Bob Dylan doesn't think much of the current state of songwriting or of contemporary pop music, two points underscored in his sometimes dizzying, sometimes confounding, but rarely less than absorbing new book, "The Philosophy of Modern Song." But he does think polygamist marriages are greatly underrated, about which more in a moment.
Twelve years in the making, Dylan's book — which will be published Tuesday by Simon & Schuster — is largely an impassioned valentine to dozens of the great songwriters and singers most admired by one of the greatest singer-songwriters extant.
They range from Hank Williams, Little Richard and Allen Toussaint to Uncle Dave Macon, Roy Orbison and The Clash's Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, but almost no women. And they include such timeless songwriting teams as Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, and Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman.
"Being a writer is not something one chooses to do. It's something you just do and sometimes people stop and notice," Dylan observes in his first book of new writing since "Chronicles: Volume One" was published in 2004.
In a later chapter, he delves into the function of lyrics, stressing: "It's important to remember that these words were written for the ears and not the eye. And as in comedy, where a seemingly simple sentence can transform into a joke through the magic of performance, an inexplicable thing happens when words are set to music. The miracle is in their union."
Dylan being Dylan, he then segues into a paragraph about the Swiss inventor of Velcro before pivoting to the vital importance of "transcending craft to create anything truly lasting."
Yet, while he primarily devotes his expertise to reflecting on and probing the art of music-making — what makes a song or singer great — Dylan doesn't stop there.
Grateful Dead and Artie Shaw
He makes fascinating comparisons, likening the Grateful Dead to Artie Shaw's big band of the 1930s and '40s. He also draws links between Mose Allison's "Everybody's Crying Mercy" and The Temptations' "Ball of Confusion," and between Domenico Modugno's "Volare" (a Dylan favorite) and Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" (apparently not).
Comparing the audiences at a Grateful Dead concert to those at a Rolling Stones concert, Dylan — who has performed with both bands — writes:
"There is a big difference in the types of women that you see from the stage when you are with the Stones compared to the Dead. With the Stones it's like being at a porno convention. With the Dead, it's more like the women you see by the river in the movie 'O Brother Where Art Thou?' Free floating, snaky and slithering like in a typical daydream ..."
Dylan also references hip-hop giants Jay-Z and The Notorious B.I.G. while writing about Elvis Costello's "Pump It Up." He demonstrates familiarity with — but no admiration for — electric guitar virtuosos Joe Satriani and Yngwie Malmsteen while writing about bluegrass and country music.
Attentive readers will also savor Dylan's withering comments, which pop up periodically in different chapters, on the state of contemporary culture and the world itself. Exactly how low he rates the present and recent past can be easily quantified.
Of the 60-plus songs Dylan writes about, only two are from this century — two! — and both are by deceased artists (Warren Zevon's "Dirty Life and Times" and John Trudell's "Doesn't Hurt Anymore").
Then again, just four of the songs Dylan chronicles here are from the 1980s and none at all are from the 1990s. Several date back to the 1920s, with just about everything else falling between the 1930s and 1970s. A significant number are songs the teenaged Dylan, born Robert Zimmerman, heard on the radio while growing up in rural Minnesota in the 1940s and, even more so, the 1950s.
Dylan's omission of entire decades in "The Philosophy of Modern Song" speaks volumes about what he does, and doesn't, value — in music and in life.
"Everything is too full now; we are spoon-fed everything," he laments in his four-page chapter on Hank Williams' "Your Cheatin' Heart."
"All songs (now) are about one thing and one thing specifically, there is no shading, no nuance, no mystery," Dylan continues. "Perhaps this is why music is not a place where people put their dreams at the moment; dreams suffocate in these airless environs.
"And it's not just songs — movies, television shows, even clothing and food, everything is niche marketed and overly fussed with. There isn't an item on the menu that doesn't have half a dozen adjectives in front of it, all chosen to hit you in your sociopolitical-humanitarian-snobby-foodie consumer spot. Enjoy your free-range, cumin-infused, cayenne-dusted heirloom reduction. Sometimes it's just better to have a BLT and be done with it."
1849 to 2003
The oldest song Dylan writes devotes a chapter to, Stephen Foster's "Nelly Was a Lady," was written in 1849. The most recent, Zevon's "Dirty Life and Times," in 2003.
After hailing Foster as the counterpart to Edgar Allan Poe, Dylan praises Alvin Youngblood Hart's wonderfully unadorned 2004 recording of "Nelly," calling it "as good a version as you'll ever hear. ... The tune will stay in your head long after you have forgotten the story and every time you hum it a tear will roll down your cheek."
Dylan's essays about singers, songwriters, instrumentalists and their respective skills demonstrate the insights of both a scholar of music and an ardent fan. He balances his encyclopedic knowledge with infectious enthusiasm. He writes with a winning combination of wit and sensitivity, wisdom and humor, articulating an equal appreciation for tradition and breaking the rules.
He hails Uncle Dave Macon's banjo-driven 1924 rave-up, "Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy," as "a blast furnace of a song" that "follows its own rules, regardless of what you think or don't think. It has nothing to do with Aristotle's logic ... This is Chuck Berry years before Chuck Berry duck walked ... It's like Walt Whitman if he was a musician. The song contains multitudes ..."
Dylan's masterful 2020 album, "Rough and Rowdy Ways," opens with "I Contain Multitudes." Which came first? His song, whose title is drawn from a Whitman poem? Or the "multitudes" line in his chapter about Uncle Dave Macon? This is something Dylan devotees are likely to ponder, from a book that invites contemplation.
The difference between inspiration and imitation is a recurring theme for Dylan in "The Philosophy of Modern Song." So is an artist's ability to put their stamp on a song written by someone else. Accordingly, some of the vocal giants Dylan most enthusiastically celebrates — including Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Elvis Presley — did not write their own songs.
At 81, Dylan can still be proudly unpredictable. He devotes five pages to the late country-music maverick Johnny Paycheck — whose rough and rowdy ways offstage hold considerable allure for Dylan — and just six paragraphs to Jimmy Webb's "By the Time I Get to Phoenix."
He includes a chapter on a song by the Eagles, but selects one of the group's decidedly lesser works, "Witchy Woman." Dylan expends only three short sentences on the song itself — and five paragraphs to his notions of such a woman as "a destroyer of cultures, traditions, identities and deities."
Of Roy Orbison's "Blue Bayou," Dylan writes knowingly: "This is both a spectacular song and a spectacular record. They are not always the same thing. Sometimes songs can be slippery in the studio — they can go right through your fingers. Some of our favorite records are mediocre songs at best, that somehow came alive when the tape was running."
But of the Allman Brothers' "Midnight Rider," the next song he writes about, Dylan expends not one word on the performance or the recording. Instead, he briefly riffs on what a midnight rider might represent, much as he muses about women in the Eagles' "Witchy Woman."
Dylan's thoughts are intriguing and his writing is as vivid as you would expect. But one senses he likes the conceptual possibilities "Midnight Rider" and "Witchy Woman" conjure for him far more than the songs. And given that he once lauded the Eagles' "Pretty Maids in a Row" — which he said at the time "could be one of the best songs ever" — his choice of "Witchy Woman" is all the more surprising.
But Dylan can also cut right to the chase, writing — in a chapter about "Money Honey," a 1956 Elvis Presley hit penned by Jesse Stone — "Art is a disagreement. Money is an agreement."
The resulting conflict between purity and commercialism, success and failure, authenticity and artifice, is clearly something Dylan has contemplated at length. Ditto the function of art as a source of both entertainment and edification, basic desires and complex emotions.
Throughout the book, he is as apt to make references to painters and politicians, history and current events, as he is to music. He also argues in favor of exceptionalism over the familiar and commonplace.
"I like Caravaggio, you like Basquiat," Dylan writes. "We both like Frida Kahlo and Warhol leaves us cold. That's why there can be no such thing as a national art form. In the attempt, we can feel the sanding of the edges, the endeavor to include all opinions, the hope not to offend. It all too quickly turns to propaganda or rank commercialism."
Do women artists measure up?
Women artists are mentioned in passing more often than they are the focus of Dylan's attention in "The Philosophy of Modern Song." Women, in general, do not fare too well in his book, as evidenced by this passage: "women's rights crusaders and women's lib lobbyists take turns putting man back on his heels until he is pinned behind the eight ball dodging the shrapnel from the glass ceiling."
Dylan singles Linda Ronstadt and Joni Mitchell out for praise, but only in passing while writing about male artists. And in a book with chapters about more than five-dozen songs, only a handful were written by women, including The Osborne Brothers' "Ruby, Are You Mad" (take a bow Cynthia May Carver)," or co-written by women, including Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti" (take a bow, Dorothy LaBostrie).
Who were these women songwriters?
While Dylan includes information about — and praise for — a fair number of the male songwriters featured in his book, he says virtually nothing about the few women songwriters who made the cut.
Even more glaring, he only deems four songs recorded by women singers worthy of their own chapters: Judy Garland's "Come Rain or Come Shine"; Rosemary Clooney's "Come On-a My House"; Nina Simone's "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood"; and, um, Cher's "Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves."
He appears to include "Gypsies," at least in part, so he can praise Cher's ex-husband and musical partner, the late Sony Bono — who in 1995 was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives — but not for music. Instead, Dylan hails the passage of "the Sonny Bono act," which extended copyright terms for all writers," as Bono's greatest achievement.
Singling out Sonny & Cher may puzzle some readers. But Dylan also knows how to expertly stir up a pot and make it boil over. He does precisely that in his chapter on blues-soul singer Johnny Taylor's 1973 gem, "Cheaper to Keep Her," a song that inspires Dylan to lash out at length at divorce attorneys.
"They destroy families," he writes. "How many of them are at least indirectly responsible for teen suicides and serial killers? Like generals who don't have to see the boys they send to war, they feign innocence with blood on their hands."
Dylan, who has been twice married and divorced, then rails at prenuptial agreements, before advocating for a sure-to-be-controversial solution.
"Mixed marriages, gay marriages — proponents have rightly lobbied to make all of these legal but no one has fought for the only one that really counts, the polygamist marriage," he contends.
After several paragraphs extolling the benefits of matrimonial polygamy, he mulls the possibility "feminists" might "chase" him "through the village with torches," before making his final argument:
"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, rather than friendless on the street depending on government stamps?"
Dylan then shifts gears by suggesting women could have multiple husbands. "Have at it, ladies," he writes. "There's another glass ceiling for you to break."
Let the discussion — and backlash — begin.
The audio version of "The Philosophy of Modern Song" features chapters read aloud by such Oscar-winning actors as Helen Mirren, Jeff Bridges, Renée Zellweger, Rita Moreno and Sissy Spacek. Several Oscar nominees also read chapters, while Dylan limits himself to introductions and what his publisher describes as "a series of dream-like riffs that, taken together, resemble an epic poem and add to the work's transcendence."
"The Philosophy of Modern Song" by Bob Dylan (Simon & Schuster, 2022; 339 pages)