Idle Thoughts from Bob Dylan

When I was asked to review Bob Dylan’s The Philosophy of Modern Song, my first thought was: What can I write about Dylan that I haven’t already said in a previous essay, “Ain’t Gonna Work on Bob Dylan’s Farm No More”? None of the observations I made back then have changed. If anything, some of my views, unpopular at the time, have now been embraced by esteemed writers such as the UK poet Don Paterson, recipient of the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry and the T.S. Eliot Prize. Paterson is also a respected jazz musician and is one of the few to straddle the dual art forms, as Dylan has, of music and language. He writes:

Enough already. Personally, I am done with crediting narrowly if uniquely talented men with Leonardo-esque versatility. This nonsense is killing us all. Dylan’s Googling chops and Discovery Channel subscription do not make him a polymath.

I decided to rise to the task of the review. It’s Dylan’s first piece of “literature” since Chronicles: Volume One (2004).

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Philosophy, from the Greek word for “love of wisdom”, has many definitions throughout diverse cultures. There are Western, Asian, African, Indian and Islamic schools of philosophy. It is generally a systematic study of questions about existence, reason and language but the definition I prefer, and which I think Dylan subscribes to here, is the science of essences. Aesthetics. A critical reflection on art, culture and nature.

The title of the book suggests something deeply researched with insightful connections between past and the present. And, one would think, some indication of Dylan’s study or training in philosophy, referencing some of the seminal aesthetic philosophers in the field such as Aristotle, Aquinas, Hegel, Burke or even Derrida. After all, philosophy is not just a word. If he had called his book The Physics of Modern Song, you’d expect him to have mentioned Feynman and Einstein.

To do what Dylan is attempting in this book would be an impossible task, even for an academically trained philosopher. There are too many creative, brilliant and influential musical artists throughout the world and throughout history to make this a realistic goal. Also, he is only addressing Western music, which is only one piece of the theoretical pie.

You will find no coherent objective or connective philosophy to be found anywhere in this collection of sixty-six “essays” about some of Dylan’s favourite songs, songwriters and performers. Amidst reams of adjective-laden clichéd explanations of the importance of each song to him, resembling more of an amateur astrological column, Dylan seems to have chosen his subjects blindfold, from a pointy hat, at Michel Foucault’s Halloween party. His rambles appear cut-and-paste and, for the most part, are interchangeable with one another.

I am also loath to use the word essays to describe this combination of short, pseudo-poetic observations, which are combined with Dylan’s parroting of a Sir Christopher Ricks-style commentary. Ricks, Professor of Poetry at Oxford, wrote that mighty door-stopper, Dylan’s Visions of Sin, which I made toast of in my article “Hey Mr Cowbell Man” (Quadrant, March 2012). Dylan must have read Ricks’s book about him many times, as he has clearly absorbed Ricks’s gaga style of analysis.

Some of the chapters of The Philosophy of Modern Song are inadequately short, such as the ones about the Allman Brothers (197 words) and Ernie K-Doe (169 words). Little Richard gets a couple of chapters (one of them a bare 100 words). Dylan seems to have opted for quantity rather than quality—write a little bit about a lot of people, with vague and generic stream-of-consciousness word associations, fill half the book with full-page photos, and see if it all links up.

It doesn’t. The collection is unbalanced, arbitrary and glaringly omits some of the most important influences on Dylan’s writing, such as Woody Guthrie. It is a fat coffee-table production, loaded with “100 carefully curated photos” to pad it out. Curated is not the word I would use to describe these images. More like surf-the-net-and-drag-anything-that-catches-your-eye-onto-your-desktop. Like a pre-teen’s scrapbook. Even Madonna’s books of erotic monochrome photography are more aesthetic than this hodge-podge. For example, in the piece about Johnnie Taylor’s “Cheaper to Keep Her”, there is a full facing-page picture of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. This is the kind of curation one might use to make prosciutto.

When I rang up the local Readings Bookshop in Carlton to reserve a copy of Dylan’s book, assuming they might only have a dozen or so left and would sell out, I was told, “You don’t have to bother reserving, we have millions of them.” I get a lot of good essay-worthy anecdotes from the staff at Readings. When I went in and asked for a copy of Christopher Ricks’s book on Dylan’s sinfulness, the woman behind the counter said, “That’s all we need—another book about Dylan.”

Obviously the publishers went large with this one, with an eye on the vast international market since Dylan won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Illiterature.

To begin my research, I placed the book in front of me and my iPhone to one side. I read each chapter, took initial notes and then used my iPhone to listen to each song referenced. Then I read the song lyrics and made some further notes. For the most part, the lyric content of the actual songs has nothing to do with Dylan’s “analysis” of their “philosophy”.

A few examples from the sixty-six chapters should demonstrate why you should save your money. If you are interested in a truly creative literary-musical mind, read Paterson’s brilliant recent critical review of Dylan’s book in the Times.

The Philosophy of Modern Song is dedicated to Doc Pomus, a handicapped singer-songwriter born in 1925. Pomus, primarily a lyricist, recorded in the 1940s. With Mort Shuman he co-wrote the standards “Save the Last Dance for Me” and “Viva Las Vegas”.

I’ll start with Rosemary Clooney and the song “Come-On a My House” (1951), written by Ross Bagdasarian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Saroyan, who were cousins. Bagdasarian, under the name David Seville, later became the voice and producer behind the Alvin and the Chipmunks hits.

“Come-On a My House” was also made popular by the Italian-American singer Louis Prima. I grew up with this version. The song is a positive-vibe classic festive party song, referencing tables of food and big extended-family feasts, with a slight whiff of seduction: “Come on-a my house, I’m gonna give you Christmas tree … marriage ring and a pomegranate too.” How does Dylan interpret this lyric?

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 in the refrigerator.

I dare him to go into any Italian neighbourhood and spout that rubbish.

Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up” (1978) is also familiar. I saw him and his band the Attractions in their prime in a small venue in LA in the late 1970s on a double-bill with Robert Palmer. With his Buddy Holly specs and rolled-up jeans over bovver boots, he was very dynamic. “Pump It Up”, in particular, was so memorable that I taught myself the descending three-chord Kinks-like guitar riff.

Dylan suggests that the song was inspired by Costello listening to Dylan’s own “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. He fails to mention, however, that “Subterranean Homesick Blues” was also closely patterned after Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business”. Notice the lyric and rhythmic similarities:

“Subterranean Homesick Blues” (1965):

Johnny’s in the basement,

Mixing up the medicine,

I’m on the pavement,

Thinking about the government.

“Too Much Monkey Business” (1956):

Running to and fro,

Hard working at the mill,

Never fails, in the mail,

There comes a rotten bill.

Dylan examines 1950s crooner Perry Como’s version of “Without a Song” (1951) in a scant 323 words. Como was a fine singer who followed in the wake of the masterly Bing Crosby (also included in this collection but only allotted 246 words). My mother loved Como. I grew up hearing him around the house. But Como and Pat Boone were my definition of American white-bread blandness. Neither of these guys inspired me to become a musician. (It took the Beatles to do that.) I think Gil Scott-Heron once commented that when Elvis arrived on the music scene, he stepped all over Boone’s signature white bucks with his “blue suede shoes”. Dylan refers to Como as “anti-American Idol”, but this further demonstrates wilful naivety. Como was as commercial as they came and even had his own weekly television show.

With Johnnie Taylor’s “Cheaper to Keep Her” (1973), Dylan attempts to jerry-rig the lyrics of the song as a springboard for a polemic about the evils of divorce lawyers: “Divorce lawyers don’t care about familial bonding. They are, by definition, in the destruction business. They destroy families.” By whose definition? Gandhi initially qualified as a solicitor and once said: “The job of the lawyer is to unite parties riven asunder.” Now that’s a vision!

Dylan continues down this woeful cul-de-sac with some dodgy spiritual advice—“The laws of God override the laws of Man every time”—which sounds like something from the back of a fundamentalist breakfast cereal box. He concludes with an almost unbearable extended argument about the benefits of polygamy:

It’s nobody’s business how many wives a man has. Muslims can have four wives. South Africans can have as many as ten … but before the feminists chase me through the village with torches, consider two points:

First, what downtrodden woman with no future, battered around by the whims of a cruel society, wouldn’t be better off as one of a rich man’s wives—taken care of properly.

He then lamely tries to cover his rear:

Second, when did I ever posit that the polygamist marriage had to be male singular female plural? Have at it, ladies. There’s another glass ceiling for you to break.

Whoa! Glass ceiling? Is this guy living in a glass bubble or what? Some critics have called Dylan a misogynist. I wouldn’t go that far but he is definitely living in another time. Any songwriter who still uses the term “ladies” to refer generically to women (especially referring to feminists) is asking for trouble. Dylan obviously isn’t familiar with Marilyn French’s brilliant book on this subject, The Women’s Room (1977). And what does any of this nattering have to do with Johnnie Taylor or “Cheaper to Keep Her”? Nothing.

Dylan has omitted from his influences some of the seminal folk songwriter-performers of the late 1960s—his contemporaries—such as Joan Baez, the Kingston Trio, Gordon Lightfoot and Buffy St Marie. Most glaringly omiited is perhaps his single most important mentor: Woody Guthrie.

But I can understand omitting Joni Mitchell. After all, why include this truly influential female songwriter in any “objective” assessment of modern song when she recently had this to say: “Bob is not authentic at all. He’s a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception.”

In the field of country music, Dylan passes over Jimmy Rodgers, Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette and George Jones and one of the cleverest songwriters, Roger Miller, whose travelling song “King of the Road” (1964) predates Willie Nelson by sixteen years. Dylan claims that Nelson’s “On the Road Again” is pure Jack Kerouac-influenced, but in many ways, Miller’s song is truer to the wild spirit of Kerouac: “I’m a man of means by no means—king of the road.” Nelson’s song is about endless touring in a well-outfitted tour bus. None of Miller’s “old stogies” or hopping freight trains there.

The only pop band represented, from Dylan’s golden period of songwriting (mid-1960s), is the Who. He omits brilliant and literate songwriter-performers such the Rolling Stones, the Doors, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Byrds, the Band and even the Beatles. The Stones, the Byrds and the Band were all instrumental in bringing Dylan’s songs to a wider audience. But why he omitted the Beatles is beyond me. The Lennon-McCartney songbook is much vaster than Dylan’s and has influenced a much wider audience.

In his section about the British band the Clash, and their song “London Calling”, he shows clear disdain for the Fab Four, remarking that through the Clash, “phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust” and “[they] sneer at the fool on the hill. That truncheon thing is going to come down on your head while you are singing ‘Hey Jude’.

I gave a composition seminar for students at the Australian Institute of Music a few years ago. I used musical and lyrical examples from Dylan, “Michelle” by Lennon-McCartney and a few cantatas by J.S. Bach. The room was made up mostly of hip-hop teens wearing baseball caps and staring into iPhones, and a few young classically trained musicians. Everyone knew of the Beatles’ music but no one in the class had ever even heard a Bob Dylan song. Shocking, but sobering.

As for music in the twenty-first century, Dylan makes no mention of Madonna, Michael Jackson or even Harry Styles. You’d think he might have been paying more attention to what’s going on right now in modern song if he wanted to write a book about it. But I think modern, for Dylan, stopped a long time ago. In 2006, he told Rolling Stone magazine:

I don’t know anybody who’s made a record that sounds decent in the past twenty years, really. You listen to these modern records, they’re atrocious, they have sound all over them. There’s no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like … static … I remember when that Napster guy came up across, it was like, “Everybody’s getting music for free”, I was like, “Well, why not? It ain’t worth nothing anyway.”

The one positive thing about Dylan’s new book is that if you listen to the songs he references while you read, as I did while writing this, you will rediscover some long-forgotten masterpieces of your childhood, and many little-known songs and artists that slipped through the cracks. This is the most entertaining and educational aspect of the book. It has nothing to do with philosophy however—only his quirky personal taste.

Don Paterson calls The Philosophy of Modern Song a “lazy, half-written dog’s dinner”. Personally, I’d be a lot kinder to my dog.

Joe Dolce is a Melbourne poet, singer and songwriter. He has contributed Quadrant’s film and television column since April 2019.


6 thoughts on “Idle Thoughts from Bob Dylan

  • Dingus McGee says:

    Masterful analysis. Thank you.

  • john mac says:

    Great article, Joe. Dylan fan here but have always had him categorised as a good , not great talent. Mitchell towers above him in songwriting, vocals and musicianship and I’m sure Dylan knows it . Also , his poor attempts at painting are cringeworthy, where Mitchell is gifted . No wonder she’s not in the book. Of course his influence is huge and if not for him , perhaps all the fine singer-songwriters in his wake may have chosen different paths. What’s always interested me is how he , Lennon and Madonna for instance built their persona’s cultivating a mystique, and changing with the times to stay relevant. Yet to me , they weren’t particularly talented singers or musicians .Madonna particularly is talentless, as “Joe the cameraman” quipped , ” Can’t bowl, can’t bat , can’t field”! Yet there she is ,freakish looking ,worth half a billion while her fellow New Yorker Cyndi Lauper , a huge talent is nowhere near as wealthy or well-known. Anyway “Blood on the tracks” Blonde on Blonde ” remain favourites but I’ve never looked to Dylan for serious introspection and ,like Obama’s Nobel peace prise, view Dylan’s award with humorous scepticism.

  • john mac says:

    Peace prize .

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    Thanks, Joe, for reviewing a book I never intended to buy anyway. 🙂

    I would never turn to Bob Dylan for a coherent account about anything, and if he’s got a philosophy I am not going to search for it anywhere but in his songs. And I don’t really find one there, for he is the ultimate idiom and image collater with a rare talent of being able to spit these out with connecting possibilities that can really slay you. Item: Mr. Tambourine Man. Give me two glasses of wine and put that on and I am off and away with a head full of extraordinary visions. As I should be. No Person from Porlock ever interrupted Bob in full flight and I am glad of that. He is part of my growing up, my youth in the 60’s, as with everyone else of our generation.

    You’ve provided, via Bob’s book, a pleasant ride for us through some of the songs of the past that I’d not thought about at all until now, and a memorable review of all that isn’t in the book but which constitutes the eras.

    My twenty year old grandson, btw, is a great Dylan fan and he’s in a band. So Bob of the 60’d is reaching down to yoof still. Not so sure of the impact of Bob in his later iterations. We all get old and the wild spark can die or become less virbrant, less urgent, sadder, transmuted into something no longer itself.

  • pgang says:

    Never could stand his kind of woke, preachy, hippy whining. Sounds like his writing is woke, preachy, hippy rubbish too.

  • Anthony Sharpe says:

    ‘Bitterness only consumes the vessel that contains it’.( I didn’t write that).
    Move on , Joe. This article reeks of envy and catharsis, neither of which make a good premise for an ‘essay’.
    I was listening to Nina Simone today for hours, she must have covered many many Dylan songs .her Mr boganles is sublime and truly transcendental . What is it she saw that you are missing ?

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