There are lots of songs about shoes. Bob Dylan is here to tell us so. In fact, he claims, “[t]here are more songs about shoes than there are about hats, pants, and dresses combined.”
Well, maybe. Who’s counting?
If you’re coming to Dylan’s long-awaited new book for any pearls of wisdom about songwriting — what works and what doesn’t — this ain’t that. There’s little in the way of philosophy in “The Philosophy of Modern Song,” unless you’re looking for tangential rants about divorce lawyers or how nobody watches black-and-white movies anymore.
And when Dylan says “modern,” he apparently means anything up to, but not including, the Reagan era. Other than a track from Warren Zevon’s farewell album, the most “modern” song addressed in this compendium of 66 brief essays is Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again,” which took its first spin in 1980.
But Dylan is nothing if not a trickster, and it sure seems as though he’s enjoying himself here, riffing — and I do mean riffing — on a short list of his favorite songs. Few will be surprised that Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and Elvis are accounted for here. Little Richard makes the cut twice.
More confounding, and much more fun, is Dylan’s weakness for schmaltz. The original space-age, Italian-language version of “Volare,” sung by Domenico Modugno, could have been one of the first hallucinogenic songs, he insists. Rosemary Clooney’s 1951 novelty “Come On-a My House” was co-written, Dylan delights in telling us, by the Pulitzer prize-winning playwright William Saroyan and his cousin, Ross Bagdasarian, who went on to create Alvin and the Chipmunks.
But the song Dylan might be able to relate to most is “Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves,” a number one hit in 1971 for Cher, of all people. It’s a song, he writes, about “being born on the move. … Hoaxes, tournaments and spectacles — that’s your line of business.”
Some songs inspire him to visualize a pulp scenario based on the lyrics. “Half a block from the intersection and the yellow light was already stale,” he begins his commentary on Ray Charles’s “I Got a Woman,” as if it’s a movie treatment. At 81, Dylan sees the world through noir. (The book is gorgeously designed, with vintage photos of crime scenes, couples in dark movie houses, and long-forgotten record shops.)
We’ve known for some time now (see Dylan’s 2009 Christmas album, or his 2015 Sinatra tribute) that the guy who exploded the old ways of songcraft has an abiding affection for the classic formulas of Tin Pan Alley. More than once here he sticks up for the old “moon/June/spoon” rhyme schemes. It’s a bit much, however, when he chides Elvis Costello (included here for “Pump It Up, 1978) for being “way too wordy.” Maybe he just wants to make sure we’re still paying attention, 20 pages in.
For all its eccentricities, “The Philosophy of Modern Song” hits upon some welcome grace notes. “El Paso,” Marty Robbins’s great story-song about a cowboy, a cantina, a temptress, and a band of vigilantes, is a song that “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.”
Some of these entries include a little biographical information about the recording artists behind the songs Dylan has chosen — the child star Ricky Nelson, for instance, who might have been “the true ambassador of rock and roll,” or the bluesman Jimmy Reed, “the essence of electric simplicity.”
Some, but not many. Ultimately, Dylan explains away these creative writing exercises as nothing but one man’s impressions. (One man with a Pulitzer and the Nobel Prize in Literature, but still.)
“Knowing a singer’s life story doesn’t particularly help your understanding of a song,” he writes. “It’s what a song makes you feel about your own life that’s important.”
Dylan gives the final word to “Where or When,” a dreamy pop-vocal hit for Dion and the Belmonts in 1959. Written by Rodgers and Hart, it’s a song about deja vu: “Some things that happened for the first time seem to be happening again,” the Belmonts croon.
“History keeps repeating itself,” Dylan writes, “and every moment of life is the same moment, with more than one level of meaning.”
For Dylan, music is proof that we’ve been here before. Sounds … philosophical.
THE PHILOSOPHY OF MODERN SONG
By Bob Dylan
Simon & Schuster, 352 pages, $45
James Sullivan is the author of five books on popular culture and the performing arts. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.