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Bob Dylan Remains Hard to Pin Down with ‘The Philosophy of Modern Song’

In The Philosophy of Modern Song, Bob Dylan conveys his thoughts in his signature styles, as in his lyrics, he can be plainspoken, gnomic, and over the top.

The Philosophy of Modern Song
Bob Dylan
Simon & Schuster
November 2022

Like countless Bob Dylan fans, I’ve been awaiting the sequel to Chronicles, the entertaining if embellished account of his early years that he published in 2004. Dylan subtitled the book Volume One, so when I read earlier this year that he had written a new book, I thought, well, finally, Volume Two. But instead, the Nobel laureate’s new literary effort would consist of his thoughts on 66 songs, famous and obscure, that he plucked from his record collection.

I’m sure I wasn’t alone in thinking that’s not what I waited 18 years for, not what I wanted. But as the English philosopher Michael Philip Jagger instructed us, though wants may go unmet, sometimes needs are fulfilled. Yet did we need Dylan’s song exegeses more than him telling us about the making of his masterpieces Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde, all missing from Volume One?

Once I got over my initial disappointment, it occurred to me that, yes, who wouldn’t want to dive into Dylan’s appraisals of records he loves and that influenced his art? “Records” is the key term since The Philosophy of Modern Song is about the recorded versions of the songs he’s selected, focusing on the artists’ interpretations as much, and often more, than the songwriting itself. At its best, The Philosophy of Modern Song offers brilliant and idiosyncratic ruminations that will enlighten and surprise you and crack you up. At other times, you’ll find it off-putting, even objectionable.

That’s Dylan. As his early-’60s paramour, Suze Rotolo, wrote, “Bob always did as he saw fit. He was rarely swayed by outside demands or requests. He went where he wanted to go, even if it meant alienating his public, fans, friends, and lovers.” Keep that in mind as you read The Philosophy of Modern Song. (Reviewer’s note: in using the second person, I’m following Dylan’s example. He often directly addresses his readers, creating an illusion of intimacy and enlisting us in his responses to the songs so that they matter to us as they do to him.)

Each song gets a chapter that unfolds in two parts: Dylan riffs on what the song is about (or rather, what it means to him) and then gives you the recording’s backstory, information about the artist, and often—but maybe not enough—critical analysis. The book’s title notwithstanding, Dylan provides no overarching philosophy but an abundance of ideas and opinions that define an aesthetic, a morality, and a point of view. He tells us that to understand a song, the most important thing is not an artist’s autobiography or the words’ meaning but “how it makes you feel about your own life.”

Dylan conveys his thoughts in his signature style, or rather, styles, since here, as in his lyrics, he can be plainspoken, gnomic, and over the top. Fans of his Theme Time Radio Hour, the weekly one-hour satellite radio show he hosted from 2006 to 2009, will hear its echoes in his deeply informed but casually erudite commentary and his voice, which is engaging, ironic, prickly, and laugh-out-loud funny. On the show, he sometimes came off as a standup comic, or better, a Borscht Belt tummler, spitting corny jokes worthy of Henny Youngman. There are a lot of laughs in The Philosophy of Modern Song, and like on his radio show, they’re pegged to a theme or idea. Riffing on Elvis Presley’s “Money Honey”, Dylan says cash ultimately doesn’t matter, nor do the things you can buy with it “because no matter how many chairs you have, you only have one ass.”  

As you’d expect, Dylan’s picks cover the music he loves most, which has had the greatest influence on his work: rock ‘n roll, country, blues, R&B, folk, and mid-20th century pop. You won’t find evaluations of rap, trap, K-pop, reggaeton, or Taylor Swift. Nor jazz, despite his professed admiration for  Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Clifford Brown, and others. Only three of his picks come from the 21st century— John Trudell’s “Doesn’t Hurt Anymore”(2001), Warren Zevon’s “Dirty Life and Times” (2003), and blues artist Alvin Youngblood Hart’s “Nelly Was  Lady” (2004), written by Stephen Foster in 1849 and the oldest song under review. Only four of his 60 choices were recorded by women: “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves” (Cher), “Come on-a My House” (Rosemary Clooney), “Don’t Let me Be Misunderstood” (Nina Simone), and “Come Rain or Come Shine” (Judy Garland).

Dylan can be tough on artists whose work he admires. Elvis Costello’s “Pump it Up” is “intense and as well-groomed as can be,” qualities he finds lacking in much of Costello’s writing: “Too much in his songs for anybody to actually land on. Too many thoughts, way too wordy. Too many ideas that just bang up against themselves.” (Dylan has been accused, mostly unfairly, of the same faults, but on Costello, his aim is true.) The Clash’s “London Calling” is “probably” the band “at their best and most relevant,” but “a lot of their songs are overblown, overwritten, well-intentioned.”

No such ambivalence tempers his appreciation of Ricky Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool”. Dylan ponders the emotions the song conjures up for “you” (“You went on a spree and left a trail of sensitive violated hearts…”), and cites a few of the many songs about fools (“Aretha contemplates her place in a chain of fools”), and then rhapsodizes over Nelson as “a true all-American boy” who arguably was “the true ambassador of rock and roll,” even more than Elvis, because “Ricky was in your house every week,” performing with his band on his parents’ popular 1950s television show, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.

An astute critic most of the time, our philosopher of song can stumble, and so he does in the chapter on Little Walter’s “Key to the Highway”. Marion Walter Jacobs revolutionized the sound of the harmonica in blues music by playing through a mic and amplifier, using amplification not just for volume but to create new sounds unheard of in blues, including jazzy tone colors and distortion. He also was a skilled guitarist and a fine, understated singer. Dylan, however, bizarrely rates him a better vocalist than Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and suggests that Walter was, of all the Chess Records artists, “the only one with real substance.” This is just perverse. Waters, Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Sonny Boy Williamson, Willie Dixon, Etta James, and Jimmy Rogers—of all these artists, only Little Walter was substantial?

Dylan’s elevation of Little Walter above monumental figures like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf rests on a dubious assumption that restraint – as a singer Walter eschewed big emotional expression, no howlin’ and no hollering for him – conveys more authentic feeling, is more substantial than Wolf’s and Waters’ extroverted styles and flamboyant personas. The same assumption underlines “Goodbye Jimmy Reed”, a track on Dylan’s recent album Rough and Rowdy Ways. In one verse, Dylan assumes the persona of the eponymous bluesman—who was rejected by Chess when he auditioned for the label—“You won’t amount to much, the people all said/ ’Cause I didn’t play guitar behind my head/ Never pandered, never acted proud/ Never took off my shoes, throw ’em in the crowd.” Putting on a show is pandering, and refusing to do so demonstrates artistic integrity.

Dylan’s shows these days seem to follow this credo; a performer who used to talk to his audiences and even had some comic routines now rarely acknowledges the paying customers or even his band members. Dylan is 81, and no one expects him to play guitar behind his head (or play it at all these days) or cavort like Mick Jagger still does. You could say that hearing Dylan perform his indelible songs with his excellent band is enough. A live musical performance is a collaborative event, though, involving artist and audience, both taking part in what musicologist Christopher Small called the act of “musicking”. You wish Dylan would remember that; a little animation on stage wouldn’t hurt, either.    

Dylan is not immune to self-contradiction, and he does extol one of the most outrageous showmen in the history of American pop, Little Richard. His too-brief chapter on “Tutti Frutti” predictably opens with the famous nonsense syllables that shook the world in 1955: “A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop, A-wop-bam-boom!” “Little Richard was speaking in tongues across the airwaves before anyone knew what was happening,” Dylan observes. He acknowledges that Richard was gay (or “homosexual”) and that the women he namechecks in the song are drag queens (or “transvestites”). But he doesn’t give you the song’s backstory. Its original lyrics were about anal sex: “Tutti Frutti, good booty/ If it don’t fit, don’t force it/ You can grease it, make it easy”. “Tutti Frutti” became a hit with bowdlerized lyrics—”good booty” became “aw rootie”—and its success surprised Little Richard. “Sure, it used to crack the crowds up when I sang it in the clubs, with those risqué lyrics. But I never thought it would be a hit, even with the lyrics cleaned up.” Dylan surely knows the song’s history; for whatever reason—an aversion to writing about gay buttsex?—he ignores it.

The Philosophy of Modern Song also has a gender problem. Besides selecting only four recordings by female singers, Dylan too often refers to women as witches and harlots. Musing on the Eagles’ “Witchy Woman”, he envisions her thus: “The lips of her cunt are a steel trap, and she covers you with cow shit—a real killer-diller and you regard her with suspicion and fear, rightly so.” The chapter on Johnnie Taylor’s “Cheaper to Keep Her” opens with smart observations about soul music and then devolves into a diatribe about the “divorce industry” and its lawyers, ending with a paean to polygamy. Dylan anticipates objections, but “before the feminists chase me through the village with torches,” he asks us to consider two points: a “downtrodden woman” would be better off as one of a rich man’s wives than “friendless on the street depending on government stamps”; and that polygamist marriage doesn’t have to be “male singular female plural.” Although that’s the way polygamy operates in the real world, Dylan recommends it for women: “Have at it, ladies. There’s another glass ceiling for you to break.”

Dylan’s at his best when he sticks closely to interpreting lyrics and explaining how words and music work together. He’s masterful in explicating the hidden meanings in song lyrics, the Gnosticism of pop, as in the chapter on Eddie Arnold’s “You Don’t Know Me”. His discussion of  the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion” is a pleasure to read, as is his tribute to composers Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield, who, with that 1970 world-beater that “is just as true now as the day it was recorded,” wrote “one of the few non-embarrassing songs of social awareness.”  

“Volare (Nel blu dipinto di blu)”, Domenico Modugno’s 1958 international hit, inspires some of Dylan’s most lyrical writing and smartest critical commentary. He thinks it “could have been one of the first hallucinogenic songs, predating Jefferson Airplane’s ‘White Rabbit’ by at least ten years.” The Italian lyrics prompt him to consider how “certain languages sing better than others.” German “is fine for a certain type of beer-fest oompah polka but give me Italian with its chewy caramel vowels and melodious polysyllabic vocabulary.” “Volare”, a “seduction in Italian”, has a “sumptuous” sound; the recording is “full of disparate elements but never cluttered.” Modugno’s vocal “is all about dynamics—one moment soft whispers of intimacy, the next joyous exaltation, an interlude of recitation followed by wistfulness that translates without language.”

There are many other gems throughout The Philosophy of Modern Song. The chapter on Johnny Paycheck and his signature hit “Take this Job and Shove It” elicits some of Dylan’s most heartfelt writing while making a compelling case for Paycheck as a major country artist. Notwithstanding his advice not to look for a song’s meaning in its composer’s or performer’s autobiography, Dylan persuasively connects Townes Van Zandt’s personal history to his songwriting. He convinces you of the significance of an obscure artist like Jimmy Wages (“Take Me From this Garden of Evil”). A sidebar to the chapter on country singer Webb Pierce’s “There Stands the Glass” hails a non-musician, Nuta Kotlyarenko, a Ukrainian Jewish immigrant who reinvented himself as Nudie, the fashion designer who created the stage attire of Pierce and some of the biggest names in country music.

Politically, Dylan has always been hard to pin down. His early ‘60s protest songs were more about sympathy for the oppressed and anger at injustice than any ideological worldview. Leftists claimed the young Dylan as one of their own, but he always refused to be an avatar of any cause or movement. Still, Dylan dedicates three chapters of The Philosophy of Modern Song to left-wing artists and their songs: The Fugs’ “CIA Man”, Pete Seeger’s anti-Vietnam war protest “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”, and Native American singer-songwriter and activist John Trudell and his “Doesn’t Hurt Anymore”.  

Dylan has a thing for Italian American pop singers of the mid-20th century, especially Frank Sinatra. He devotes two chapters each to Sinatra and Bobby Darin (Frank “just about invented the Roman Catholic Church” whereas Bobby was “merely an altar boy”) and also covers Vic Damone and Perry Como. In The Philosophy of Modern Song‘s last chapter, about Dion di Mucci’s version of “Where or When”, Dylan comes closest to making a philosophical statement about music. At one point in the song, Dion takes a solo without the backing harmonies of the Belmonts, and his unaccompanied voice “captures that moment of shimmering persistence of memory in a way the printed word can only hint at.” Music is like that; “it is of a time but also timeless; a thing with which to make memories and the memory itself. Though we seldom consider it, music is built in time as surely as a sculptor or welder works in physical space. Music transcends time by living within it, just as reincarnation allows us to transcend life by living it again and again.”

RATING 7 / 10