In His New Book, Dylan Is an Unexpected Music Critic, And A Master Gaslighter

bob-dylan-memoir-2006 - Credit: William Claxton*
bob-dylan-memoir-2006 - Credit: William Claxton*

In the way it avoided a conventional timeline or stories behind the making of some of his best-loved albums, Bob Dylan’s 2004 book Chronicles: Volume One wasn’t a remotely traditional memoir. And let’s not even start on the whirligig prose in his Sixties head-scratcher Tarantula. Next to them, his third book, The Philosophy of Modern Song (which is out next week), would seem comparatively straightforward: essays on 66 of his favorite songs, billed, on its inner flap, as “a master class on the art and craft of songwriting.”

Dylan himself doesn’t provide any preface or introduction that explains his criteria for choosing a motley crew of songs that range from early country, blues, and MOR pop through “London Calling” and even the Cher vamp classic “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves.” We assume these are roughly 70 of his go-to recordings, and that the book is an extension of the music-geek side that emerged in his brief Theme Time Radio Show on satellite radio. But as we’ve learned, things are never simple with Dylan, and The Philosophy of Modern Song can be as much of a surprise and puzzlement as his previous books. It’s part music-appreciation class, part podcast-style rant, and as unpredictable, cranky and largely engrossing as the man himself.

Bob Dylan, 1999.
Bob Dylan, 1999.

Sprinkled with photos of record stores and record pressing plants, LP covers, Elvis postcards and similar ephemera, the book conjures a far-away world—not the Old Weird America, but the old physical media America and the songs that accompanied it. Putting on his music-critic hat, Dylan enthuses over Bobby Darin’s phrasing in “Beyond the Sea,” talks about the tightness of the arrangement in Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” and goes the High Fidelity-clerk route by praising a Temptations reissue where the backing tracks are erased, allowing us to only hear their monumental singing (“harmonies delivered with real-time precision addressing the super-real problems of the day,” as he puts it). In what amount to occasional and very geeky playlists, he muses about songs whose titles include “money,” “fools,” “crying,” and “shoes.” If you’ve ever wondered how many standards have the name “Ruby” in them, here’s your source.

Considering his recent quasi-Sinatra records, it’s no secret that Dylan loves crooners. He heaps praise on superficially innocuous Fifties balladeers like Perry Como (“downright incredible,” he gushes) and Johnnie Ray along with Americana footnotes like Jimmy Wages, who grew up with Elvis in Tupelo, Mississippi, but whose success never even remotely approached that of his friend. In a chapter on Elvis’ “Viva Las Vegas,” Dylan also comes to the defense of Colonel Tom Parker for always having faith in his client and being so devoted to him. In his dissection of Ricky Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool,” he argues that Nelson, a genuine talent but a fairly subdued singer, was more a “true ambassador of rock and roll” than Elvis, thanks to the way Nelson sang early rock tunes on his family’s sitcom.

In what amount to sidebars that accompany some of these songs, Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up” allows Dylan a tangent on how British rockers often donned suits—unlike their American counterparts, who “wore bluejeans and work boots.” Webb Pierce’s honky-tonk gem “There Stands the Glass” leads into a history of Nudie Cohn and his iconic cowboy suits, worn by country stars and Gram Parsons alike. Want to know how Dylan feels about streaming movies on a phone? You’ll get a few glimmers in his writeup of the Who’s “My Generation.” In selecting the Osborne Brothers’ hopped-up bluegrass stomper “Ruby, Are You Mad,” he makes the not unfamiliar comparison between that genre and heavy metal: the two “have not changed in decades” and that “people in their respective fields still dress like Bill Monroe and Ronnie James Dio.” (Dylan is aware of Dio? Who knew?)

But in keeping with Dylan’s lifelong devotion to turning the wheel in another direction, the book isn’t merely a run-through of songs that still enthrall a man in his eighties. In chapters on Gregg Allman’s “Midnight Rider,” the Eagles’ “Witchy Woman” and Peter Green’s “Black Magic Woman,” among others, he spins evocative, sometimes weird, tone poems about the leading characters in the songs. It’s unlikely that Don Henley and Bernie Leadon conceived of their witch as “the ancient frog who sees with her nose and smells with her tongue” and “appears in wigs, artificial eyes, jewels and cosmetics T-shirt.” But Dylan sure does (in one of several weirdly freakish such descriptions in the book), and his writing in these passages match the dark dungeon of his voice.

Sometimes he ditches the music connections entirely. Sonny Burgess’ rare, unreleased slice of jump swing and rockabilly, “Feels So Good,” results in his state-of-America rumination about the days “before America was drugged into a barely functioning torpor … If you’re wondering how a nation will fall, look to the drug dealers.” An equal-opportunity provocateur, he employs Pete Seeger’s Vietnam-war protest song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” to grumble about the tribalism of modern media, slamming both “left-wing whining” and “right-wing badgering.” To Dylan, outlets that stick with rigid political or cultural opinions are “the equivalent of letting an eight-year-old pick their own diet,” and that kid will “end up undernourished with rotted teeth and weighing 500 pounds.” Give the man a podcast, fast.

The Philosophy of Modern Song isn’t Chronicles: Volume Two, but at various stops, bits of his own philosophy of modern life do slip through. Given how intensely private he’s always been, none too happy when others speak for him, it’s easy to see how he relates to Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” as “a signal to the gate crasher, snoops and invaders—keep your nose out of here, mind your own business….” Ernie K-Doe’s 1961 ode to keeping things private, “A Certain Girl” is, in Dylan’s interpretation, about someone who “know how to keep a secret” and isn’t looking to profit off you. In case his point isn’t clear enough, he takes a little dig at the Beatles’ “Do You Want to Know a Secret.”

In his chapter on Johnnie Taylor’s Seventies soul vamp “Cheaper to Keep Her,” he devotes one page to the song, and the next four to a screed against the big-money divorce industry, which he’s been dragged into at least once in his life. Naturally he offers no personal connection to the topic, but his bitter comments (“they are, by definition, in the destruction business—they destroy families”) are some of the book’s most spiteful, and he blames that industry for paving the way for “teen suicides and serial killers.” As a resolution, he makes the case for “polygamist marriage,” for “downtrodden women with no future, battered around by the whims of a cruel society.” To ensure that feminists won’t “chase me through the village with torches,” he adds that it would be fine if the situation were reserved, meaning a breadwinning woman could marry multiple cared-for husbands. “Have at it, ladies,” he adds, knowing full well the conversations he’s just started. Is he being honest or just gaslighting us, which he’s been doing for decades?

As crazy as it may seem to make such associations, Dylan’s on to something about the allure and magic of music. Whether it’s the melody, a lyric, or the arrangement, a beloved old record can take you back in time, lead you into some pretty deep thoughts about the world or your life, or make you ponder how music itself has changed over the decades, for better or worse. So there’s a method in the seeming madness here, even when Dylan is reading way more into Jackson Browne’s “The Pretender” lyrics than even Browne imagined.

With one exception—Warren Zevon’s “Dirty Life and Times,” from the 2003 album Zevon made as the singer-songwriter was dying—every tune Dylan covers is from the 20th century. There’s no modern hip hop, contemporary pop, or post-Seventies rock and roll. He drops hints as to why that’s likely the case. In rhapsodizing over Johnnie and Jack’s 1950 country-harmony showcase “Poison Love,” he grumbles about how rock went from “actual leather-jacketed greaseballs making rockabilly records to Kiss belt buckles sold in mall stores, to Thug Life press-on tattoos.” “Your Cheatin’ Heart” leads him to gripe how there’s “no shading, no nuance, no mystery” in current music. “Perhaps that is why music is not a place where people put their dreams at the moment; dreams suffocate in these airless environs,” he writes, in full angry-God mode. For him, the tracks no longer have blood on them, although you wish someone would turn him onto some Julien Baker or Tyler, the Creator records.

As it’s been said, the music we hear in our teens tends to linger most profoundly throughout our lives, and The Philosophy of Modern Song is partly a testament to that theory, even if some of the tunes were ones Dylan heard in his twenties. Its choices feel honest. But how fascinating would it have been to read him on Taylor Swift’s complete version of “All Too Well,” the “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” of her generation, or the bleak alcohol-saturated landscape of Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools (Drank)”? The book ends up an homage to a time when vernacular forms like folk, country and blues were the rock-solid foundations of music, rather than the beats, production tricks and techniques, and soundscapes of the last few decades. The Philosophy of Modern Song literally closes the book on the way songs were written, played, recorded and sung for a long period of time. He leaves the future, and the pleasure of the now, to those who will eventually write their own versions of this book.

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