by Carl Wilson
It’s such a plain-spoken title at first glance. At second glance it’s kind of audacious: Greil Marcus as the author of “Bob Dylan.” If there’s anyone who’s never had any author but himself it’s got to be Dylan. And yet part of what makes Dylan Dylan – which is to say not just an artist but one whose life in and out of music makes him an unusually resonant avatar of the Human – is that he’s always erasing his own authorship, revealing that it is thieved and disguised, something that happened to Robert Zimmerman as much as something he did and made.
(That’s even true about his recent self-Chronicles-ing phase – an autobiography? a semi-official bio-pic? a radio show? This Rear-View Mirror facet of his kaleidoscope is as disorienting as any other; his explanations conceal as much as they unveil.)
So what Marcus does with his title is a little bit like what Bob Wiseman did when he announced that he would take the name Prince after Prince changed his name to
– that is, appropriating the shroud of the self-murdered author.
Marcus probably has more of a claim than anyone else to do so: These 450 pages and the two other books he’s written about Dylan (one about The Basement Tapes and the Harry Smith folk-music anthology, and one about “Like a Rolling Stone”) probably contain half of the most essential writing about Dylan, although The Old, Weird America is Marcus’s weakest Important Book. (There are 3: Mystery Train, Lipstick Traces and Invisible Republic, which became TO,WA in its second edition, to play up its most memorable and also unfortunate phrase and its tendency to exoticize and freak-show-ize rural America – as if all the other Americas weren’t equally weird).
He says being a Dylan fan is what made him a writer. And while he’s hardly alone in that, Marcus was by age, demographic and inclination kind of ideally placed to make a life as a Dylan interpreter. He first saw Dylan at a Joan Baez concert in New Jersey in 1963 (Baez was from Marcus’s own California hometown, Menlo Park); he went up to Dylan afterwards to gush, to which Dylan replied that he’d been “shit.” Marcus also went to Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement, as he memorably recaptures in Lipstick Traces – a far more deeply Dylanesque political movement, in its rhetoric and aims, than the Civil Rights struggle Dylan is more commonly linked to. And Marcus came of age writing for Rolling Stone and other publications right at the point that Dylan was entering his long, perplexing middle period – a time when there was a lot for a critic to grapple with. Indeed, after the intro, the book opens with Marcus’s famous review of 1970’s Self-Portrait, which begins, “What is this shit?”
(I should acknowledge here that Marcus is also part of what made me a critic: Reading Lipstick Traces at age 20 revealed that this could be an art form as much as any other – made it seem like a viable alternative for someone who wanted to be a playwright or a poet, and introduced me to a bunch of ideas and figures – especially Raoul Vaneigem, Guy Debord and the Lettrists and Situationist International – in an accessible and compelling way. People mistake it as saying that the Sex Pistols are the summit of that history, but I took it to be saying that the punk imagination has been a parallel presence, an unofficial opposition, throughout the course of so-called civilization. Hell, even its hyperbolic flaws were liberating.)
This book also makes it clear how much Marcus is the ghostwriter behind Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There, which has to be the best piece of Dylan analysis ever invented, much less as a feature film. It’s not just that the Richard Gere, Woodstock-era section of the film is almost a literal transcription of Marcus in Invisible Republic/TO,WA. It’s that Haynes’s Dylan is Marcus’s Dylan – it shares his sense of Dylan’s multiplicity (in the movie Dylan is played by a half-dozen different actors in contradictory stories) and Marcus’s central idea that it’s the voice, both literal and figurative, of Dylan that is really the crux of his art and his mattering.
Voice is what ties together Heath Ledger and Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale and the little black kid and the hip young “Rimbaud”-pretender and Richard Gere, even as their physical affect is wildly contrasting. It’s the “wild mercury sound” streaming through all his incarnations: “It’s the ability to bring the whole world into focus with the dramatization of a single syllable.” Marcus, more than any other critic, attended to that as it happened, and detached himself from tiresome debates about poetry and morality in other critics’ cant. His careful observation and ear for effect is why he’s the one you read to understand what’s going on in a live Dylan show when you don’t recognize a note.
One of the finest moments is Marcus’s review/DVD notes for I’m Not There, in which he confesses that the movie helped him understand the parts of Dylan’s career he never could get on his own – because he lived through them as a fan in a way Gen X-aged Haynes didn’t. It’s a ballsy admission for the self-appointed Dylan Expert. Here are his two blind spots:
1: The Born-Again Xtian phase, through which we’ve seen Marcus suffer, not at all gladly, in this book’s earlier pages. In the film, he sees that Dylan just wanted to be someplace where he could be the audience and not the star – that place was in supplication to Jesus, the only bigger star he could find (what, was he supposed to become a Led Zeppelin groupie?). In fundamentalist Christianity, earthly repute does nothing to redeem your sins. And we can only imagine how much Dylan felt like a sinner in 1978.
(I sympathize here – in my youthful Dylan-collecting enthusiasm, I was taken aback by those albums, only later hearing a gospel album of Dylan covers that made me realize how powerful they could be if you were not arguing with them but just appreciating them as hymns. Still, Marcus is not the person to go to when you want to consider Dylan’s engagement with religious musics and traditions, much less his Jewish heritage. Generationally and culturally, Marcus is never going to find those things cool.)
2: The “going electric” battles, because he had very little attachment to Dylan the folkie-propagandist. (It gets tiresome how many times he claims “Blowing in the Wind” is a bad song or “Mole in the Ground” is a great one, but in 40 years of pieces on related subjects, you’re going to get some repeated tropes and bugbears.) Marcus was from California, so when Dylan played rock, he just thought, “Finally.” He never got what the Newport thing was about, which is the “secret community” Dylan waxes nostalgic about in a later interview – crying crocodile tears over the lost Eden he deliberately and methodically destroyed.
In Haynes’s recreation, Dylan was repudiating anyone who dared to attach to him – just as he’d later do to his rock fans, including Marcus. (“What is this shit?”) Marcus says of the loudness in the movie scene: “It’s an assault: from both sides… in the theater, it’s shocking, or even evil. I could imagine myself in the crowd, and I realized I had no idea how I would have responded.” It doesn’t mean that the folkies weren’t ultimately foolish, but it also doesn’t mean Dylan was innocent of his provocation.
All that said, if you’re mainly a Dylan fan and not a Marcus fan, the book will get tiresome. Even I don’t need to read every Dylan review Marcus ever wrote, especially when he’s beating his brains out over Planet Waves for pages on end but giving us only a brief rave for Blood on the Tracks. Still it’s interesting to watch him list back and forth on the question of authenticity, using it as a whip in the 1970s and then as a whipping boy in the 2000s – it’s admirable that he doesn’t strip out his outmoded thoughts in the reprint. And I sure do envy his collection of bootlegs.
On Dylan’s output of the past decade, there’s probably no one better. Marcus’s arcade of quotations reflecting on Sept. 11, 2001, for the NY Times Magazine – Dylan’s 9/11-released “High Water (Everywhere)” chief among them – was a daring move. I’m not sure if it worked, but I’m glad to have it between hard covers.
His tangentially Dylan-related meditations on Barack Obama’s election are a less-graceful postscript. It’s as if a baby boomer cannot cap a collection of 40 years of work without such a lunge for historical significance. Of course the Dylan-Obama connection is mandated to be about race – Marcus notes, movingly, that “Blowin in the Wind” was melodically derived from an anti-slavery song called “No More Auction Block,” and I’m grateful for the information.
But to me what Obama really inherits and incarnates is Dylan’s take on American identity – the high mercury sound of a selfhood that can’t be pinned to a board, classified in a census, confined by a community. That’s what Obama’s opponents use against him: This idea that he’s a deceiver, a double-agent, a trickster. It’s a central conflict in American life, in the democratic phantasy – do we have a duty to be transparently who we are, or a freedom to become whoever we can dream, or whatever? It’s clear where the party of Dylan stands – he’s the president of the republic in which you can be a toaster, a bull, Pocahontas or Marlon Brando and all four of you get a vote. And Obama’s a citizen of that many-headed Hydraland too.
(It’s the North American way, but America’s fundamental distrust of that liberty, its nostalgia for a fixedness that doesn’t exist here, but did in the places all our families once came from, is as much a part of the continent’s double-helix as any other strand. And part of the DNA of late capitalism, of course, in a way that hatchets as much as it heals.)
Between Baez and Barack, though, there are a lot of highlights: On Marcus’s visit to Dylan’s Hibbing, Minnesota, high school, it turns out to be a freak school, a gleaming educational palace – the most impressive public building he’s seen outside Washington, D.C., he says. This is a journalistic coup from a writer who seldom functions as a journalist.
And of course Marcus shows off his facility as a close reader of songs, an art at which he’s really an Olympian, when he burrows down into “Visions of Johanna,” analyzes “Desolation Row” as a musical cognate to Belgian artist James Ensor‘s “Christ Entering Brussels,” or explains why “Masters of War” is the best-worst protest song ever written and how its course through the world, from wacky celebrity moments to a high-school banned-band scandal, reflects that double identity.
Unfortunately Marcus retains the stylistic tic that drives many readers crazy: his tendency to describe every song as a place where dead voices rise from the grave and cosmic worlds collide – his take on the early-rock-crit desire to elevate the form with rhetoric (a defensive impulse) and to aim for the transcendent the same way ’60s and ’70s music did, with the same danger of getting overblown. A friend recently described it as “Ecstatic Cultural Studies,” and if that brings to mind the image of a perpetual nerdgasm, you can see what’s distasteful. Too often in Marcus’s canon, a great song “sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard,” and with every repetition that claim gets a little flimsier.
I’d even argue that in the 21st century it’s not that attractive a pitch: We’re skeptical of any proclamations of novelty, and more drawn to synthesis. What we want is a great song that sounds like everything you’ve ever heard, all at once. Luckily, Dylan also has plenty of those to offer.