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PRINT Summer 1991

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Greil Marcus' Real Life Rock

Greil Marcus is a contributing editor of Artforum.

Bob Dylan’s the bootleg series, volumes 1–3 [rare & unreleased] 1961–1991 (Columbia) contains a shadow version of his entire career, embedded within 58 performances. They range from a tune taped in a Minnesota hotel room in 1961 to an outtake from the 1989 album Oh Mercy; along the way, three CDs collect concert recordings, alternate takes, rehearsals, and publishing demos, programmed roughly year by year. A lot of it is dross, a history of unfinished ideas or untranscended clichés, a book of footnotes. Other parts work as a series of interruptions—of the whole, of whatever you happen to be doing—moments that leap out of the chronology and stop it cold, turn it back on itself. Some seem to need no context, and to make none; some seem to fall together and make a story.

Beginning with the fourth track:

  1. “No More Auction Block,” from a show at the Gaslight Cafe in Greenwhich Village, late 1962

    The song was composed in antebellum times by escaped slaves who had reached the end of the Underground Railroad, in Nova Scotia. As “Many Thousands Gone,” it was probably first taken down from black Union soldiers in the middle of the Civil War, in 1862, precisely a century before Bob Dylan mixed it into an otherwise undistinguished set comprising mostly New York folk-scene commonplaces: “Barbara Allen,” “Motherless Children,” “The Cuckoo,” and so on.

    The number opens here with a few hurried but isolated guitar notes, which instantly promise a weight no other song sung this night will achieve. Throughout, the guitar sound suppresses melody (though the melody Dylan sings is the one he took for “Blowin’ in The Wind,” a piece as ersatz and clumsy as this is real and shaped); instead it produces a strange hum, maybe the sound history makes when for a few minutes it dissolves. Not the acting a singer might do, or impersonation, but a transforming empathy breaks down all distance, not of persona, or race, but of time. When Dylan sings, “No more/Auction block/For me”—and then, much more slowly, “No more/No more”—there’s no reference to any symbol. The auction block is a thing, you can touch it, people are standing on it: “Many thousands gone.” The hesitations in the singing are so eloquent, so suggestive, that they generate images far beyond those of the “driver’s lash” or “pint of salt” in the lyric. I thought of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, black members of the 1968 U.S. Olympic team, standing on the victory blocks in Mexico City after taking gold and bronze medals in the 200-meter dash, each with bowed head and a raised fist in a black glove. A small protest against racism, a silent no to the assassination of Martin Luther King, and it caused a firestorm: the men were all but arrested, then sent back. The picture of the two of them that was flashed around the world seemed to terrify the nation; listening now to a 21-year-old Jewish folkie as he sang “No More Auction Block” six years before, you can feel the reason why. In the symbolic matrix their gestures made, Smith and Carlos suddenly knew, and everyone else just as suddenly understood, what they were standing on.

    Skipping 12 tracks:

  2. “Who Killed Davey Moore?,” from a concert at Carnegie Hall, 26 October 1963

    Fashionable bleeding-heart pieties about a boxer who died after a fight with Sugar Ramos—in 1971 Dylan himself would be present for the first Ali-Frazier match—but also songwriting as intricate and satisfying as Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield’s “Calendar Girl.” With referee, fans, manager, gambler, sportswriter, and opponent each stepping forward in ritual denial, the lyric is almost all dialogue; the filler between rhymes (“‘It’s hard to say, it’s hard to tell’”) can seem like genius. You can sense a new energy here; the thrill of getting it right.

    Skipping one track:

  3. “Moonshiner,” outtake from The Times They Are A-Changin’, 12 August 1963

    “I hit all those notes,” Dylan said in 1965, in reply to an interviewer’s mention of Caruso, “and I can hold my breath three times as long if I want to.” This ancient Appalachian ballad—five minutes of suspension, single notes from the singer’s throat and harmonica held in the air as if to come down would be to bring death with them—must have been what he meant.

    Skipping one track:

  4. “The Times They Are A- Changin’,” piano demo, 1963

    Dylan presses hard, right through the song’s instant clichés. Times are changing; events are physically present; the force of history is driving this performance, and you might feel like getting out of the way.

    Skipping one track:

  5. “Seven Curses,” outtake from The Times They Are A-Changin’, 6 August 1963

    A horse thief is caught, his daughter tries to buy his life, the judge demands a night with her instead, she pays, her father hangs anyway—seemingly set in feudal Britain (that’s where the melody comes from), this is a simpler, more elemental version of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” perhaps Dylan’s greatest protest song, but with the position of the narrator impossible to place. The resentments and hopes in the preceding tunes of oppression and rebellion, “No More Auction Block,” “Who Killed Davey Moore?,” “Moonshiner,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” or others someone else might choose from the bootleg series, all are present here, but with an ending: there is no such thing as change. That old melody turns out not to be the skeleton of the song, but its flesh; it carries its own, unspoken words, which are “there is nothing new under the sun.”

    Skipping six tracks:

  6. “Sitting on a Barbed Wire Fence,” outtake from Highway 61 Revisited, 15 June 1965

    Chicago blues with a Howlin’ Wolf laugh. All rhythmic hipness, especially the first time Dylan says “All right,” investing the words with more meaning—more stealth, more motionless Dean-Brando menace—than any of the number’s real lyrics.

    Skipping one track:

  7. “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” Highway 61 Revisited alternate, 15 June 1965

    As if he’d waited one year too many to shake it up and put the Beatles in their place, a headlong rush. And after a minute or so, a heedless extremism, as with the last minute of the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin”—which, when it was released in 1967, sounded too much like Bob Dylan was singing it.

    Skipping one track:

  8. “She’s Your Lover Now,” outtake from Blonde on Blonde, 21 January 1966

    An unforgiving, barely coherent rant, but less about the unnamed she than the rumble that repeatedly builds up to an explosive convergence of guitar, piano, bass, drums, organ, lyric, and vocal—a convergence that never arrives in the same place twice. As for the piano, liner notes credit both Paul Griffin (who played on “Like a Rolling Stone” and Don McLean’s “American Pie”) and Richard Manuel (of the Hawks, Dylan’s touring group in 1965 and ’66, later of the Band), but it must be Dylan. No other pianist could follow his singing; no singer could follow this piano without playing it.

    Skipping 21 tracks:

  9. “Blind Willie McTell,” outtake from Infidels, 5 May 1983

    Between “No More Auction Block” and “She’s Your lover Now” there are barely 3 years; between “She’s Your Lover Now” and this song, more than 17. Seventeen years of great work, bad work, endless comebacks, divorce, musical confusion, a terrible search for a subject producing hopeless songs about Legionnaires’ disease and Catfish Hunter, a retreat into simple careerism, and, most shockingly, conversion to a particularly self-interested, middle-class, Southern California suburban version of fundamentalist Christianity, and then reemergence as a Full Gospel preacher with God on his side. “You came in like the wind,” he sang to Jesus in 1981, on “You Changed My Life,” a bootleg series number: “Like Errol Flynn.” And went out like him too, maybe; with three explicitly born-again albums behind him and sales plummeting, Dylan seemed to come back to the world with Infidels, and critics climbed on for another comeback, a return to form: “License to Kill,” “Neighborhood Bully,” and “Union Sundown” sounded like . . . protest songs!

    Perhaps they were, but “Blind Willie McTell”—left off the album, one can imagine, because it would have upended it—is much more. It turns all the old, sainted rebels and victims parading across Infidels as across Dylan’s whole songbook to dust, then blows them away. Led by Dylan on piano, with Mark Knopfler in his steps on guitar, this piece claims the story: the singer finds not evil in the world but that the world is evil. The whole world is an auction block; all are bidders, all are for sale: “Smell that sweet magnolia bloomin’/See the ghost of slavery still.”

    The song is detailed, the language is secular, the mood is final. It’s the last day before the Last Days, except for one thing, one weird, indelible non sequitur closing every verse, every scene of corruption and failure, like a gong: “Nobody can sing the blues/like Blind Willie McTell.” So the prophet answers his own prophecy with a mystery not even he can explain; the singer sums up and transcends his entire career; and the listener, still in the world, turns off the stereo, walks out of the house, and goes looking for an answer.

  10. Blind Willie McTell: Last Session (Prestige Bluesville)

    McTell was born in Georgia in 1901; he died there in 1959. He first recorded in 1927, and ended his life frequenting a lot behind the Blue Lantern Club in Atlanta, where couples parked to drink and make love; McTell would walk from car to car, trying to find someone to pay him for a tune. In 1956 a record store owner convinced him to sit down before a tape recorder, and he talked and sang his life and times.