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Why I Won’t Be Buying Dylan’s New Book of Rock Criticism, “The Philosophy of Modern Song”

You would think it was a sure-fire sell as far as I was concerned wouldn’t you? Dylan. Music criticism. Slight edge of pretentiousness, claiming academic pursuits of ‘philosophy’. It checks all the boxes for a delicious read with a cup of tea and volume 1-3 of Dylan’s glorious Bootleg Collection. I have to admit that as soon as I was aware of this Christmas-market hipster-music-nerd catnip, my sticky little fingers were hovering over the ‘buy now’ button on Amazon, and trying to persuade myself that it was a steal at the premium hardback pre-order price of $37.99. I even told myself that it was worth pre-ordering so I could have it on release day, and save myself seven bucks or so on the cover price. I was willing to call it my Christmas present and be done with it. That said, as much as I am a sucker for anything Dylan, rock criticism and the academicizing of modern culture, I am not rich, and also am a naturally suspicious soul, who wants to make sure I really want it before I part with my money. Hence this review which is not really a review, but rather a horrified diatribe on why it does not do any good to idolize your heroes.

Lester Bangs found this out to his great emotional cost, when he entered into his grand feud with Lou Reed. In the end our heroes and heroines are fallible and worse than this, because we expect so much more from them, the gap between expectation and reality is a wide one, certainly wide enough for long held love and affection to fall into never to be seen again. Right now I am floundering in that gap, making excuses for Dylan’s intensely misogynistic playlist that populates his new book, and telling myself that he has not just spoilt Girl From The North Country or Blood on the Tracks for me forever.

I’ll admit it. I am emotionally dependent on Bob Dylan. Anyone with half a brain or a fragment of a soul cannot help but reach out to old Unkle Bob for soul-succor. I am of an age where Bob has always been there. He was doing his Rolling Thunder Review when I was just a babe in arms. Heck he has both children and albums older than I am, and I am no spring chicken. I longed for someone to love me like he loved his Girl From The North Country but now all I want is for Dylan to hurry up and die a creative death before he destroys his legacy entirely. Dylan damaged his legacy with that terrible period of releasing interminable albums full of Sinatra covers (something he does not appear to have fully moved on from by the number of crooner standards included in his critical playlist), but with his Philosophy of Modern Song, he appears to be willfully destroying his legacy entirely. My only problem now is how to separate the distasteful woman-hater from the thin wild mercury-eyed poet of the creative lowlands.

Flipping through the photos on Amazon, the back cover of Dylan’s attempt at music criticism serves as an index for the book itself. The first red flag is that he has not added the song writers, or the particular performance he is going to be discussing alongside the song names. To a certain extent it is his price of admission. Bob is asking his readers if they are experienced, or if they have ever been experienced, because he sure is, and don’t he makes sure we know it, boys and girls. Not that there is any Hendrix on his playlist. Nor is there any Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Simon and Garfunkel or Pink Floyd. Instead Bob takes us on a guided diatribe against women via an eye-wateringly hip, obscure and eclectic series of choices, that run from the horrendous diatribe against letting a woman out from a failed marriage (of which Dylan has had many) Cheaper to Keep Her (Johnny Taylor), to the inevitable plea for clemency that any woman hating man tries to gaslight women with, g’irls, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood ‘(by the appropriately named, Animals).

The title of the book is pointedly so far up itself it should never have seen daylight let alone publication. Dylan appears to have fallen for all his Nobel Prize for Literature hype, and presents this volume as a serious piece of cultural criticism. Which is all well and good, until the main subject Dylan appears to be criticizing is women not words or music.

Here is a guide to the music Dylan felt needed to be included in his tour through the music of the 20th century. He has ignored the last 22 years entirely…

Detroit City
(Bobby Bare – Released in 1963, but it sounds pure 1953. A little nostalgic ditty that is still drenched with the pioneer spirit of moving on to somewhere else where the grass is greener, while longing for the familiar comforts of home. It is a song of struggling and failure, and just the kind of thing that I can imagine a young Dylan listening to while he made plans to escape the Minnesotan Iron Range, to the mean, but potentially gold-paved streets of New York. I wonder how many times the young Dylan listened to this in his cold Village rooms, not yet having made it big, and missing Minnesota’s rural charms.)
Pump It Up
(Elvis Costello & the Attractions – Notable because of its clear debt to Subterranean Homesick Blues in cadence, rhythm and melody line. If I was Bob I would have sued his nerdy little ass. It is almost worth buying the book to read what Dylan has to say about this cheeky piece of Dylan-homage. I suppose Dylan being quite the artistic thief himself might have been tempted towards clemency towards the cooler Elvis. )
Without a Song
(Frank Sinatra – Crooner shite. Bland and banal. Dylan said early on that he was a ‘simple song and dance man’, which was disingenuous of him to say the least. I don’t think I am alone in feeling bitterly disappointed that Dylan allowed his Sinatra obsession to get in the way of his creative life in his later years. )
Take Me From This Garden of Evil
(Jimmy Wages. Well, the Jewish Robert Zimmerman transformed himself into the evangelical Christian Bob Dylan. A rock and roll Christian revivalist plea for redemption…with a hint of blaming the eternal ‘Eve’ for his fate…And so the woman-hating begins…)
There Stands the Glass
(Webb Pierce – A country standard that drones on ad nauseum about drowning the sadness of a lost love affair in copious amounts of booze. Of course the drinking is all the woman’s fault. Oh Bob….Oh Webb…There are so many songs out there Dylan could have chosen instead of this maudlin rubbish. I don’t know why men think women should be thinking of men ‘in their misery’… Weak sauce.)
Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me
(Billy Joe Shaver – A pretty sweet little country number about men with a wandering soul. Country goes beat. I am all for freedom, but hey guys, wandering down the road and moving on is not romantic and for the boys only. It is very much an ode to the kind of man who says ‘hey darlin’, I just can’t be tied down…good luck with that ‘overdue baby’ that Billy Joe sings about. Thanks boys. Ill do my own wandering thanks…)
Tutti Frutti
(Little Richard – OK…I’ll give Bob this one. classic rock and roll with a naughty twist and some lyrics that were barely rescued from some spicy homosexual leanings talking about that tight booty. Classic.)
Money Honey
(Jesse Stone, sung by Elvis Presley. OK….So I am getting tetchy now. Shades of gold-digger diatribes, seeing women as prostitutes, and the woman hatred rears its ugly head. From the snippets I have read of Dylan’s writing in this ill-advised book, he describes women as ‘she goat,” a “crazy bitch,” a “gold digging showgirl, full skirted in a cocktail dress” and a “hot-blooded sex starved wench.”… “pug-nosed, grim faced and short on looks,”… “bare breasted, blue veined — short, powerful, and ugly” and “foul-tasting.” None of the quotes I read get any better. Dylan is a misogynistic pig, made bitter through his ill-advised and numerous marriages, using his platform to voice his discontent, and to be frank I thought he was better than that. It would seem not.

In sharp contrast to the dignified later years of Leonard Cohen, a writer and performer who was every bit the equal of Dylan, (and a case can be made for Cohen being the better writer), Dylan appears to be doing his darndest to be obnoxious. Of course Dylan has always tried to repel his fans and the music critics. I wonder if this is his last attempt to make us back off and hate him, destroying ‘Bob Dylan’ before he heads off into the great beyond, free of our expectations…I hope so, because him being a mundane jerkoff is almost too much to bear.
My Generation
(The Who – Finally. Something with meat on its bones, instead of a pure nostalgia kick.)
Jesse James
(Harry McClintock – Nope back to the nostalgia kick, gathered around the Zimmerman family radio…)
Poor Little Fool
(Ricky Nelson… Here we go again…”She’d play around and tease me/With her carefree devil eyes/She’d hold me close and kiss me/But her heart was full of lies”….Women bad. Men poor hurt fools driven to drink by the universal Eve…Fuck off Bob…)
Pancho and Lefty
(Townes Van Zandt. Finally, a song that can stand up there with any of Dylan’s creations. The perfect gem that is “Pancho and Lefty”. Dylan seems afraid of talking about any song with real substance to it. Nothing by Joni, nothing by Cohen, nothing by Neil Young, James Taylor or any of his real competition. Not even any Patti Smith. No Beatles and no Stones. Come on now, Dylan! Finally something I would want to read Dylan harp on about some, but not worth the price of admission. )
The Pretender
(Jackson Browne. I’ll admit it, I am a closet Jackson Browne fan. He used to dress like a cute futch dyke, and could write a catchy little song, not to mention the fact he has a voice on him that makes even my man-hating lesbian-heart swoon. Inoffensive, but deserving to be on a definitive list? No. Jackson had so many other more deserving songs. Scared of something, Bob? )
Mack the Knife
(Bobby Darin. Blurg. Back to the cheese. Extra Cheddar, hold the meaning.)
The Whiffenpoof Song
(Rudy Vallee. Shoot me. Please. I think I might have heard this played at some Country Bears Disney Hoedown when I was a kid. Fuck that shit.)
You Don’t Know Me
(Ray Charles – Clearly not, Dylan. I thought you were someone else, someone good, to quote Lou Reed, who you also didn’t give the nod too…Perfect Day, now there’s a song!)
Ball of Confusion
(The Temptations. Can’t go wrong with Motown. Socially aware perfection. )
Poison Love
(Johnnie & Jack…yeah..yeah we know Bob, the women took ya for a mint…Perhaps you should have got a prenup?)
Beyond the Sea (Bobby Darin. No. Just no. Pass the sick bucket. )
On the Road Again
(Willie Nelson…Now we are talking. Linking the beats to the music. Kerouac and Cassidy that is Dylan’s true heritage)
If You Don’t Know Me by Now
(Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. Yawn. Standard crooner meaningless bilge.)
The Little White Cloud That Cried
(Johnnie Ray. no No NO. Bathetic barf material. )
El Paso
(Marty Robbins. No.)
Nelly Was a Lady
(Stephen Foster…really?)
Cheaper to Keep Her
(Johnnie Taylor…This one is the worst. Poor little millionaire lost some money in the divorce. Absolutely terrible woman-hating cruelty. As a woman who has been refused a divorce due to some of this mindset, I am disgusted. Men think they can use and abuse and buy. Dylan is an inadequate little man who surrounds himself with music that keeps gas in the tank of his misogyny. Dylan’s response to this song?

“What downtrodden woman with no future, battered around by the whims of a cruel society, wouldn’t be better off as one of a rich man’s wives — taken care of properly, rather than friendless on the street depending on government stamps?” )

Me. Me. I have been battered around by a cruel society, and would rather have killed myself than be a polyamorous wife of a rich man. I would rather be on the streets – and proved that to be the case because I actually did it – than suck dick for a roof over my head. Is that all that Dylan thinks of women? He has been surrounded by fabulous creative women, from Joni Mitchell to Joan Baez to Patti Smith, but still wants to put these vile thoughts into print. I am disgusted. Freedom is not just for men.
I Got a Woman
(Ray Charles.

She’s there to love me
Both day and night
Never grumbles or fusses
Always treats me right
Never runnin’ in the streets
And leavin’ me alone
She knows a woman’s place
Is right there now in her home

I see feminism did not catch up with either Ray or Bob. Okay for you boys, women do not exist to open their legs, make ya happy and sacrifice their lives in order to make you happy. Ray has an excuse – he and his song was from a different time, but Bob has no excuse..)
(The Fugs. Little punk confection. Interesting enough. )
On The Street Where You Live
(From My Fair Lady. Show tunes? Geddouddahere)
(The Grateful Dead. Ok. )
Ruby, Are You Mad?
(The Osborne Brothers. Not OK.)
Old Violin

(Johnny Paycheck. Fuck this shit. )
(Domenico Modugno I guess it has to be someone’s thing)
London Calling
(The Clash. Not Jim Carroll. Not Patti Smith. No? Instead punk pop substance-less posturing with a cockney accent. )
Your Cheatin’ Heart
(Hank Williams. Oh dear. Diddums. Did the misogynist get cheated on?)
Blue Bayou
(Roy Orbison. Do yourselves a favor, go listen to Harry Dean Stanton do this one. It is a thing of fragile beauty. In fact here ya go…

Midnight Rider
(The Allman Brothers Band. Fantastic slide guitar. Dodgy lyrics. Possibly about a serial killer.)

Blue Suede Shoes – Carl Perkins, made popular by Elvis, whom Dylan seems to idolize, or at least not feel threatened by. Elvis, of course, did not write his own material, where bob did. Bob wanted to be the crooner, not the writer and looks up to Elvis with his physical beauty that made all the girls scream, and his voice as smooth as Tennessee whiskey.

My Prayer – (The Platters. Trust me I am praying for another good track by this point in things. It is making me give up on life. Dull. )

Dirty Life and Times
(Warren Zevon – one of the wonderful Warren’s more misogynistic and grotesquely macho numbers Certainly not his best work. It contains the charming line “And if she won’t love me then her sister will/ She’s from Say-one-thing-and-mean-another’s-ville”)

Doesn’t Hurt Anymore
(Regina Belle. Oh, but it very clearly does, Bobby. )

Key to the Highway
(Little Walter. Could be interesting. Another highway song about a man that just can’t be tied down. The highway ‘curling above his shoulder’ to quote the late great Leonard Cohen. I really don’t know what Bob is after with this dullsville list..)

Everybody Cryin’ Mercy
(Mose Allison. me! I am ! Mercy, Dylan!)

(Edwin Starr. Now we are getting somewhere good. More Motown. more good stuff. More peace instead of war. )

Big River
(Johnny Cash. Classic Cash does Crooner. More the performance than the song. Dull.)

Feel So Good
(Shirley & Lee. Duller)

Blue Moon
(Elvis Presley. Dullest. The only time I ever like this song is when the Cowboy Junkies do their highly tinkered with version)

Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves
(Cher – Really, Bob, really? Pathetic female weeping over a man. What will we do when we ‘see him go’ – laugh and break open another barrel, Bobby…or else give up on the males romantically entirely. I would have liked to see him take on The Shangri La’s. Mary Weiss and the girls actually are interesting and have depth to them, but then we can’t be allowing women to be seen as anything other than whores, wives, mothers and housekeepers tied to the hearth and home.)

Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy
(Uncle Dave Macon. Mmmm…food as sex. Standard blues staple. Nothing special. )

Its All In The Game
(Tommy Edwards. Meaningless pap.)

A Certain Girl
(Ernie K-Doe – also covered by Warren Zevon. What can I say. A boy meets a girl. He doesn’t want to tell his friends who she is. The end. )

I’ve Always Been Crazy
(Waylon Jennings. This list is heavy on the maudlin country. )

Witchy Woman
(Eagles who should not be not be on a rock critics list of anything, except to be mocked as the banal country rock sluts they are)

Big Boss Man
(Jimmy Reed. Dylan was obsessed with Woody Guthrie who also does not make this list. At least this song nods towards Dylan’s early protest song glory.)

Long Tall Sally
(Little Richard: Well, long tall Sally, she’s built for speed/She got everything that Uncle John need. Women once again make this list as only sex objects for men. Objectifying bullshit. This list has a theme to it…)

Old and Only in the Way
(Charlie Poole. I prefer the wonderful John Prine’s Hello In There, which deals with the same subject of aging and becoming invisible. All these great song writers are just being ignored by Dylan in favor of crooner detritus and obscure tracks better forgotten.)

Black Magic Woman
(Peter Green/Fleetwood Mac, apparently Dylan talks about the far inferior Santana version. Intimidated much, Bobby?)

By the Time I Get to Phoenix
(Glen Campbell)

Come On-a My House
(Rosemary Clooney. I’m bored now. More of the same dull, throwaway obscure shite.)

Don’t Take Your Guns to Town
(Johnny Cash. Cute little moralistic ditty about a kid who ignores his mother and gets shot. I suspect Dylan might have something to say abut this one that would be interesting and pertinent to our modern predicament but it really does not deserve a place on any greatest song titles. A more interesting choice would be Lou Reed’s The Gun.)

Come Rain or Come Shine
(Ray Charles. I feel like giving up on Dylan. Banal. The definition of pretty emptiness.)

Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood
(The Animals – Dylan talks about Nina Simone’s version. I understand perfectly. Dylan shifts blame for his bad decisions onto the Universal Eve.)

Strangers in the Night
(Frank Sinatra. Still no Woody Guthrie, just more big band bilge, despite Dylan taking his entire early schtick form Woody..)

Viva Las Vegas
(By Doc Pomas, covered by Elvis Presley. Pure Parmesan. Yuck)

Saturday Night at the Movies
(The Drifters. Boring. Empty. Pulp.)

Waist Deep in the Big Muddy
(Pete Seeger. Classic, but not Woody Guthrie. Has Bob forgiven him for Newport ’66?)

Where or When
(Dion and the Belmonts. Utterly boring beyond hope. I had given up 6 tracks ago.)

There are 66 tracks in total, a clear nod to getting his kicks on Route 66, as Dylan has been getting his kicks on this route of 66 mostly terrible or meaningless songs full of the worst misogyny that popular culture has to offer. There is hardly a female artist amongst the lot of them. Perhaps we are better dragging ourselves back to Highway 61, to revisit a time when this strange man with a ‘headful of ideas’ that were ‘driving (him) insane’, was still a creative force to be reckoned with. Dylan earnt his stint at rock critic, after all much has been written about Dylan’s music over the years, people putting their own readings on his words and images, and thinking all kinds of things about him that are probably untrue. People get all kinds of wrong ideas about Dylan apparently, me included. In the end when someone puts words on a page, or into a song, then those words are going to come to mean something else through the filter of that person’s mind.

This is not Dylan’s magnum opus on modern popular culture, instead it is his revenge. Dylan has always wanted to destroy his magic, to repel all of us that seek to find some hidden message or secret to the universe within his words and songs, that he has always sought to insist that he does not own. Let’s be honest here, he wouldn’t tell us if he could. Dylan is a curmudgeon and a trickster. Perhaps he wants to show us the Dylan we don’t want to see: the inconvenient Dylan, warts and misogyny and dire taste in music and all. Perhaps he wants to let us into a secret after all: that he ain’t all that special or all that nice, he just wrote some good stuff when he was young and high, and that is the truth of it.

Whichever, whatever, I am off to search for an Echo of a previous time, and tell her that her boyfriend is a jerk.

Philosophy of Modern Song is available from Amazon, via Simon and Schuster for $45…but if I was you I would save some money and go buy Lester Bangs’s Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung instead and read his perfect piece of rock criticism about Astral Weeks, that is more beautiful than the album itself. This ranting of a spurned old man will only bring you down. Like Neil Young once sang, ‘it’s only castles burning, just find someone who’s turning and you will come around..’…shame Dylan didn’t want to talk about that. That might have been interesting.


  1. HolgerL

    The point of mysogy is brought up by everyone. I do not really get that one. You simply cannot dictate what has really shaped you in the past. Why is everyone reclaiming the omission of Joni Mitchell? Hers is a diametrically different way of making music being very personal wheras Bob Dylan even omits masterpieces from being released finding them too revealing. Taking the title literally is missing the point as well: I imagine philosophy is for one meant letting thought meander freely secondly ironically the book being dedicated to all the crew of Dunkin Donuts. I would not take the book as a genuine testimony of Bob Dylan the person, nor as something trying to be politically correct or taxative. Few of the songs have been covered by Bob. It is maybe meant to show how you can approach a song. It should provoke you to take yourself a song as a parting point of thoughts and not just take a song to run along on Spotify.
    So I find rather your review to be pretentious.

    1. The Paltry Sum: Detroit Richards

      I find you dull and intellectually challenged. It’s ok. Most men cannot take criticism of the patriarchy which they benefit from. You are just one of the misogynistic crowd. Dylan is no God who cannot be criticized, but his super-fans treat him as if he is untouchable.

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