A few years ago, Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize. I worked at a grocery store then, at the hot food counter. A friend of mine named Jake was apoplectic that morning, asking why a guy who can’t even sing won the Nobel Prize. I said Dylan was important, that he’d changed the course of rock music two or three times and was maybe the most influential songwriter ever.
“But Roz,” he said, “he can’t even sing!”
I still believe what I said then, but after reading Bob Dylan’s new book The Philosophy of Modern Song, I have more sympathy for my friend’s position. Maybe Dylan can write a hell of a song, but when it comes down to explaining what makes them work and the evolution of songcraft in the 20th century, he’s got surprisingly little to say.
The hardcover comes to you in an oversized format. It’s a large, almost coffee-table sized book, and it’s packed to the brim with pictures, graphics and illustrations. Everything from photos of Johnny Cash brandishing twin pistols to Fidel Castro smiling as he holds a newspaper announcing a plot to kill him. There are many lovely shots of old record stores, of mid-century musicians, and of record covers. Visually, the book is a knockout and a pleasure to leaf through. The problems start when you get into Dylan’s text.
For one, the large part of the book is written in the second person, with a voice that’s part carnival huckster and part radio DJ. Songs are essentially rephrased in this language, taking up a lot of the book’s space. For example, here’s Dylan on “You Don’t Know Me,” a 1956 single by Eddy Arnold:
“You’re not good at chewing the fat, and you don’t want anybody putting words in your mouth, so you don’t say anything. You can’t go further in the conversation – you’re deadlocked with nothing to add.” (pg 71)
Well, you said it Bob, not me.
It is possible to write an engaging book from this perspective; famously, Jay McInerey did it in the mid 80s with Bright Lights, Big City. But it’s a hard way to explain a song, especially when it doesn’t offer any insight, just a voice that’s kind of tired, kind of bitter. Again, Dylan, this time on Santana’s version of “Black Magic Woman”:
“Her voice gets on your nerves – the low drone, the squeaking sounds, the sing-song voice can sound like a cow, a bird, a horse, or the bark of a dog. She’s well born, blue blooded, an observer of signs… She feeds on the entrails of your victims, and if you pull back her skin, you’ll see the head of an animal.” (pg 271)
Dylan’s reading of the song, of the woman as some kind of devil who makes the worst out of her man, isn’t one exactly supported by the lyrics. Most of the song is built around simple blues patterns: lines repeat and there’s an ending couplet. “She’s got me so blind, I can’t see,” sings Carlos Santana, “she’s trying to make a devil out of me.” Maybe Dylan’s projecting a little bit?
I don’t think Dylan specifically hates women, but there is a weird, almost bitter undercurrent to a lot of the interpretations throughout this book when the songs are about the other sex. Women are “foxy harlots,” and “the lips of her cunt are a steel trap.” By comparison, men are “rockin’ steady with nerves of steel.”
It all feels a little hokey, like Dylan’s trying yet another character on for size, but this one is some ancient version of a street-smart hoodlum, a guy who hawks wares from a phone booth. The kind of 1930s guy that AJ Liebling wrote about in The Jollity Building, people who were already then decades out of date.
Occasionally, Dylan manages to separate himself from this character and offer some insights into songwriting. For example, he reminds readers that lyrics are written for the ear, not the eye. At another point he explains how Johnny Paycheck could make a song his own:
“He dips down to a low baritone and then goes up into that high tenor that somehow all the years of abuse didn’t damage. He insinuates, leans in close to the microphone for a moment of heartfelt recitation, and at one point stops strumming so he can point to the heavens… before he hits a high note as pure and clear as a mountain stream.” (pg 151)
If there’s a lesson to be taken from Philosophy of Modern Song, it’s the same one you could probably have gleaned from the six discs he released from 2015-17: that maybe American song peaked in the mid-50s, in particular with the songs that Frank Sinatra performed. Indeed, this book can be seen as an extension of that project, right down to its intentional 1950s aesthetic: the old record stores, the stock imagery, the old Life Magazine covers.
It leaves one feeling conflicted. Is this supposed to be Dylan reflecting on the music that inspired him? Is it something he did in character, as part of his larger artistic project? Or is this an honest attempt at breaking down the past century in song – and If so, where are artists like Roger McGuinn, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young? Or could the simplest, meanest answer be the most likely one: that at 81, Dylan’s finally run out of things to say.
Say it ain’t so.