The Philosophy of Modern Song, Bob Dylan, Simon & Schuster
I’ve been a Dylan fan for over fifty years, have seen him in concert on numerous occasions, including that memorable night in London’s Earl Court in 1981. I enjoyed his Chronicles Volume 1 and hoped against hope we’d see volume 2 sometime.
So I was delighted when my daughter bought me The Philosophy of Modern Song for my birthday. The book is sumptuously presented, in large size hardback format, with a glossy dust cover and beautifully weighted pages. It’s jam-packed with lovely illustrations and photographs, all in a matt finish. So, as a physical book, it definitely makes for a nice present.
It’s not, as you might imagine, any sort of dissertation on the art of modern song-writing. Rather, it consists of Dylan’s musings on sixty-six songs, mostly from the nineteen fifties and sixties, and I consumed the book day-by-day beside my Amazon Echo, asking Alexa to play each song as I went along. I confess to not being familiar with most of the songs, so it was a delight to dip in to this cornucopia of Dylan’s musical whimsy and be transported to another musical era.
Dylan can write well – he’s won the Nobel prize for literature, so I guess that oughtn’t to be a surprise – and gives us two or three pages on each song. If you’ve ever listened to Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Show, you can practically hear Dylan read the words to you.
Often we get some background on the artist – so I now know a little bit about a Bobby Darin or a Marty Robbins – as well as Dylan’s thoughts about the song. These can be just sheer whimsy, or amusing, or almost philosophical. Sometimes it’s quite unintelligible (try his comments on religion on the song If You Don’t Know Me By Now); but there are occasional moments of deep insight – I liked this from the commentary on Harry McClintock’s Jesse James: “Criminals can wear badges, army uniforms, or even sit in the House of Representatives. They can be billionaires, corporate raiders or stockbroker analysts. Even medical doctors.”
And his take on Edwin Starr’s War, one of the longest essays in the book, is thoughtful and measured, with some forthright comment on American two Gulf wars and the responsibilities of democracy.
There’s genuine warmth here too, for artists like Johnny Cash, Dean Martin and Roy Orbison, and the sheer depth of Dylan’s knowledge of modern American music is nothing short of remarkable.
But there are also moments that are jarring. Take a comment on Elvis’s Money, Honey for example. Dylan says, “ultimately money doesn’t matter.” Well, OK for you to say, who’s just sold your back catalogue for about $200m. So rich that Dylan can be out of touch with the majority of people in the world who hardly have enough money to get by and to whom money matters a heck of a lot.
Dylan also seems, at times, to have a rather dark imagination. At times I was brought up short by his interpretation of a song, which appeared to me to be much more innocent than Dylan’s thought world.
And then there is the sexism. Now to be fair, when you’re commenting on songs from the 50s or 60s that now feel rather sexist, your comments might simply be reflective of the lyrics. Nevertheless the comments about hard women, teasing women, women with a short fuse, women waiting for her man to come home from work, “foxy” women, two-faced beauties…and so it goes on…become more than a little wearing. I really can’t imagine any woman enjoying this.
Particularly jarring is the chapter on Johnnie Taylor’s 1973 Cheaper to Keep Her. This is an obnoxious little song and even the choice of it is questionable, because Dylan certainly doesn’t use it to be critical of it in any way. Actually he doubles down on the sexism and androcentrism of the song, going off on an extended riff about marriage and divorce, which ends up giving a shout out to polygamy. This is pretty distasteful, as is his appallingly insensitive comment about childless marriages: “A couple who has no children, that’s not a marriage. They are just two friends.”
Out of sixty-six songs in the book, remarkably only four are by women. The Nina Simone song Dylan chose was Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, which actually was written by a man, Horace Ott, on the occasion of feeling misunderstood by his wife after they’d had an argument (poor man). Simone changed the lyric from “Baby, don’t you know I’m human, And I’ve got thoughts like any other man” to “anyone“. Still, a pretty poor choice from all the great songs Nina Simone sang,
Still, Dylan does note insightfully, “But the song has taken on more meanings as Nina’s measured, defiant delivery has been adopted by some as an understated social equality anthem. Songs can do that…”
So, it’s a pretty mixed bag from Dylan. A great idea presenting a rather random catalogue of old songs for today’s readers to check out and enjoy. Some hugely enjoyable and at times insightful and amusing comments from Dylan. But hand-in-hand we get some truly jarring and distasteful moments. Oh, and did I mention the f-bombs here and there? Not really needed, Bob.
There’s a lot to enjoy here, but sadly much to skip over. Someone tell him, the times, they are a-changin’.