Discussion of popular music often suffers from a fundamental misunderstanding. Whether it’s professional criticism or fan discussion, many people assume that what’s important about a pop song is what it tells us about the performer. No, what’s important is what it tells us about you or me, the listener.
Take “Like a Rolling Stone,” for example. What makes this 1965 single so powerful is not what it reveals about Bob Dylan, the singer/songwriter. It doesn’t really matter what his circumstances were when he wrote it, what particular woman he was singing to or what was fueling his anger. What matters is what it reveals about us.
If we haven’t “thrown the bums a dime” in our prime only to later “to be scrounging for” our next meal, we’ve probably known someone who has. At the very least, we’ve all felt the vertigo of a fall from safety and security to being “on your own with no direction home, like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone.” We know how that feels, but we have trouble expressing it. Dylan’s words, his nasal vocal and harmonica, Al Kooper’s swelling organ and Mike Bloomfield’s stinging guitar express it for us.
Dylan himself speaks to this different way of thinking about pop music in his new book, The Philosophy of Modern Song, a collection of commentaries on 66 different songs. In the chapter on Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up,” Dylan gets to the point: “Knowing a singer’s life story doesn’t particularly help your understanding of a song. Frank Sinatra’s feelings over Ava Gardner allegedly inform ‘I’m a Fool to Want You,’ but that’s just trivia. It’s what a song makes you feel about your own life that’s important.”
Each of these chapters averages four pages of text. Often, the second half of each essay offers some of the biographical and sociological context that’s typical of books and articles about particular songs. But the first half is devoted to translating the impact of each song—the connections they suggest, the emotions they evoke, the implications they leave unspoken. Dylan makes it clear that he’s not talking about his own personal reactions; he’s talking about everyone’s response.
He does this by writing the opening section of most chapters not in the third person, not in the first person, but in the second person. In his discussion of Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes,” for example, he doesn’t write, “Carl’s shoes are his pride and joy.” He doesn’t write, “My shoes are my pride and joy.” Instead he writes, “Your shoes are your pride and joy, sacred and dear, your reason for living, and anyone who scrapes or bruises them is putting himself in jeopardy, accidentally or out of ignorance, it doesn’t matter. It’s the one thing in life you won’t forgive.”
He’s not writing about Carl Perkins’ shoes or Bob Dylan’s shoes; he’s writing about the shoes of you, the reader. Look down; there they are. This song is always about your shoes—whether it’s sung by Perkins, Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix or the bar band down the street.
In his essay on Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City,” Dylan asks, “What is it about lapsing into narration in a song that makes you think the singer is suddenly revealing the truth?” He’s describing the effect when a singer such as Bare (or Luke the Drifter or Craig Finn, Joe Tex or Tom Waits) suddenly drops the melody, as if it were a veil they were hiding behind, and starts talking to us directly over the vamping music. It’s as if what they are about to say is so important that it doesn’t need the support of the tune, which would just be a distraction. This creates an illusion of a confidence being shared.
In a sense, Dylan’s commentaries are like those recitations. They shift the song into another dimension by stripping away the melody, leaving only the rhythm of the words. But those words always sound like a natural extension of the song. It’s just prose on a page, but you can sense the chord changes and groove under the language.
When he writes about Santana’s “Black Magic Woman,” for example, Dylan says, “She’s the hidden hand, the power behind the throne. Black power, flower power, solar power, you name it—charisma, she’s got it. She’s what dreams are made of, got the inside track to your consciousness. Puts everybody in your debt, makes others depend on you, she’s the bad fairy, the evil genius who turns you into a werewolf, gives you horns and a cloven hoof, but you have no other option.” This is prose that raps, even sings.
When Dylan won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2016, it wasn’t for his poetry or his prose; it was for his songwriting, which is an entirely different medium. Songs, after all, have to interact with live performance the same way that stage plays and screenplays do. Dylan has also written poetry and prose, however, and while the results are not of Nobel quality, they are above average.
His first published prose work, Tarantula (written in 1966, published in 1971), seemed unfinished and unsatisfying. But his 2004 book Chronicles, Volume One, is one of the best rock ‘n’ roll memoirs, despite its oddly elliptical chronology. His latest, The Philosophy of Modern Song, is as experimental as Tarantula, but with the greater control of Chronicles. At age 81, he’s getting better at this prose stuff.
There’s no pretense here that these are the 66 best songs, or best records, or best anything. There are no chapters on Robert Johnson, Jimmie Rodgers, Bill Monroe, Billie Holiday, James Brown, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Band, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Van Morrison, Steely Dan, Prince, P-Funk, Dolly Parton, Bob Mould, Nirvana, U2, Kendrick Lamar or Dylan himself. There are no songs written by Woody Guthrie, Willie Dixon, Jerry Leiber, Smokey Robinson, Ray Davies, Randy Newman, Tom Waits, Curtis Mayfield, Earl King, Laura Nyro, Stevie Wonder, Tony Joe White, Billie Eilish or Taylor Swift.
Nor are the songs spread out evenly over the 10 decades since the dawn of recording. Twenty-five songs come from the 1950s, 13 from the 1960s, and 14 from the 1970s. That leaves just four songs from before 1950 and seven from after 1979. This makes sense, actually. Dylan was born in 1941 and like most of us, he bonded most tightly with the songs of his teens and twenties.
He seems to have picked the songs that sparked ideas he might riff on. He chooses The Fugs’ “CIA Man” because it allows him to muse about spies; Johnny Taylor’s “Cheaper to Keep Her” so he can go off on the economics and theology of divorce; Webb Pierce’s “There Stands the Glass” so he can celebrate country music’s Nudie suits; Harry McClintock’s “Jesse James” so he can explain the difference between outlaws and mere criminals; Vic Damone’s “On the Street Where You Live” so he can talk about three-syllable rhymes; Domenico Modugno’s “Volare” so he can discuss the magic of songs in languages you don’t understand; Edwin Starr’s “War” so can delve into Robert McNamara and the morality of war.
Both in the unexpected song choices and the tendency to wander off on peculiar tangents, the book seems like an extension of Theme Time Radio Hour, which Dylan hosted on XM Satellite Radio (and later Sirius XM) from 2006 through 2009. The show’s writer-producer, Eddie Goretzky, receives a “special thanks” in the new book “for all the input and excellent source material.” Indeed, The Philosophy of Modern Song has been published in coffee-table-book format with Goretzky-supplied photos, not just of the singers discussed, but also old advertisements, movie stills, record-store photos and anything else that might connect to the prose.
Two more top American songwriters have also published new books about their craft. Dave Alvin and Rodney Crowell—both acknowledged Dylan admirers—have gathered many of their favorite lyrics between hard covers and have added supplementary materials. It’s as if they both decided that the best way to write a memoir was to let the words of their songs speak for them—with just enough extra information to connect the dots.
Both books raise the nagging question: How much value do song lyrics have when they’re divorced from their music and left naked on the page? They obviously have a value when they’re in a CD booklet or on an LP cover that you can peruse while the CD or LP is playing. But on their own in a book?
Once again, a good analogy is the stage play. A play by William Shakespeare or August Wilson can never have the same power in a book as it does in a theater; the words are designed to only come fully alive in an actor’s mouth. But there is value in reading Shakespeare’s or Wilson’s dialogue in book form, if only to more slowly and more fully take in the words that can rush by in the heat of a performance. The same is true of Alvin’s and Crowell’s lyrics.
Crowell takes this issue head-on in his book, Word for Word. Describing his young days as an apprentice to his mentor Guy Clark, Crowell writes, “Now and then he’d play his prized recordings of Dylan Thomas reading A Child’s Christmas in Wales and Under Milk Wood and reiterate his belief that the words in a well-written song should sound as good read aloud as they do when sung. As time went on, and I started writing slightly better songs, if I thought I’d written something worthwhile, I would head over to Guy’s house and—looking him square in the eyes—recite the lyrics. Any impulse to turn away from his all-knowing gaze was the tell-tale sign that a line or couplet didn’t make the cut.”
This passage is from one of the short autobiographical prose sections that provide some context for the nearby lyrics. The generous helping of snapshots from back in the day serves a similar purpose. But the bulk of the volume is the lyrics themselves, presented not only with the old-typewriter font chosen by the book’s designers, but also with the handwritten scrawl of Crowell’s old spiral notebooks, where the songs originated. When you can decipher his penmanship, the evolution of a song from ballpoint pen to finished recording can be revealing.
His 2014 song, “Frankie Please,” for example, is printed next to the coffee-stained paper with the first-draft lyric. You can see what he got rid of: the too-easy opening line, “When the wind starts to blow”; the empty abstraction of “the force that restrains the peace in our hearts,”; the borrowed “Like a Rolling Stone” line ending, “Didn’t you?” What’s left after all this surgery is a snapshot of a relationship in trouble, but with too much magnetism to give up on. “Your can’t-miss, first kiss told me this,” Crowell writes. “Don’t resist what you’ve got.”
Crowell is a better writer when he focuses on people, rather than ideas, but his character studies are some of the best work to come out of Nashville over the past half-century. You don’t need the music to picture his father leaving home for work: “Clean across the levee by the railroad track / The other side of Houston in a two-room shack / Sweeping out confetti from a third-grade classroom / The rock of my soul pushed a dust-mop broom.”
Some lyrics work better on the page than others. In some songs, the words are more of a supporting character than the lead character. It can be a great song, but seeing the lyrics without the dazzling music can be underwhelming. But in other instances, the lyrics do get the lead role, and they can captivate a reader on nothing but a soundless page.
What’s the difference? Frank Liddell, producer for Miranda Lambert and his wife Lee Ann Womack, once told me that he judges a song by how much furniture it contains. By this, he means: How many images in the song are as visual, as tactile, as one-of-a-kind particular as a chair or a table? Or is it all mere wallpaper?
You can understand this distinction in Alvin’s new book, New Highway: Selected Lyrics, Poems, Prose, Essays, Eulogies and Blues. His early composition, “Marie, Marie,” is a great song, and its lead character is not the words, but the music, which Alvin describes as what happens when “California R&B rockers blast swampy Cajun” music. The words slot into the propulsive guitar perfectly, but without the instruments, they don’t really work on the page. They don’t have the “furniture.”
By contrast, a later song like “Out of Control” is full of “furniture”: the nine-millimeter pistol lying in the narrator’ s lap in a motel parking lot while his girlfriend turns a trick inside; the Kaiser Steel slag pit where he once worked alongside his old man; and the “mobile home off the 60 Freeway,” where his ex-wife sometimes lets him spend the night. It works on the page, although it’s even better with the muscular blues-rock behind it on the record.
Alvin’s book is proof that he’s one of our most underrated lyricists. Songs like “Abilene,” “Dry River,” “Andersonville,” “Guilty Man,” “”Haley’s Comet,” “Fourth of July” and “Interstate City” aren’t show-offy in their verbal skill, but take them away from the music they’ve married and suddenly the expertise becomes obvious.
Perhaps that’s because Alvin was a serious poet (or at least as serious as a college student/fry cook can be) before he ever wrote a song, and when he became The Blasters’ in-house songwriter by default, he was able to apply his classroom lessons to his barroom work. That same love of language carries over to the later poems and short prose pieces scattered among the lyrics.
When a writer takes pleasure in finding the right words and rearranging them like furniture in a new house, the pleasure usually spills over into the listener—or the reader. Whether those words are divvied up with line breaks so they look like verse or run margin-to-margin like prose, it’s all writing, my friends, and these examples from Dylan, Crowell and Alvin are some of the best.
Revisit a 1999 Dylan performance from the Paste archives below.