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PRINT January 2011

books

Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus

Bob Dylan in the studio, ca. 1962. Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968–2010, by Greil Marcus. New York: PublicAffairs. 512 pages. $30.

COLUMBIA RECORDS has just reissued Bob Dylan’s first eight albums, of 1962–68, in their original mono format. These are the canonical recordings—at their center is the great trilogy of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde—that changed popular music forever. With what seems to have been either terrible luck or an extraordinary critical opportunity, Greil Marcus began writing about Dylan right as this period ended.

We know what the response was when Dylan went electric in 1965 and stopped writing “finger-pointing” songs: The old folkies at Newport and the whingeing youths of Manchester were angrily disillusioned. But what happened in the early ’70s was, in a way, worse. Many of those who had kept faith were stunned; Dylan seemed to be losing it. The first bomb landed on June 8, 1970, and was called—hard to believe at the time—Self Portrait.

“What is this shit?” was Marcus’s soon-notorious lead to a four-page review—rattling through the ruins, as he saw it, of Dylan’s career—published in Rolling Stone in late July of that year. The recently published anthology of Marcus’s writings on the singer-songwriter opens with one earlier piece, from 1968, which finds him already wondering whether the Dylan he had heard in Berkeley in 1965 still existed, after “three years of memories, of waiting, scares of the end and false starts toward another chance.” But the book really gets going, and the prose style clicking, with the Self Portrait review.

In retrospect, it is almost unimaginable that Self Portrait was so commonly accepted as an artistic disaster: To be blunt, Marcus’s opening query now seems better asked of his review than of its subject. The album isn’t great, but Marcus is merciless in his disparagement of it and blinds himself to the implications when he writes, his savaging over, “There is no theme richer for an American artist than the spirit and the themes of the country and the country’s history.” For this album of mainly covers and remakes comprises a scrapbook of Dylan’s ecumenical interests in modern American song and a celebration of far-from-mainstream musical origins.

“So I began as a disbeliever,” Marcus says, and there is no better journalistic record than this anthology, of Dylan’s supposed decline in the years following 1970, nor of his rehabilitation in the ’90s as the preeminently American artist celebrated in The Old, Weird America (1997), Marcus’s great book on Dylan’s omnivorous traversal of the nation’s traditional music and his channeling of its “plain-talk mystery” (the author’s phrase for the hardscrabble fatalism that subtends the old mountain songs).

The album New Morning, however, released just four months after Self Portrait, garners Marcus’s praise (Dylan’s “best album in years,” “an American album”), and the critic is sympathetic if not overly enthusiastic about what follows—until we get to 1975. In that banner year, he rightly gushes over the twin monuments Blood on the Tracks and The Basement Tapes. But he clearly prefers the crudely imperfect latter album, for carrying forward the “ancient ballads of mountain music,” over the greater but self-consciously formalized one, and this judgment shapes his understanding of Dylan’s art. Indeed, Marcus praises Blood on the Tracks as “classic American songwriting, as plain and mysterious as twenties country music, thirties blues, or fifties rock ’n’ roll.” Fair enough, except that it is not so entirely plain. The great compositional change that arrived with this album was its calibrated conflation of time. “You’ve got yesterday, today, and tomorrow all in the same room,” Dylan once said about “Tangled Up in Blue.” “When you look at a painting, you can see any part of it, or see all of it together. I wanted that song to be like a painting.”

Marcus speaks in The Old, Weird America of how it was that early vernacular songs were composed from a long-accumulated pool of verbal fragments and disconnected verses that had no direct or logical relationship to one an other. Dylan’s access to that collagelike approach was enhanced by his vision of spatiotemporal simultaneity, which allowed a newly dense juxtaposition of imagery at dissonant intensity. One by-product was what Marcus calls “that sick sound, that sound of pain” in Dylan’s voice, which bothered the critic mightily in the second part of the so-called decline, the decade beginning in 1978 with Street Legal and ending in 1989 with Oh Mercy. Of this period, Marcus can be disdainful (e.g., “Listening to [1985’s Empire Burlesque] quickly dissolves into a search for signs of life”), while waiting for the mountain music to come back. But Dylan had, and still has, other kinds of songs to write. “Music is more like water than a rhinoceros,” Elvis Costello once observed. “It doesn’t charge madly down one path. It runs away in every direction.”

Marcus’s response to Dylan’s songs is, the critic acknowledges, a response to the artist within his voice within his music; and when Marcus likes a song he can persuade us to hear it anew. ‘Sign on the Window,’” he surprises us by saying in 1970, is “perhaps the best recording Dylan has ever made.” But he means the best performance of a song, and he tells us why this particular performance makes it so especially beautiful. On occasion, though, his reactions are disconcerting. “The Times They Are A-Changin’” seemed “even more lifeless and impersonal in 1974 than in 1964,” he wrote of a live rendition; and it took him another twenty years to change his mind about the song, finally persuaded by the MTV Unplugged version in 1994, generally excoriated when it appeared. But Marcus nailed the way in which Dylan reimagined the song here by radically slowing it down, as if asking, “Are you listening, are you hearing, who are you, why are you here?” while quietly singing, “If your time to you is worth savin’.”

If Marcus is at his most perceptive in such carefully observed moments, he is certainly at his funniest when he passes on gossip—whether it’s about Elvis Costello being suspected of tampering with the original cover art of the born-again album Saved (1980), so that Jesus is given the finger, or Elton John’s druggy fantasy of coming into Dylan’s bedroom to try on his clothes. And Marcus is at his most searching, and sometimes startling, in texts long enough to let his agile prose take his curious, deeply opinionated mind for a walk. Among these, which include previously unpublished or obscurely published pieces, are “The Myth of the Open Road” and “All This Useless Beauty”—very good, also, on Bruce Springsteen and Costello, respectively—and “A Trip to Hibbing High,” Dylan’s old school. But some longer texts go awry: The one on Harry Smith fortifies a saintly portal for Dylan onto the old music as if there were no other; the collage on the events of September 11, 2001, seems affected; and what possessed Marcus to get near to The Superhuman Crew, the Getty Museum book in which James Ensor’s Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889 (of 1888) is “orchestrated” by the words to “Desolation Row” (1965)?

Bob Dylan playing with the Band at a Woody Guthrie tribute concert, Carnegie Hall, New York, January 20, 1968. From left: Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Bob Dylan, and Robbie Robertson. Photo: Elliot Landy/Getty Images.

Marcus is unconcerned with the meaning of Dylan’s songs, he says, thinking specifically of their contemporaneous biographical, cultural, or societal contexts. So those interested in such things must go elsewhere: For the more recent American context, we now have Sean Wilentz’s engrossing Bob Dylan in America (2010). There, discussion of subjects including the Popular Front and Aaron Copland, and the Beat generation, as influential on Dylan as Marcus’s old “rough and rowdy men,” places him more securely in our recent cultural history.

In an essay first published in these pages in April 1986, Marcus invoked Timothy White’s famously heretical statement, made two years earlier, that all of Dylan’s music was “ultimately less significant than Gene Vincent’s ‘Be-Bop-a-Lula.” That song existed “on its own terms. . . . It is an emotion preserved in song, unconditional, wholly without boundaries,” whereas Dylan’s songs were “of the ‘time-and-place’ stripe,” contextually bounded. Marcus obviously does not want them circumscribed in this way by the context of their moments of creation, because a song so constrained would be “less written about a time and place than by them.” This is why, he says, he doesn’t like “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1963). “The song itself was blowing in the wind. Dylan picked it out; it was received so readily because, in a way, people had already heard it.”

This is cleverly put, despite the fact that the song is the least tied to a “fixed, time-and-place meaning” of all of Dylan’s so-called protest numbers. In fact, White’s dichotomy of songs tied or not tied to a time and place is a false one; all art is both. And it was not the song but the sentiment that was hanging in the wind, “just like a restless piece of paper,” the artist said, that’s “got to come down some time . . . and then it flies away again”—as we learn from the incomparable Dylan’s Visions of Sin (2003) by Christopher Ricks. The sentiment came down to earth in the song, just as other creatures void of form may be thought to come momentarily to rest, in the shape of other songs, for the duration of their performance.

I, too, very much like the ancient-sounding songs; perhaps not as fervently as Marcus (the ballads of modern manners are as great), but I am also pleased that most of Dylan’s recordings since the early ’90s have been in the mode of a new traditional music. Until he threw yet another bomb at us just over a year ago: the album Christmas in the Heart, accompanied by the video of “Must Be Santa,” a brilliantly hilarious combination of rock-polka rave-up, Busby Berkeley rip-off, and anti-ironic showdown. This was yet another test—as his greatest hit has become; as all his best songs have become—of our willingness to separate sentiment from sentimentality and to listen for simple, indispensable aspirations, adrift in the ether. I, for one, am waiting to read Marcus on whatever it is that Dylan lobs at us next.

John Elderfield is Chief Curator Emeritus of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.