Bob Dylan Isn't Done Lying to Us Just Yet


The title of this book is a lie.

There’s no “philosophy” offered here—no overarching theory or argument made about writing or singing songs. There’s not even an explanation of why Bob Dylan selected these particular 66 records as subjects for essays which encompass criticism, history, and fantastic leaps of reasoning.

As for “modern,” well, I guess that depends on your perspective. The most recent recording considered here is of the oldest composition—Stephen Foster’s 1849 “Nelly Was a Lady” cut by bluesman Alvin Youngblood Hart in 2004. Otherwise, there are just two songs from the 21st century included, while almost half of the choices date from the 1950s, Bobby Zimmerman’s formative years. (It’s also worth noting that only four of his picks are performed by women.)

So, no, there’s no K-Pop, emo, chillwave, or trap represented in The Philosophy of Modern Song—the most “modern” genre presented is first-wave punk, and Dylan takes some issue even with those acts he includes: He writes that Elvis Costello’s writing (“Pump It Up”) includes “Too many thoughts, way too wordy. Too many ideas that just bang up against themselves,” and he says of the Clash (“London Calling”) that “A lot of their songs are overblown, overwritten, well-intentioned.”

Bob Dylan while recording his album Bringing It All Back Home in January 1965 in Columbia’s Studio A in New York City, New York.

Lying, though, is nothing new for the winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature. He started making up his own backstory as soon as people started asking, and his magnificent 2004 memoir Chronicles: Volume One is full of easily disproven fabrications. But remember that accuracy isn’t necessarily the same thing as truth.

Most of these chapters, which range from one paragraph to a half-dozen pages, are a meditation on a song, an examination of its emotional root or the feeling it evokes. These are usually written in the second person, but the intimate “you” sometimes means the singer and sometimes the listener. Dylan’s voice leans toward hard-boiled mid-century jive: “You’re sitting in the shade, slumped out, anonymous, incognito, watching everything go by, unimpressed, hard-bitten—impenetrable” or “You want to be emancipated from all the hokum.”

Often, this approach is replaced or accompanied by a history lesson. These pieces are reminiscent of Dylan’s narration on his 100-episode “Theme Time Radio Hour” series, the clear precedent for this collection. And these turn out not to be lies at all. Rosemary Clooney’s “Come on-a My House” (which he describes as “the song of the deviant, the pedophile, the mass murderer”) really was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist William Saroyan and his cousin, Ross Bagdasarian, who later invented Alvin and the Chipmunks. Elsewhere, we learn that Leigh Brackett, who wrote the screenplay for The Big Sleep, also scripted the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back, and that the image of lemmings “rushing to their shared doom” is false, invented for a Disney documentary.

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Some songs serve as launch pads for Dylan’s non-musical philosophising. Johnnie Taylor’s “Cheaper to Keep Her” sets up a takedown of the divorce industry, building to a case for the benefits of polygamy. We learn the history of the iconic Western Wear staple the Nudie Suit, the contrast between George Bush’s Gulf War and George W. Bush’s Iraq War (Edwin Starr’s “War”), and the invention of the “universal language” Esperanto (“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”). Occasionally, the proceedings pause for a list—singers who break down in tears, songs based on classical melodies.

The most hilarious moments come when Dylan gets caught up in his own resplendent language and just can’t stop. “You’re the spoofer, the playactor, the two-faced fraud—the stool pigeon, the scandalmongerer—the prowler and the rat—the human trafficker and the car jacker,” he writes, riffing on Mose Allison’s “Everybody’s Crying Mercy.” Or when he takes the implications of a song to preposterous extremes: the footwear in Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” can “foretell the future, locate lost objects, treat illnesses, identify perpetrators of crimes,” while Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” is “a song of genocide, where you’re led by your nose into a nuclear war.”

The book is a laugh riot, complete with some killer vaudeville-style zingers. “No matter how many chairs you have, you only have one ass,” declares the greatest songwriter of his generation, elsewhere drily suggesting “Enjoy your free-range, cumin-infused, cayenne-dusted heirloom reduction. Sometimes it’s just better to have a BLT and be done with it.” And the secret weapon is the illustrations, packed with old movie posters, vintage ads, and in-jokes that sometimes require a few looks (the “Big Boss Man” entry has Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone on one page, opposite an image of Colonel Tom Parker goofing with Elvis).


But it’s clear that these songs are no joke to Dylan. In a 1997 interview, he said that “I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don't find it anywhere else.” And it’s the relentless life-or-death stakes and apocalyptic visions, even when obviously being played for dark humour, that sometimes make The Philosophy of Modern Song a bit exhausting. Only a few selections (“Come Rain or Come Shine”) offer any kind of relief from the mood of inescapable brutality or impending doom. Maybe it’s better consumed in small chunks—episodes—rather than all at once.

Ironically, Dylan himself points out this very flaw—the risk of assigning a great artist to one lane and restricting their emotional range. “Johnny Cash loves being the Man in Black and dresses accordingly,” he writes, “but the truth is he is much more of a well-rounded artist and man. His best records are playful and full of wordplay and humour, miles from the august solemnity of murder ballads, hardscrabble tales and Trent Reznor covers that his fans came to expect.”

Still, if you pay careful enough attention, some larger vision does begin to emerge, or at least some tactical tips for songwriters. “Novice writers often hide behind filigree,” Dylan writes. “In many cases the artistry is in what is unsaid.” He cautions against “the trap of easy rhymes” (as avoided in the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion”) and explains how Vic Damone’s “On the Street Where You Live” is “all about the three-syllable rhyme: street before, feet before, heart of town, part of town, bother me, rather be.”

At age 81, Dylan has spent much of his life batting away analyses of how his personal life informs his songwriting, and here he notes the limitations of autobiographical lyrics. “Sometimes when songwriters write from their own lives, the results can be so specific, other people can’t connect to them. Putting melodies to diaries doesn’t guarantee a heartfelt song.” (In a clever chess move, he adds that “Knowing a singer’s life story doesn’t particularly help your understanding of a song.”)

As with the “Theme Time” shows, when it seems Dylan is most purely focused on music is when his own story rings most real. “Being a writer is not something one chooses to do,” he says. “It’s something you just do and sometimes people stop and notice.” Digging into Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again,” Dylan asserts that “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.”

One way to consider Bob Dylan’s career is as a life-long project exploring American music of all kinds. It explains such curious ventures as his Christmas album or his three volumes of Frank Sinatra material. Having already worked through folk, rock, blues, and country music, it makes his gospel period almost inevitable. The Philosophy of Modern Song brings it (almost) all under one roof, with observations, details, and asides to be chewed on, sudden blazing insights to be found, again and again.


“Music is built in time as surely as a sculptor or welder works in physical space,” Dylan writes. And having worked on this book for a dozen years (he claims) and put more than five dozen songs under the microscope one way or another, he concludes that “The more you study music, the less you understand it.” All he can offer up is that “an inexplicable thing happens when words are set to music. The miracle is in their union…People keep trying to turn music into a science, but in science one and one will always be two. Music, like all art, including the art of romance, tells us time and time again that one plus one, in the best of circumstances, equals three.”

And that right there is no lie.

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