He might be the single most written-about musician in the history of popular music, but Bob Dylan has long had a sideline as a sort of music critic himself. The opening of his first book, 1971’s Tarantula, a collection of Beat prose-poetry rambles, is about Aretha Franklin: “aretha/ crystal jukebox queen of hymn & him diffused in drunk transfusion wound.” Then there was his so-called memoir, 2004’s Chronicles: Volume One—there’s been no sign of a volume two. It’s an enthralling farrago of fabrications and tangents that occasionally, when it circles back to his early life on the Greenwich Village folk scene, offers rare bits of vivid personal disclosure, including meditations on artists and songs that helped shape him.
Dylan has also talked cryptically, crankily, but eloquently about music in many interviews and speeches, on his 2006–09 satellite radio show Theme Time Radio Hour, and in the liner notes to his albums, particularly his 1993 folk and blues covers album World Gone Wrong. His songs themselves are often glosses on the warehouse of music in his head, as on his nearly 17-minute 2020 single “Murder Most Foul”—improbably the sole Dylan song ever to top a Billboard chart—which begins as an invocation of Jack Kennedy’s assassination and metamorphosizes into a metaphysical DJ set that name-checks some 74 songs and artists.
Now, almost exactly 18 years after Chronicles, he’s gone all the way with his new The Philosophy of Modern Song, an entire tome of wild, erratic writing about music that is sure to bedazzle and befuddle. It consists of 66 short essays on specific songs—or, rather significantly, specific recordings. As he writes in the chapter about Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou”: “Sometimes songs can be slippery in the studio—they can go right through your fingers. Some of our favorite records are mediocre songs at best that somehow came alive when the tape was running.”
Why did Dylan decide to write it? Who knows. There’s no introduction to elucidate. The book is dedicated to the late songwriter Doc Pomus but also offers special thanks to “all the crew at Dunkin’ Donuts.” Maybe it’s just being 81 and keen to pontificate. Maybe it’s a shadow rebuttal to those who sneered at his being awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2016.
Dylan’s Nobel obviously wasn’t for his books. He’s probably the only laureate who, in any given year, is the subject of more published volumes than he’s ever penned. Without music, his quicksilver collages of imagery, narrative, rhetoric, and wisecrack are far more prone to come off as bullshit. As a listener, I don’t care that the real-life Dylan is probably kind of a dick. As a reader, it is harder to overlook.
I’d still advise Dylan fans and the Bob-curious to jump on this bumpy ride. This is Dylan in crate-digging mode, curating material that he’s repurposed and rung his changes on over the decades, much like a rapper rhyming over a funk sample. In David Remnick’s New Yorker piece last week about Dylan, Remnick quotes the singer, from a 2004 interview with the Los Angeles Times’ Robert Hilburn, explaining how he writes songs by “playing” old tunes obsessively in his head until they transmogrify into something new. Most chapters here unfold in two parts, an initial discourse in which Dylan riffs on what the song is about, and then a sidebar of sorts on the record’s background, artist, or other related themes. In the book’s best riff sections, you nearly witness that songwriting process in action.
Take the one on Carl Perkins’ version of “Blue Suede Shoes,” which builds hilariously to the point where the titular footwear is like a holy grail: “These shoes are not like other shifty things that perish or change or transform themselves. They symbolize church and state, and have the substance of the universe in them. … They neither move nor speak, yet they vibrate with life, and contain the infinite power of the sun.” In the more prosaic sidebar, Dylan observes that suede shoes were the kind of luxury a poor person could afford: “Has any article of clothing ever said more plainly that it wasn’t meant for the farm, that it wasn’t made to step in pig shit?” However, he notes, Perkins was too much of a bumpkin to make the impact on rock ’n’ roll that the more urban “feral whiff” of Elvis Presley did: “Carl wrote this song, but if Elvis was alive today, he’d be the one to have a deal with Nike.”
In the case of Presley’s own “Money Honey,” on the other hand, skip past the riff to the sidebar, which opens with the sharp proposition “Art is a disagreement. Money is an agreement.” Dylan goes on: “That’s why there can be no such thing as a national art form. In the attempt, we can feel the sanding of the edges, the endeavor to include all opinions, the hope not to offend.” Given Dylan’s record of copy-and-pasting lines he’s picked up elsewhere into his songs and prose alike, some of that (or anything else in the book) may be pilfered, but if so, it’s well stolen.
At the least, the book makes for a hell of a mixtape. Within its limits, that is. Across picks from 1924 to 2003, but dominated by the 1950s of his youth, there’s lots of country, blues, soul, rock, and crooner pop, and a couple of nods to punk (Elvis Costello and the Clash). Jazz is absent, despite Dylan’s professed love of Miles Davis. There’s also no rap, a form Dylan influenced via the likes of Gil Scott-Heron, and one whose tumbling verbiage he ought to appreciate. Instead, his passing references are dismissive.
It gets worse. Dylan frequently goes off on old-man rants about the supposed shallowness of culture today compared with the good old days of his youth. Over and over, he repulsively characterizes women as vixens, bloodsuckers, or just plain shrews. You might argue he’s channeling the songs he’s writing about—the Eagles’ “Witchy Woman,” for instance, but why is that crap song in here, anyway? Elsewhere he’s surely trolling, as he always has: for example, when he caps a diatribe of bitterness about divorce lawyers prompted by Johnnie Taylor’s “Cheaper to Keep Her” by advocating polygamy as an alternative. But he focuses on records by women in a paltry four of these 66 chapters—no Aretha here—and when he does admit them, it’s usually to woolgather about some other theme rather than to consider the artists themselves, as he does with so many of the men. He says next to nothing about Nina Simone’s performance of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” preferring to complain vaguely about his own disgruntlement at being misconstrued.
Some of those aspects are predictable if you’ve heard, say, “Just Like a Woman.” But they are symptoms of the book’s indulgences. Half the time, one part of each chapter, usually the riff, could have been excised. Some of them launch from the song into intoxicating Dylanesque dreams reminiscent of the experimentalism of Tarantula, but others redundantly paraphrase the lyrical content of the song itself or repeat tricks we’ve seen just a few pages earlier—most often far-out apocalyptic hyperbole. It’s one thing to claim that Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” is “a song of genocide, where you’re led by your nose into a nuclear war, ground zero, New Mexico where the first atom bomb was tested. Land of witchcraft, Crazy Cat Mountain, and the El Paso gate of death.” It’s another to say, “This is the song of the deviant, the pedophile, the mass murderer,” when you are talking about “Come On-a My House” by Rosemary Clooney. The effect, no matter whether poetical or comical, wears as thin as a Hermann Hesse paperback in the rear pocket of an old hippie’s Levis.
Judicious cuts would have made this handsome coffee-table consumer item feel less substantial—it’s also full of period photos and pictures that, uncaptioned, act less as illustrations than historical montage-style allusions. But the verbal padding makes it boring to read straight through; I’d recommend skimming and dipping over an extended time.
Insights into Dylan’s own artistry are here, but they’re camouflaged or winked at. He never mentions when a song is one he’s performed himself in the past, such as “Jesse James” or Tommy Edwards’ “It’s All in the Game.” It’s amusing when Dylan trashes the Who’s “My Generation” for its youthful arrogance, knowing that he’s the one who wrote the generational call to arms “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” And in the chapter on Judy Garland’s version of Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “Come Rain or Come Shine,” he writes, “During the sixties, it was popular for self-important scene-makers to belittle so-called Tin Pan Alley hacks. … As is often the case, the facile got lumped in with the truly talented.” Dylan was, of course, one of those self-important scenesters. In the past decade, he’s recorded three full albums of Tin Pan Alley standards, but in 1963, on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, he drawled: “Unlike most of the songs nowadays that have been written up in Tin Pan Alley … this was written somewhere down in the United States.” Even in 1984, he proclaimed: “Tin Pan Alley is gone. I put an end to it. People can record their own songs now.” But there’s never been any reward in calling Dylan on his contradictions. As he quoted Walt Whitman on his latest studio album, “I contain multitudes.”
Often, the closest he gets to self-revelation is talking about that fluidity. In the chapter on his buddy Johnny Cash’s “Big River,” he begins, “Well-meaning people can suffocate you with praise.” He grouses about how Cash’s late-career American Recordings series, produced by Rick Rubin, led to Cash being reduced to his stark “Man in Black” persona, to the exclusion of his humor and generosity. Dylan more than sympathizes. And in the closing chapter on Dion, Dylan writes about that singer’s self-reinventions across decades, offering his own manifesto: “The profanity, the shallowness, being born—reborn and born again, the regeneration of it all. That’s the ultimate aim.”
I wish there were far more here about his understanding of craft. It’s refreshing when he writes about Bobby Darin’s or Hank Williams’ phrasing or the arrangement of the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion.” My Fair Lady’s “On the Street Where You Live,” he notices, is “all about the three-syllable rhyme.” That’s a far cry better than his claim in the riff part that this swoony Broadway ballad is about how “you fell for the foxy harlot.”
As a writer about music, Dylan’s strengths are his sensitivities to history and musical technique. His weaknesses feel like bad imitations of some of his own finest critics. Chiefly Greil Marcus, who has written more and better about Dylan than just about anyone, most recently in Folk Music: A Bob Dylan Biography in Seven Songs, which came out last month. Marcus’ stylistic traits jump out from Dylan’s riff sections: an imperious second person that assumes that how “you” experience a song is universal rather than particular, the way his metaphors spiral by stages up to existential extremes, the recasting of mundane lyrics as surreal archetypes out of hidden and forgotten pasts.
Slate receives a commission when you purchase items using the links on this page. Thank you for your support.
Anyone thinking Philosophy proves that Dylan can out-critic his critics should go read Folk Music. Calling that book a biography is itself a Dylanesque joke, and it is far from Marcus’ best about Dylan (that’s probably still The Old, Weird America). But Marcus’ erudition and lateral-thinking acrobatics are evident as Folk Music navigates, for instance, the space between 1964’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’ ” and 2000’s “Things Have Changed.” Or when it investigates the possible link between the “Desolation Row” line “They’re selling postcards of the hanging” and a 1920 lynching in Minnesota that Dylan’s father could conceivably have attended as a child. Dylan’s speculative leaps in his own book are, in comparison, rank amateurism. Yet Marcus’ methods and style must partly derive in the first place from the model of Dylan lyrics. Dylan’s music, in turn, incorporates, answers, and resists such analyses. Their dialogue plays out one possible ideal of the symbiotic dynamic between art and criticism as creative forms.
In his introduction to Folk Music, Marcus writes, “The engine of [Dylan’s] songs is empathy: the desire and the ability to enter other lives, even to restage and re-enact the dramas others have played out, in search of different endings.” Maybe, but empathy is not the word I’d use. It feels suited to a more humanist Dylan successor such as John Prine, mentioned but not singled out in The Philosophy of Modern Song. Dylan’s gift is more the “negative capability” John Keats found in Shakespeare. With his seemingly detached relationship to his own selfhood, Dylan flagrantly traverses boundaries other people might back away from. It’s as much the realm of the con artist as of the empath. It’s the trickster cool that lets him write a book as unhinged as this one with some semblance of a straight face, and makes so many of us eager to follow along, whatever our better instincts, to flirt with how it might feel to be so unnervingly free.