Bob Dylan on Songwriting: The Best Written Works Are Not Books But Song Lyrics

From a Wall Street Journal review by Wesley Stace of the book by Bob Dylan titled “The Philosophy of Modern Song”:

In a 1997 Newsweek interview, Bob Dylan told “the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music . . . I’ve learned more from the songs than I’ve learned from . . . rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that.”

He made the point again in 2020’s “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” his valediction to the man he calls “the most country of all the blues artists in the fifties,” one of whose songs is under consideration in “The Philosophy of Modern Song”: “Goodbye Jimmy Reed, Jimmy Reed indeed; / Give me that old time religion, it’s just what I need.” Dylan’s religion, his philosophy, his code, is the music.

A Nobel laureate’s first book since his garlanding, not to mention his first in 18 years, is bound to be a matter of public and literary celebration. It’s complicated in the case of Bob Dylan, a writer lauded by Stockholm “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition” and whose best written works are not books but lyrics, words intended, as he says here, “for the ear and not for the eye.” His two previous book-length works—“Tarantula,” a bewildering 1971 “novel” that reads like unpublished liner notes on speed, and “Chronicles,” his asynchronously brilliant 2004 memoir—are eccentric to his output, and as distinct from each other as the new book is different again.

“The Philosophy of Modern Song” is an annotated playlist of other people’s songs, an idiosyncratic jukebox of 66 A-sides. The imposing title is perhaps tongue-in-cheek, for the book doesn’t offer—as Bobcats worth their salt might have predicted—anything close to what its title promises. What it does offer is perhaps even more valuable: It’s a generous book—as forthright as anything Dylan has ever laid before his audience—that manages to stick its landing somewhere between the perfect bathroom read (short sections, handsomely illustrated, coincidentally just in time for Christmas) and “The Anatomy of Melancholy,” Robert Burton’s epic, eccentric and encyclopedic compendium of 1621. The “Philosophy,” like the “Anatomy,” is a mix of grand theme, digression (tangents here on everything from Esperanto to a primer on French verb tenses), informative trivia (the origin of Velcro!), occasionally salacious gossip, dad jokes, suggestion (“Anybody can understand this. Anybody who is anybody”), autodidactic claptrap, classical authority, hocus-pocus and self-revelation. “I write of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy,” wrote Burton. Dylan perhaps does the same: “In a real sense the only thing that truly unites us is suffering and suffering only. We all know loss, whether you’re rich or poor.”

The seed of this book may have been planted during Dylan’s stint as DJ for “Theme Time Radio Hour,” which ran on satellite radio from 2006 to 2009 for more than 100 episodes. Of the 66 songs, 15 were aired there. Dylan himself has recorded at least three of them (“Blue Moon,” “Come Rain or Come Shine” and “Big River”) and covered several others live. The playlist itself—average date circa 1961—is heavily influenced by the music of its compiler’s own adolescence, featuring artists to whom Dylan has been remarkably loyal throughout his career. Of Jesse Stone’s “Money Honey”: “I remember when [Elvis’s version] came out. I knew people who thought the Drifters did it better. Other folks thought Elvis . . .” There is tape of him pontificating on this very matter in his own teenage bedroom in 1958—his earliest recorded conversation—on which he says that Elvis “copied Clyde McPhatter.” Presley, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Little Richard and Ricky Nelson are also namechecked there, present here.

Most of the entries contain an extrapolation on the song’s lyrics, then a discussion of some other aspect of the song or performance (or something else entirely). The lyrical “riffs”—“you’ve been on the dark side too long,” etc.—are most Dylanesque, particularly because of the second-person narration, intended to cast a noirish shadow, with the occasional consequence of making the reader feel like the addressee of “Like a Rolling Stone.” The purely lyrical paraphrases are only intermittently successful. Though Dylan knows that “people ask songwriters what a song means, not realizing if they had more words to explain it they would’ve used them in the song,” here he is quite happy to use more words, to sometimes comic effect. The Who’s famously forthright “Hope I die before I get old” becomes the wordy “You’re hoping to croak before senility sets in. You don’t want to be ancient and decrepit, no thank you. I’ll kick the bucket before that happens.”

However, we are primarily reading “The Philosophy of Modern Song” not to find out about the music under discussion, all great, but to learn about Dylan—and this is where things get interesting. Take the very first song: “Detroit City,” by Danny Dill and Mel Tillis, the simple song of a man adrift in the big city pining for “them cotton fields and home,” ready to pack it in. Into this straightforward narrative, Dylan immediately throws a huge curveball: In his reading, the narrator is suffering “delusions about [an] imaginary farmstead . . . the listener knows . . . just doesn’t exist.” The letters the narrator writes home therefore represent something far more sinister: “[His family] are all either dead or gone . . . That’s why this song works.” The song itself does not require, or benefit from, this extra level of complication—it may repel people who have innocently enjoyed it since its 1963 release by Bobby Bare—but that is quite beside the point: It represents a window into Dylan’s thoughts about how songs and lyrics operate, how they might be received. So though Dylan’s interpretation might not be why “Detroit City” works, it is why this book works—it doesn’t matter if he’s right or wrong. “We fill in missing bits of pictures, snatches of dialogue, we finish rhymes and invent stories to explain things we do not know.” Of course we do, but we had no idea it could be such a creative collaboration.

This is Dylan’s M.O. repeatedly. Rosemary Clooney’s feel-good “Come On-a My House” becomes “the song of the deviant, the pedophile, the mass murderer . . . a song sung by a spirit rapper, a warlock”; of Eddy Arnold‘s mournful classic “You Don’t Know Me,” “a serial killer would sing this song.” The back story of the alcoholic narrator of Webb Pierce’s “There Stands the Glass”? He’s a veteran who has “stuck a bayonet into babies’ bellies and gouged out old men’s eyes.” When Dylan says of Cher’s “Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves” that “this is about a pregnant gal,” the surprise is that this statement is identifiably true.

These readings, to put it mildly, tend toward darkness, the noir—simultaneously nostalgic and brutal—that Dylan has recently been courting. They expose the seamy underbelly of the American dream, its dark seething secrets—the “Upside Down”—in much the same way that Dylan’s recent lyrics swerve, occasionally in the very same verse, between a proclamation of tender love and a threat of bloody revenge.

Other misinterpretations are more prosaic: The Clash’s famous yowl of “London is drowning / I live by the river” suggests the singer’s defiance and fearlessness rather than his hope of a handy escape. Of Billy Joe Shaver’s “Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me”: “There’s three people in this song. There’s Willy, there’s the wandering gypsy, and then there’s you.” If it were about three people, there would be a comma. Of course, Dylan’s interpretation is valid, it’s “in there” (as literary critics say) whether Shaver intended it or not, but it demonstrates a level of scrutiny that Dylan might find slightly ludicrous leveled at his own work.

Despite his front-and-center opinions, autobiography is almost entirely absent: He doesn’t mention, for example, those three songs he recorded, nor his connections to any of the various performers or writers here, some of which dot-joining may have made the book feel a little more organic. Many of the choices predate his career, and very few of the tracks that postdate the ’60s seem directly influenced by his work. It’s as if he has written himself out, not only personally, but from musical history: Perhaps that is his private fantasy.

However, another form of personal statement gradually emerges, something previously unimaginable: an apologia for the author’s artistic techniques, evidenced until now only by his less discreet collaborators and conjectured by his most sympathetic critics. Dylan’s methods can seem haphazard, lazy, even disrespectful to the casual listener or audience member: studio albums that prioritize feel and immediacy over technical perfection; his live presentation of new songs when you want him to play old songs (or vice-versa); the way those old songs hardly sound like the records; the reason he restlessly changes the melodies, upends the lyrics; the accusations of plagiarism; even his aloof public behavior. It’s all here: one simple example, of the Osborne Brothers’ live rendition of the wonderful “Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man?”: “They could have just gone through the motions and delivered a credible copy of the record. Instead, the song morphed and grew . . . Of course, some people cried foul and those people should’ve stayed home.”

Over and over in his admiration of others, he tells us about himself. Dion, for example, “evolved throughout his career, changing outwardly but maintaining recognizable characteristics across every iteration.” When Perry Como “stood and sang, he owned the song and he shared it and we believed every single word. What more could you want from an artist?” What more, indeed?

The actual promised songwriting advice is perhaps a little sparse and it’s more of a “don’t do as I do, do as I say” masterclass: the suggestion that “a big part . . . is editing—distilling thought down to essentials,” is hardly controversial but it’s advice that you’re glad Dylan himself didn’t necessarily always follow. The trap of easy rhymes is discussed but the given example—“revolution / evolution / air pollution”—could easily be “socialism, hypnotism, patriotism, materialism” from Dylan’s 1978 song “No Time to Think.”

Sadly, the cover’s promise of inclusivity—a sensational photo of Little Richard (here represented by two songs), Alis Lesley (no songs, once billed “The Female Presley”) and Eddie Cochran (also none)—does not fairly represent the contents. Dylan jokingly worries that, on account of his tongue-in-cheek pro-polygamy position, “women’s lib lobbyists” will come for him. But a greater disappointment may be that of the 66 performers, four are women (all singing songs written by men), and that of the 110 writers represented here, only seven are female. That is perhaps surprising, given Dylan’s known affection for performers as diverse as Memphis Minnie, Joni Mitchell, Mavis Staples, Karen Dalton, Nico and Emmylou Harris.

“The Philosophy of Modern Song” is a late-life gift from the greatest living songwriter. These 66 songs may make a great Spotify playlist, but in the end the philosophy is not theirs but Dylan’s, and this book tangible evidence of the creative inspiration they provide him on a daily basis. Lest we forget, Dylan is also a card-carrying member of the songwriter’s union, many of whose members are less successful, and some of his most solemn praise is reserved for Sonny Bono, but not as performer or Cher collaborator: “His greatest achievement was as a congressman, where he helped pass the Sonny Bono Act, which extended copyright terms for all songwriters.”

That’s even better than writing “I Got You Babe.”

Wesley Stace is a novelist, a singer-songwriter and the master of ceremonies of Wesley Stace’s Cabinet of Wonders.

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