The Philosophy of Modern Song by Bob Dylan (Simon & Schuster)
Review by Mark Pelavin
The second least surprising thing about The Philosophy of Modern Song, Bob Dylan’s new book, is that it’s weird. The least surprising thing? It’s brilliant.
It’s brilliant, to be clear, on its own terms. Just as Dylan does whatever he does – songwriting, performing, metal sculpture, painting, whisky making — on his own terms.
Many of the songs discussed here are familiar, such as “Tutti Frutti,” “London Calling” and “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves”; others, like Uncle Doug Macon’s “Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy” or “Ruby Are You Mad” from the Osborne Brothers are obscure. (I am not 100% convinced that Dylan didn’t just make up Uncle Doug Macon.)
Although the title The Philosophy of Modern Song promises an overarching examination of the “modern song” (which Dylan seems to define as between 1924 and 2003) the book is actually a set of reflections about – or, more accurately, inspired by – 65 songs.
The book is about songs. Not lyrics. Not performances. Not musical patterns or studio techniques. Songs are result of all of that and more; they are the unique amalgamation of all those elements. The songs discussed in “Philosophy,” are the result of all that plus a touch of magic.
Americana fans will be pleased to see the inclusion of Billy Joe Shaver’s “Willie The Wandering Gypsy and Me,” as well as Waylon and Willie’s take on Townes Van Zandt’s “Poncho and Lefty.” “Philosophy” also includes country classics like “There Stands the Glass,” “El Paso,” “On the Road Again,” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”
Dylan was born in 1941. It’s hardly shocking that he draws so heavily on songs from his own formative years, but it does give a strange prominence to the 1950’s stars who were much more at home at the Sands in Las Vegas than at the Winterland in San Francisco. Given Dylan’s fascination with Frank Sinatra, I fully expected to find his “Strangers in the Night” included here. But Dylan also writes about Perry Como, Bobby Darin (twice), Vic Damone, Bing Crosby, Eddy Arnold, Domenico Modugno (“Volare”), Dean Martin, Rosemary Clooney, and Judy Garland. Those songs alone comprise about 15% of the book. And it’s hard to escape the fact, as in this list, that women play a decidedly secondary role in Dylan’s musical universe.
Dylan loves lists. Here is a list of some of the lists included in “Philosophy” pop songs with English lyrics base on foreign melodies, pop songs based on classical melodies, songs in which the lead singer breaks down in tears during the performance,
There is not a list of songs about shoes, but there is a two-page riff on the place of shoes in modern songs (“There’s songs about new shoes, old shoes, muddy shoes, runnin’ shoes, dancing shoes, red shoes by the drugstore, and the ol’ soft-shoe”). Those two pages give you a good feel for “Philosophy,” they touch on The Prince and the Pauper, Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky (a.k.a. Iron Fleix, “trusted consort to both Lenin and Stalin,”), Snoop Dogg, the Chinese practice of footbinding, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presely, Perry Cumo, Chuck Berry, “Pradas, Bruno Maglis, or Stacy Adamses,” and Nike.
His discussion of Edwin Starr’s “War,” written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, includes A. Philip Randolph; the Peloponnesian War; Robert McNamara, Curtis LeMay and “The Fog of War;” and The Merchant of Venice. Dylan’s breathless invocation of so many texts (songs, books, movies, TV and radio shows, advertisements) can be exhausting. But it can be, and often is, exhilarating. Like one of the closest observers of his career – music critic Greil Marcus – Dylan can use references, and waves of references, to reveal what is at the core of a song.
Dylan’s knowledge of not just music but all popular culture comes off as encyclopedic. Some of that credit, surely, goes to Eddie Gorodetsky (who Dylan credits as “my fishing buddy).” Gorodetsky was Dylan’s partner on the great Theme Time Radio Hour, a radio show which is the antecedent to “Philosophy.” Gorodetsky also created, produced, or wrote for The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Darma and Gregg, The Big Bang Theory and Mom, among others. But, as Dylan might say, his is a story for another time.
There is a fascinating blind spot in Dylan’s knowledge. It ends 20 years ago. Of the 65 songs included in “Philosophy,” only one – Warren Zevon’s “Dirty Life and Times” (2003) – is from the 21st Century. His more contemporary inclusions (Elvis Costello’s “Pump it Up,” Jackson Browne’s “The Pretender,” The Clash’s “London Calling”) feel dated. “This song speaks New Speak,” Dylan writes introducing “Pump it Up.” And it absolutely did in 1978 when it was released. Today, though, whatever “New Speak” is it is being spoken by folks like Kendrick Lamar, Drake or Lizzo. Not 68-year-old White guys. Dylan’s musical world – which is vast – ends almost 20 years ago. It would have been fascinating to read what he thinks of those artists, or of songwriters like Jason Isbell, Phoebe Bridgers, or Margo Price.
“Philosophy” tells the story of, well, pretty much everything, from Dylan’s unique perspective. It forces you to think about things – songs, words, images, melodies – in new lights. Listening to music – and seeing the world – through Bob Dylan’s eyes and ears opens new levels of understanding and appreciation. So what if it turns out that there is no real “Philosophy” of modern song? Just taking a journey with this singular tour guide is more than enough.
The Philosophy of Modern Song is available everywhere, as is the audio book featuring Jeff Bridges, Steve Buscemi, John Goodman, Oscar Isaac, Helen Mirren, Rita Moreno, Sissy Spacek, Alfre Woodard, Jeffrey Wright, and Renée Zellweger.
Enjoy our previous coverage, here: Book and Music Reviews: Bob Dylan’s ‘The Philosophy of Modern Song,’ plus Tommy James and World Party