PRINT April 1986


blowing in the wind or facing into it, writing a song or crafting a career—for example, Bob Dylan.

IN 1984, IN HIS BOOK book Rock Stars, Timothy White made the heretical statement that the music of Bob Dylan was ultimately less significant than Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-a-Lula.” Dylan’s songs were “of the ’time-and-place’ stripe,” White said, while “Be-Bop-a-Lula” existed on its “own terms. . . . It is an emotion preserved in song, unconditional, wholly without boundaries!’ Dylan’s songs were themselves boundaries, and together they simply made a map; they told a certain generation, a certain pop audience, where it was. Once that audience vanished, the songs would go with it. In 1969, Nik Cohn had said much the same thing in Rock from the Beginning, the first important book on the music: ”In my own life, the Monotones have meant more in one line of ’Book of Love’ than Dylan did in the whole of Blonde on Blonde."

It’s time to take up this argument, if only because a quarter century after Dylan began his professional career in the Greenwich Village folk milieu, and 21 years after he seized the center of rock ’n’ roll with “Like a Rolling Stone,” the market is flooded with the flat insistence that his songs need not exist on their own terms: that the map supersedes the territory it supposedly describes. Wilfrid Mellers’ critical study A Darker Shade of Pale: A Backdrop to Bob Dylan (Oxford), Robert Shelton’s big biography No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan (Beech Tree), Dylan’s own Lyrics, 1962–1985 (Knopf), and the five-lp retrospective Biograph (Columbia)—each in its way presents Dylan’s music as self-justifying, as self-referential, each song significant only for its position on the map, which now describes no common territory, but one man’s career. The listener plays no part in the affair; one looks on from afar, and feels privileged for being allowed to do so.

The result is that one is led to confront Dylan’s work—to think about it, to listen to it, to feel it—either in terms of his mythic status (Mellers), his heroic status (Shelton), or his cultural status (Lyrics, Biograph). That is, one is led away from confronting his work. Mellers constructs Dylan’s esthetic career as a progression from an artist’s appropriation of various folk strains to his transformation into the ultimate American, the ultimate New Man: White-Negro European-Amerindian Jewish-Christian Male-Female. Within such a structure, every song functions; none takes place. With Shelton, one follows the chronological odyssey of a man seeking always to “do it his own way”; all that matters is whatever “his way” is, and so songs are simply incidents in an exemplary process of self-realization. On Biograph, recordings from 1962 through 1981 are jumbled out of sequence to say that Dylan’s music was whatever “Dylan” was doing whenever he did it. As a flat statement this flattens the music, “Just Like a Woman” pumping up its next-track neighbor, “On a Night Like This,” “On a Night Like This” deflating “Just Like a Woman” In all three cases Dylan’s performances, as moments in which he committed an act, in which something was actually happening, are completely trivialized as music, no matter how great the claims being made for them. Each performance exists only in terms of the larger story being told, which is no longer a large story at all. It becomes impossible to understand the story that Dylan’s career really tells: to understand that, at certain points (say, Highway 61 Revisited in 1965, or The Basement Tapes in 1967), Dylan actually did something, and that at other points (say, “Blowin’ in the Wind” in 1962, or the 1974 comeback tour), he did not.

“Kinda ersatz,” said a friend as we listened to “Blowin’ in the Wind” for the first time. He meant contrived, secondhand—received. This great anthem of the civil rights movement, no matter how profound its effect in the world (it brought people together, made sense of their hopes and fears, inspired Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”), was from its first moment a proof of White’s time-and-place thesis: a song written less about a time and place than by them, an inevitable translation of events into a poeticized reflection. The song itself was blowing in the wind. Dylan simply picked it out. With “This Wheel’s on Fire,” from The Basement Tapes, something altogether different was going on—in terms of a person creating something that would not have been had that person acted differently, something was going on. Real music is a “universal language” because it speaks in many tongues: no matter how effectively the apocalyptic images and tones of “This Wheel’s on Fire” translated the apocalyptic moods of 1967, the song could not be held to any fixed, time-and-place meaning. It created its own time and place: one would have heard it in 1967, as one hears it today, as an event, not as a comment on an event, or an incident in a career, or an element in a mythos. Such a way of looking at things is not just absent but expelled from Biograph or Mellers’ and Shelton’s books. Within the settings they establish, there is no way to think about why “This Wheel’s on Fire” is real and “Blow-in’ in the Wind” is false (or, if you prefer, vice versa), or why “A Change is Gonna Come” is infinitely richer than "Blowin’ in the Wind?’ One performance validates another, invalidating any other sort of perception while promoting the career itself as the source of all meaning.

To promote the career of an individual as the source of the meaning of an individual’s work is to promote pure solipsism. It is to make it impossible to think about how meaning is made—to experience meaning being made, or to experience the way a given performance continues to make meaning far beyond its presumptive time and place. Here, there is no way to imagine that for certain, hard-to-discern reasons, Dylan actually did something between 1963 and 1968, and that what he did then created a standard against which everything he has putatively done since can be measured. There is no way to talk about the possibility that Dylan’s career describes not esthetic progress, but the invalidation of the idea of this kind of progress—that it is a story of both triumph and tragedy, that the fact that the 1964 “It Ain’t Me, Babe” can be placed on an album next to the 1974 “You Angel You” is a denial of everyone’s best hopes. But if one ignores the perspective of Biograph, and listens for oneself, a real event becomes possible.

“You Angel You” is a bouncy piece of junk; an affirmation of nothing. “It Ain’t Me, Babe” was always a fine song, but on Biograph—remastered, the voice brought forward, allowed to change its shape with every word—it is overwhelming, and it destroys the smeared setting that has been made for it.

Here, Dylan moves from certainty to an ambiguity that frightens him back toward a certainty the falsity of which he has just revealed. His whole career comes into focus—as a continuing attempt to tell the truth, supported by economics, mythos, and the lack of anything better to do. His career is an attempt to tell the truth one can discover only in the act of telling what one thinks one already knows, which the act itself exposes as ignorance.

It is foolish to expect that anyone could accomplish such an act by the mere fact of being who one is—at any time, in any place. It makes sense that the confluence of who one is with certain times and places would produce such moments, and that other confluences would not. The question of how the performance of a song makes meaning is raised; so is the question of how a song fakes it.

Greil Marcus contributes regularly to Music Magazine (Tokyo). His column on music appears monthly in Artforum.