Let’s get lyrical: Bob Dylan presents dreamlike commentaries
on sixty-six songs.
The Philosophy of Modern Song, by Bob Dylan, Simon & Schuster,
339 pages, $45
• • •
Bob Dylan’s new book is called The Philosophy of Modern Song, and it is, superficially, a blend of the self-mythologizing from his memoir Chronicles (2004) and the purple grumble of his Theme Time Radio Hour show. Though this survey is allegedly about other people’s work, it plays as a fractured memoir and punch list of nightmares. Dylan writes here about sixty-six songs, most recorded in the fifties or sixties, and what begins as a set of interpretations ends up as a sour little diary.
Dylan has told us many times about his life as a student of song and, on this score, he does not kid. Who started covering Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in live shows? Bob Dylan, in 1988, three years before John Cale recorded his version. Dylan can hear things that we cannot. He is, in a way that he is with little else, patient with songs, even when he seems to fear what they suggest.
It goes like this: Dylan discusses a song in his own voice and then follows up with some light reporting and criticism. He has come not to give us any real lessons on songwriting (ignore the book’s title) but to inhabit these songs and talk to them, to write until his own impressions jog something loose. Almost every entry is addressed to “you,” which is plausibly the listener or the narrator of the song, but ultimately seems like his way of talking to himself.
The first track Dylan covers is country singer Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City,” which was released in 1963. Dylan writes that “in this song you’re the prodigal son.” That idea isn’t in Bare’s lyrics, but Dylan was a prodigal son in 1963. I hear Bobby Zimmerman grappling with having become Bob Dylan rather than Bob Dylan imagining being Bobby Bare. “From the postcards and junk mail that you dashed off, everybody assumes you’re a bigwig, that things are cool and beautiful, but they’re not, and the disgrace of failure is overwhelming,” Dylan writes. That sense of failure is in Bare’s words but not in the tone of the recording, which is a wistful country song about an autoworker, softer than it is bitter. Dylan also manages to turn Bare’s laborer into someone who seems to be doing a lot of press conferences: “You want to go home, where they’ll embrace you and take you in. Nobody will ask you for an explanation. No one’s going to pepper you with relentless questions.”
Here is his riff on Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up”: “You’re the alienated hero who’s been taken for a ride by a quick-witted little hellcat, the hot-blooded sex starved wench that you depended on so much, who failed you.” “Pump It Up,” aside from being the kind of amphetamine word salad Costello gobbled and sold for seven straight years, is about a sexual obsession that involves no mention of starved or failing women. Dylan provides that.
Each of the sixty-six numbers gets a few pages at most, so your stay in each of Bob’s dream worlds is brief. The texts are tricked out with lots of mid-century Americana, like movie stills and photos of record stores. The bit on Elvis Presley’s “Money Honey” is a fireside chat with the CEO of the Bob Dylan Fund, maybe defensive about selling off his songwriting catalog. “Money depends on the scarcity of what props it up for its value, but isn’t that also an illusion?” Bob is singing to every crypto sucker and anybody who owns a dollar bill. He does wander back to the song, wondering aloud if the Drifters sang “Money Honey” better. Dylan never describes the sound here, which is weird for a record that features some of Presley’s most slapping slapback echo. This is a book about lyrics, when it’s about the songs at all.
Often, Dylan gives us a speculative leap, which is fine. We all make them. (“Volare” inspires a few pages about a “biological mutation” who can fly, “barnstorming through dimensions.”) But for some reason, he turns the narrator of “There Stands the Glass,” sung by Webb Pierce in 1953, and written by Russ Hull, Mary Jean Shurtz, and Autry Greisham, into a soldier. Pierce served in the air force, but there is nothing in the lyrics, not a word, that suggests soldiers or war. Here is, I am sorry to report, Dylan’s vision: “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.” He goes on to spend most of his “song analysis” on a discussion of Nudie suits, dispatching the music with two sentences.
Dylan seems generally allergic to describing how things sound. His “Ball of Confusion” is a repetitive riff that spends almost three pages parsing the not very complicated lyrics. He doesn’t even try to describe the tension between the rhythm track (crushing and motile), the vocals (elevated), and the lyrics (anxious). He makes one reference to the “backing tracks” and that’s it for the band. Dylan writes about modern songs as if they were not indivisible from modern recordings, a critical failure in a book that engages in criticism freely and of its own accord. But he’s a lyrics guy—fair play. I wish I had learned something about lyrics from this book.
What Dylan does here is tell us about his obsessions with very little filtering. I enjoy it (not that anyone needs to do so) when he does his Dragnet voice-over for this bit on the Clash’s “London Calling”: “It wouldn’t be the same as Rome calling or Paris calling or Copenhagen calling or Buenos Aires, or Sydney, or even Moscow. You can pass off all these calls with somebody saying, ‘Take a message, we’ll call back.’ But not with London calling.” I also like it when he becomes an opinion columnist in the course of his “Blue Suede Shoes” thinking: “There are more songs about shoes than there are about hats, pants, and dresses combined.” There is simply no way Dylan fact-checked this and I think that’s fine. For Dylan, there are more shoes than hats.
When Dylan talks about Warren Zevon’s “Dirty Life and Times,” the most recently written song here, from 2003, what do we think Dylan is talking about? “Now your body is failing—losing fire and virility—there’s an empty space at the center of yourself. You’re saying a long farewell to greatness, piling the ashes of your life into the corner.” His entry on “My Generation” is more explicit. He begins his analysis with “This is a song that does no favors for anyone, and casts doubt on everything.” Aside from being too loose to hug the song, that sentence does not in any way suggest this jacked up and vital music by the Who. Before he rambles on about watching movies on your phone and trying to define “generation,” Dylan makes it clear why he’s shown up at all. It could be us or the songwriter or the narrator, sure, but we know who this is: “In reality, you’re an eighty-year-old man, being wheeled around in a home for the elderly, and the nurses are getting on your nerves.” Dylan channels Daltrey and tells the nurses to “all just fade away,” and then admits who he sees and what he is doing. “You’re talking about your generation, sermonizing, giving a discourse. Straight talk, eyeball to eyeball.” It is, in fact, you, babe.
Sasha Frere-Jones is a musician and writer from New York. His memoir, Earlier, will be published by Semiotext(e) in the fall of 2023.