BY Jim Salvucci
Bob Dylan clearly loves the past, and The Philosophy of Modern Song is steeped in seeming nostalgia. Almost every song selection is old, a few very old. The photos and illustrations are mostly vintage, many in black and white. The prose itself is old-fashioned, harkening back to the hip rhythms of the Beats and the diction of the hard-boiled detective novel. Even the themes of the book are often backward looking – the casual sexism, the risible machismo, the dated references.
I could tell you the origins of the term nostalgia, that it was coined in the eighteenth century by a Swiss physician to document a mysterious madness associated with homesickness experienced by Swiss soldiers during deployment. Or that by now, no longer a malady, it has been reconceived as a mere a fondness for the past, particularly an idealized or romanticized past, or as Dylan describes it, “the sanitized versions of life.” I could tell you about all that, but I won’t. I will tell you that one problem nostalgics have is that to be truly nostalgic, one must eschew optimism. After all, to focus on the past as ideal makes moving forward undesirable if not impossible. The only future that nostalgics long for is one that replicates a past that never really was. This is the dead end of all retrograde ideologies, such as MAGA and other Lost Causes, and backward-looking trends, such as the vinyl revival. Unless you are willing to force a future based on a false past, there is nowhere to dwell but back in that misremembered past, and that past has passed if it ever existed. In the specific case of vinyl records, it has passed with a skip and a hiss and maybe another skip.
Yes, Dylan loves the past and lovingly pays tribute to it in The Philosophy of Modern Song. But for Dylan, as this book makes clear, the past is just fodder for the future. It’s merely a source that feeds the pastiche nature of his art and thinking. He builds anew from the pieces of the past. He assembles his philosophy from what we can preserve while always looking for the next thing. As has been established, particularly in the last quarter century, Dylan’s writing technique is roughly parallel to his approach to metallic sculptures: elaborate and wholly new constructions framed by old scraps, many unremarkable and otherwise forgotten. A newness literally assembled from the old. Moreover, his nostalgic tone furthers his irony and highlights satiric moments. If nostalgia is a fondness for an idealized past, Dylan cannot be a nostalgic, for, as a creator, he is an undoubted if cynical optimist.
The Philosophy of Modern Song is quite deceptive. On its surface, it looks like a slightly undersized coffee-table book. The black and white cover features retro red lettering. The cover photo itself at first may seem familiar, one you have seen many times. But look again. Sure, there is Little Richard, but he is posing with whom? On the right is Eddie Cochran, a promising young rock musician who died in a car crash at age 21. In the middle, the only one with an instrument, is Alis Lesley, one of the many “female Elvises” who seem about as historically abundant as all the “new Dylans.” Her career also ended abruptly at the age of 21 when she quit. The photos and illustrations throughout are so old that some of the more modern ones can be a bit jarring, such as the sudden appearance of an ebullient Jackson Browne outside a tour bus that sports the image of a launching space shuttle for some reason. It’s a great full-color shot of Browne, but it does not fit with the flow of black-and-white vintage images, the old- time movie posters and advertisements, the retro postcards, the sideshow signage, the paparazzi snapshots, the myriad photos of random older folks doing older-folk things. The colorized photo on the back cover anticipates (if a back-cover photo can anticipate) the nearly dozen photos of record stores, record displays, record labels, record factories, and just plain records that are sprinkled throughout with nary an image of an 8-track, cassette, or CD, let alone an MP3 player.
It is much the same with the song selection, which skews old, older, and older still, challenging the implication of “Modern” in the book title. The second-most recent recording that appears is 2003’s “Dirty Life and Times” by Warren Zevon, itself a look back in time, albeit a more jaundiced and personal look than Dylan’s. By far the oldest composition in the book is “Nelly Was a Lady” by Stephen Foster. In a twist that is most fitting for this collection of turns, Dylan’s chapter on Foster’s song features bluesman Alvin Youngblood Hart’s version from 2004, a year after Zevon’s recording. Thus, the oldest song is represented by the most recent recording.
Diction and Style
In line with the hoary song selection is the diction and patter of Dylan’s prose, which sometimes reads like Raymond Chandler, the hipster years. It is a charming mélange – quick, quirky, canny, and occasionally cranky – that, as many have noted, recalls Dylan’s style from his Theme Time Radio Hour days. Here too, as with the illustrations, occasional contemporary references or language rip us from the patter of Dylan’s retro style. Here is just one example selected at random. It’s a from the middle of the “El Paso” chapter.
El Paso – the passageway, the escape hatch, the secret staircase – ritual crime and symbolic lingo – circular imagery, names and numbers, transmigration, deportation, and all in the cryptic first person, the primitive self. The stench of perfume, alcohol, a puff of smoke, the duel, the worthless life, pain in the heart, staying in the saddle, love in vain, the grim reaper, and a love that’s stronger than death, and other things. (108)
The paragraph continues for several more lines in that paratactic style that Dylan uses so much throughout the book with nary a predicate in sight.
As with the illustrations, sometimes more contemporary terms or references can be quite jarring in the context of the more old-fashioned yet not stale prose. One small example, in the chapter on the Osborn Brothers’ bluegrass number “Ruby, Are You Mad?” Dylan abruptly references heavy metal music and guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen. He then compares the Osborns’ song to “speed metal without the embarrassment of Spandex and junior high school devil worship” (143-4). Such anachronistic shifting occurs throughout The Philosophy of Modern Song, including in one of the more flagrantly nostalgic chapters, the one addressing Sonny Burgess’s unreleased late 50s track “Feels So Good.” After Dylan laments “the late great country you grew up in,” he describes the origin of the term “rock and roll.” He identifies the term as a “thinly veiled euphemism for copulation” (223), which is of course itself a coy euphemism for “fucking” (a term he has no compunctions using elsewhere.). After that he pivots to 60s drug use, The Rolling Stones and then to Skype, Zoom, and Face Time, diverging by miles from the song’s 1950’s origin.
It is extraordinary how many chapters, sections, paragraphs, and sentences in The Philosophy of Modern Song start with time designators such as “back in the day,” “in the past,” “today,” or “now days.” Even Dylan’s commentary on contemporary culture is steeped in a comparison with bygone days. One of my favorites is from the chapter on The Who’s “My Generation”:
Recently, we have entered a new phase, where anyone entering the age of twenty-two as of 2019 is now a member of Generation Z. While people make jokes about millennials, that group is now old news, as obsolete as all the previous generations –– the baby boomers, Gen X, the Fragile Generation, the Intermediates, the Neutrals, the Dependable, the Unshaken, and the Clean Slate. (43)
Dylan’s sardonic take on the industry of generational labeling distances him from bygone generations (even his own). It betrays no allegiance to any particular period, past or present. So much for the voice of his generation. In contrast, the nostalgia-soaked chapter on Burgess’s “Feels So Good” ends with this zinger: “This is the sound that made America great” (224). Your mind might have automatically added an “again” at the end, a phrase Dylan slyly employed in full earlier in the chapter: “maybe you’re wondering what happened to the late, great country you grew up with or how you can make America great again” (223). Dylan’s invocation of this charged slogan seems apolitical and, in fact once more, sardonic. You are not supposed to recoil in horror. Nor are you to pump your fist and chant “U S A!” Instead, he inspires a knowing smile and chuckle. At least that’s how it worked for me. On top of all that caginess, much of the chapter is an inexplicably a moral rant about drug use.
Other passages throughout the book drip with longing for the bygone, whether it be his ongoing affection for old-time sociopathic outlaws, his fretting over the way religion is practiced nowadays (“as a thing that must be journeyed as a chore” (97)), or the passage on Hank Williams’s “Your Cheatin’ Heart” that starts with “That’s the problem with a lot of things these days,” that everything now is too niche and “overly fussed with” (165). But even this curmudgeonly rant is offset by the next passage when Dylan, tongue-in-cheek, speculates about Williams singing all the hits of his day, such as “How Much Is that Doggie,” “Que Sera, Sera,” and “Stardust.” We will see this pattern again and again, a nostalgic romp juxtaposed to or immersed in humor, sarcasm, or jolting contrasts. That rant about religion these-a-days, morphs into a bizarre riff about the “excitement” Dylan experiences while reading the Book of Job, which wryly concludes with the seeming non sequitur, “Here’s another way to look at a love song” (97). As he says in that same paragraph, “Context is everything” (97). Dylan does make a strong argument, albeit not an original one, in favor of old media:
We all shared a baseline cultural vocabulary. People who wanted to see the Beatles on a variety show had to watch flamenco dances, baggy pants comics, ventriloquists and maybe a scene from Shakespeare. (325)
That shared experience opened minds to new realities and possibilities whereas he continues, “Today the medium contains multitudes and man needs only pick one thing he likes and feast exclusively on a stream dedicated to it” (325). It’s the old we-used-to-have-a-shared-national-knowledge-base-and-therefore-a-shared-national-discourse-which-we-have-diluted argument, not entirely untrue. He also expresses his fondness for old movies throughout. It’s hard, though, to not imagine that he included the Drifters’ 1964 song “Saturday Night at the Movies” solely so he could wax on about some of his favorite films, mostly in black and white (317). Indeed, not once does he mention the ostensible topic of Chapter 64, that being the Drifters and/or their song. He only discusses movies! The chapter ends with another sardonic MAGA reference: “People keep talking about making America great again. Maybe they should start with the movies” (317).
Dylan’s last chapter on Dion and the Belmonts summarizes his view of how the past informs the present. He lists items that have more-or-less remained the same over time and concludes, “you can be absolutely sure that it happened before and will happen again –– it’s inevitable … if it’s not happening now, it wasn’t happening then or ever” (329).
So much of this sounds like nostalgia, right? That praise for the past that implicitly or explicitly deprecates the present and holds little hope for the future. It is important, though, to watch the juxtapositions of theme, word, image, and so on to catch the nuance of Dylan’s message here. For one small example of how this works, that chapter on “Saturday Night at the Movies” – when Dylan proposes making America great again by making movies great again – also features a black and white, World War II-era Weegee photo of a grabby sailor awkwardly groping a woman in a movie theater. The woman’s clothes are a bit disheveled, and while her face is largely obscured, she appears either indifferent or unconscious in the moment. The two other moviegoers in the frame are less interested in both the movie and the nearby maritime sounding than they are in the creepy photographer lurking in the dark. If this is the scene Dylan chooses to represent the superiority of erstwhile movie viewing, what does it really mean to make movies great again, let alone America?
A little more exploration of one chapter in particular will help illustrate what Dylan is up to. Chapter 25 on bluesman Johnny Taylor’s 1973 number “It’s Cheaper to Keep Her” is arguably the most sexist in The Philosophy of Modern Song and is one of several chapters where the song and the artist barely make a cameo. In it, Dylan uses the song to launch a broadside on divorce lawyers as a race of greedy manipulators who are “by definition in the destruction business” and who “feign innocence with blood on their hands.” He also approvingly notes that in bygone days, “God-fearing members of the community regularly gave divorced folks the skunk-eye” for their general untrustworthiness (118). Later he preaches about “the laws of God” that “override the laws of man” (119). He is out-and-out sententious about the duty of divorced parents to support a child, before determining that “Ultimately, marriage is for the sake of those children.” He then concludes matter-of-factly, “And a couple who has no children, that’s not a family. They are just two friends” (118). I generally recoil at commentators who drag Dylan’s biography into every discussion of his work, but I would be remiss if I did not mention that this man, Bob Dylan, has been married and divorced at least twice himself, which certainly explains his animus for divorce lawyers but not his preachy traditional-marriage screed. This, of course, is all a prelude to the noxious solution he will propose at the end of the chapter, and subsequently we are subjected to Dylan’s polygamist fantasy, which starts as an argument specifically for polygyny. He doubles down on his inherent sexism (and heteronormativity) with his assumption that it will typically be the husband in a divorce who has sole responsibility to pay support. Then he treats us to this anti-feminist, self- pitying salvo:
Women’s rights crusaders and women’s lib lobbyists take turns putting man back on his heels until he is pinned behind the eight ball dodging the shrapnel from the smashed glass ceiling. (121)
Notice that in this amalgam of wretchedness and mismatched metaphors he refers to the victim of all this feminist oppression as a generalized “man,” not “a man” in particular. But wait, there’s more! He then tinges his defense of his anti-feminism with misogyny, arguing any “downtrodden woman” would welcome a rich man’s protection by joining some sort of harem. It’s a statement worthy of Alex Jones minus the dietary supplements. In yet another twist, Dylan then helpfully points out that all along he never explicitly precluded the practice of polyandry before sarcastically declaring, “have at it, ladies. There’s another glass ceiling for you to break” (121).
And what does this have to do with nostalgia? Well first, there are the retrograde attitudes obviously. Is this Dylan’s pining for the casual sexism of yore? But what also of the language used? While “glass ceiling” is still a prevalent term, “women’s lib” is moribund, drolly archaic even. When was the last time you heard that phrase used in conversation? When I Googled it, all the first-page hits were explanations of the term, not actual usage in the vernacular. I will bet there are younger readers who don’t even recognize it. A reader who is affronted to distraction by Dylan’s sexist tropes may not even notice it slip by. As with other similar sections and passages, this obnoxiousness is accompanied by exaggerated language, extremist posturing, odd or comical images, and other hijinks. All this is to suggest that there is a wink-wink here, accompanied by a nod-nod.
In her book Irony’s Edge, Linda Hutcheon describes the “meta-ironic function” or marker, the textual or visual indicator that one is in the presence of irony or that irony will soon appear (154). The meta-ironic marker can take many forms – such as, “gestural,” “phonic,” or “graphic” (155). It is the equivalent of a tongue planted firmly in the cheek or finger to the nose. The markers of irony can be structural too (154) or meta-ironic and structural (156). The oddball factoids Dylan includes, the jarring juxtapositions, the sly illustrations, the knowing tone, the sudden reversals, and even the curmudgeonly voice that pervades the text operate meta-ironically to enable us to “get” Dylan’s irony. So how does his irony work? I would argue that Dylan’s irony here is meant sometimes just to amuse and sometimes to further a satiric point. I am not suggesting that The Philosophy of Modern Song falls into the genre of satire, but it is, like much of Dylan’s output, a work that contains satiric elements without being fully satiric. Case in point, “It’s Cheaper to Keep Her” is all by itself a fairly knuckleheaded song, a churlish novelty number, the product of a clueless era that may induce a mordant grin or a low groan. Meanwhile Dylan’s riffing on women’s lib and the mechanics of polygamy ultimately punch up the song’s ideological shortcomings – a subversive commentary that exposes the arguably offensive foibles of the song. In other words, satire. Then, after four pages without having once mentioned the subject matter of the chapter, Dylan seemingly out of the blue ends it with, “It’s cheaper to keep her, indeed,” thus at last connecting his commentary and the song. Dylan employs flagrantly sexist tropes in other chapters as well – notably the one on the Eagles’ “Witchy Woman” (253). But meta-ironic markers arise there too, my favorite being an illustration featuring a too-literal portrait of a five-member band of eagles.
So, this is the philosopher’s dilemma in The Philosophy of Modern Song. How can you simultaneously honor the past, critique the past, and build the future upon it? Dylan loves the past, but he is not delusional about its shortcomings. The past is a component, an ingredient in the farraginous recipe that Dylan is whipping up in his Promethean kitchen. That he uses boorish jokes, odd and deflating juxtapositions, a few bizarre choices, and even flagrantly outdated thinking at once obscures his mission and marks it. People often talk about Dylan’s overlooked humor, but he is even less recognized for his considerable accomplishments as a satirist. In The Philosophy of Modern Song, when he plays the curmudgeon, the fuddy-duddy, the stick in the mud – shaking his harmonica rack at the neighborhood kids and yelling, “get off my private beach!” while carping on the nation’s decline – he is evoking a faux nostalgia that serves a more complex purpose. Dylan is no philosopher, at least not any more than he is a nostalgic. He is not out to write a philosophy of song any more than he is out to write a full- length satire. Instead, he seeks to tease out the philosophy in the songs he addresses, but – not interested in academic exegesis – he opts instead for a more subtle, dangerous, and interesting approach, using style and form to subtly make his substantive points. In all his work, Dylan regularly traffics in humor, irony, and satire – perhaps just for the fun of it. His seeming nostalgia in The Philosophy of Modern Song is one part of the mix. All this old stuff, though, is merely material for Dylan’s next work, be it a song, book, or whatever. Dylan loves the past as it serves and informs his creative future.
Dylan, Bob. The Philosophy of Modern Song. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2022.
Hutcheon, Linda. Irony’s Edge: The Theory and Politics of Irony. New York: Routledge, 1995.