Someone Has to Say It: Bob Dylan’s New Book Would Have Been Better as a Podcast
Natalia Holtzman Isn’t Sure We Really Needed The Philosophy of Modern Song
Some people may say otherwise, but Bob Dylan is my boyfriend.
As such, certain loyalties are, let’s say, in play, try as I might—and I will try—to out-run them. The real truth of the matter is that I will struggle to give Bob Dylan a bad review—or even to effectively assess whether he deserves one—because I have been horrifically in love with him for almost 20 years. Listen: given the circumstances, we do what we can, each and every one of us.
The Philosophy of Modern Song is a mistitled coffee-table book. There isn’t really any philosophy (whatever that is) in this book and, dust jacket claims to the contrary, it is not “a master class on the art and craft of songwriting.” The book is organized into a series of one-to-three-page essays on pop, rock, country, folk, and blues songs, mostly American and British.
Some songs are also paired with a riff: a second-person improvisation inspired by the lyrics or mood or tone of a given song. “You’re the spoofer, the playactor, the two-faced fraud—” he writes alongside Mose Allison’s “Everybody Cryin’ Mercy”: “—the stool pigeon, the scandalmonger—the prowler and the rat—the human trafficker and the car jacker.” These are informal musings and unrehearsed ramblings, some more coherent than others.
The book has its charms. For one thing, there are lots of pictures. For another, Bob Dylan can be funny. He says Jimmy Wages’ “Take Me from This Garden of Evil,” is about “hypnotized masses of people, and dyed-in-the-wool assholes, and the singer wants to be delivered from it, who wouldn’t.” And he can be punny in an eye-rolling, groan-worthy way, as when he riffs on Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes”: “You’d like to be on good footing with everyone.”
And his writing can be wonderfully vivid, as when he imagines a “nightmarish” alternative to Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again,” where life on the road consists of “dubious microwave burritos, long hauls between laundry days, too much information about the bus driver’s divorce” (to say nothing of “a persistent antibiotic-resistant dose of the clap that spread through the crew after a gig in New Mexico”).People who tell you they only like Bob Dylan songs performed by other artists are not people you can trust.
Depending on your own proclivities, you might also geek out to hear Bob Dylan geek out over Bobby Darin. Crazy, right? But I didn’t find anything in this book that was truly mind-blowing, and while I have gone back and forth with myself for days now questioning whether we really need all our books and art and whatever to be mind-blowing—can’t we just have some things that are nice? That we can just enjoy?
(Although who could’ve imagined that Bob Dylan would stray this dangerously close to the borders of nice? You could almost (almost) turn on some smooth jazz while you’re reading this book.) So, ok, while I’ve gone back and forth a number of times over this very question, despite Bob Dylan’s very real (if inconsistent) charm and charisma, and some sweet turns of phrase, and the shadow of his Nobel looming overhead, there isn’t all that much in here that is all that interesting.
“This is a riddle of a song,” Dylan writes of Billy Joe Shaver’s “Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me.” “This song is arguably one of Jackson Browne’s greatest songs,” he says of “The Pretender.” And of Bobby Darin’s “Beyond the Sea”: “This is a French song.”
The essay on Nina Simone’s version of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” is a rare exception. It starts by describing how the first sentence of Camus’s The Stranger was first mistranslated into English and goes on to discuss the aspirations of L.L. Zamenhof, who invented Esperanto, before ever even mentioning the song in question. It’s insightful and well-written and could have been a much longer piece.
Some of Dylan’s sloppiness would have been easy to fix, like when he switches mid-sentence from the future to the present tense, or when he describes The Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion” as “one of the few non-embarrassing songs of social awareness.” Would it have killed the publisher to assign a copy editor? Would it have killed the copy editor to correct to “un-embarrassing”? See how I’ll so neatly place the responsibility for my boyfriend’s mistakes on anyone other than my boyfriend?It isn’t just the lyrics that make Bob Dylan’s songs great. His delivery is frequently (if not always) brilliant.
Maybe the larger point here is that Bob Dylan, who in the first few years of his career alone wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They Are A-Changin,’” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”—and then pointedly stopped writing those sorts of songs (for a while, at least)—thinks that most “songs of social awareness” are embarrassing. But—and I never ever thought I’d ever say this—do we, and/or should we, care? I might have finally—finally—gotten sick of tracking this guy’s breadcrumbs.
Then again, here I go making a list of lines from Bob Dylan’s Philosophy that you could—if you were so inclined and at your own peril—take as proof of self-awareness of one kind or another:
“Like with many men who reinvent themselves, the details get a bit dodgy in places…”
“You never give anybody what they want, but you know how to bait them.”
“Some people create new lives to hide their past.”
“…knowing somebody can be a herculean task, a lot of obstacles get in the way.”
“The thing about being on the road is that you’re not bogged down by anything. Not even bad news. You give pleasure to other people and you keep your grief to yourself.”
“There’s lots of reasons folks change their names.”
Oh, he’s coy. If he winked any faster, his eyelids might get stuck. And how priceless to hear this infamous mumbler say of a live tape of a drunk Dean Martin: “Words dissolve into runs of vowels without the traffic lanes of consonants.”
That Bob Dylan’s Philosophy is (or seems to be) unedited doesn’t mean that it is uncensored, or unfiltered. Bob Dylan is only ever playing his own game; when he pulls down one mask, he is always wearing another—and another—underneath.
Fame can hurt an artist in any number of ways. One of those ways is not having anyone around anymore to tell you when you might’ve missed your mark. I’m not saying someone should have told Bob Dylan not to write this book, but someone—anyone—could have told him: I don’t think you’re done working yet. I don’t think this is your final draft.
But as tempting as it might be to ascribe his sloppiness (if that’s what we’re calling it) to fame, or even to age (he turned 81 last May), at his worst, Bob Dylan has always had moments of laziness and looseness—he’s been terribly lazy, in fact, and terribly loose.
See 1964’s “Ballad in Plain D,” or 1981’s “Lenny Bruce” (“Lenny Bruce was bad / he was the brother that you never had”). Even “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” from 2020’s Rough and Rowdy Ways, has lines like “Key West is the place to be / if you’re looking for immortality,” and “Key West is the place to go / down by the Gulf of Mexico.” (I should also mention that “Key West” was the song I played more than any other song that year it came out. I love this stupid song with an unjustifiable, unconditional, stupid love.)
The irony is that of course Bob Dylan knows all these things about sloppiness and precision and the importance of editing. He has never performed “Ballad in Plain D” live; “I must have been a real schmuck to write that,” he said of it in 1985. And he may have written some bad rhymes in “Lenny Bruce” and “Key West,” but he also once rhymed “the rock of Gibraltar” with “the groom’s still waiting at the altar.”
“A big part of songwriting, like all writing, is editing,” Bob Dylan writes on page 55 of his Philosophy: “—distilling thought down to essentials.” I wish I were kidding, but I’m not kidding. “Novice writers often hide behind filigree. In many cases the artistry is in what is unsaid.”
The vast majority of the songs in Bob Dylan’s Philosophy were written and recorded by male artists, and in his riffs, he mentions rape several times in a way that seems gratuitous, unnecessary and, frankly, unearned. These are indefensible flaws. Then, too, I didn’t much like the religious bits scattered through these pages (“One of the reasons people turn away from God is because religion is no longer in the fabric of their lives,” for example, or “The laws of God override the laws of man every time”)—but maybe that’s just me, since I like my boyfriends the way I like myself: utterly lacking in faith. Sometimes we create our boyfriends in our own image and when they deviate from that image, the disconnect can be jarring (or whatever).Bob Dylan is only ever playing his own game; when he pulls down one mask, he is always wearing another.
I don’t think Bob Dylan really has the patience to write a book—not right now, anyway. The publisher has done what they can to flesh out the material with lushly printed photographs, illustrations, movie stills, and vintage posters. (Did Bob Dylan pick out these photos? I kept wondering. Did my boyfriend pick out this bouquet?). Sometimes the images provide a juicy little counterpoint to the text—alongside Dylan’s musings on Jimmy Wages’ “Take Me from This Garden of Evil,” for example, is a photo from the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet, and we can all have a good laugh about that—but it isn’t enough.
What I really think is that this book would have worked better as, say, a radio show. That’s because The Philosophy of Modern Song picks up where Bob Dylan’s satellite radio show, Theme Time Radio Hour, which he hosted from 2006 to 2009, left off. Theme Time worked better, not only because each episode was organized around a theme (“Weather,” “Mothers,” “Jail,” “Cats”), and not only because his introduction to and commentary on the songs he played was so deliciously weird (in the same way the Philosophy essays are weird) but because, crucially, he performed those little asides out loud.
This is something I’ve been saying for years to anyone who’ll let me: it isn’t just the lyrics that make Bob Dylan’s songs great. His delivery is frequently (if not always) brilliant. His voice has all the texture of asphalt, of gravel, and he doesn’t always hit the notes, and that thing he sometimes does where he puts the emphasis on the wrong syllable does, yes, indicate a higher-than-average chance that he is a space alien dressed as a human. You probably wouldn’t buy a used car from him but when he sings—when he really sings—when he’s not just phoning it in, mumbling and shuffling about—when he is present and accounted for and he sings—I would buy anything this deeply, deeply strange man is selling.
People who tell you they only like Bob Dylan songs performed by other artists are not people you can trust. They like The Byrds. These are people who don’t put hot sauce on their eggs; they turn the music down in the car, and when they go to the movies, they sit too far back from the screen. For god’s sake, they file their taxes before the due date. Forget about these people.
For proof, watch Bob Dylan perform “Shelter from the Storm” in 1976 with all the urgency of a man up to his waist in a rising tide. Better yet, listen to his version of a song he didn’t write, “House of the Rising Sun,” which he recorded in 1961, at 20 years old, for his first album. Unlike Eric Burdon and The Animals, Bob Dylan did not change the gender of the song’s narrator, so when he says that this New Orleans whorehouse has “been the ruin of many a poor girl—and me, oh god, I’m one,” you’re hearing a 20-year-old baby-fat-faced semi-Jewish midwestern boy deliver the line, and you will not bat an eyelash, because he sells it. This is his storytelling sorcery: at his best, he will feel his way inside a song so deeply and so completely that he himself will simply disappear.
The medium—we already know this—matters. Bob Dylan doesn’t seem to have the same instinct for stringing together words on a page that he does for stringing them together through time—with or without a melody. That’s ok: The Philosophy of Modern Song is still a very nice book. I’ll keep it on my coffee table to flip through when I’m too worn out to read anything more stimulating.