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10 Tunes Bob Dylan Loves, and the Odd Reasons Why

Eccentric tributes from the singer’s book ‘The Philosophy of Modern Song’


spinner image The book cover for Bob Dylan's book The Philosophy of Modern Song next to a photo of Bob Dylan playing an electric guitar onstage at the Vieilles Charrues music festival
Simon & Schuster; Fred Tanneau/AFP/Getty Images

Bob Dylan’s new The Philosophy of Modern Song serves as a memoir, a soapbox, a sermon, a fantasy and a fanzine by the 2016 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The heavily illustrated book examines 65 songs and one poem in sharp and profound essays accompanied by freewheeling “riffs,” impressions the songs conjures in Dylan’s byzantine library of a brain. His amusing, cryptic, dark, wistful, eccentric, irreverent and always spellbinding asides leap from Stephen Foster’s 1849 “Nelly Was a Lady” to Regina Belle’s 1989 “It Doesn’t Hurt Anymore” and cover hillbilly, pop, blues, rock, country, soul and folk.

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Here are 10 of Dylan’s best riffs on tunes:

Perry Como, “Without a Song” (1951)

The younger Dylan said he couldn’t fit in with Como’s easy-listening mainstream style, but now he writes that the sweater-clad smoothie “could out-sing anybody” — he calls him the anti-American Idol. “He is anti-flavor of the week, anti-hot list and anti-bling. He was a Cadillac before the fins; a Colt .45, not a Glock; steak and potatoes, not California cuisine. Perry Como stands and delivers. No artifice, no forcing one syllable to spread itself thin across many notes.”

Rosemary Clooney, “Come On-A My House” (1951)

This novelty tune written by Wllliam Saroyan and Alvin and the Chipmunks hitmaker Ross Bagdasarian made George Clooney’s aunt Rosemary famous (though she loathed it). It’s about a girl inviting a guy home, plotting to marry him, but Dylan has a twisted interpretation: “This is the song of the deviant … the guy who’s got 30 corpses under his basement. … This is a hoodoo song disguised as a happy pop hit. It’s a Little Red Riding Hood song. A song sung by a spirit rapper, a warlock.”

Little Richard, “Tutti Frutti” (1955)

Dylan likens the rock ’n’ roll pioneer to a holy preacher who “took speaking in tongues right out of the sweaty canvas tent and put it on the mainstream radio.” And he hails the double entendres of his wild first hit, whose originally smutty lyrics were rewritten to be more obscurely suggestive: “Good booty” became the nonsense phrase “aw rooty.” Dylan writes: “Did you ever see Elvis singing ‘Tutti Frutti’ on Ed Sullivan? Does he know what he’s singing about? Do you think Ed Sullivan knows? Of all the people who sang ‘Tutti Frutti,’ Pat Boone was probably the only one who knew what he was singing about. And Pat knows about speaking in tongues as well.”

The Clash, “London Calling” (1979)

Dylan thinks this angry punk anthem disses the Beatles. “The Clash have nothing but disdain for Beatlemania. ... ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand,’ all the theme songs for Little Missy and the school maids, sweet-little sixteen mania, have no place in the real London anymore. In the real London war is declared. London is in the underworld. The world of drugs and waterfront real estate — The Clash sneer at the fool on the hill.”

Bobby Darin, “Mack the Knife” (1959)

Dylan says Darin’s version of the 1928 Threepenny Opera song about a killer is “as good and probably better than anybody’s.” But Darin’s career crashed soon after, and Dylan thinks it’s because he kept trying to ape Sinatra’s style. “He would go on and try to follow Frank’s formula but it was impossible — the world could only stand one Frank. Nobody could follow that road. Not Tony, not Dean, and certainly not Bobby Darin.”

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Dean Martin, “Blue Moon” (1964)

Dylan admires Martin, “everybody’s beloved uncle, charming and soused with a bit of mischief in his eye and a good-time gal in his bed … the man both Sinatra and Elvis wanted to be.” But his most lavish praise goes to the Rodgers & Hart composition itself. “Its appeal is in its mysteriousness. A melody right out of [French composer Claude] Debussy … You hear a voice whisper, ‘Please adore me.’ And then you turn around and the moon has changed color to gold. When’s the last time you saw a golden moon? The song makes no sense but its beauty is in the melody.”

The Temptations, “Ball of Confusion” (1970)

Dylan thinks the “easy rhymes” of this tune about 1960s social changes (“Revolution/evolution/air pollution”) lack the wit of John Lennon’s similar “Give Peace a Chance.” Lennon’s song refers to Yoko Ono’s 1964 artwork “Bag Piece,” which invited gallery goers to get into a black bag and take off their clothes, to eliminate gender, race and class distinctions. Lennon called this idea “bagism,” and sang, “Ev’rybody’s talking ’bout bagism, shagism … revolution, evolution … regulation, integrations, meditations, United Nations.”  

Writes Dylan, “Lennon got away with it by using his cheeky sense of humor to create a postmodern campfire song all about bag-ism and shag-ism. But in less sure hands one might as well write about the periodic table of elements with built-in rhymes about calcium, chromium and lithium.” Still, he loves the Temptations’ good intentions: “What sells ‘Ball of Confusion’ is commitment.”

Santana, “Black Magic Woman” (1970)

This Latin blues hit sums up Dylan’s ideal woman, who “summons demons, holds séances, levitates, is skilled in the art of necromancy, conducts ritualistic orgies with the dead, always out of body, a creature with dark powers and you’ve got her all to yourself … Black power, flower power, solar power, you name it — charisma, she’s got it.”

Cher, “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” (1971)

Dylan suggests that this tale of a pregnant teen, her exotic dancer mother and medicine-peddling father is actually autobiographical. “Cher had a difficult childhood. Her biological father left when she was just nine months old. Her mother went on to marry another five times. This song is a thinly veiled metaphor for her father/mother relationships.”

Willie Nelson, “On the Road Again” (1980)

Bootheel-wanderin’ Dylan clearly identifies with this anthem of the tour-hardened country star. “There could be verses about broken heat vents on the bus, sirens outside hotel room windows, an overeager search at the Texas border … dubious microwave burritos, long hauls between laundry days, too much information about the bus driver’s divorce.”

Edna Gundersen, a regular AARP music critic, was the longtime pop critic for USA Today.

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