Bob Dylan’s new book reveals the music legends he most admires

In 2004, Bob Dylan published a sort of autobiography. “Chronicles: Volume One” methodically charted the troubadour’s journey but then took enough factual detours to render the entire literary itinerary suspect.

We now have a new book by Dylan, “The Philosophy of Modern Song” (Simon & Schuster, 352 pp., out November 1). An argument can be made, it is in fact his autobiography.

Through this enigmatic, flattering and insightful collection of essays dissecting what Dylan considers the greatest songs of the recorded era, we come one step closer to understanding an imposing, vexing, moving and revered artist – born Robert Zimmerman in Hibbing, Minnesota – who has always worked hard to throw us off this track.

We sprinkle some “Modern Song” gems below, revealing who garners the king’s nod (the list goes from The Who to Marty Robbins, Johnny Cash to The Clash). Few things are linear. Some of them are confusing. All of this is fascinating. But let’s start with why it matters.

Dylan’s clues are in the songs

Dylan is 81 years old. He has been famous for about 60 of those chameleon years. A protest song singer who protested this coat. A religious convert who has reconverted. A 60s icon that reinvented itself in the 70s, 80s, 90s, and more. It is as easily stuck as the wind.

So if there’s any real clue as to the source of his magic, it’s not in any biography but rather in the songs he revered. He said it himself.

Bob Dylan lyrically and sometimes randomly waxes over more than 60 songs he considers fundamental in "The philosophy of modern song," released on November 1.

“These songs didn’t come out of thin air, I didn’t just make them up,” he told a delighted MusicCares audience in 2015. “It all came out of traditional music: traditional folk music, traditional rock’ n’ roll and traditional big band swing orchestral music.

He explained: “I’ve sung a lot of ‘come all you’ songs. There are plenty of them. There are too many to count. If you sang all those ‘come all you’ songs all the time, you would write: ‘Come gather’ around the people wherever you go, admit the waters around you have grown/Accept that soon you’ll be bone soaked’ – the opener to his classic 1964 anthem, ‘The Times They Are A -Changing”. It’s always about the songs.

Dylan loves Elvis – Costello that is

“Pump It Up,” released in 1978, helped put Elvis Costello and attractions on the map. He wound and weaved. Dylan paid attention to both the craftsman and his creation, and offers his own take on the intended audience of the song.

“It’s not like you have a bright future,” Dylan writes. “You are the insane hero who was taken on a ride by a quick-witted little hellcat, the hot-blooded, sex-starved girl you depended on so much, who let you down.”

Bob Dylan considers Elvis Costello (shown here in concert) the UK band, Elvis Costello and the Attractions," as one of the greatest bands of all time.

Of Costello – one of the few artists he speaks directly about in essays spanning more than 60 disparate tracks – he writes that he and his band were “better than any of their contemporaries. Light years better.

He also finds time to compliment Costello’s suit and tie: “The British, at the very least, had dignity and pride and they didn’t dress like tramps. Money or no money.

Everyone hails rock ‘n’ roll’s supreme preacher, Little Richard

“A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom. Little Richard was speaking in tongues on the airwaves long before anyone knew what was going on,” Dylan writes in his reverential rendition of that landmark 1955 single, “Tutti Frutti.”

Little Richard, shown in this 1988 photo, was an early rock 'n roll pioneer.  Bob Dylan says his song

Dylan particularly admires the sly way the singer gave a nod to homosexuality at a time when it was unthinkable. He was “the master of double meaning. …Have you ever seen Elvis sing ‘Tutti Frutti’ on ‘Ed Sullivan? Does he know what he’s talking about? Does Ed Sullivan know?

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For Dylan, the singer was ground zero in rock. Little surprise, Richard’s smiling face, one of the many captivating images that dot the pages, graces the cover of Dylan’s book.

“Little Richard was anything but small,” he wrote. “He says there’s something going on. The world will collapse. He’s a preacher. ‘Tutti Fruitti’ is sounding the alarm.

Dylan the deadhead deadhead

Dylan famously toured with the Grateful Dead in 1987. On the surface, strange bedfellows. Looking closer, not so much. Sinuous lyrics, a solid rhythmic backbeat, a disinterest in being surrounded.

“Truckin'” is taken from the Dead’s 1970 album “American Beauty,” and this now-iconic song hits all the right notes for Dylan, who salutes its drug-fueled conscious rap flow by repeating many of its lyrics.

Jerry Garcia (left) and Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead in the early days of the legendary band of the 60s. Bob Dylan toured with the Dead decades ago and came to appreciate the spatial and lyrical nature of their songs, including "Trucking."

“This song has a medium tempo, but it seems to keep picking up speed,” he wrote. “There’s a fantastic first verse, which doesn’t let go and fade away, and every verse that follows could actually be a first verse.”

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Reverie on War through Edwin Starr

Several times in “Modern Songs”, Dylan uses a song title just to riff on something that stings him.

For example, the coda to his essay on Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’ “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” (1972) is about religion (Dylan was briefly a born-again Christian in the late 70s). And the chapter on Johnnie Taylor’s 1973 release, “Cheaper to Keep Her,” is a rant on the billion-dollar divorce industry.

Bob Dylan was good friends with Tom Petty (shown here together in concert in 1986), whom he teamed up with in the Traveling Wilburys supergroup in the late 1980s.

It’s no surprise, then, that Dylan leverages his essay on “War,” Edwin Starr’s indelible Vietnam-era classic, to flex his philosophy on war, which he did with lyrics on early hits such as “Masters of War”. As usual, he sees paradoxes.

“Wars uplifted people, freed them from oppression and real slavery,” he writes. “Wars reopened trade routes and channels of communication. And as history is written by the victors, so is war. … You have to look to the losers to find the atrocities.

Las Vegas and the House Rules Lesson

“Viva Las Vegas” was released in 1964 and written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shulman. Dylan’s entire book is dedicated to Pomus — a larger-than-life original who also penned ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’ — so you know he’s going to bring the heat.

Bob Dylan dedicates his new book, "The philosophy of modern song," to the late songwriter Doc Pomus.  He dissects one of the great songs of Pomus "Long live Las Vegas."

“It’s a song about faith. The kind of faith where you step under a shower faucet in the middle of the desert and fully believe the water will come out,” he wrote, diving into a section about Elvis and his triumphs and falling in this unyielding Nevada town.

It’s an alternate version of the shiny original. A meditation on the alluring yet tragic allure of the city, a place that demands “an atom-powered inner mind” even though all players know what will happen next.

“Today Elvis is gone, the Colonel (Tom Parker) is gone, Doc Pomus is gone. BB (King) and Dr. John are gone. Meanwhile, Hilton now owns thirty-one hotels in Las Vegas. You you can almost hear the snicker, “The house always wins. Long live Las Vegas.”