I listened on audio (an A+ plus experience) and my only wish was to hear each track as a preamble to Bob Dylan’s dissection. I’m sure it would have been a nightmare in terms of tracking down rights to include those songs, but what are lawyers for? And the physical book should come with a set of singles. 45’s. A whole nifty box of them. All 66. Sure, you can build a playlist on your favorite streaming service, but it wouldn’t be the same.
Back to the audio version, I mean, come on. Whose inspired idea was it to include Jeff Bridges, Steve Buscemi, John Goodman, Oscar Isaac, Helen Mirren, Rita Moreno, Sissy Spacek, Alfre Woodard, Jeffrey Wright, and Renee Zellweger? What a deal. And, of course, a ton of Dylan reading his own writing, too—setting up the concept of the song, for instance, before turning the essay over to one of his co-narrators.
Dylan started working on The Philosophy of Modern Song in 2010 and it came out in late 2022 and what I want to know is how much Dylan noodled with the words, the ideas, the flow. The (very problematic) song list, too.
Hey, what’s on the cutting room floor? We want to read the outtakes, too. If they exist.
We’ve always known Dylan was smarter than smart. A genius poet. A brilliant commentator. Icon. Voice of a generation. The best songwriter ever? Who else among his songwriting peers has won a Nobel Prize—for literature? I turned 10 years old ten days before The Beatles turned up on Ed Sullivan (go ahead, do the math) and paid no attention to the fact that “The Times They Are A-Changin’” was released the same day but within a year or so of that I was well aware that Bob Dylan had something to say and was earning respect and soon he changed and changed again. I sometimes don’t feel smart enough to get a grasp on all he’s giving us, but I go for the ride and soak up what I can. Five hundred Bob Dylan songs out there? And how many times did he repeat himself?
Here was the most surprising thing to me about reading The Philosophy of Modern Song: it’s so damn playful. Dylan’s takes are almost lessons themselves in how to riff on an idea. It’s also a lesson on how to imagine the songwriter’s intent and it’s also insight into Dylan’s powerful imagination, to take a simple idea and watch it rattle around in his noggin.
“You got a habit, a bad habit. You fell in love with the hard stuff. You fell for the foxy harlot, the vamp who lives around here somewhere, and you’re silly about her, she’s got you hooked.” (Vic Damone’s “On The Street Where You Live.”)
“This is a blast furnace of a song and it climbs all over you—smokes your meat and steals your brain—and it’s free with the bottle.” (Uncle Dave Macon’s “Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy.”)
“This is the ballad of the tortured soul, the cowboy heretic, prince of the protestants, falling in love with a smooth complexion dancing girl just like that, as fast as he can do it.” (Marty Robbin’s “El Paso.”)
According to The Los Angeles Times (thanks for the analysis), 28 of the 66 songs date from the 1950’s. Nine were released in 1956, the year Bob Dylan turned 15. There’s a feeling, in some cases, that Dylan is being purposely obscure.
But there’s a crime here, too. A real crime.
Only FOUR of the 66 dissected tracks were by women.
Cher. Rosemary Clooney. Judy Garland. And Nina Simone.
I mean, what the heck? No Aretha. No Joni. No Joan Baez (or Jett). No Tina (RIP). No Janis. No Patti Smith. No Sleater-Kinney, Deborah Harry, Ani DiFranco, Liz Phair … on and on. You can write about The Clash but not Siouxsie? Or Deborah? Or Chrissie? Where were the editors on that one? I didn’t notice this while reading (listening). I noticed it when I went to look for quotes to use above and then realized I needed a mix of male and female songs. And then I went through the book and, well, come on Bob. What’s up with that? Inexcusable. You mix in blues, country, rock, and punk and a couple of old crooners, too. One song from the mid 19th century. But only four women?
I’m not asking for politically correct. I’m asking for balance. Recognition. Give me a break. And why didn’t the female narrators—Sissy, Helen, Rene, Alfre, Rita—speak up? (Maybe they didn’t know the whole picture; that’s entirely possible.)
Bob being Bob. One endless decoding project. But that imbalance really bugs me.
Final gripe: there’s nothing here where Dylan steps back, looks at the big sweep of everything, and kind of puts it all together. Yeah, like a “philosophy.”