If you only glanced at the title of Bob Dylan’s semi-new book, you might think it is called The Philosophy of Bob Dylan rather than The Philosophy of Modern Song by Bob Dylan.
Strictly speaking, you would be wrong. In terms of understanding the book, you would be right.
Dylan’s long-awaited The Philosophy of Modern Song, a kind of belated sequel to his wonderful 2004 memoir Chronicles, uses 66 songs as launching pads for riffs on human relationships, the merits and backstories of underappreciated artists, the seductive allure of blue suede shoes, the enduring power of old movies and whatever else that these (and probably other) songs trigger in his restless mind.
You might not want to hear Uncle Albert ramble on about all this, but Bob Dylan has been saying things worth hearing for the past 60 years, and he’s done it again here.
He also talks about the songs, some more than others, with an informed and appreciative voice. But one of the keys to appreciating Philosophy of Modern Song lies in an almost incidental line from the chapter on “Black Magic Woman.”
“The argument can be made that the more you study music the less you understand it,” Dylan writes. “Take two people — one studies contrapuntal music, the other cries when they hear a sad song. Which of the two really understands music better?”
That dovetails perfectly with Dylan’s lifelong response to people who ask him what his songs mean, a question that on a good day can amuse him and on a bad day just annoys him. At another point in Philosophy he suggests that it’s a question no songwriter can answer. If more explanation were needed beyond what’s already in the lyrics, Dylan writes, the songwriter would have included it. What’s there is all the songwriter has to say, or wants to say.
So even when Dylan writes at length about a song itself, as he does with “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” or “Blue Bayou,” his explanations often read like an expanded paraphrase of what he sees the writer having already put there. Since Dylan has been fascinated by the pure sound of words back to “Subterranean Homesick Blues” or “I Want You,” several chapters here — “Feel So Good,” “Poor Little Fool,” “On the Street Where You Live,” others — read like an explosion of words, great Dylan phrases interwoven with clichés into which he breathes fresh life.
As all this suggests, Philosophy isn’t greatest hits. It isn’t desert island discs. It’s songs about which Dylan feels like he can say something we might not have heard or thought before, or maybe something that we’ve all thought before, but can use an exclamation mark.
The Beatles and the Rolling Stones are not to be found here. Elvis is represented by “Money Honey” and “Viva Las Vegas,” not “Mystery Train” or “Can’t Help Falling In Love.” That means Dylan passes on the Drifters’s original version of “Money Honey,” but then he gets back to the Drifters with “Saturday Night At the Movies.” For “You Don’t Know Me,” he picks the Eddy Arnold version over Ray Charles, who is represented by “I Got A Woman.” Bobby Darin gets two songs, Sinatra only one, “Strangers In the Night,” a song Frank hated. Rosemary Clooney gets “Come On-a My House,” a song Clooney hated. The chapter on irresistible bad-news women plays off “Witchy Woman,” not “That’s All Right Mama” or “Unchain My Heart.”
You won’t find “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” or “Layla” or “Stairway to Heaven” or “He Stopped Loving Her Today” or most of the songs that top greatest-of-all-time lists. Instead, Dylan picks “Gypsys, Tramps and Thieves,” “The Little White Cloud That Cried” and “Volare.”
Some he picks because he loves them, like “The Pretender,” “Truckin’ ” or “Big River.” He raves about Platters lead singer Tony Williams and Willie Nelson. Sometimes he says almost nothing about a song itself, but uses its subject to dissect the insanity of war (“War”), societal neglect of the elderly (“Old and in the Way”), the nature of loss (“Old Violin”) or crimes perpetrated on Native Americans (“Doesn’t Hurt Any More”).
Brief aside: If you ever find yourself seated next to Bob Dylan on a long train ride, do not bring up “Cheaper to Keep Her” if you don’t want to get him started on divorce.
The tone of Philosophy, like Chronicles, is conversational with an asterisk. Dylan is doing most of the talking. That’s okay. He’s good at it.
No, he doesn’t score every time and yes, there are passages where he can’t restrain his inner contrarian. He’s a contrarian to himself, musing at one point that good food makes a good meal, then immediately adding, nah, it’s good company. And as with any book of this sort, the chapters will mean more if you know the song he’s writing about. No matter. Once you add the bonus of incredibly cool pictures that track the last century of musical and cultural Americana, The Philosophy of Modern Song crafts the kind of game where you don’t want to miss a pitch.