Tag Archives: todd haynes

Ten-plus Cultural Experiences I’m Still Thinking About Now that 2011’s Done with Us

by Carl Wilson

 [With trademark untimeliness, Back to the World is presenting a series of belated, cross-genre, year-end lists, as we did last year, and again loosely on the model of Greil Marcus’s long-running Real Life Rock Top Ten. Margaux posted last week and Chris will post soon. Once again I’ve confined myself to topics I haven’t written about at length here before, or in my year-end chatter in the Slate Music Club (and accompanying Spotify playlist).]

1. Marcus Boon, In Praise of Copying (out, late 2010; read, early 2011)

 The Toronto-based writer, musician and scholar Marcus Boon’s generous intervention (that’s a full, free PDF) over one of the issues of our time (cf SOPA) seemed to echo everywhere – as far out as the viral reproduction of revolutionary courage through Arab countries, and the call-and-response of the “human microphone” of Occupy Wall Street and its own hashtag-breeding copycats.

What I found so moving, even given the book’s digressive wander through a potentially infinite subject (and the foolhardiness of trying to control infinitudes) was its restoration of copying’s many sensual and spiritual connotations in what has been much too abstract and legalistic a debate. The back-and-forth weave and warp of repetition and difference is a pervasive leitmotif of existence, and not just the human. Boon’s treatment is elusive, with no definitive answers, but that means it will reward repeated re-reading, never just a copy of the first time.

2. The sex scenes in Todd Haynes’ Mildred Pierce (March, 2011)

 

There was a lot of debate about what Haynes, one of my favourite American film directors, did in his HBO mini-series with the template of the 1940s melodrama starring, of course, Joan Crawford: Had he evacuated the original film’s queerness, its camp, and left only a portrait of a status-and-materialism-driven woman who brings ruin, reinstating the misogyny of James M. Cain’s 1941 novel? Yes and no. Yes, he was bringing back the sting of the novel’s more radical anti-capitalism. But he was also taking the mini-series’ extra time to push the viewer’s nose far deeper into the mortification (social death, social stiffening) Kate Winslet’s Mildred endures when all the guarantees of the social contract are pulled out from under her by economic-cycle brutality and masculine bad faith, and the contradictions she helplessly generates (chiefly in her daughter, almost earning Evan Rachel Wood’s scenery-masticating performance) in the course of trying to maintain vestiges of her expectations within that outcaste position.

But Haynes also grants Winslet’s Mildred a grace Crawford’s could never taste – full-blown, full-grown sensual gratification, in her leggy, languorous love scenes with Guy Pearce as aristocratic reprobate Monty Beragon, the real sex object of the piece. Granted, the plot ensures this is in many ways another trap, but between them the actors and Haynes refuse that old morality’s to overpower the commandments of skin and light on skin, the manifesto for being and perseverance that an intimate bodily encounter can’t utter but can proclaim. It enacts what camp once did but no longer can: victory within defeat, not just despite but also because of loss, in its unapologetic ensnarement with entropy and other ultimate unfairnesses, against which desire still demands, “Live all you can.”

By making that so vivid, and driven by the will of the “unrespectable” woman, Haynes discredited his own tragedy, asking why a male film figure like George Clooney or Clark Gable (whom Pearce’s Monty directly recalls) can give that same kind of vicarious pleasure and get at best lightly slapped, while Mildred Pierce has to be dragged through the shoals. In this, though the rest isn’t perfect, Haynes really made a melodrama to end all melodrama.

3. WTF with Marc Maron interviewing Bryan Cranston (June 10); Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul on Breaking Bad (all year)

 

If you measured by the number of hours spent on it in the year, you would conclude my most cherished art form is not music, literature, live performance or even TV, but the podcast. Check my iTunes: I’m currently subscribed to about 65, though the majority are really radio shows, not native to the pod. And the majority of those aren’t mwhusic but talk. Perhaps it’s that I live alone and am comforted by the chatter during cleaning, cooking, trying to go to sleep and other routines (I wish I were better with silence). But it’s also because non-broadcast radio lets people take liberties with talk – that most eternally human of media – that feel fresh and exciting without being consciously experimental and avant. There’s no better example, title down, than Marc Maron’s What the Fuck?! I came to it a little late, compelled by its backstory: A veteran, never breakout comedian who’s struggled with personal demons gets new career success and satisfaction by sitting down with people in his field in his garage and asking them frank, patient questions of craft, d but also how their own flaws and hauntings have affected their stories – empathetically sounding their barriers and/or divulging his admiring but frustrated puzzlement at how they surpass them.

The editions that draw hype tend to be confronting, sensational – a showdown with a hack, an uncomfortable discussion with a friend, a comedy writer confessing an attempted suicide. But I love the quieter talks he has with people about their growth. One of my favourites was with Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston, and not just because he’s an actor whose work left me wide-eyed over the past several years (as it clearly did Maron). Cranston is at once enormously garrulous and open about his route to his ambitions (he tells stories with theatrical gusto) and humble (not showbiz humble, but humble) and grateful for the improbable fact that his journeyman dues-paying led to an artistic and career jackpot. I listened in early summer and have thought about it at least weekly since.

  

 Bryan Cranston, out of character … and in.

For several months, that was partly because a highlight of each week was the fourth season of Breaking Bad, the best drama on television since The Wire, even better if only because it had the previous show to go by (just as The Wire had The Sopranos). Unlike those two, it isn’t a big ensemble piece. Supporting players are super, but this is a show about two people, Cranston’s Walter White and his protégé (considering how terribly he’s protected, that’s exactly the wrong word): Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman. I have nothing original to add to the accolades: Beyond character and cinematic weave, what’s remarkable is its arc in which a good man becomes very far from good, at first for circumstantial reasons and then for deeply rooted ones, and the audience has to test how far our sympathies can extend, even as we vicariously participate in the rot.

The season finale is the obvious standout, featuring both one of the most ingenious murder scenes ever committed to film or video and an ending many viewers might find it hard to get past (and not just for its dangling plot threads). But three weeks earlier, there was an atypical episode, in which the focus shifted from Walter to Jesse for nearly the whole hour and forced the younger man to find unexpected strengths. It mattered because the question has become whether anyone in this saga will walk away alive with something like an intact soul, and there’s really only one hope left. Here we begin to see that a story that seemed to be about one person and his themes and issues might really be a story about someone and something else. As always: The story of the parents turns into the story of the children, which then turns out to be the story of their children, and the next, and so on. If it doesn’t, that’s when there’s real trouble. (Attention, anyone who compared Occupy Wall Street to Woodstock.)

4. The consolations of comedy: Party Down on Netflix, “Adults in Autumn” (Chris Locke, Kathleen Phillips, Nick Flanagan, 
Rebecca Kohler, 
Jon McCurley, 
Tom Henry
, Glenn Macaulay) at Double Double Land (November), Louis CK at the Sony Centre (October) and Louie, Maria Bamford at Comedy Bar (January), Parks & Recreation, Community, the Comedy Bang Bang podcast …

Along with having become a podcast nerd – and abetted by it – what really struck me in 2011 is that over the past several years I was becoming a comedy nerd. I’m now usually more enthusiastic to go see people say funny things than to hear a concert, or to listen to or watch comedy on my computer than to listen to music. I follow local comics, especially the way-underpublicized Kathleen Phillips, as avidly as I used to follow bands, even here in the greatest musickest citiest of them all-est. I am still puzzling. Perhaps it’s just that a change is as good as a rest, as they say: The comedy nodes in my brain may be less worn-down than the music nodes. Or perhaps there really is more fresh happening in comedy than in music (in Toronto specifically or in general?), or more likely that whatever was new a half-decade ago or more to true comedy nerds finally has become obvious and available to us rabble. (The fact that I still don’t love the Best Show on WFMU is the clinching evidence, right?)

Or as Woody Allen would say, maybe I just needed the eggs. A lot of us had a grim year.

And speaking of eggs, I agree completely with Margaux about the Louie duckling-in-Afghanistan episode.

5. Have Not Been the Same by Michael Barclay, Ian A.D. Jack and Jason Schneider: reissue (June), panel (Soundscapes, Toronto, July) and CD (November)

Have I gotten this far without having to declare any conflicts of interest? No matter, plenty more to come.

Even in this supposedly retromanic age of eternal re-re-return, the bubbles of cultural history with local habitations but no names can easily pop away and leave only stains on the barroom floors. A decade ago, three Canadian music writers, one of them my friend Michael Barclay, tried to guard against that by writing a history of the Canadian music world (mostly indie division) from the mid-‘80s to the mid-‘90s, Have Not Been the Same: The Can-Rock Renaissance. It was a fairly thankless task in 2001, when those scenes were waninh, fractured and with little apparent trace, though since the book mentioned dozens upon dozens of people it sold well enough. Perceptively, though, they later realized the Canadian successes of recent years lent their subject renewed relevance – and that made it incomplete as history. So they undertook many more interviews, updated the individual stories and overall tale with a new introduction and conclusion and brought the book back this year. They held launch concerts and discussions – including a panel at Soundscapes record shop in Toronto with Julie Doiron (ex-Eric’s Trip, current-Julie Doiron), Don Pyle (ex-Shadowy Men, ex-Phono Comb, many more, current Trouble in the Camera Club) and Alison Outhit (ex-Rebecca West, ex-Halifax Pop Explosion, current FACTOR) that was one of the most worthwhile discussions of how musicians and music live and that life has changed I’ve experienced in ages, even (I think) without nostalgia.

Michael’s also curated a companion soundtrack, possibly the first of many, with more recent Can-Rockers playing gems from the book’s era. Which coverers and coverees you like best likely will depend on your own faves: For me, there’s something especially poignant about the Hidden Cameras coaxing out the gentleness of Mecca Normal’s “Throw Silver,” or Richard Reed Parry (of Arcade Fire) and Little Scream slipping into the steamy ether of Mary Margaret O’Hara’s “When You Know Why You’re Happy.” Maps overlaid, outlines of one sunken continent shimmering around the contours of one newer-risen. Lenses, focusing other lenses, or a more vibrant blur.

6. Stand-In (1937) with Leslie Howard, Humphrey Bogart and Joan Blondell, on Turner Classic Movies (August 24)

Not at all new, of course, but new to me when I stumbled upon it on TV in the summer. It’s a bundle of this-but-that: A screwball, Hollywood-skewers-Hollywood comedy that bridges Bogart’s tough-guy and leading-man days, with Busby Berkeley star Joan Blondell (the excuse for its airing, in an evening featuring her) being cutesy-charming but also the brains of the outfit, Leslie Howard stiff and patrician-blinkered but then melting and gaining his senses, and the whole thing ending with a ridiculous/stirring Hollywood labour uprising that gives away its Depression-to-New Deal moment, hard to imagine in many other eras. Apparently the original was more radical still – censored were “a speech about the stifling of competition in the industry and the crushing of independent companies by the majors; and … a speech by Atterbury at the end, in which he says he is going to start a Senate investigation of the motion picture business.”

Here’s a link to the whole movie, as long as it lasts:

It probably stuck with me because the broadcast just preceded the #Occupy moment, but anything mainstream-American that talks explicitly of economic justice without patting itself on the back until its spine breaks (like recent supposed treatments of the financial crisis), frankly, is memorable on its own.

7. The Citizens’ Filibuster (July 28)

Another classic movie came to mind in Toronto a month earlier, on the night of July 28: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. We mentioned it and pictured it here at the time, but too briefly: The bizarre, nearly-24-hour session of citizen testimony – or, as it became known, the “citizens’ filibuster” – against Rob Ford’s attempt to slash budgets was, just as Torontoist says, one of the truly heroic moments of the year, here or anywhere: Our local mini-Newt’s attempt to force closure became the opposite, a populist force to pry the oyster of debate back open, which led to this month’s still-surprising turnabout, in which Ford’s agenda was, for the time being, trounced.

Culturally, whether you were at City Hall or following it on the simulcast and especially social media, it was incredible civic theatre, in which vivid characters (none more heart-tugging than the one below, but some others close) displayed the eloquence and, more significantly, the expertise of so-called ordinary people who normally aren’t even allowed to pick up the marbles in the political game. It’s a contrast to the ugly pro-death-penalty and anti-immigrant ovations of selected attendees at Republican primary debates, for instance. Don’t let those things kill your faith in humanity. The corpse of that faith is what the vultures feed upon.

8. DJs Debate Club at the Henhouse (March 6)

This entry’s a tad more self-indulgent: For the past few years, the Henhouse on Dundas West in Toronto has been the place that I and a few close friends have gone to get our cheap beers on and make like Jonathan Richman, except in a post-Will-Munro-polymorphic Third Place. Our hosts Katie Ritchie, Jenny Smyth and Vanessa Dunn made us more than welcome, and last spring invited me and pal Michael McManus (yes, the last of the Brunnen-G) to DJ one night under our Henhouse nickname, Debate Club (for our propensity to jawbone loudly about politics till closing time).

On the theme of #occupy-precursors that runs through this list, Michael decided we should intercut tracks of famous political speeches between tracks. It would have been a big hit if it had been six months later. Instead we eventually abandoned poor Mario Savio when cooler (but sweatier) heads prevailed and taught us girls just wanna have Robyn. I hadn’t DJ’d since the last time I supplied Wavelength with an iPod playlist, and had forgotten what a rush it is to play music very, very loud, like conjuring worlds, and sex, and astral projection. (Thanks also to Jacob Zimmer, Small Wooden Shoe and Dancemakers for letting me do it again at a fundraiser in December.)

The Henhouse has changed hands now, sadly for its denizens, end of an era. Ladies, you regularly made a room a festival and a roundup of strays into a small community, as best a bar can do. You’ll be missed, but I’m excited to see what you all do next.

9. Misha Glouberman’s Negotiation Class (winter/spring)

Along with assuming the role of author (along with our comrade Sheila Heti) of The Chairs are Where the People Go (about which I really recommend this Los Angeles Review of Books podcast, along with LARB in general), B2TW associate Misha embarked on another new venture this year: An experienced teacher of many forms of improvisation and facilitator of conferences and events, he began this year giving a class in negotiation and communication born of both his innate inclinations to and his concerted studies of  reason, compromise and low-bullshit ways for people to have difficult conversations.

I took the pilot-workshop version of it last winter, with mostly Misha’s friends in it, at a time that I was navigating some crucial personal and professional transitions; some parts worked out and some didn’t, but I’d been given new tools to break down what was happening and address it with, most of all, relative fearlessness. That’s what much of Misha’s work is about: how to cope with the fear that human exchange sparks, which causes us to act protectively in ways that read as irrational to the very people we want most to understand, and find productive alternatives. Generosity, he shows, is a more winning position – not #winning, but in the sense that there’s usually less substantial conflict than meets the eye. (The urge to win, itself, might be an evolutionary catch-22.) He’s teaching a short, intensive version of the course again next month at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

10. Quite Interesting (QI) with Alan Davies, Bill Bailey, Rob Brydon, Jimmy Carr and Stephen Fry (Sept., 2007)

Back to humour again: This is from a few years ago but I first saw it because over Vietnamese dinner Misha brought up the BBC quiz/chat/comedy show QI, hosted by Stephen Fry, so I spent an afternoon watching clips. And then I hit this, which (beginning at 0:22), makes me laugh helplessly and forgive Britain all its sins. I like to watch it any time I feel overwhelmed, with no straight lines to follow. Or maybe I’ll do it ritually every year, as a colonial amusement, the way northern Europeans watch Dinner for One.

PLUS

Melancholia, especially Charlotte Rampling as the archetypical Bad Mother, and Earth as the even more archetypical Bad Mother; Kirsten Dunst at the Cannes press conference for Melancholia; the BBC series Sherlock, the other BBC series The Hour, and the other (much less smart about Britain, class and war, but still absurdly entertaining) BBC series Downton Abbey; Christian Marclay’s The Clock at Paula Cooper and Alexander McQueen’s “Savage Beauty” at the Met (the two art shows I most regret missing) and “Alexander McQueen” (the song by Tomboyfriend); Ryan Trecartin’s “Any Ever” in Queens (the show I’m gladdest I didn’t miss); the Doug Loves Movies podcast and the (for me, unplayable) Leonard Maltin Game (throughout “Two Oceans 11”); the Slate Culture Gabfest (especially being on an episode, which was a thrill); The Ex with Brass Unbound at Lee’s Palace in May; two concert/tour movies about Canadian artists that I didn’t expect to like but that each made me cry, watching them in immediate sequence, Look at What the Light Did Now (Feist) and We’re the Weakerthans, We’re from Winnipeg (Weakerthans); the saving of Saint Mark’s Bookshop; the Smee jokes in Pat Thornton’s third 24-hour standup marathon at Comedy Bar; Tim Hecker’s pipe-organ concert at the Music Gallery; poems by Michael Robbins and D.A. Powell; John Hawkes and Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene; Sandro Perri’s CD launch concerts at the Tranzac in November; Ty Segall at the Wrongbar in NXNE (June); Jeff Mangum at Trinity Saint Paul’s church in Toronto, Aug. 12; discovering this early-1980s scene from a Ron Mann art film featuring Jim Carroll and Jack Layton improbably together, both RIP, #occupymemory; as an epigraph to the year, these lines from “Hindsight,” by Richard Buckner: “Stricken as we stood/ Broken as we made/ Time for make-believe/ Stealing, when we should/ What we couldn’t give away.”

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“Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus:Writings, 1968-2010” by Greil Marcus

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.

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