The Philosophy of Modern Song
“The book is a joy to read. You can dip in anywhere and swim about in Dylan’s brain.”
Bob Dylan’s impressive new book does a lot of things well, but if you’re looking for a coherent philosophy of modern songwriting, well, that may be hard to find in these pages. But it hardly matters because this eclectic book from the master of modern songwriting is engaging, insightful, and often funny.
The advance word from the publisher is that Dylan began writing these 60-plus essays in 2010, and now it’s finally landed.
There’s no doubt this took a lot of work to put together. It’s a generous and handsome book filled with short musings from Dylan but also handpicked photographs of artists, record stores, and who-knows-what. The photographs are not captioned, which is a little frustrating, and they’re all over the map. You might see Sir Paul McCartney as a young man in a casino or come across Einstein playing the violin.
But let’s face it. No one is buying this book for the photographs. It’s the chance to get another peek inside the mind of one of America’s greatest songwriters, and Dylan does not disappoint. He takes 66 songs—everything from “Volare” by Domenico Modugno to “Pump It Up” by Elvis Costello—and dissects them in ways you’ve likely never imagined.
Take “Ball of Confusion,” sung by The Temptations and written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong who, according to Dylan, seem never to have written a bad song. The songwriting duo also penned “I Heard It Though the Grapevine,” “War,” and “Just My Imagination” to name a few.
Dylan writes that the song is about “chaos everywhere.” Pretty obvious, but Dylan puts his own spin on it: “The atmosphere around you is exploding into pieces. More brutality more bloodshed, mob rule patrolling the streets. It’s grossing you out and makes your flesh crawl. Sonny and Cher are in your ear as well, and the beat doesn’t stop. Besides that, your wallet is missing.”
Dylan gives no explanation for why he picked these 66 songs (none of them his by the way). We don’t know if they’re his favorites. They aren’t all well known, and many readers likely will need to ask Spotify or Alexa to play some of them to either refresh their memories or hear them for the first time. From Warren Zevon, Dylan zeroes in, not on his hits, but on a song called “Dirty Life and Times” because, Dylan says, “the artistry jumps out at you like spring-loaded snakes from a gag jar of peanut brittle.”
Like any writer, Dylan has his biases. Twice divorced, he takes off on the concept of divorce when he writes about the song “Cheaper to Keep Her,” by Johnnie Taylor, written by Mack Rice. “Of course it’s cheaper to keep her. How could it not be? Divorce is a ten-billion-dollar-a-year industry. And that’s without renting a hall, hiring a band or throwing bouquets. Even without the cake that’s a lot of dough.”
In this five-page essay, Dylan doesn’t really have a lot to say about the song, but he sure lets loose on divorce lawyers. “[They] don’t care about familial bonds” he writes, “they are, by definition, in the destruction business. They destroy families. How many of them are at least tangentially responsible for teen suicides and serial killers?”
He’s much more generous to the songs, many of them you’ve probably not thought about in a long time. And that’s part of the book’s magic. Dylan is almost forcing us to listen and listen carefully to the past. Take “Come Rain or Come Shine,” sung by Judy Garland and written by Howard Arlen and Johnny Mercer. “Arlen’s melody is at once wistful and sure of itself, and Mercer’s lyric is mater-of-fact, neither overblown nor containing a shred of irony,” he writes.
He goes on to demonstrate how one song like “Come Rain or Come Shine” can be the father to many others in ways you might not expect: “The song was a big influence on Phil Spector, who took the third line, ‘High as a mountain and deep as a river,’ and made it into a musical extravaganza for Tina Turner. He called it ‘River Deep—Mountain High.’ Also, around the same time, he had the Turtles, a West Coast pop phenomenon, cop another couple of lines from the second verse of this song in their hit ‘Happy Together.’”
The book is a joy to read. You can dip in anywhere and swim about in Dylan’s brain.
But what is he trying to tell us about modern songwriting? The closest thing to an answer might be in the chapter about the song “Black Magic Woman.” Dylan zeroes in on critics who find the lyrics of pop songs less than enlightened.
He writes: “All the self-styled social critics who read lyrics in a deadpan drone to satirize their lack of profundity only show their own limitations. They are a useless as the police officer reading the transcript Lenny Bruce’s act in the courtroom during his obscenity trial. Just as that police officer misses the essential spark in Lenny’s performance, so do the others miss the magic that happens when lyrics are wed to music.”
That pairing of lyrics and music, he writes—that’s where the alchemy happens. As to what makes a song “good” in Dylan’s eyes, there’s no obvious answer. Just as there’s no clue as to why Dylan features those three performers on the cover of this book—Little Richard, Bobby Cochrane, and Alis Lesley, a forgotten-to-time performer once known as “the female Elvis Presley.” Look her up. That’s a good story in itself, not that Dylan tells it here.
If Dylan has a philosophy of modern song, it’s obscured by his storytelling and lightning quick brain. But then again, he’s doesn’t need to say a lot—he’s been giving us a master class in modern song for the better part of 60 years.