The Philosophy of Modern Song
(Simon & Schuster, 2022)
The philosopher Gilles Deleuze once described Bob Dylan in a suitably curious and contradictory way: “The opposite of a plagiarist, but also the opposite of a master or a model. A very lengthy preparation, yet no method, nor rules, nor recipes. Nuptials without couples or conjugality. Having a bag into which I put everything I encounter, provided that I am also put in a bag. Finding, encountering, stealing instead of regulating, recognizing and judging. For recognizing is the opposite of the encounter. Judging is the profession of many people, and it is not a good profession, but it is also the use to which many people put writing. Better to be a road-sweeper than a judge.”1
In The Philosophy of Modern Song, Dylan is sweeping out the ashes from the cave of a long career. He is casting a light on the Jungian shadows of popular song, examining both mechanics and metaphysics. Entertaining and profound, Dylan’s philosophy runs along the lines of Pascal’s Pensées, or the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius—personal ruminations on how to live with oneself, and the universe. Dylan finds profundities where others find ditties, but he always has. In the 1960s, Gloria Stavers was the editor of a teen magazine called 16. When she met Dylan she was surprised by his lack of condescension: “You’re like the candy store,” he told her. “But the truth is where the truth is, and sometimes the truth is in the candy store.”
Dylan’s humor—always one of his most beguiling qualities, and in short supply in later years—is everywhere evident, and it makes this book the romp that it is. I lost track of the number of times I laughed out loud. Some of the chapters offer practical insights into singing, phrasing, songwriting and recording studio practices. Other chapters take the song as a jumping-off point for stand-alone meditations on art, money, war, religion, etc., In Money Honey, performer Elvis Presley is mentioned only once in passing. What we get instead is an extended musing on the illusion at the heart of all money, on how value is assigned, on scarcity both real and manufactured:
Art is a disagreement. Money is an agreement. I like Caravaggio, you like Basquiat. We both like Frida Kahlo and Warhol leaves us cold. Art thrives with such spirited sparring. That’s why there can be no such thing as a national art form. In the attempt, we can feel the sanding of the edges, the endeavor to include all opinions, the hope to not offend. It all too quickly turns to propaganda or rank commercialism.
Not that there’s anything wrong with commercialism but like all things monetary, it’s based on a leap of faith; more abstract than Frank Stella‘s geometrics. The only reason money is worth anything is because we agree it is. Like religion, these agreements can change according to country and culture, but those changes are merely cosmetic, usually only name and denomination. The basic tenets remain constant.
Dylan concludes that time is the ultimate currency.
The Philosophy of Modern Song is designed as a coffee table book. Dylan’s picture editing provides a compelling and offbeat visual narrative of the history of modern song, always reminding us that this is an art forged in the smithy of commerce. By refusing to include captions the illustrations speak for themselves all the more powerfully. Dylan’s droll humor even extends to the illustrations—Tutti Frutti offers a Cézanne still life with apples, pears and lemons, opposite the gayest photo of Little Richard (and friends) that I’ve ever seen.
Dylan’s view of life seems to be a lot of horror and a little bit of joy, which is where the songs come in: they are a source of comfort and hope for the downtrodden. They “take the sting out of life.” Like Carl Sandburg or Edgar Lee Masters, Dylan emerges in this book as a Mid-Western populist who stands for simplicity and thrift, honest work for honest pay, and has no use for Wall Street bandits. You might be poor, but as long as you could afford a radio (or knew someone who could) the songs were free. And if you couldn’t, songs could still be passed down and passed around by singing. Dylan eulogistically acknowledges that his world of song is largely a thing of the past, as technology infects society with monoculture, as even the means of delivery diminish:
Today it is commonplace to stream a movie directly to your phone. So, when you are watching Gloria Swanson as faded movie star Norma Desmond proclaim from the palm of your hand, “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small,” it contains layers of irony that the writer/director Billy Wilder could never have imagined. Of course, someone streaming something to their phone is most likely watching something even shorter and faster paced on TikTok, certainly not anything in black and white with a running time of 110 minutes.
Dylan sees the world crowded with angels and demons, with songs as the intercessors. Songs also represent a better life: you get there by wishing, hoping, and dreaming. For three minutes you too can be a king, a lover, or an outlaw.
This book probably brings you closer to being inside Dylan’s mind than anything else he’s ever done. In many ways it is more autobiographical than his memoirs Chronicles, and certainly a much happier book. There are no scores to settle, no traumatic encounters with fame, no reason to obfuscate or lie. Discussing Hank Williams or Chuck Berry obviously brings out the best in him. The book is full of unexpected assessments: when is the last time you heard someone sing the praises of Perry Como?
In writing about Bobby Darrin, Dylan may as well be discussing himself: “Some people create new laws to hide their past. Bobby knew that sometimes the past was nothing more than an illusion and you might just as well keep making stuff up.” Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” allows Dylan to discuss “dubious microwave burritos, long hauls between laundry days, too much information about the bus driver’s divorce,” but it also goes a long way towards answering people’s questions as to why the endless touring:
And then there’s another song to be written about the real reason you can’t wait to get on the road again. Nobody’s mad because you didn’t take the garbage out, acquaintances don’t just drop in unannounced, neighbors don’t give you the stink-eye every time the wind shifts. 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.
At 340 pages the book is copious, although everyone will have their qualms over those who are excluded. Obvious omissions are Lennon/McCartney, Leonard Cohen, and Joni Mitchell, perhaps his closest peers. Townes Van Zandt emerges as a songwriter close to Dylan’s heart, and recieves numerous compliments, from one craftsman to another:
A big part of songwriting, like all writing, is editing – distilling thought down to essentials. Novice writers often hide behind filigree. In many cases the artistry is in what is unsaid. As the old saying goes, an iceberg moves gracefully because most of it is beneath the surface.
One way to measure a songwriter is to look at the singers who sing their songs… Another way to measure a songwriter is, are their songs still being sung?
For Dylan, authenticity is always the key, and that usually means directness, simplicity. Overproduction is almost always the kiss of death. “A record is so much better when you can believe it,” he tells us. The spareness of Hank Williams’s production “will make you examine yourself—all your actions.”
That’s the problem with a lot of things these days. Everything is too full now; we are spoon-fed everything. All songs are about one thing and one thing specifically, there is no shading, no nuance, no mystery. Perhaps this is why music is not a place where people put their dreams at the moment; dreams suffocate in these airless environs.
And it’s not just songs—movies, television shows, even clothing and food, everything is niche marketed and overly fussed with. There isn’t an item on the menu that doesn’t have half a dozen adjectives in front of it, all chosen to hit you in your sociopolitical-humanitarian-snobby-foodie consumer spot. Enjoy your free-range, cumin-infused, cayenne-dusted heirloom reduction. Sometimes it’s just better to have a BLT and be done with it.
Dylan is not writing about songs in general, but in particular, because every song is different—at least the good ones are. The song itself is only a blueprint: the alchemy of time and place, of artist and performance, is what brings it alive. The very same song performed by another artist might be a miserable failure. This book is about modern song, not popular song, so you will find non-commercial artists like The Fugs and Native American poet and activist John Trudell alongside Frank Sinatra or The Temptations.
In most cases a song gets two treatments, one imaginative (“riffs” they have been called) and one discursive. For the former, Dylan has created a hard-boiled Philip Marlow persona, an arch voice not unlike what Kenneth Anger created for Hollywood Babylon. Short cinematic film scripts, they are intentional works of artifice, Dreamsongs to use John Berryman’s phrase, some better than others. The latter entries about the songs themselves are a thing of beauty, each one different from the next. I often found myself reading sentences twice just to see how he places a comma or semi-colon, or changes up the rhythm. The writing is propulsive, engaging, packed with content and reflection, but never overdone. They are modern-day encomiums, gallant odes of praise for heroes and demigods.
The play of high and low runs through this book. When writing about the song “War” (my favorite chapter) Dylan holds Thucydides in one hand and Edwin Starr in the other. Stephen Foster is the Edgar Allan Poe of song. Or consider “El Paso,” a simple cowboy song by Marty Robbins. Dylan describes it as “mankind created in the image of a jealous godhead,” before touching on transmigration, the primitive self, the blood of Christian martyrs, and the atomic bomb. Dylan has fun taking things over the top, but is he really? These songs are all links in an invisible ancestral chain that includes myths, legends, archetypes, fairy tales, nonsense rhymes, shapeshifting fables, metamorphoses, and so much more. People who questioned Dylan receiving the Nobel Prize revealed a very limited conception of literature. Song is the oldest literary form, existing for tens of thousands of years before any others arose. Like Orpheus in the underworld, Dylan is the perfect guide.
With Dylan, a few words go a long way. Nothing is belabored. When you are discussing songwriting, and you are arguably the finest songwriter of your era, it needn’t be. I wouldn’t call it shop-speak, it’s more insider knowledge. Dylan was a great fan of David Hockney’s book Secret Knowledge, which posited the idea that there is a body of unwritten knowledge in every field, known only to its practitioners. This book is the Secret Knowledge of song.
- Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, Dialogues II. Paris: Flammarion, 1977. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. NY: Columbia University Press, 1987.