Bob Dylan’s The Philosophy of Modern Song—66 pieces on 66 songs—has been reviewed to death, written into the ground. Anyone with the slightest interest now knows about the misogyny running all through the book, the sickly hatred that bursts out of his exegeses of Johnnie Taylor’s “Cheaper to Keep Her,” “Black Magic Woman,” or the Eagles’ “Witchy Woman,” such a nothing of a song it’s hard to credit its being here for any reason other than to add another log on the fire.
They know the format: usually, paraphrases of the lyrics of a song, trying to get at some inner truth but not getting below the surface, the writer often spinning his wheels, as if trusting the process to turn up something out of the blue, and while sometimes it does (“piling the ashes of your life into the corner,” he says of Warren Zevon’s 2003 “My Dirty Life and Times”), more often it doesn’t, then a page or so of stories or facts. They know that there are a lot of pictures of old record stores, including one with a guy somewhere between 17 and 25 who has made himself look so much like Elvis he might as well be (unless, as some are sure, he is), looking over racks featuring Here’s Little Richard, two albums by Harry Belafonte, A Tribute to James Dean, Prom Favorites, and dozens more you can’t make out. They’ve probably heard that despite it being a masterpiece that justifies Dylan’s Nobel Prize, there’s a sour tone that runs through the book like a low-grade fever, often draped in jocular but unconvincing irony, as if to disguise what the author means to say. “But before the feminists chase me through the village with torches . . .”
How well the book has been read is another question. The songs—and by song, Dylan means a set of words put to music, and credited not to the songwriter, not necessarily to whoever did it first, but to whoever best realizes it in the studio: Jesse Stone, Atlantic Records’ one-man house song factory, wrote “Money Honey,” the Drifters were the first to first to record it, in 1953, it was number one on the R&B charts, but here it’s
Originally released on the album Elvis Presley
(RCA Victor, 1956)
Written by Jesse Stone
—range from the 1920s (three) to the 2000s (three), but 27 are from the fifties, with eight of those from 1956, 13 from the sixties, and 14 from the seventies. That’s to say that this isn’t a canon. It’s not a comprehensive and studied guide to musical edification. Modern song is pretty much but not strictly or even especially defined by rock ’n’ roll in all of its anticipations, permutations, eddies and crannies. Eddie Cochran—“Summertime Blues,” “Something Else,” “C’mon Everybody,” “Twenty Flight Rock”—is on the cover, one of those buddy shots from a ‘50s barnstorming tour (Little Richard is on his left, the forgotten female-Elvis Alis Lesley in the middle)—but he isn't in the book. Neither is Chuck Berry, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Randy Newman, Smokey Robinson, or anything from hip-hop or contemporary folk. It’s not a survey, a best-of, or even a playlist. It’s what the writer wanted to write about.
He wants to write about Johnny Paycheck’s 1986 ‘Old Violin,” and about Paycheck himself, born Donald Lytle in 1938 in Ohio, died in 2003 in Nashville, a drug addict and a criminal, in and out of prison, best known for “Take This Job and Shove It” (he didn’t change his name to get the song more airplay, but he could have). “Old Violin” is a strong song, about being thrown on the trash heap when in your heart you know you’re worth as much as anyone, and the six pages Dylan gives it are as good as anything in the book: “George Jones knew enough not to even try to sing it.
Some songs will fight you as hard as a person can.” If you don’t know the song, you’ll have to hear it before you finish the chapter, and you might be a little disappointed: you may not be able to hear all that Bob Dylan is hearing, all that impelled him to write about the song. But it turns out the recording as it’s credited is not what Dylan is writing about at all.
“There’s a live version from some country reunion show. Johnny is seated and his girth forces him to hold the guitar in an unusual fashion, beneath his knees,” Dylan says. “He doesn’t make eye contact with any of the people around him, instead staring off into the middle distance as he sings with a voice as burnished as the wood in . . . well, an old violin.” You almost stop there: whenever writers have to put “well” in front of a line, it’s a straight give-away that they’re embarrassed by the obviousness of what they’re about to say, the cliché they can’t write their way out of. But Dylan goes on, finds the string, and pulls it. “No other country singer—Hank, Lefty, Kitty—no one could come close to this performance. He dips down to a low baritone and then goes up into that high tenor that somehow all the years of abuse didn’t damage. He insinuates, leans in close to the microphone for a moment of heartfelt recitation, and at one point stops strumming so he can point to the heavens like Babe Ruth signaling Johnny Sylvester’s home run, before he hits a high note as pure and clean as a mountain stream.” ¹
Straightaway, you run to YouTube to see if you can find it. It’s right there. And you realize Dylan could have written a whole book about this one performance without exhausting it.
Paycheck sits in a room surrounded by not many listeners, middle-aged or older, close enough to touch him, all white, but Joe Tex would have paid to hear this; B. B. King would have; maybe even Etta James, angry as she was, who would have left as soon as the song was over, gone back to Chicago, and recorded it herself, just to see how close she could get. Paycheck does stare off, as if at a horizon only he can see, his eyes so far back in their sockets he looks as if he died and came back to life. A white-haired woman holds the microphone in front of his mouth. Drums, fiddle, steel guitar or piano accompany him, they don’t register, disappearing into Paycheck’s face and the way he paces the song, so that everything stands out on a level plane, nothing is stressed, no element of the song is separated from any other, and you realize this is what art is for: here, for a few minutes, the minutes in Willie Brown’s “Future Blues
,” where “minutes seem like hours, and hours seem like days,” art makes life better than it can ever be, leaving you bereft at the real life you have to live. “You can’t change the truth, in the slightest way,” Paycheck sings mellifluously, almost too well, and then, as if he’s put too much beauty into the lines, he stops. You don’t know if he’s going to finish the song. “I’ve tried,” he says with finality, speaking, not singing. You can hear regret, but without melodrama. You see a repentant drunk who’ll never live long enough to finish his list for Step 9.
This is the buried treasure. You can imagine Dylan wrote this chapter just to build a set where he could stage this performance, make you listen, and then move on to the 1958 “Volare (Nel Blu, Dipinto di Blu)” by Domenico Modugno (“Just the sound of his name creates its own song”). It’s a means to an end taken even farther in the chapter on the Drifters’ 1964 “Saturday Night at the Movies.” It’s one of their dullest records, and Dylan doesn’t write a word about it. It seems to be there so he can write about movies. He mentions James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, James Dean, Kirk Douglas, Billy Wilder, Marlon Brando, Elia Kazan, Sean Connery, Jack Warner, Olivia de Havilland, Walter Huston, John Huston, and, as the newsboy in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Robert Blake.
But it may really be there so Dylan can dedicate two-thirds of a page to a photo of Neal Cassady and his girlfriend Natalie Jackson standing in front of a San Francisco movie theater in 1955, under a marquee featuring The Wild One, Stranger Wore a Gun, and Tarzan the Ape Man, all roles that, somewhere in the common imagination, Cassady, as Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, could play in one great loop.
The philosophy of modern song is set out in the book’s opening pages, on Bobby Bare’s 1960 “Detroit City,” written by Danny Dill and Mel Tillis, a chapter like a two-sided single. Dylan weaves in and out of the story, cool, deadpan, rewriting the song in prose. A man has left his home in Appalachia, maybe southern Ohio, maybe Kentucky, to find his fortune in Detroit. He writes home, telling everyone how he's made it, when in real life, what passes for it, he’s working the assembly lines so he can get drunk every night and crawl back to his room with a picture pinned to the wall. He wishes his family, his friends, and the woman who’s waiting for him could “read between the lines,” but it doesn’t matter: he’s going home. He's going to where people will recognize and love him for who he really is. That’s the A-side of the single. The B-side is by Dylan, is on the page: “This is not so much the song of a dreamer, but the song of someone who is caught up in the fantasy of the way things used to be. But the listener knows that it just doesn’t exist. There is no mother, no dear old papa, sister or brother. They are all either dead or gone. The girl he’s dreaming about long ago got married to a divorce attorney and she has three kids.” The modern song begins in fantasy, romance, nostalgia, all warming emotion, and then blasts you with the cold hard facts of life. “The cold hard facts of this life”: in Eddie Arnold’s 1956 “You Don’t Know Me,” Dylan hears a serial killer’s fantasy, “Then it’s the cold hard facts of life.” On the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion”: “You wanted to be a lawyer for the poor, and now you can’t find those thoughts, these are the facts of life.” On “Cheaper to Keep Her”: “While Ivy League graduates talk about love in a rush of quatrains and gossamer attributes, folks from Trinidad to Atlanta, Georgia, sing of the benefits of making an ugly woman your wife and the cold hard facts of life.” On Vic Damone’s “On the Street Where You Live,” which as a record is all about floating on air and a love that leaps skyscrapers, underneath it is the song Dylan is hearing, the song he is writing: “You’re on the street where she lives . . . the pavement which has always been beneath your feet flies up out of nowhere, and it’s the wrong side up. You’re blasted sky high into a tall building, a real cloud buster. When you look down below everything looks tiny and insignificant, even the street where she lives, you see yourself on it, a nonentity, a nonbeing. Then you get slammed back down to reality.”
No, not every song in the book carries this message. Not even most of them. But the argument about what the modern song is for and what it does is, in plainer speech than Dylan usually favors as he writes about what he wants to write about, is a version of what he has to say about all of them, from the social allegory in Bing Crosby’s 1947 “The Whiffenpoof Song” to Little Walter’s 1958 “Key to the Highway,” which trace the whole temporal arc of the book, because time falls off songs like water. A song contains all of wisdom, if you—the performer, the listener—can retrieve it.
And yes, that’s a cliché, but without a flag, without embarrassment, completing the thought the way in blues songs “Just before she died” inevitably completes “My mother told me.