December 2010

Robert Loss

nonfiction

Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010 by Greil Marcus

“I stopped trying to figure everything out a long time ago.”
– Bob Dylan as Jack Fate in Masked & Anonymous

Greil Marcus recalls in this new collection about Bob Dylan that during various 1965 performances of “Desolation Row,” “people would laugh out loud, and [Dylan] would grin.” Having moved away from the confines of the protest-folk scene, Dylan had opened his songs to the playful, the surreal, the romantic and a broader definition of the political. His music, Marcus writes, “wasn’t a burden his audience was expected to shoulder; it was an adventure its audience was free to join, and free to reject.”

What’s been written about Dylan’s music has rarely felt like an adventure. The need to valorize, the careerist desire to prove, the never-ending tour of self-congratulation and myopia -- Dylan books have seldom been fun, or weird. The trend has only worsened over the past two decades. Hilarious narratives like Larry “Ratso” Sloman’s On the Road with Bob Dylan live in the shadow of cumbersome academic studies like Christopher Ricks’s Dylan’s Visions of Sin or encyclopedic volumes of minutiae. Some critics seem to be waging a war after the treaty has been signed; Dylan’s music is important, they insist -- but hardly anyone reading their work would disagree. In trying to nail down what cannot be nailed down, they create dull biographical cause-and-effect verdicts soft to the core, literary comparisons and cultural time-stamps, and eventually trot out the tired claim that Dylan’s lyrics are not just poetic, but poetry. (Why should they be? Who is still defensive about the merits of rock lyrics?) The volumes pile up, sucking the life right out of Dylan’s eccentric, volatile, persuasive songs, and we rightfully ask whether or not we need another “Dylan book.”

Eccentric, volatile, persuasive: Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010 reads like the free adventure offered by its subject. Beginning with a tall tale and Marcus’s infamous review of Self-Portrait, and ending with two essays ostensibly concerning the election of Barack Obama, the book chronologically arranges forty years worth of reviews, essays, speeches and outbursts written by Marcus for Rolling Stone, Creem, Interview and a slew of other publications. Composed in the white heat of Dylan’s various incarnations, Marcus’s work is not an exercise in nostalgia written to establish critical high ground but instead a clutch of dispatches from a correspondent grown skeptical but still capable of being surprised -- who in fact wants to be surprised.

Marcus is considered one of rock criticism’s leading intellectuals thanks to his academic ties, the cultural historicism of books like Lipstick Traces and The Shape of Things to Come, and his manner of bouncing from one cultural reference to the next. (Anticipating this, one section of this book is titled “Hopscotch”; he’s way ahead of us.) His gifts suit Dylan’s work particularly well, evidenced by The Old, Weird America, a landmark examination of Dylan, the Band, the Basement Tapes and Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. Marcus is simply one of the few in his field who can match Dylan on a subject they both find fascinating: America.

More precisely, Marcus wields a perception of American folk music greatly informed by the chaotic, often contradictory and always shifting state of American democracy. The cohesive instability of multiple, competing viewpoints is what Marcus hears in Dylan’s music, and what he works for in his own writing. When I interviewed him early in 2010, Marcus said, “If building a richer house for the thing you’re writing about has any purpose, it’s to open the discussion. It’s to simply tell people, just as one message, that there’s more here than maybe you thought.” So it shouldn’t be surprising that Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus closes no arguments, tears down no houses.

Dylan’s conversation with the otherwise largely-forgotten body of American folk music continues to inspire the best in Marcus, and one of this book’s pleasures is watching that three-way conversation develop chronologically. Yes, those who felt Dylan was swamped by the cultural milieu of The Old, Weird America will be able to decry Marcus again, and they’ll continue to miss the point. As a young man, Dylan learned the folk music canon and its process: steal, revise, reveal. Writing about musicologist Harry Smith in “When First Unto This Country”, Marcus may as well be describing Dylan:

No pieties about folk music, about authenticity, about who the folk really are and who they are not, about whose work is respectful of the past and whose exploitive… [Smith] suggests to Americans that their culture is in fact theirs -- which means they can do whatever they like with it.

To get a better understanding of Dylan’s work, Marcus suggests, we ought to consider how seemingly arcane performances by Dock Boggs and the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers continue to inspire Dylan to do whatever he likes. (Marcus’s account of teaching Smith’s anthology to professors is funny and depressing; one suggests a singer “should be drowned”.)

That Marcus paints Dylan into the greater panorama of American culture may be what really invokes the ire of Dylan’s fans, who see him as a mythic individual capable of transcending history. Marcus is constantly working against this soapy lie, mainly by staying suspicious of the “germ in the idea of equality”: authenticity. He avoids biographical cause-and-effect, which will frustrate readers looking to know the true identity of, say, “Tough Mama,” and he disdains the idea of Dylan’s songs being purely “self-referential,” a mode in which “[t]he listener plays no part in the affair… looks on from afar, and feels privileged for doing so.” He scowls when Dylan’s songs commit this same crime, which is to a certain degree an explanation for albums like Empire Burlesque and Under the Red Sky. For Marcus, our obsession with biographical collusion fosters an unimaginative license to coast.

Dylan stopped coasting, or at least found his footing, in 1992; his reinvestment in the folk tradition on Good As I Been to You and World Gone Wrong was akin to sighting new land, as Marcus puts it. At this point in the book, having dutifully slogged through the 1980s, the author comes alive. Indeed, more than half of Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus concerns Dylan’s revival from the 90s to the present, an enormously useful quality since so much Dylan crit is still rehashing Blood on the Tracks. Here, too, the writing begins to loosen up; some essays read like flare-ups, others are deeply meditative, and one is composed of quotations (all attributed). Marcus includes snarky asides (mainly from his ongoing series Real Life Rock Top 10), touching eulogies, rants, travelogues and reportage. If I were to suggest how record reviews could be written, I’d point to Marcus’s unfortunately-titled but brilliant “Sometimes He Talks Crazy, Crazy Like a Song,” which somehow ended up in a major newspaper despite its wonderfully creative conceit: a character sketch of the man Dylan sings about in the review’s subject, Love and Theft.

Consistently the book’s most compelling works are long-form essays like “Heavy Breathing” and “A Moment of Panic,” both about The Band, or the glorious “A Trip to Hibbing High” which introduces us to B.J. Rolfzen, Dylan’s high school English teacher. (Consider it a boon to those straight-laced Dylan bio enthusiasts.) “The Myth of the Open Road” is quintessential Marcus, turning a pleasing-enough subject inside-out to reveal its dark underbelly of unanswered desires and mindless violence. And perhaps the finest fringe benefit of this collection is to bring together Marcus’s essays from a number of “little” magazines: Granta, Daedalus, New West, and the magnificent Threepenny Review, which published in 1995 one of the book’s best entries, “Free Speech and False Speech.” In an improvised lecture given at the thirtieth anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, Marcus practically prophesizes the first decade of this century:

I think we’re going to see a lot of people dressing up in other people’s clothes, so to speak, denouncing, criticizing, claiming to offer alternatives, but doing so in a way that really only takes away an individual sense of self, of confidence, of power, of imagination.

You can do whatever you like with Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus. After all, the book tells you in its title that the persona of Dylan within is necessarily subjective. And yet it’s hard to think of a critical book that could better pay homage to Dylan’s mercurial, persuasive, sometimes infuriating, and deeply rewarding art. Just as Dylan songs like “Masters of War” or even the newer “Cold Irons Bound” constantly find new forms, Marcus’s writing opens up new territories in landscapes we have taken for granted.

Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010 by Greil Marcus
Public Affairs
ISBN: 978-1586488314
496 Pages