Book review: The Philosophy Of Modern Song book review
He worked in a travelling carnival off and on for six years after dropping out of school. His next employment was as a sex worker in uptown Manhattan where sometimes he’d earn “one hundred a night, really, from four in the afternoon until three or four in the morning,” he said in an interview in the mid-1960s. “I almost got killed.“ In 1966, he was almost killed in a motorcycle accident that made him disappear from public life. He also had a heroin habit in New York.
Most of the above are lies told by Bob Dylan, about himself. He is the master at misleading the world. So, no big surprise perhaps that The Philosophy of Modern Song has very little in the way of philosophy and lacks all modernity. It comprises 66 highly impressionistic essays on songs he appears to find to his taste, from Elvis Costello’s Pump It Up to Frank Sinatra’s Strangers In The Night.
The book’s inner flap over-enthusiastically labels its contents “a master class on the art and craft of songwriting.” Only four of the 66 songs he chooses are by women, and only two were released in the 21st century. His views are, at times, of the 19th century.
He comes across in places less as the Yeats of song and more as a misanthrope (“The only thing that truly unites us is suffering and suffering only,” he writes of John Trudell’s Doesn’t Hurt Anymore), a cranky-pants in his 80s with views that would get anyone else cancelled. This is assuming his tongue isn’t in his Minnesota cheek. Only he knows. And he isn’t saying.
Read what his take on Johnnie Taylor’s Cheaper To Keep Her and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled across the insane ramblings of some right-wing Christian fundamentalist wacko: “A couple who has no children, that’s not a family,” he writes. “They are just two friends; friends with benefits and insurance coverage …”
The feeling that you’ve stumbled across the views of an elderly Trump-supporting lunatic also surfaces in the most misogynist manner imaginable when he writes about Witchy Woman by The Eagles. He compares a woman’s most intimate part as being like “a steel trap, and she covers you with cow shit – a real killer-diller and you regard her with suspicion and fear, rightly so.”
Is this really the same man who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016? Or is he on medication? What else could explain him writing about Warren Zevon’s Dirty Life and Times thus: “You’re the tomcat with the stiff penis who pisses gold urine.”
I was similarly confounded how he thought Come On-a My House by George Clooney’s aunt Rosemary is “the song of the deviant, the paedophile, the mass murderer… the guy who’s got 30 corpses under his basement, a warlock”. Warlock? Has anyone told George? His analysis of You Don’t Know Me by Eddy Arnold is even more confounding, if such a thing is possible reading The Philosophy of Modern Song: “A serial killer would sing this song. Serial killers have a strangely formal sense of language and might refer to sex as the art of making love.”
I’m sure even serial killers might have something to say about that, as might Cher reading Dylan’s theory that Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves is “a thinly veiled metaphor for her father/mother relationships.”
Knowing a singer’s life story doesn’t particularly help your understanding of a song
Elsewhere, Johnnie Taylor’s Cheaper to Keep Her inspires him to criticise divorce as a “ten billion dollar a year industry” while advocating polygamy: “Mixed marriages, gay marriages – proponents have rightly lobbied to make all of these legal, but no one has fought for the only one that really counts, the polygamist marriage.”
His first book of new writing since 2004’s Chronicles: Volume One (we’re still waiting for Volume Two) won’t set the world on fire for anyone other than those diehard pointy-heads known as Dylanogolists. There are, however, some good parts. He isn’t obvious. He praises Elvis Presley’s derided manager Colonel Parker. He singles out Perry Como’s 1951 recording of Without a Song and the equally derided crooner for high praise: “He is anti-flavour of the week, anti-hot list and anti-bling.”
“Knowing a singer’s life story doesn’t particularly help your understanding of a song,” he says later of how he doesn’t trust autobiography in music. “It’s what a song makes you feel about your own life that’s important.” His view on Carl Perkins’s version of Blue Suede Shoes brings the reader into his imagination. This colourful footwear “symbolise church and state, and have the substance of the universe in them… They … contain the infinite power of the sun.”
In the book’s dedications he offers special thanks to “all the crew at Dunkin’ Donuts.” Depending on your level of appreciation (or tolerance) of Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song is either an nonsensical ramble bordering on the unhinged or a poetic flight of genius.
I’ll let you make up your own mind over coffee and a certain kind of donut.
‘The Philosophy of Modern Song’ by Bob Dylan, Simon & Schuster, €32.99