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Paul Dunn on Bob Dylan

The Philosophy of Modern Song by Bob Dylan

Simon & Schuster, 339pp £35

When Bob Dylan released Self Portrait, his tenth studio album, in 1970 the almost-unanimous critical reaction was best summed up by Greil Marcus in Rolling Stone magazine: "What is this shit?"

This shit, it would become clear, was the sound of a man tired of bearing the burden of being the voice of his generation; who no longer wanted, in the words of David Bowie's reaction to the album, Song for Bob Dylan, to sit "behind a million pairs of eyes and [tell] them how they saw".

Apart from a few semi-formed and unfinished pieces, the bulk of Self Portrait was a bunch of warm-up songs his band had played to get the studio sound right. For the first time since his debut album he was releasing songs written by other people. But these were not folk/blues classics like "House of the Risin' Sun" or "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean". Instead it was pop – even cheesy pop – like Paul Simon's "The Boxer", Gordon Lightfoot's "Early Mornin' Rain", the Everly Brothers' "Take a Message to Mary" and "Let It Be Me".

Fifty-odd years on, the notion that so spooked the critics – that Dylan should be interested in the work of other singers and songwriters – doesn't seem so outrageous. After all, we've had three albums' worth of his crooning his way through Great American Songbook classics, not to mention his Christmas album and any number of editions of his highly praised Theme Time Radio Hour, to get used to the idea that this is a man with a keen interest in all forms of popular music and its practitioners.

So it's not without irony that the critical reaction to The Philosophy of Modern Song can again be paraphrased as: "What is this shit?" Don Paterson, in The Times, calls it a "lazy, half written dog's dinner... bulked out with listicles, rants and tenuously related 'musings'". John Carvill, on the PopMatters website, likens it to being "buttonholed... by a drunken MAGA hat-wearing uncle". For the LA Times, it's "discordant... it's a bummer to find a Nobel laureate mixing metaphors and spouting nonsense".

What is it that has provoked so much bile? The book comprises sixty-six essays on an eclectic mix of "modern" songs (though only a handful date from the 21st century), from "Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy" by Uncle Dave Macon to the Clash's "London Calling". In most, Dylan first "inhabits" the song and explores how it makes him/the listener feel, mostly in the second person: "This money thing is driving you up the wall... the landlord's at your door and he's ringing the bell," he writes of Elvis Presley's "Money Honey". Then he moves on to discuss the song, or its singer or writer. Sometimes he just gives you a bit of potted history. Who knew the melody to "It's All in the Game" was written by someone who went on to be Calvin Coolidge's Vice President? And, yes, occasionally it's just a rant. The essay on "Saturday Night At The Movies", for instance, is simply a howl against the decline of cinema and concludes: "People keep talking about making America great again. Maybe they should start with the movies." Hmm.

Along the way there are good jokes. On Jackson Browne's "The Pretender", Dylan notes that "...the Platters sang of the Great Pretender back in 1955, but like many things even pretenders got devalued between the fifties and the seventies". There's also the odd bit of bitching – of Willie Nelson's "On The Road Again" (about the joys of being on the tour bus) he notes that "Van [Morrison] travels by plane, so maybe he wouldn't know, but he's surely been told". And on Elvis Costello's "Pump It Up" (a song which owes a huge – and acknowledged – debt to Dylan's own "Subterranean Homesick Blues") he waspishly notes: "At [this] point... he obviously had been listening to Springsteen too much..."

So what's so objectionable? First there seems to be disappointment that Dylan has issued this book, rather than a follow-up to his superbly unreliable 2004 memoir, Chronicles Volume One. Yet those expecting a Volume Two seem to have missed Dylan's rather cavalier attitude to numbering. After all, it's as if we are expecting one day to discover the 113 dream songs between Bob Dylan’s Dream and Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream. Or to learn about the Rainy Day Women numbers 1 to 11 or 13 to 34. But there's plenty here for those looking for a glimpse inside Dylan's head.

Then there are those who object that, for a book called The Philosophy of Modern Song, there isn't much actual philosophy here. Well, it's true that the man who once, when asked what his songs were about, replied that some were about two or three minutes and others were about six or seven, has not sat down and written an earnest PhD thesis about his process (thank God).

But there some real insights. Only someone with Dylan's musical depth could note, in the piece on "Ruby, Are You Mad" by the Osborne Brothers, how "bluegrass is the other side of heavy metal. Both are... steeped in tradition. They are the two forms of music that visually and audibly have not changed in decades... Both forms have a traditional instrumental lineup and a parochial adherence to form."

Or how about this, on "Black Magic Woman"? Some critics, he observes, "miss the magic that happens when lyrics are wed to music. Some would call this chemistry, but chemistry seems too based in science and therefore replicable. What happens with words and music is more akin to alchemy, chemistry's wilder, less disciplined precursor, full of experimentation and fraught with failure..."

The whole essay on an obscure 2001 song called "Doesn't Hurt Anymore" by a Santee Dakota Indian singer called John Trudell (me neither) seethes with righteous anger about the treatment of his people and urges readers to explore his work. The flame of protest hasn't quite been damped down by advancing years.

And Dylan's gift for imagery is never far away. The gambling anthem "Viva Las Vegas" is "a song about faith. The kinds of faith where you step under a shower spigot in the desert and fully believe water will come out".

The very first song in the book is Bobby Bare's "Detroit City", one of those nostalgic pieces in which the writer dreams of going back to the country and finding "that girl who's been waiting for so long". Dylan notes how this is someone caught up in a fantasy. "But the listener knows it just doesn't exist. There is no mother, no dear old papa, sister or brother. They are all dead and gone." And then this: "The girl that he's dreaming about long ago got married to a divorce attorney and she has three kids." If that's not the philosophy of modern song, I don't know what is.

There is one more charge to be answered, and a serious one – that the whole book seethes with misogyny. Well, it's true that the man who once sang to an ex "you just kinda wasted my precious time" and who complained "you fake just like a woman... but you break just like a little girl" hasn't suddenly morphed into a feminist.

Certainly very few of the songs he has chosen are by women. And these come from the likes of Cher and Rosemary Clooney, rather than, say, Joni Mitchell. But I'm not sure Dylan is under any obligation to be representative – plenty of giants are ignored here (there's no Leonard Cohen either). And when has Dylan ever followed an agenda?

More seriously, some of the essays where he tries to enter the songwriter's head can go over the top. The piece about the Eagles' "Witchy Woman" is an (unquotable) case in point. So the book isn't perfect. But perhaps any misogyny here can be laid as much at the door of the writer as the commentator. And it's hardly news that the music business is a hard place for women – or that Dylan's treatment of them is not in any way exemplary.

Finally, there's a bizarre piece on a song called "Cheaper To Keep Her" by Johnnie Taylor. This prolonged howl of rage against the "ten-billion-dollar a year divorce industry" finally spins out of control into a plea for polygamy. I suspect a tongue is very near a cheek here, but Dylan is obviously wounded by his failed relationships.

But don't let the occasional aberration put you off. In the main, this book is deliberately funny, insightful and revealing about the most towering figure in popular culture. It's also full of surprises. Who do you think Dylan is writing about here? He "lived in every moment of every song he sang... When he stood and sang, he owned the song and he shared it and we believed every single word. What more could you want from an artist?" His early hero Woody Guthrie, perhaps? Or the country music legend Hank Williams? No, that's Dylan on the perpetually uncool crooner Perry Como. His breathtaking knowledge and love for the whole span of popular music shines through every page.

Paul Dunn is a retired journalist who has written for The Times, The Independent and The Observer, among others. He got his first Bob Dylan album in 1971 and his most recent this April.

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