Book Review: "Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus"

The outline for Greil Marcus’s approach to analyzing Bob Dylan in his latest book, the aptly titled Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus, can be found in two pieces.

The first is a review of the famously messy 1970 album Self Portrait, in which a young Marcus, apparently too stunned to form a proper argument, strings together fifty short observations over twenty pages. Some are fragments of conversations; some are takedowns of the album’s attitude and atmosphere (“I once said I’d buy an album of Dylan breathing heavily. I still would. But not an album of Dylan breathing softly.”); some are muted appreciations of individual songs (Marcus is fond of “All the Tired Horses,” “Living the Blues,” “Copper Kettle,” and precious little else); and some are lengthy quotations from other people. The point, obviously, is that Self Portrait is such an exquisite and inscrutable train wreck that every approach the listener makes toward it is always already doomed to failure; another must immediately be formulated, though one knows from the outset that it, too, will be discarded–and probably sooner rather than later.

It’s not surprising to see this method of analysis resurface in a piece written for the October 25, 2001, issue of Rolling Stone, in which a much older Marcus, apparently too stunned to form a proper argument, strings together fifteen quotations over four pages. The subject this time, of course, is the terrorist attacks of September 11, and Bob Dylan is involved only insofar as one quotation comes from his greatest late-period album, Love and Theft, providentially released on that terrible day:

High water rising, rising night and day
All the gold and silver being stolen away
Big Joe Turner looking east and west from the dark room of his mind
He made it to Kansas City, Twelfth Street and Vine
Nothing standing there

Dylan’s words on “High Water” are pretty close to perfect for the apocalyptic carnival that followed the collapse of the Towers.  The whole of Love and Theft is like that, really: The narrator of “Mississippi” walks calmly past a “sky full of fire / Pain pouring down.” That fire returns with a comic vengeance on the next track, wherein Dylan attends the wedding of a former lover and drunkenly announces that he will “break the roof in–set fire to the place as a parting gift.” Elsewhere, “Floater (Too Much to Ask)” drips with the sort of nonchalant cowboy justice that George W. Bush clearly believed himself to possess in spades:

If you ever try to interfere with me or cross my path again
You do so at the peril of your life
I’m not quite as cool or forgiving as I sound
I’ve seen enough heartache and strife

Not even the 9/11 “Truthers” claim that Dylan orchestrated the attacks to boost his record sales, of course. But I wouldn’t put it past him. I happened to be nineteen when Love and Theft was released, a sophomore in college trying to define himself in an environment in which he was not wholly sure he belonged. I owned several Dylan records already–at the very least I had Another Side of Bob Dylan and Highway 61 Revisited, and I suspect I had Bringing It All Back Home, too–and I was, let’s say, intrigued but not completely sold. The power of Dylan’s music had its locus in the past, and there are very few nineteen-year-old classicists.

Even so, I’d planned on driving that Tuesday the hour to the closest record store to get Love and Theft, and no terrorist attack could stop me. (I chalk this up less to any sort of bravery than to sheer boredom and fear–getting on the road felt better than sitting around talking about the uncertain future.) I had to go even farther than I expected to, to a Target (my sense of irony was not yet fully developed) in a northern Atlanta suburb. I listened to the record twice on the long drive north, and I was hooked. Dylan had become for me the sort of prophet he must have seemed to an earlier generation. But the easy platitudes of “The Times They Are A Changin'” didn’t apply anymore; Dylan had reinvented himself as a prophet of ambivalence and ambiguity–the only sort of prophet a thinking person can accept anymore–as typified by the bickering identical twins on “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum” or the winking lasciviousness of “Bye and Bye.” I’m fairly sure I had the album memorized by October.

I bring up this story because it demonstrates, I hope, the degree to which writing about Bob Dylan is akin to shooting at a moving target–and one that mocks you when you miss it. He belongs in the great line of American shape-shifters and self-creators, from Benjamin Franklin to Mark Twain to P.T. Barnum to Dylan’s early idol, Woody Guthrie. Because Dylan steadfastly refuses to stand still–because, furthermore, he quite clearly thinks of himself as a sort of cosmic trickster figure–because his public statements range from the only seemingly helpful to the cryptic and bewildering to the blatantly misleading–Marcus’s approach in this book is a helpful one. His approach is, of course, not an approach at all; these pieces were uncollected and unconnected until now, and they certainly don’t combine into a cohesive, let alone a monolithic, statement about their collective subject. (If that’s what you’re looking for, look elsewhere in Marcus’s catalogue–he is the author of two other books on Dylan, both of which deal with narrower topics in greater detail and neither of which, I’m sad to say, I have read.) One walks away from Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus feeling that one has a better grasp on that its subject but understanding that its subject is in some sense fundamentally not understandable.

Marcus has been generous in the inclusion of what looks like every article he’s ever written that has even a tangential relationship to Dylan. Thus, in addition to his polyvocal take on 9/11, we get reflections on the great folk-music collector Harry Smith, the semi-obscure folk-singer Richard Farina, and of course, The Band, to whom Marcus dedicates several long articles without mentioning Dylan at all. These sidetracks are interesting for several reasons: Besides breaking up the monotony of article after article on the same basic subject, they serve to position Dylan, making it clear–and this is something Dylan fans are sometimes tempted to forget–that Dylan existed alongside other artists, that what he did and does depended and depends on the work of others. (Marcus even makes me want to listen to The Band, a group I’ve never been able to stomach.)

Along the same lines, Marcus occasionally writes about the geography of the music he loves, as when he discovers that he lives in the same Berkeley neighborhood where Harry Smith quite literally moved underground. More to the point, I suppose is “A Trip to Hibbing High,” in which Marcus stands in awe of the palatial public school, interviews Dylan’s aged English teacher, and examines the stage where his high-school band played the talent show. These geographical journeys are more than mere tourism, for to understand an artistic force like Dylan, one must examine the ground from which he grew. Or, as an unnamed woman in the article puts it when someone wonders aloud how someone like Dylan came from a place like Hibbing,

You don’t know what you’re talking about. If you’d been to Hibbing, you’d know why Bob Dylan came from there. There’s poetry on the walls. Everywhere you look. There are bars where arguments between socialists and the IWW, between Communists and Trotskyists, arguments that started a hundred years ago, are still going on. It’s there–and it was there when Bob Dylan was there.

These remarks are a microcosm of the book as a whole, in that they seek simultaneously to demythologize the Legend of Bob Dylan and to remythologize it, showing the material circumstances that produced him and then endowing those circumstances with their own sort of mystic aura.

As for Marcus’s writing, the book’s chronological structure allows the reader to witness the development of his signature style–what little development there is. Aside from a few early pieces for Creem in which he latches on to that magazine’s famous mescaline verve, Marcus settles into his own voice remarkably early on. Appropriately for a college professor, it’s far more academic and rigorous than the writing of the only two other contenders for the greatest music critic of the rock era, Lester Bangs and Robert Christgau. And yet the writing was always for popular magazines and remains instantly accessible.

All in all, Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus might mimic a so-called “beach read” for those readers who, like me, don’t much like to have a good time. The writing is so pleasant that one is apt to forget how Marcus stretches and plays with Dylan’s mythos. The book is essential for fans of its subject, of course, but it’s worth looking into for those who are interested in how good rock writing is supposed to work–or those who are interested in the deconstruction and reconstruction of an American legend.

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