Book Reviews - Winter 2011

Tangled Up in Dylan

The enduring appeal of a legendary American songwriter

By Louis P. Masur | December 1, 2010
Bob Dylan and Joan Baez perform at March on Washington (National Archives)
Bob Dylan and Joan Baez perform at March on Washington (National Archives)


Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968–2010, by Greil Marcus, Public Affairs, 481 pp., $29.95

Bob Dylan in America, by Sean Wilentz, Doubleday, 390 pp., $28.95

On May 24, 2011, Bob Dylan turns 70. He is still performing. Indeed, his Never Ending Tour has been on the road since 1988. Before he takes the stage, the audience hears the following introduction: “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the poet laureate of rock ’n’ roll. The voice of the promise of the ’60s counterculture. The guy who forced folk into bed with rock, who donned makeup in the ’70s and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse, who emerged to find Jay-sus, who was written off as a has-been by the end of the ’80s, and who suddenly shifted gears, releasing some of the strongest music of his career beginning in the late ’90s. Ladies and Gentlemen, Bob Dylan!”

No cultural critic has contemplated the meaning of Dylan’s music and career more thoroughly than Greil Marcus, who was 18 years old in 1963 when he first heard the singer perform. Marcus recalls being transfixed. Who was this scruffy, diffident youngster standing alone with guitar and harmonica, yet performing songs that told the country’s story in a new way, that promised even to change the nation’s history?

In the next several years, Dylan was hailed as the voice of a generation and denounced as a Judas. After a motor­cycle accident in 1966, he withdrew from touring until 1974. He also released three albums, Bringing It All Back Home (1965), Highway 61 Revisited (1965), and Blonde on Blonde (1966) that transcend nearly anything else ever created by a rock musician. Dylan himself looks back with wonder on his creative outburst during those years. “You’ve got to have power and dominion over the spirits,” he wrote in 2004.

What makes this collection of writings so welcome is that Marcus’s career as a critic began just after those profound and turbulent times; over half the book covers Dylan’s career since 1990. This is not to say that Marcus has not analyzed Dylan’s work from the mid-1960s. Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads (2005) is the most acute study of what many consider the most important song in rock ’n’ roll history. And The Old, Weird America (1997) probes the depths and dimensions of the basement tapes, recordings of dozens of songs performed with members of the Hawks, soon to be known as The Band. Dylan himself provided a blurb: “This book is terminal. Goes deeply into the subconscious and plows through that period of time like a rake.”

By then Dylan must has forgiven Marcus for the arresting opening line of his review of Self-Portrait that appeared in Rolling Stone in 1970 and is the first piece of criticism included here: “What is this shit?” Marcus’s review helped a generation understand what was happening. Everyone would always be searching for Dylan the myth. The weight of expectations for him to repeat what he had accomplished in those three years in the mid-’60s, which had itself marked a departure from his galvanizing work as a folk artist in 1963 and 1964, drove him in different directions. This new album, Marcus argued, was product, not art. But Dylan could, and would, do what he wanted. He knew he could never repeat “Like a Rolling Stone” (“It’s like a ghost is writing a song like that. It gives you the song and then it goes away,” he said in 2004) or any of a score of other tunes. Nor did he want to. But through his songwriting, Dylan would continue to probe the meaning of the American experience.

In that early review, Marcus offered an insight that reveals why he became the preeminent rock critic of his generation: “What matters most is Bob’s singing. He’s been the most inventive singer of the last 10 years, creating his language of stress, fitting five words into a line of 10 and 10 into a line of five, shoving the words around and opening up spaces for noise and silence that through assault or seduction or the gift of good timing made room for expression and emotion.”

However much he was hailed as a poet, he was a songwriter, and as glorious as the lyrics were, they only took on meaning as music. Documentarian D. A. Pennebaker, who filmed Dylan’s tours of England in 1965 and 1966, says that Dylan once claimed, “all rhymes are the same word.” In a way, the comment confirms Marcus’s insight: the songs succeed because of sound and emphasis, not because he rhymes fine, dime, and prime in “Like a Rolling Stone.”

Reading some 40 years of Marcus’s criticism on Bob Dylan allows us to appreciate more fully than we have before the long arc of the musician’s career. It also displays the development of the critic’s vision of America. Perhaps because he hails from California, Marcus has always been attuned to the meaning of the mythology of the West. Listening to Dylan’s “Sign on the Window,” Marcus asks “how far west do you have to go to be free?” And the western themes of escape and redemption, of the search, are ultimately American themes. Marcus was one of the few critics at the time to recognize the dark genius of Blood on the Tracks (1975), calling it “classic American songwriting,” comparing it to nothing less than Melville’s Moby-Dick. Even Dylan’s religious turn “is a preeminently American way of continuing one’s quest.” In an essay published in 1979, Marcus cogently notes that Dylan had dodged being a generational symbol. He was now simply an American artist.

Marcus’s affection for the cultural themes never blinds him to the quality of the music. He was glad that, by 1980, Dylan declined to be a prisoner of his own history and refused to perform old favorites in concert. But when the performance was lifeless and the new songs vapid, Marcus did not hesitate to say so. In response to Empire Burlesque (1985), Marcus asked, “Do you want to listen to this stuff?” If the music  did not provoke you or demand something from you or inspire you, the answer was no.

But Dylan kept creating, and Marcus kept listening. Dylan didn’t need to prove anything, but we needed him to make music that mattered to us again. Or, as Marcus inimitably puts it, to disprove F. Scott Fitzgerald’s assertion that there are no second acts in American lives. That moment came in 1997 with Time Out of Mind and continued with Love and Theft in 2001 and Modern Times in 2006. Those albums, drawing from all the components of American vernacular music, presented a creative artist who had managed once again to gain some power over the spirits.

Greil Marcus’s collected writings on Dylan read nearly as a seamless book; by comparison, Sean Wilentz’s Bob Dylan in America reads less like a single volume than a collection of disparate essays that seek to capture Dylan at distinct moments in different decades. Like Marcus, with whom Wilentz collaborated on a collection of essays about the American ballad, Wilentz’s awakening to Dylan occurred when, at age 13, he attended the concert at New York’s Philharmonic Hall on October 31, 1964. Decades later, he was given the opportunity to write the liner notes for Dylan’s Bootleg Series when that concert was released on CD.

Rereading that essay in this volume, it is easy to see why Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton University, was nominated for a Grammy (which he did not win, he painfully confesses). “We in the audience were asking him to be a leader and more,” observes Wilentz, “but Dylan was slipping the yoke.” Dylan was affable during that show, at one point forgetting the lyrics to a song and letting the audience get him started, responding knowingly to someone who chuckles at the title “It’s Alright Ma,” that “Yes, it’s a very funny song,” and, most significant of all given what was to follow, joking that on this Halloween night he was masquerading, wearing his Bob Dylan mask.

Wilentz then flashes forward two years in time, but light years in experience, to examine Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde recording sessions. Dylan aficionados will buy the book for this chapter alone, which takes us inside the studios in New York and Nashville. That album, Dylan said years later, captured the sound, “that thin, that wild mercury sound,” that he sought. Like Marcus, Wilentz emphasizes the singer’s voice, “by turns sibilant, sibylline, injured, cocky, sardonic, and wry.”

If the other chapters in Wilentz’s book are less successful (an essay on Aaron Copland’s influence on Dylan is not convincing; essays on songs such as “Blind Willie McTell,” and “Delia,” offer Wilentz an opportunity to display his historian’s chops, but they do not make a case for the relevance of Dylan in America in the 1980s and early 1990s), it is because, having entered the musical world, Dylan and his band created in the mid-’60s, it is difficult to be riveted by much else. The fix is too strong. Marcus’s criticism, coming as each new recording appeared, avoids this dilemma because he is able to measure and evaluate albums and events in real time.

Somehow, Dylan endured, and long ago escaped the myth that enveloped him. He has simply continued to do his job, which is not to be a cultural icon, or a source of redemption, or a hope for the future, but to be a songwriter. “A song is like a dream, and you try to make it come true,” Dylan wrote in Chronicles, his autobiography. In 1978, he told Rolling Stone, “Art is the perpetual motion of illusion. The highest purpose of art is to inspire. What else can you do? What else can you do for anyone but inspire them?” “This is all I want to do—it’s all I can do,” he confessed in 1986, “I mean, you don’t have to be a 19- or 20-year-old to play this stuff. That’s the vanity of that youth-culture ideal. . . . If I’m here at 80, I’ll be doing the same thing.”

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