Bob Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song (Simon and Schuster), 352pp. Hardback, $45.00.

Bob Dylan, born in 1941, is a member of the Silent Generation, the cadre of Americans born during the Hoover or the Roosevelt Administration. White men of this generation who became successful writers are a funny sort. They have tended to extremes. Some, such as John Updike (b. 1932) and Philip Roth (b. 1933), made their mark as prolific over-sharers of intimate details. Others, such as Cormac McCarthy (b. 1933) and Thomas Pynchon (b. 1937), became notoriously reclusive, refusing to make media appearances and tacitly insisting that their works speak for themselves. Dylan (the only one in this paragraph yet to win a Nobel Prize) decidedly belongs to the latter camp.

His newest work, The Philosophy of Modern Song (dedicated to Doc Pomus, co-writer of “Viva Las Vegas”), is an essay collection containing his wandering thoughts on 66 different tracks. It’s not really sequel to his last book, the artfully (if not artificially) autobiographical Chronicles: Volume One (2004); it’s more an extension of the hundred-and-one-episodes of Theme Time Radio Hour, the satellite radio show he subsequently hosted from 2006 to 2009. (The essay on “Blue Suede Shoes,” for example, works as a companion to the “Shoes” episode of Theme Time.) As in that venture, the focus here is squarely on the decade of the 1950s, Dylan’s teenage years, with occasional forays into the ’60s and ’70s. (Of the 66 songs considered in the book, 28 were recorded in the 1950s, while another 27 were recorded in either the 1960s or 1970s.) “The motley canon of 1950s songs that make up the nucleus of The Philosophy of Modern Song are best thought of as Dylan’s happenstance musical autobiography, off-kilter, even a bit absent-minded,” observes Dan Chiasson. It’s a soundtrack for the Silent Generation.

The essays are quite weird. Each is headed with the featured song title, the singer, the original production information, and the songwriter. Then Dylan presents an unusual interpretation of the lyrics in the second-person voice. “You’re not good at chewing the fat, and you don’t want anybody putting words in your mouth, so you don’t say anything,” he writes of Eddy Arnold’s 1956 “You Don’t Know Me.” “You can’t go any further in the conversation—you’re deadlocked with nothing to add.” Following this odd rewriting, Dylan offers anecdotes about the singer and/or songwriter and then perhaps veers of on a tangent, or descends into a rant, or explodes in a tirade—or delivers a paean to fashion designed Nudie Cohn. You never know.

Dylan’s voice on the page achieves an amazing crystallization of mid-century idiomatic American English.

To the extent that the book has a recurring theme or motif, it’s that truly great songs are adaptable; they invite and inspire transformation, evolution, transcendence. They get performed and recorded over and over again, by different singers, different bands, with different arrangements, in different styles. They’re alive. On his radio show, DJ Dylan’s major touchstone was a suspicion of genres, which he called “ticky-tacky boxes.” He repeatedly pointed out that in the 1950s popular music could be anything because separate categories like “country-western” and “rhythm-and-blues” hadn’t firmly established themselves. Songs were passed around and taken up and shaped into traditions. “A great song mutates, makes quantum leaps, turns up again like the prodigal son,” Dylan reflected in a recent interview. “It crosses genres. Could be punk rock, ragtime, folk-rock, or zydeco, and can be played in a lot of different styles, multiple styles. Bobby Bland could do it, Gene and Eunice, so could Rod Stewart, even Gene Autrey. Coltrane could do it wordless.”

In The Philosophy of Modern Song, for instance, his essay on “Blue Moon” initially privileges a Dean Martin recording but then points out that “the malleability of the song frees it from being too associated with any single version and allows it to belong to everyone.” Elvis did a “dreamy take” of it, while Bobby Blue Bland brought to it “uptown blues with a Latin tinge.” Dylan sang his own cover of “Blue Moon” for his 1970 album Self Portrait. These were “made for wildly different audiences, but the beauty of the melody and the poetry of the lyrics become available for everyone.”

In another example, Dylan features Johnny Paycheck’s “Old Violin,” originally released in 1986 (and covered by George Strait in 2019), but then steers readers toward a live version from a country reunion show on which Paycheck appeared years later. “No other country singer,” claims Dylan, “no one could come close to this performance.” This is an unusually late entry in Dylan’s song catalog; only four songs in the book were first recorded after 1983. But Dylan not-unreasonably suggests that music videos weakened the possibilities for writing timeless tunes. When we link the video to the song, “we are locked into someone else’s messaging of the lyrics. But miraculously, ‘Old Violin’ transcends.”

It’s not hard to find faults with The Philosophy of Modern Song. As Amanda Petrusich points out, “that the book contains only four songs performed by women—let that sink in!—is both grim and astounding.” In the Los Angeles Times, Jody Rosen insists that Dylan evokes women here “in language so marinated in misogyny, that … I began to feel like a therapist, sneaking glances at my watch while the crackpot on the couch blurts one creepy fantasy after another.” But while Rosen characterizes Dylan as “an elderly uncle who bulk-emails links to Fox News segments,” he might more generously be seen as a Royal Tenenbaum.

The book is ultimately valuable for three reasons. First, it draws attention to a lot of great songs you won’t hear on today’s oldies stations. Like “Ruby, Are You Mad?” This bluegrass tune, written by Cynthia May Carver, was first recorded in 1956 by the Osborne Brothers. The high-pitched intensity of the track defies description. Dylan cryptically calls it “a song to drive your car over a cliff to, with the radio still on, and you won’t feel a thing.”

Second, the book performs the rare feat of placing very well-known songs in a new light, revealing unseen dimensions. Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” is a “religious hoedown.” Marty Robbins “El Paso” is “a song of genocide, where you’re led by your nose into a nuclear war, ground zero, New Mexico where the first atom bomb was tested.” (You certainly don’t get that impression when listening to Bill Murray’s cover.) Most amusingly, the essay devoted to “On the Street Where You Live” completely ignores the song’s origin in the musical My Fair Lady. Instead, focusing on the popular Vic Damone recording, Dylan suggests that the lyrics are about a guy standing in a “back alley” spying on a prostitute he’s fallen for. Dylan then notes that, in 1954, Damone had stolen and married James Dean’s girlfriend, the Italian actress Pier Angeli, and that a distraught Dean supposedly “waited across the street on his motorcycle on Pier Angeli’s wedding day.” Maybe the song has nothing to do with Julie Andrews or Audrey Hepburn. “Maybe for the rest of his short life, this was a song that belonged to James Dean.”

Third, The Philosophy of Modern Song offers us a unique voice. People who care about American literature should care about this language. Clearly related to what Sasha Frere-Jones calls the “purple grumble” of his Theme Time Radio Hour, Dylan’s voice on the page, especially when directly addressed to the reader in the second-person vagaries that begin each essay, achieves an amazing crystallization of mid-century idiomatic American English. “This song is greedy from the word go, and fearless like crazy,” Dylan remarks of Sonny Burgess’s “Feel So Good.” “This song takes the sting out of life, everything you see you’re snapping it up and they’re forking it over. You’re freed up and going flat out.” It’s hard to imagine such a passage adequately translated into a foreign language.

There’s no need to read The Philosophy of Modern Song cover to cover. With pictures on nearly every page, it’s more like a coffee table book. Pick it up, browse through it, check out an entry while you listen to one of the featured tunes on your phone. Start with the essay on The Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion,” one of the strongest in the collection. When it works well, it works at once. As Dylan says of Las Vegas, “All it takes is just one glance, and you’re transformed, mutated into something else, some arcane substance with a perpetual smile—something rich and strange.”

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