The Songs Bob Dylan Likes

If you ever wanted to know what Dylan thinks of ‘Witchy Woman,’ here is your book.

Bob Dylan’s weighty (two-pound) new tome, a collection of essays called The Philosophy of Modern Song, is not meant to be read in one sitting. Even, I don’t think, for the salivating hardcore Dylan-ologists. Maybe a dozen sittings, maybe more. Perhaps, it’s a bathroom book. The Philosophy of Modern Song, out Nov. 1, is an odd combination, both breezy and dense, illuminating and redundant.

Anyone expecting an analytical dissection of the songwriting process–say, why certain notes or chords or meters perfectly match certain words, how inspiration strikes the artist–will be disappointed. He’s not trying to peel back the curtain of how these songs came to fruition.

‘The Philosophy of Modern Song,’ by Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan.

But anyone expecting that probably doesn’t know the Sphinx-like Dylan, who has re-invented and reinterpreted his own songs zillions of times over the years when spirit strikes. And. of course, you do know, he’s greatest songwriter of his generation–it is heresy to challenge that claim. Also, his very fame in the ‘60s–Woody Guthrie-inspired folk-singer, oft-political–was a reinvention from his previous (late ‘50s) life as a rocker.

So, what other people’s songs light his fire in 2022?

What Dylan’s done here is pick out 65 songs (and one poem) and taken some acid–well, maybe not, but it sometime seems like it–and waxed rhapsodic and hyperbolic about everyone from Johnny Cash to Eddy Arnold to Little Richard to Waylon Jennings to the Clash to the Fugs to Doc Pomus, the songwriter Dylan dedicates the book to.

For some of these songs, you’ll say, “Oh, yeah, of course, they’re classics” and there are others where you’ll go “What the fuck? Why did that make the cut?”

There’s no introduction that sets out the parameters or criteria for a song to be included among these five dozen-plus choices. (What were the ones under consideration but rejected?) In some ways, The Philosophy of Song would seem to be an offshoot of Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour, of the program he hosted for nearly three years in the aughts on Sirius/XM. In a show produced by prolific sitcom script-master and rock archivist Eddie Gorodetsky, Dylan devoted the time to playing DJ and talking about songs that fit a particular theme – kissing, whiskey, baseball, drinking, wedding and divorce, etc. At the onset of The Philosophy of Song, Gorodetsky is referred to as Bob’s “fishing buddy” and thanked for his “input and excellent source material.”

You look at the book’s title and start skimming the chapters and wonder about Dylan’s definition of “modern.” Well, in this book it goes back to 1928 and Harry McClintock’s “Jesse James.” Dylan’s pretty funny here, talking about Jesse James’s outlaw days when anybody could legally shoot the outlaw and claim the reward money, noting “It’s a little different today when being an outlaw is just a term.  Country music has outlaws, but nobody has any right to shoot these guys.” (Sometimes, we wish.)

As best I can tell, there’s no prog-rock, synth-pop, heavy metal, punk (exception, The Clash’s “London Calling,” if that’s still punk) or hip-hop here. It’s folk and country-heavy with some ample doses of R&B and soul. You can’t fault Dylan for this; these are all his sweet spots. I didn’t really expect him to dissect and wax euphoric over the Ramones “Blitzkrieg Bop,” the Cramps “Don’t Eat Stuff Off the Sidewalk,” King Crimson’s “20thCentury Schizoid Man” or Brian Eno’s “Baby’s on Fire,” though I’d love to hear his take on all of them. You can figure most every song covered in this book started with an acoustic guitar and/or piano and then were arranged and fleshed out as other instruments entered the post-demo mix.

Bob Dylan in Central Park, 1963 (Photo: Gloria Stavers).

Though Dylan highlights the singer at the beginning of each chapter, the singer is often not the songwriter(s)–as with Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland, among others–so, really, Dylan is wanking off about both the words/melody and presentation thereof. Not so much the intertwining path they have taken toward creation, but the effect on the listener, which is to say, him. (The New York Times misfires with its hed on Ben Sisario’s story: “The Songs That Captivate and Define Us.” Italics, mine.)

Dylan does pick one song pretty much all boomers can (or could) relate to, The Who’s “My Generation.” Dylan’s first part is windy, but on target: “You’re in an exclusive club, and you’re advertising yourself. You’re blabbing about your age group, of which you’re a high-ranking member. You can’t conceal your conceit, and you’re snobbish and snooty about it. You’re not trying to drop any big bombshell or cause a scandal, you’re just waving a flag, and you don’t want anyone to comprehend what you’re saying or embrace it, or even try to take it all in. You’re looking down your nose at society and you have no use for it. 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. You’re looking at the world mortified by the hopelessness of it all.

The second part. “In reality, you’re an eighty-year-old man, being wheeled around in a home for the elderly, and the nurses are getting on your nerves. You say why don’t you all just fade away. You’re in your second childhood, can’t get a word out without stumbling and dribbling. You haven’t any aspirations to live in a fool’s paradise, you’re not looking forward to that, and you’ve got your fingers crossed that you don’t. Knock on wood. You’ll give up the ghost first.”

Huh? I guess he’s projecting where the early fans of the songs may be now. Bob, you bastard! You got us stumbling and dribbling.

For further consideration, look at Dylan’s take on Eagles “Witchy Woman.” Writes Dylan: “The Witchy Woman is the homeless woman, the woman with the world- view, the progressive woman – youthful, whimsical and grotesque … The lips of her cunt are a steel trap, and she covers you you with cow shit, a real killer-diller and you regard her with suspicion and fear, rightly so.”

I do not recall thinking any of these things as the song wafted over my AM car radio in 1972.

It’s pretty purply prose. Does Dylan overstate the power of a song? Yes, often. But I think–whether or not you like his approach–he’s speaking to the power we want the song to have, be it illuminating or life-changing.

Not everything is as descriptive or down-and-dirty as “Witchy Woman,” but many are, and digesting what Dylan’s going on about is not always easy; the chapters are like one train after another hurtling at you. You need breaks.

Speaking of, writing about Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up,” Dylan calls it “intense and well-groomed …The one-two punch, the uppercut and the wallop, then get out quick and make tracks.” But he also opines that Costello’s barrage of intense early-career music “exhausted people, too many thoughts, way too wordy, too many ideas that just bang up against themselves.” This, of course, from the guy who wrote “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Me, I’m thinking Dylan’s in on this wry joke.

For some of these songs, you’ll think “No way” or “So what?” and for me, a lot of those reactions come from reading about the pre-rock or early-rock era, music made before I was born or my sensibilities kicked in. I won’t say it isn’t a generational thing. I’ve done some digging and I can say I admire what Perry Como or Vic Damone did without really feeling it. People who are Dylan’s age, 81, might.

But let’s go “modern.” Dylan picked the Clash’s “London Calling,” intro-ing it by stating, “A lot of their songs are overwritten, overblown, well-intentioned. But not this one. This is probably the Clash at their best and most relevant, their most desperate.”

Maybe, though there’s a lot to choose from. In the essay, Dylan goes off about the Thames and how Americans think of the Mississippi when they think about a big river. Again, maybe, it never crossed my mind in 40 years of listening to it and has nothing to do with the song. “London Calling” rails at the fear of a nuclear “era” (or “error” (take your pick, Cold War or power station meltdown), the river flooding London in a climate change catastrophe and, as co-writer Mick Jones said once “the doom of everyday life.”

Dylan’s trick is to mostly do two-part chapters (each short), with the first part–a riff, the publisher calls it–using the second person voice, putting you into the song: You’re thinking or doing all these things the singer and songwriter are detailing. Which is not a bad thing to do.

How much does it help knowing the backstory of the singer or songwriter? It can help; it needn’t be part of it.

Dylan: “Knowing a singer’s life story doesn’t particularly help your understanding of a song. Frank Sinatra’s feelings over Ava Gardner allegedly inform ‘I’m a Fool to Want You’ but that’s just trivia. It’s what a song makes you feel about your own life that’s important.”

On the money, again: He calls Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou” “a spectacular song” and says “sadness exists both in the words and in the operatic swoop of Roy’s voice – it is just about impossible to separate the singer from the song. Linda Ronstadt did a terrific cover version but will always be Roy’s song. … You’re looking forward to contentment and happiness on Blue Bayou, although right now you’re friendless, all by yourself and feel marooned, ill at ease and edgy.” Yep, that was Roy.

The biggest surprise song choice for me: Cher’s “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” (written by Rob Stone). Dylan sees the point of view Cher’s singing from as part of a “tarnished angel myth” but finds that hard to buy into. “It’s much easier to imagine Little Egypt”–Cher, I guess–“doing her dance of the pyramids. At least it seems like she was having fun beguiling men.”

He also notes Cher’s difficult upbringing does impart more meaning to the song – he’s right – and briefly touches on her partnership and marriage with Sonny Bono. Then it spins off-track to conclude by saying Bono’s “greatest achievement was as a congressman, where he helped pass the Sonny Bono Act, which extended copyright terms for all songwriters.”

Now, I love that Dylan selects a Warren Zevon song, “Dirty Life and Times” from his final album, 2003’s The Wind. Dylan was a true Zevon fan (as am I) and covered several of his songs in concert, especially as the end drew near for Zevon. Me, I’d have picked something else, probably, “Desperadoes Under the Eves” or “Mr. Bad Example,” but I’m not Bob.  Here, Dylan writes, about the protagonist – which we’re thinking is Zevon at this point – “You’ve lived a life of excess, not much soft living. An obstinate life, unhampered by constraint, you’re setting things up and packing it in.” And: “The artistry jumps out at you like spring-loaded snakes from a gag jar of peanut brittle.”

Dylan’s last literary effort was 2004’s quasi-autobiographical Chronicles: Vol. 1. It would not be wrong to say not all of Dylan’s tales rang true; one reviewer, though entertained, called it “a pack of lies.” For instance, no one, apparently, can figure out who Chapter 2’s Ray Gooch and Chloe Kiel are. He also had nice things to say about Barry Goldwater, you know, the guy who planted the seeds of Trump.

Dylan has a history of truth-telling, lying and piss-taking. Most of the emails and calls he took on his radio show were fictitious; there was the 2019 not-quite-a-documentary movie about Dylan’s mid-‘70s act tour, Rolling Thunder Revue–A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese. Sharon Stone, who was then 17, did not have an affair with Dylan, and film-maker Stefan van Drop–who allegedly shot the concert footage–is not a real person. He’s Bette Midler’s husband, Martin von Haselberg.

With The Philosophy of Song, there are some great insights and wild curve balls alongside some dressed-to-the-nines hokum. He’s witty and wise, but don’t ever forget Dylan is, or can be, The Jokerman.

Bob Dylan, 2006 (photo: William Stavers).

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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan wrote about pop music and culture for the Boston Globe from 1979-2005 and currently is doing the same for WBUR’s ARTery and Rock and Roll Globe among other websites and outlets.

2 thoughts on “The Songs Bob Dylan Likes

  • November 11, 2022 at 4:38 pm

    Super review, Jim. Bravo!

  • November 14, 2022 at 8:41 am

    I’m not the world’s biggest Dylan fan but I admire that he is well into his eighties and has neither burned out nor faded away. A testament to the power and endurance of the creative spirit. Nice review.


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