Bob Dylan’s ‘Philosophy of Modern Song’ Cannily Mixes Music History With the Hardboiled Language of Pulp Fiction: Book Review

Of the dozens or even hundreds of singers and songwriters that Bob Dylan extols in his new  book, “The Philosophy of Modern Song,” there is one that seems to stand out even more than the others, so effusive is Dylan’s praise. This performer, he writes, is “downright incredible” and “lived in every moment of every song he sang… His performance is just downright incredible. There is nothing small you can say about it… When he stood and sang, he owned the song and he shared it and we believed every single word. What more could you want from an artist?”

The artist in question: Perry Como, naturally. Dylan goes on to make the case for the crooner, who stands little danger of ever being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s influences wing, as being “anti-flavor of the week, anti-hot list and anti-bling. He was a Cadillac before the tail fins; a Colt .45, not a Glock; steak and potatoes, not California cuisine.” Even Sinatra, whom Dylan seemed in the past to revere as a patron saint, doesn’t come up in the book for quite such enthusiastic stan-dom.

So right there may be your first clue (or your hundredth, depending on whether you read the chapters in order or not — no need for that) that “The Philosophy of Modern Song” is going to be rife with hot takes. And that a lot of them will be on songs and singers dating back to eras as cool to the touch as the 1930s. Like: “Bluegrass is the other side of heavy metal.” On Elvis: “There would have been no King to be brought low without the Colonel’s hard work and unwavering faith from the beginning.” The Grateful Dead was “essentially a dance band… They have more in common with Artie Shaw and bebop than they do with the Byrds or the Stones.” And, on truly more philosophical matters: “Desire fades but traffic goes on forever.”

He’s written essays about 66 records, but probably about half of them include fascinating digressions about other songs or even other artforms. His chapter on the Drifters’ “Saturday Night at the Movies” doesn’t even mention the artist or tune, instead prompting a lengthy interlude on his favorite films (like “Ace in the Hole,” which comes up more than once). A consideration of Edwin Starr’s “War” is occasion to wax at length about the real-life masters of war, quoting Robert McNamara from “The Fog of War” in one breath and “The Merchant of Venice” in the next, before comparing battle policies of the two Bush presidencies (W’s “eye was not as clear, nor his hand as steady, as his father’s”). “Don’t Let Me Misunderstood” leads to riffs on Albert Camus’ “The Stranger” and Esperanto; at another point, the Book of Job earns Dylan’s approval as “one of the most exciting and inspirational books of the Old or New Testaments” (that ought to boost its Metacritic score).

When he is ostensibly sticking to the songs, he can still be free-associative in making fascinating comparisons — using a chapter on Charlie Poole’s blues oldie “Old and in the Way” to throw light on how it beats John Prine’s “Hello in There” because it was actually written by an old man… or how Ernie K-Doe’s “A Certain Girl” bests the Beatles’ “Do You Want to Know a Secret?” because the narrator refuses to kiss and tell, whereas the Fab Four embody the blabby “guy you need to avoid.”

He is as much of a historian, and more-than-decent rock critic, as he fancies himself — this is absolutely one of the best books about popular music ever written. But the book’s best passages (and sometimes its most delightfully or jaw-droppingly purple ones) come when he puts himself inside the minds of the songs’ protagonists. Channeling the guy in the Eagles’ “Witchy Woman,” he writes: “The lips of her (vagina) are a steep trap, and she covers you with cow shit – a real killer diller and you regard her with suspicion and fear, rightly so.” (Will Don Henley and Bernie Leadon appreciate the humorous extremes of this gynophobic exegesis?) Of Eddy Arnold’s “You Don’t Know Me”: “A serial killer would sing this song.” Of Rosemary Clooney’s “Come On-a My House,” he says, confoundingly and hilariously, “This is the song of the deviant, the pedophile, the mass murderer… this is a hoodoo song disguised as a happy pop hit.” Webb Pierce’s “There Stands the Glass,” we learn, is about a man “who doesn’t recall ever having a soul, or if he did, it’s long dead at the bottom of a lake. He fought like a savage, he stuck a bayonet into babies’ bellies and gouged out old men’s eyes. He’s been unfaithful to the human spirit and he’s assassinated priests.”

Trust us, if this does cause you to look up “There Stands the Glass” on, no prior interpreter has ever discovered or imagined eye-gouging or infant slaughter as being an element of this very economical country classic about day drinking. But Dylan’s unusual takes on even fairly innocent-seeming Top 40 songs as psychotic makes you wish his next book would be pure pulp fiction.

Anyone who listened to Dylan’s late and lamented “Theme Time” show on SiriusXM will recognize the book’s prose style. Eddie Gorodetsky, who produced that series and is said to have written some of it, is credited here as a consultant, and almost surely is responsible for many of the historical detours Dylan delves into, although we’re unlikely to ever learn much about his research or writing process. Most of the chapters are divided into two sections, one in which Dylan channels the songs’ lyrics like a paraphrasing and/or phantasmagorical beat poetic, and another in which talks about the artist’s or song’s background — but not as a rule, because he sometimes just includes one of those two parts or the other.

Some readers will find cause for disappointment or disdain in what Dylan doesn’t include in the book: many songs by female writers or performers (Cher is an exception); any hip-hop or really almost anything that post-dates Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up” or the Clash’s “London Calling,” with the exceptions of a few choice latter-day sides like Warren Zevon’s last musical death rattle. These things could indeed be counted drawbacks if Dylan were a journalist, one who’d be beholden to representation, rather than a subjective student of pop, blues, country, soul and rock who believes not every age is a golden one. His mid-century bias is apparent when a chapter about Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart” becomes a lament about truly modern song having very little philosophy. “That’s the problem with a lot of things these days,” he opines. “Everything is too full now; we are spoon-fed everything. All songs are about one thing and one thing specifically, there is no shading, no nuance, no mystery. Perhaps this is why music is not a place where people put their dreams at the moment; dreams suffocate in these airline environs.”

We should damn well hope he writes about whatever the hell he wants to write about, however much certain omissions may seem glaring once you’re out of the book’s spell. (Personally, I was hoping he’d pick a Tom T. Hall song, to make up for his odd jab at the late country writer in his MusiCares acceptance speech of a few years back, but we don’t get one of Hall’s any more than we get anything so basic or seemingly essential as a Beatles or Stones tune.)

Sometimes, not regularly, he breaks down the science of what makes a song magic. Writing about Marty Robbins’ “El Paso,” for example, he speaks of the quirkiness of “the pickup phrases between the end of the bridge and the next verse, short preludes that propel you into the ongoing story. These phrases are as important as any other words in the song.” It’s easy to imagine little asides like this prompting young songwriters who’ve wondered about the necessity of the “pre-chorus” — a phrase that probably doesn’t exist in Dylan’s vocabulary — in a different, educational way. “’Mack the Knife keeps on modulating till you think it will go through the roof,” he writes, describing the weird wizardy of that song’s mechanics more aptly than probably anyone ever has. “On the Street Where She Lives” is notable to him for its fussy but beautiful lyrical schematics: “This song is all about the three-syllable rhyme,” he notes — in the sway of Vic Damone’s recording of it, completely ignoring the song’s “My Fair Lady” origins. Not that Dylan has an anti-show tune bias, necessarily, although it’s clearly not a focus for him. Later in the book, he does reveal an eye and an ear for musicals, describing how “Where or When” was offensively sung by Mickey Rooney in blackface in the movie musical “Babes in Arms,” riffing on how lyricist Lorenz Hart’s “self-loathing” might have made him a believer in the song’s reincarnation theme.

His psychoanalyzing Hart and so many other chosen writers just about flies in the face of an assertion he makes at another point in the book: “Sometimes people ask songwriters what a song means, not realizing if they had more words to explain it they would have used them in the song.” That’s balderdash; there is always more to say about any great song, even if it comes from the writers themselves. Dylan, of course, isn’t writing a book like this to expound on his own work; about as close as he comes to self-reference is noting that “Pump It Up” has a basis in a song called “Subterranean Blues.” (Costello has often noted the debt, so Dylan isn’t taking any undue credit for the homage.) Sometimes, you sense a bit of self-reference about to come, but he stops short, as when, in talking about Johnny Paycheck, he slyly notes, “There’s lots of reasons folks change their names.”

But nearly every essay here expands on the belief that a good song creates a whole universe, whether it’s one intended by the writer or merely inferred by one or a million listeners. “The Philosophy of Song” is nearly like some kind of space travel, or glimpse through a powerful telescope, into more than 60 different galaxies, all of them strangely recognizable.

So many chapters, so many odd, wonderful choices: The Allman Brothers Band’s “Midnight Rider” chapter contains no mention of the Allman Brothers, but the dream of the song is something he believes in. Is it relevant that “Ruby, Are You Mad?” by the Osborne Brothers causes him to start thinking about assassin Jack Ruby? No, but it’s a bit of fun free association. The book is endlessly quotable, with Elvis Presley’s “Money Honey” leading himself into a second-person hustler’s monologue that concludes, “The best things in life are free, but you prefer the worst.” Anyone objecting to the book’s cavalier attitudes about men and women is probably taking things too seriously to note that his Mickey Spillane attitudes are a bit of a take-off, or put-on, of classic hardboiled prose with a side of literary bebop. In a chapter about “The Pretender,” Dylan has nothing to say about Jackson Browne at all, but does identify with his protagonist, to a Chandler-esque degree: “He sees it all, dark glasses on his face to hide his eyes. But there are no eyes, no heart or soul, only empty pits, and a voracious sex appetite.”

Anyway, anyone missing out on the humor here will be missing out on a lot. Maybe one of the best examples is how Dylan makes a left turn after initially accurately describing the tone of the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion” as completely apocalyptic, full of “blood running in the streets, earthquakes on the next block, women getting raped on the corner, spaceships taking off. Nothing fastened down. A new form of oppression every day. … Besides that, your wallet is missing.” But then, as the chapter moves along, Dylan allows for the possibility that the the singer’s frame of mind might not make him a reliable narrator: “You just might be a difficult person to get along with,” he posits.

So how self-revealing is “The Philosophy of Song”? Very, even with just a few instances of first-person pronoun; these 330 pages almost blur the line between his characteristic opacity and copious transparency. Dylan’s tone-poem chapter on Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” tells us probably more about the rationale behind his “never-ending tour” than any strict memoir likely ever would.

Touring, he writes, is about “the joy of moving, not staying anywhere. Because they don’t pay you to stay. They pay you to move. … Nobody’s mad because you didn’t take the garbage out, acaquaintances don’t just drop in unannounced, neighbors don’t give you the stink-eye every time the wind shifts.” (It’s at about this point that a reader may strain to imagine Dylan getting a death stare from his Malibu neighbors as he dumps last night’s stinky takeout in an open trash bin.)

Dylan notes that there’s nary a negative line in “On the Road Again,” but imagines a song that road-loving being informed by the unspoken aggravations and sorrows left behind. “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.” For Dylan, the tour bus and the mystery train may be one and the same.

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