book review the philosophy of modern song by bob dylan

Book Review: ‘The Philosophy of Modern Song,’ by Bob Dylan

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Come with me, and let’s stand in the rain of the clauses and sub-clauses in Bob Dylan’s devious new book, “The Philosophy of Modern Song.”

Dylan has rounded up 66 songs, from Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife” and Webb Pierce’s “There Stands the Glass” to Nina Simone’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and the Clash’s “London Calling,” and he riffs on them.

These riffs, which he flicks like tarot cards through a distant cactus, sound a lot like his own song lyrics, so much so that part of me wanted this to be a new record instead, wanted to hear these lines come croaking up from Dylan’s 81-year-old lungs and past his buckshot, barb-wired uvula.

Here are two selections, chosen half at random:

This song kicks you down, and before you can get up, it hits you again. This is the stuff to live for, and what you make of it all. This is mankind created in the image of a jealous godhead. This is fatherhood, the devil god and the golden calf — the godly man, a jealous human being. This mode of life is an all-confrontational mode of life, the highs and lows of it, what it actually is. Truth that needs no proof, where every need is an evil need. This is a ballad of outrageous love.

This song is all about hypocrisy. Hitting and running, butchering and exterminating, taking the grand prize and finishing in front. Then being big hearted, burying the hatchet, apologizing, kissing and making up. It’s about the hustle.

The first paragraph is about Marty Robbins’s “El Paso”; the second, Mose Allison’s “Everybody Cryin’ Mercy.” Nearly all the entries sound like this — they’re oracular. Dylan walks through this book casting aspersions, deadheading roses, calling down curses, scrounging for his next meal, with no direction home, hiding on the backstreets (oops, wrong singer), ringing them bells, not talking falsely now.