own works, rather than – or in addition to – the ostensible songs under discussion. Maybe the riffs would make more sense if viewed in this way? Just as placing a grille cipher stencil over a seemingly random block of text reveals a comprehensible message, should we try overlaying a Dylan song on some of the 66 songs featured here? What might be suddenly thrown into focus if, say, we took the seemingly irrelevant Vietnam War scenario from the essay on Webb Pierce’s “There Stands the Glass” and viewed it through the lens of a Dylan song such as “Tombstone Blues“? It’s an interesting game to play, and the text does contain plentiful feints and hints, which undoubtedly can be interpreted in various Dylan-related contexts. Yet even though Dylan does seem, at least some of the time, to be weaving in aspects of his own songs, methods, and history, the whole never feels like it adds up to more than the sum of these parts.
Back in the day, Dylan’s lyrics were pored over for significance, hidden meaning, and message. They were also appreciated and enjoyed on their own terms, as songs. Nowadays, many critics are suffering from a chronic case of confirmation bias. Everything has to have resonance. Nothing can be accepted for what it appears to be on the surface. It’s all so wonderful, so rich and piquant, so cunningly intertextual. Dylan could publish a book of random words, and people would find some way of interpreting it as a work of genius. He could literally slap one of these people in the face with a wet trout and they’d say “Ooooohhh…I’m getting hints of… Red River Shore, no wait… Ah, got it: Sign on the Window, right? Yeah, I see it…Clever.”
Anyway, if we were to accept The Philosophy of Modern Song as autobiographical, what would it say about its author? Overall, it wouldn’t paint a very pretty picture. A number of these essays are just straight-ahead reactionary old man diatribes, the like of which you’d normally need to visit a sports bar, or watch Fox News, to experience. Progressing through the book can make you feel as though you’ve been buttonholed at a Christmas party by your drunken, MAGA hat-wearing uncle.
Dylan equivocates politically, decrying “left-wing whining, right wing badgering”, and repeatedly disdains women’s rights. A powerful entry on Dakota Native American John Trudell’s “Doesn’t Hurt Aymore” is spoiled by Dylan complaining that “People who go on nonstop about civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, animal rights and on and on need to take a look at what America has done to the people who were here from the beginning.” Well, firstly, Bob, don’t you think the sort of people who “go on about” civil rights would generally tend to be quite sympathetic towards Native Americans? And isn’t this cri de coeur about the mistreatment of indigenous people a bit rich coming from the author of ‘Neighborhood Bully’?
Dylan even gets in a dig at the Irish, too, which seems like a poor return for all he’s drawn from that particular cultural well over the years, indulging in a tasteless joke about the Famine: “Nowadays, nervous breakdown is a laughably broad term for a panoply of conditions, and the individual peculiarities of the human condition are sliced thinner than a potato during the Great Irish Famine of the 1840s.”
I wonder what the Clancy Brothers would have made of that? Dylan tries to preempt any criticism this may draw by pointing out its factual basis, as if that makes it ok: “Which some people will, no doubt, also view as politically incorrect caricature even though the potato was a cheap staple of the Irish population and was decimated by a fungus….” Well yes indeed, Bob, which is why many people do not regard the million or so men, women and children who died in the Famine as much of a laughing matter. It’s shocking, and depressing, to see Dylan pulling out that rancid old right-wing trope of ‘political correctness’. But it is, sadly, undeniably in keeping with the general tone of the book.
He Who Laughs Last
They say if you’re in a poker game and, looking around the table, you can’t determine who the mark is – it’s you. If you’re a credulous reader of The Philosophy of Modern Song and wonder what Dylan and his buddy Eddie Gorodetsky are ‘fishing’ for – it’s you. The fawners who profess themselves unable to recognize the misogyny, who refuse to admit that not everything Dylan creates is a masterpiece, act as though Dylan has access to some sort of artistic spigot which, with one deft flick of the great man’s wrist, can be opened at will and an endless stream of pure genius dispensed. One reviewer said of these essays that “Each is a band of light, the whole is a spectrum exploding from the prism that is Robert Zimmerman’s magnificent brain.” Wow. Watch out for that shrapnel!
The disconnect between critical reception and actual reader experience here reminds me of Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue, which received better reviews than Citizen Kane but was marred by the inclusion of a number of dreary, time-wasting subplots about fictitious characters such as the purported director Van Dorp, and his habit of eating other people’s catered lunches. Those of us who weren’t exactly cock-a-hoop over Scorsese’s film were condemned as just not ‘getting it’, and forced to listen to patronizing explanations that Dylan has always played games with masks, identity, tall tales, etc. No shit, really? Bob Dylan? I always had him down as such a straight shooter. Go know, right? While gritting my teeth at the way that ill-conceived film was greeted by critics, it occurred to me how different the reception might have been if a less exalted filmmaker than Scorsese – Woody Allen, say – had produced a film in which one of the ‘jokes’ revolved around Bob Dylan seducing a teenage Sharon Stone. Equally, can there be any doubt how much outcry there would be if Woody Allen had published a book with phrases such as “the lips of her cunt are like a steel trap” in it?
Reading the reviews The Philosophy of Modern Song has received, some fun can be had playing hyperbole bingo. One reviewer called it “absolutely one of the best books about popular music ever written.” Another compared it favorably to Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. As James Joyce himself might have said, “For fuck sake catch yourselves on!”
In a way, you can’t blame music critics or the mainstream media for being so craven: they were wrong about Dylan once, and now that they’ve flipped they have to stick with him. It’s baffling, though, to see so many Dylan fans and writers refusing to condemn, or even acknowledge, the sneering misogyny on display here. Context is everything. Dylan is peddling this bilge in a United States that recently elected a fascist President who openly reveled in his virulent hatred of women. This shit matters. Think this book isn’t misogynistic? Wake up and smell the Supreme Court.
It’s possible that there are nuances or subtleties to The Philosophy of Modern Song that have passed me by: I’ve only had two weeks to live with it, and we all know how much has been found by people digging through previous Dylan texts. However, it also seems equally plausible that the entire purpose of The Philosophy of Modern Song’ other than raking in cash, is for Dylan to see just how far he will be allowed to go, just how much offensive balderdash he can pump out and have received rapturously by the media. For Dylan, this may be just another of his puckish, postmodern japes, another strand of his performance art, and no doubt he does enjoy watching critics dance to his tune like performing monkeys.
Perhaps I’m being too po-faced in thinking that, had Dylan taken the writing of this book with just a scintilla of the seriousness with which it has been reviewed, it could have been so much more worthwhile. Maybe it’s not such a big deal. Who cares what Dylan does? Pretty sure he doesn’t give two shits about me. So what if Dylan wants to dilute his legacy by naming a range of expensive whiskeys “Heaven’s Door”, advertising lingerie, or selling doodles of Cinderella sweeping up on Desolation Row? Maybe he needs the money. He certainly seems to have a hard-on for divorce lawyers.
For fans who really value what’s best in Bob Dylan, who care because of how their lives have been enhanced by Dylan’s art, and who know an Emperor’s new outfit when they see one, The Philosophy of Modern Song feels like a terrible, not to mention embarrassing, missed opportunity. Rather than a collection of random gibberish and sub-Trumpian rants, this really could have been one of the best books ever written about music. Chronicles was certainly that. Put it this way, if in terms of literary value Chronicles was the equivalent of Dylan’s genuinely transcendent 1966 European tour, The Philosophy of Modern Song is more like the humiliating calamity of Live Aid. Sad!