Bob Dylan’s new book, The Philosophy of Modern Song, gives us his take on sixty-six different songs, delivered by means of a variety of quasi-poetic riffs and short essays. And that’s certainly what it is: his take. This is an intensely personal collection of writings. Dylan’s always been known for being guarded (although I think that theme’s been overdone at times). It is striking, however, that he seems here at his most relaxed and open, just writing about songs and what they mean to him, in addition to following some of the tangents they proffer.
The stream-of-consciousness pieces toss out images, characters and scenarios that the songs evoke for Bob, and these are quite rich and far reaching (as great songs can be when they work in our soul). The prose essays generally make for spirited good reading, with amusing and sometimes ornery digressions from the topic of the song in question. On occasion, however, there are lines that are jarringly boilerplate in nature.
Bob Dylan is clearly a consummate fan of popular music, and other brands as well. That was revealed for anyone who needed to know it years back when he hosted the delightfully contrived radio show, “Theme Time Radio Hour,” putting a hundred odd episodes in posterity’s can. Doubtless the commentary he came up with for the records he played then led to the idea for this book (and indeed a number of the people involved with the production and packaging of the book are former collaborators on “Theme Time Radio”).
Later, he recorded those Sinatra songbook albums: five LPs worth of popular songs from the pre-rock’n’roll era, put down with breathtaking passion and a stunning level of artistry.
Dylan can in fact be presumed to have the kind of gargantuan music collection—accompanied by books about his favorite performers—that, after he kicks the bucket, will cause his next-of-kin to curse him as they have to haul it out to the sidewalk for the Sanitation Department to pick up. He’s obviously one of those people who can listen to music in the morning, the afternoon, the evening and the deep dark night. As music fans ourselves, we can relate to that. Songs, records, favorite performers: they’re with us through bad times and good, through our childhood, stormy adolescence, love affairs and heartbreaks, successes and setbacks, the dreams realized, and the ones hopelessly lost. Many of the same recordings sound subtly different to us as the years and decades pass; this is due, perhaps, not only to the loss of frequencies in our hearing, but also our ever-deepening appreciation, through life experience, of what those songs were and are about.
Dylan, naturally, is the same. “The Philosophy of Modern Song”? (Not even “a” philosophy, mind you, but the philosophy.) The portentous title is a diversion and a gag, very typical of Bob. I would suggest that a more accurate (but somewhat less amusing) title would be, “The Joy I Have Found in Music”—by Bobby Zimmerman. He could have written this book if he’d never become Bob Dylan (although he is very unlikely to have found a publisher). It is not an attempt to offer a definitive or objective take on anything. It is not some deeply researched and scrupulously footnoted tome that would be part of a college curriculum on popular music (not that those can particularly be trusted either). It certainly is a love letter to the music that has meant so much to him.
Most of us will never get to sit down and have a conversation with Bob Dylan about music, or anything else, but much of what is in this book evokes those conversations we may have with longtime friends and fellow musical aficionados, oddball or otherwise. We share favorites, we trade takes, we make some statements that are serious, and others that are for laughs. We recall details and trivia that we read somewhere in a book that’s no longer in print, or that we heard someone say on the radio who-knows-how-many years ago. We share some of how a record affects us, where we were when we first heard it, why this version of the song is so much better than someone else’s version—what it all may mean. We argue and BS and laugh and come out of it all a little bit expanded, somehow.
Along the way, we might feel moved to jump on top of the couch and forcefully advocate for something we know no one else will agree with, just because we feel called in the moment to do so.
“Perry Como lived in every moment of every song he sang […] When he stood and sang, he owned the song and he shared it and we believed every word.” (page 13)
Other times we’ll slip in something deep and meaningful to ourselves—then quickly move on lest we choke up.
“The greatest of the prayer songs is ‘The Lord’s Prayer.’ None of these songs come even close.” (page 184)
And other subjects will come and go and we’ll take them on with our pearls of wisdom and one-liners.
“People keep talking about making America great again. Maybe they should start with the movies.” (page 317)
We might get passionate and genuinely angry.
“But divorce lawyers don’t care about familial bonds […] They destroy families. How many of them are at least tangentially responsible for teen suicides and serial killers?” (page 118) Then we sip our drink, light a cigarette, and propose our ingenious solution to the entire problem of divorces and broken families: polygamy! For both sexes.
Then a record comes on—“Your Cheatin’ Heart”—and we go back to the music, and to contemplating just why this particular record is so damn good.
“The song seems slower than it is because Hank doesn’t let the band lead him. The tension between the chug of the near-polka rhythm and the sadness in Hank’s voice drives it home.” (page 166)
I think that you could approach this book just as that kind of conversation with Bob, where he is speaking to you as his intimate friend. Sometimes he’s being serious, and sometimes he’s winding you up. Except here you’re only getting his side of the conversation. You can feel free to interject your responses and/or objections. Bob won’t hear you, but he’ll be glad you bought the book.
Absent the photos and other paraphernalia, this would be a lightweight tome, and I imagine some critics will dismiss the content as lightweight too. Still, some very lovely things can weigh very little: a butterfly, a snowflake, a fine cigar. For those who appreciate it, there’s plenty to enjoy in this very personal little book by Bob, and all the more if one doesn’t squint painfully at it and take it all too seriously. The breathless declarations by the publisher along the lines that it is “a momentous artistic achievement” may be doing it a disservice in that respect, but so goes the never-ending hype machine.
Dylan does know a lot of stuff about music, of-course, and so there are some genuinely revelatory moments. And, unlike most of us, he actually has met and been friendly with quite a few of the artists he writes about here. It’s notable, however, that he never leans on that personal experience in the text. There’s no: “as Frank Sinatra confided to me when he had me over for dinner,” or: “I have it on good authority from Johnny Cash himself …”. He limits himself to the evidence of the songs and recordings themselves, and what is, generally speaking, the public record.
Will anyone learn “the philosophy of modern song” by reading this book? Well, taken as a whole, you probably would soak up some of whatever that is, because it’s surely in between the lines here somewhere. But I also think it’s the same thing you’d soak up by just listening to the truly great popular music of the past one hundred years: living with it, learning of it, crying with it, moving to it, and treasuring it as the dear and faithful friend it can surely be through time.
That’s what Bob Dylan did.