Bob Dylan: The Philosophy of Modern Song

Bob Dylan: The Philosophy of Modern Song

Written by Wayne Robins

When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016, about half who of those who cared said, “well-deserved. Overdue.” The other half said, “Bob Dylan? Isn’t he a songwriter? What has that got to do with literature? What about Philip Roth?”

Well, that’s comparing apostles and orangutans. Who else did not win Nobel Prizes in Literature, and certainly deserve it? James Joyce, Kafka, Borges, Nabokov, Tolstoy, Ibsen, Proust, Rilke…and Roth. All deserving. That none of them wrote “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” does not qualify them. As Ann Crittenden pointed out in American Heritage in 2019, winners have included “the prolific Hallidór Laxness (1955) who wrote novels, plays, short stories, newspaper articles, and travelogues – all in Icelandic.”


But The Philosophy of Modern Song (Simon and Schuster) is Nobel Laureate Dylan’s first book since the charming Chronicles: Volume One, which was autobiography and memoir and mostly true stories told in the distinctive voice of his songs. Writing that gets inside your ear taking up residency in your vestibulocochlear nerve, and never causing the kind of infections that might make you lose your balance.

This time Dylan goes outside his own songs to tell stories – not necessarily “the” stories – about 66 songs, most or many in two parts: a kind of main story, which is usually about the songwriting, and a sidebar about the performances of the song. Many of these commentaries are written in the apocalyptic mode of Dylan’s music in the 1980s. They reflect his influences, especially in country music, blues, bluegrass, rockabilly, and the unclassifiable. He goes deep into the past, and he doesn’t deal much with his rock era contemporaries: no Beatles, Rolling Stones, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen. I would have liked to have read Dylan’s thoughts about “Norwegian Wood” or “Sympathy for the Devil.”


Bob Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, book cover.


But you can’t read Dylan’s thoughts, though folks keep on trying. The dedication page is “For Doc Pomus” (1925 – 1991), and ain’t it something that the Pomus (with Mort Shuman) song Dylan expounds on at length is “Viva Las Vegas,” Elvis Presley’s 1964 hit. The first section is an impressionistic and not unfavorable view of Las Vegas itself, as represented in the song. I have kept an audio/video monitor and shortwave radio dialed to the intersection of Elvis Presley Boulevard and Rue de la Bob since 1970: the start of Elvis’ Las Vegas era and that of the Gypsy. But it’s the first time I’ve read Dylan writing about Elvis.

“‘Viva Las Vegas’ is also a commercial,” Dylan writes. “When Elvis first recorded [it] in 1963 and released it in 1964, he didn’t know that five years later, in July of 1969, the subject of this bright and breezy love song would become the hub of his live performances – and that in turn, the famed man-made nocturnal oasis would vampirically indulge his worst habits and impulses.”

In Pete Townsend’s “My Generation” (Decca, 1965), Dylan goes on a roll that captures the Who’s stance from the inside of the song looking out, and captures the song’s moment like a Polaroid. “People are trying to slap you around, slap you in the face, vilify you. They’re rude and they vilify you, take cheap shots. They don’t like you because you pull out all the stops and go for broke…They give you frosty looks and they’ve had enough of you, and there’s a million others just like you, multiplying every day…You’re hoping to croak before senility sets in.”

Then Dylan jumps to the future. Though Townshend and his acknowledged mouthpiece, Roger Daltrey, are on the road again as this is written, and Pete is now 77, Dylan takes some license that underscores the sturdiness and durability of the declaration “hope I die before I get old,” expressed in this song Townshend wrote when he was 20.

“In reality, you’re an eighty-year-old man, being wheeled around in a home for the elderly, and the nurses are getting on your nerves. You say why don’t you all fade away…You’re in your second childhood, can’t get a word out without stumbling and dribbling. You haven’t any aspirations to live in a fool’s paradise, you’re not looking forward to that…you’ll give up the ghost first.

You’re talking about your generation, sermonizing, giving a discourse.

Straight talk, eyeball to eyeball.”

Elvis Costello conveys some of the rage of his generation in “Pump It Up” (Radar Records, 1978). But it’s more personal, perhaps even Dylan’s projection of what’s happening in this song. “You’re the alienated hero taken for a ride by a quick-witted little hellcat, the hot-blooded sex-starved wench that you depended on so much, who failed you…turned you into a synthetic and unscrupulous person. Now you’ve come to the place where you’re going to blow things up, puncture it, shoot it down.”

But the critique can be harsh: “Why all the trivial talk and yakkety-yak? Why all the monotonous and lifeless music that plays inside your head?…This song has a lot of defects, but it knows how to conceal them all.”

That damning with the faintest of praise is before Dylan gets to the commentary on Costello and his band on the facing page, and for the only time I can recall in the book, asserts his influence on someone else’s song. “He [Costello] obviously had been listening to Springsteen too much. But he also had a heavy dose of [Dylan’s] ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues.'” Later, Dylan writes that “in time, Elvis would prove he had a gigantic musical soul. Too big for this type of aggressive music to contain.” But Dylan had already given his conclusion to “Pump It Up,” as “a quasi-stop-time tune with powerful rhetoric, and with all this, Elvis exuded nothing but high-level belligerence.”


Dylan must have shrugged that his listeners could be so literal-minded and inert that they thought his line “Play Don Henley, play Glenn Frey, take it to the limit and let it go by,” among the extravagant set of rhymes in “Murder Most Foul,” could suggest an endorsement of the Eagles, or even recognition. He devotes a chapter to the wretched “Witchy Woman,” by Henley and Bernie Leadon, from the 1972 Asylum Records debut album Eagles.

First, he defines the “Witchy Woman” in most unflattering terms: “The progressive woman – youthful, whimsical, and grotesque. The woman from the global village of nowhere – destroyer of cultures, traditions, identities and deities.” He continues his description of this woman as an unattractive monster, yet she’s got the man in the song enchanted. “Could be the uppers and downers, goofballs, hydroxy steroids or gold heroin. Whatever it is it’s got you hooked . . .Now you’re a self-admiring, unchivalrous, worthless fellow with an evil nature…” Dylan’s conclusion: “This is a song that’s hard to go with. It’s about spirits in the air. It’s cheerless and grim – puts ashes in your mouth.”

The Grateful Dead’s “Truckin'” (music by Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir and Phil Lesh, lyrics by Robert Hunter) earns not just Dylan’s blessing but benediction.

Dylan takes a long view of where the Grateful Dead belong in the spectrum of music history. “They’re a dance band. They have more in common with Artie Shaw and bebop than they do with the Byrds or the Stones.”

His fondness for the Dead is such that all of the other San Francisco bands from the Dead’s formative era (the Airplane, Quicksilver, even Big Brother and the Holding Co.) “wouldn’t even make a part of the Dead.” He breaks down the individual musical skills of the players, including “jazz classical bassist Phil Lesh, and the Elvin Jones-influenced Bill Kreutzmann. He calls Bob Weir “a very unorthodox rhythm player” with a style distinctive in its own way as Joni Mitchell’s guitar, “but from a different place.” Weir plays “strange, augmented chords and half chords at unpredictable intervals that somehow match up with Jerry Garcia – who plays like Charlie Christian and Doc Watson at the same time.”

Bob goes just as deep “Truckin'” as a signature tune: “Medium tempo, but it seems to just keep picking up speed. It’s got a fantastic first verse…and every verse that follows could actually be a first verse. Arrows of neon, flashing marquees, Dallas and a soft machine, Sweet Jane, vitamin C, Bourbon Street, bowling pins, hotel windows, and the classic line, ‘What a long strange trip it’s been.’ A thought that anybody can relate to.”

There are takes on “Blue Bayou” and “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Big River” and “Big Boss Man,” and a couple of songs each associated with Willie Nelson, Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra. As straight as “Whiffenpoof Song,” as left field as “Ball of Confusion” and “Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy” by Uncle Dave Macon, unforgettable because his name rhymes with bacon.

Some of Dylan’s assessments, if you can’t already tell, might seem spurious to some. Take “Come On-a-My House,” a 1951 hit for Rosemary Clooney, a pop confection written by Armenian-American cousins, the author William Saroyan and Ross Bagdasarian, who would become David Seville and create Alvin and the Chipmunks. Dylan goes down a lost highway on this one: “This is the song of the deviant, the pedophile, the mass murderer. The song of the guy who’s got thirty corpses under his basement and human skulls under the refrigerator…This is a hoodoo song disguised as a happy pop hit.” I think it reflects Dylan’s distaste for Mitch Miller, who ruled Columbia Records’ A&R when Dylan was signed to the label by John Hammond. But I don’t have a clue about the “warlock” he’s visualizing: I mean, it’s sung by Rosemary Clooney.

The songs, like the arrangements and song selections of Dylan concerts, may baffle the followers of fashion, the people who want to hear the hits like they remember them from the record.

“Take Me from This Garden of Evil,” written and performed by Jimmy Wages, but unreleased by Sun Records, 1956, is one. “You want to be flung into a distant realm where you’ll be redeemed, and you’ll go with anyone who’ll escort you out of this jungle of baloney and everything fishy.” Wages was a contemporary of Elvis in Tupelo, Miss. On the facing page, Dylan writes, “there’s nothing cosmetic or plastic here. This is the real deal and it’s off the map.” Dylan’s ear is acute: the guitar player sounds to him like “Luther Perkins playing a Gibson Les Paul instead of his usual Fender.” Dylan explains precisely why he thinks that despite being “raw and fearless” as anything Sam Phillips ever recorded, he saw no point in releasing it. “This record pushes the panic button. This was not a record for teenagers…this is evil as the dictator, evil ruling the world. There is no peace in the valley. This is a garden of corporate lust, sexual greed, gratuitous cruelty, and commonplace insanity…dyed in the wool assholes, and the singer wants to be delivered from it. Who wouldn’t.”


With his essay on the 1928 Victor single “Jesse James” by Harry McClintock, Dylan offers a detailed explanation of the rules of bounty hunting outlaws. “To be an outlaw meant that any citizen could legally shoot you and kill you on site and claim the prize.” The inequity between then and now rubs Dylan raw. “Rap stars, country outlaws, hedge fund scammers and mafiosos live in the lap of luxury while real gangsters like Jesse James hide in the shadows and fear death around every corner.”

I expected an essay on “El Paso” by Marty Robbins (from Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs) and was not disappointed. It takes up five pages of this gorgeous book, page after page of astounding visuals, researched and cleared by Parker Fishel and David Beal. My dad and the singer of “El Paso” shared the same name: my dad chose the singular “b” in “Robins,” when he needed to drop the “Rabinowitz” as armor against postwar antisemitism in the 1940s. But the man who wrote and sang “El Paso” did not descend from Eastern European sharecroppers, as my father did. Couldn’t have been more different, as the singer Marty Robbins’ grandfather was nicknamed “Texas Bob,” a Confederate soldier and cowboy poet, spinner of tall tales.

“This a ballad of the tortured soul, the cowboy heretic, prince of the protestants, falling in love with a smooth complexion dancing girl…” From there, Dylan takes the reader on a kabbalistic journey: “The song hardly says anything you understand, but if you throw in the signs, symbols, and shapes, it hardly says anything you don’t understand.”

For the standard “Blue Moon,” Dylan chooses the Dean Martin version. (I’m slightly disappointed he didn’t engage fully with the Marcels’ sublime doo-wop version.) Dylan sees Dean Martin two nights in a row in Las Vegas, and on the first night, he’s amazed that somebody so apparently drunk can put on such a coherent show. The second night is almost identical, and he’s amazed that someone so apparently sober can do such an uncanny portrayal of a totally sloshed performer.

The closing song chapter is “Where or When” by Rodgers and Hart, the much-covered classic of American song, as sung by Dion on the 1959 album Presenting Dion and the Belmonts. “This is a song of reincarnation…where every waking moment bears striking resemblance to something that happened in pre-Revolutionary times, pre-Renaissance times, or pre-Christian times where everything is exactly alike, and you can’t tell anything apart.” The reincarnation theme is the coda to the rest of the book, a grim assessment of a life “where the past has a way of showing up in front of you and coming into your life without being called.”


But the commentary on Dion ends the book on a hopeful note. Dylan gives abundant respect to Dion, who “changes outwardly but maintaining recognizable characteristics across every iteration. Not reincarnation in the strictest sense but an amazing series of rebirths, taking him from an earnest ‘Teenager in Love’ to a swaggering Wanderer, a soul-searching friend of Abraham, Martin and John to a hard-edged leather clad king of the urban jungle who was a template for fellow Italo-rocker [Dylan’s words] Bruce Springsteen. Most recently, he has realized one of his early dreams and become some kind of elder legend, a bluesman from another Delta.”

Rapturously writing about the 1959 hit of “Where or When” by Dion and the Belmonts, Dylan calls it “a breathtaking bit of vocal harmony…and when Dion’s voice bursts through for a solo moment on the bridge, it captures that shimmering persistence of memory in a way that the printed word can only hint at.”

And thus Bob Dylan provides the coda for this essay.


This article originally appeared in Wayne Robins’ Substack and is used here by permission. Wayne’s Words columnist Wayne Robins teaches at St. John’s University in Queens, and writes the Critical Conditions Substack,

Header image courtesy of Wikipedia/Alberto Cabello.

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