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

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.

Who else sounds like this? Dylan slits open the underbelly of American life; he pokes at the entrails; he draws a lot out of these songs. It’s total warfare against the humdrum, and it’s completely great, except for when it isn’t. The tone becomes repetitive. In a lot of the cases, you could switch Dylan’s commentaries around, apply them to different songs and not know the difference. By the end he seems spent; he’s phoning some of the language in.

You keep reading because it’s Dylan, because there’s always an eerie little gas station, an Indian casino, an itinerant preacher or a syphilitic old madam around the next corner. You want to know what condition Dylan’s condition is in. Probably he’s about to release a bladderful of P.B.R. on somebody’s grave.

God, this book is sly. Talking about “Key to the Highway,” the Little Walter song, for example, he smuggles in this comment: “I have gotten lots of keys to different cities but I’ve never really tried to inspect anything yet.”

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