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Tangled Up in Bob | The Nation

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Tangled Up in Bob

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In 1964 Bob Dylan issued an invitation to his literary exegetes that roared out a warning. "Come writers and critics who prophesize with your pen," Dylan famously urged in "The Times They Are A-Changin'." He later added a clause to "mothers and fathers throughout the land" that the writers and critics might have heeded: "Don't criticize what you can't understand." Go ahead and write about me, sang Dylan, but do so at your peril. The writers and critics prophesizing with their pens have accepted his invitation, but did they take his advice? Dylan has given an excuse for many critics to sound off, with an influential rock critic's bravado, a distinguished academic's throat-clearing and an impassioned politico's plea. Yet while the critical corpus continues to pile up around Dylan, each of those writers and critics prophesized before they had a chance to read the first installment of Dylan's own memoir, Chronicles, Vol. 1, a book as incomplete, inconclusive and untrustworthy as it is shockingly lucid and brilliantly counterintuitive. In the near future Dylan will be the subject of a Martin Scorsese documentary, an authorized Todd Haynes biopic in which he will be played by seven actors (including an as-yet-to-be-cast African-American woman, possibly Oprah or Beyoncé), and a Twyla Tharp dance spectacle (his idea--really). And he will continue touring the world, sublimely wheezing through his back pages while apparently writing and recording a new batch of songs. He's still busy being born, and so, apparently, is the industry of Dylan books, his own the most salient among them. The others, by those writers and critics, range from Greil Marcus's 283-page rumination on the cultural impact of the classic rock warhorse "Like a Rolling Stone" to Christopher Ricks's 500-plus-page Empsonian reading of Dylan among the poets, psalms and footnotes to Mike Marqusee's investigation of Dylan and those pesky old 1960s that Dylan keeps trying to shake off his boots. They're trying to get closer, but are they still a million miles away from him?

About the Author

David Yaffe
David Yaffe is the author, most recently, of Bob Dylan: Like A Complete Unknown (Yale). 

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I will refrain from making a top-ten list of the best recent Dylan books, but Greil Marcus wouldn't. Marcus loves to make lists. As a role model for the record-collecting nerd hero of Nick Hornby's High Fidelity and former writer of the Salon column "Real Life Rock Top 10," Marcus is a compulsive ranker, the most legendary one in the rock press. Open up the Rolling Stone record guide, or old issues of the magazine, and see Marcus's judgment drive critical consensus with stars and a soundbite. "He's never sounded so utterly fake," he pronounced of 1978's Street Legal, pushing Dylan further into despair and Christianity. And in the most legendary lead in the history of rock criticism, when he was the record review editor of Rolling Stone, a magazine that, after all, partly took its name from a certain Dylan song, he asked of 1970's Self Portrait, "What is this shit?" The question got him fired.

The magazine recently did some of its own characteristic listmaking of "The Five Hundred Greatest Songs of All Time" and--surprise!--"Like a Rolling Stone" was, like, The Greatest Song of All Time. ("All time," incidentally, began with Elvis and has lasted about fifty years.) Marcus is such an adept listmaker that, at a recent presentation on Dylan's "Masters of War," he said that the song wouldn't even make his top-100 list of Dylan compositions, which he would surely happily provide. And so it is in this hierarchical spirit that, pegged to the fortieth anniversary of the song's release, Marcus has written Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads, an extended contemplation of that Greatest Song. In or around 1965, human nature changed, and the book explores the considerable seismic shifts American culture took around, during and within "Like a Rolling Stone," from the confines of Columbia Record's Studio A to the book depository at Dealey Plaza, where JFK was assassinated, to the trenches of My Lai and beyond. Marcus, like Dylan himself, had the pressure of living up to his past glories, and the achievement of his book about Dylan's Basement Tapes, which has gone through three different titles and is currently called The Old, Weird America, is considerable. For if you're a "real" Dylan fan, the "real" Basement Tapes--1967 sessions from Dylan's Woodstock home eventually parceled out in 1975---are not the officially released tracks on Columbia but a series of bootlegs covering a range of Americana. It's an obscurity uncovering more obscurities, and Marcus's book--whatever it may be called--sheds light on the arcana. He spends seven pages contemplating Dylan's bootleg-only "I'm Not There." Magisterial, hypnotic and unfinished, the song is worth every bit of lavish attention that Marcus gives it, with a passion as eloquent as it is infectious.

Unlike "I'm Not There," "Like a Rolling Stone" is a song that anyone with a modicum of exposure to classic rock radio--i.e., most people in the developed world--would know. There are no old-timey folk legends to unveil or unreleased gems to polish. In 1965 record executives wondered if a pop single could be sustained for six minutes. In 2005, no one doubts that the same single might be worth 200 pages of analysis. Even so, this short book feels padded. When Marcus cribs from his tattered old notes on Jonathan Edwards or Emerson from his grad-student days at Berkeley, or unpacks the connections between Charley Patton's 1929 "High Water Everywhere" and Dylan's 2001 "High Water"--and he knows those scratchy old records groove by groove--he's instructive. When he opines with oracular authority on subjects just about anyone has an opinion about, he's simply exasperating. Out of nowhere, he pronounces that the Beatles' Rubber Soul is "the best album they would ever make." (Why? Marcus never explains.) The Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed and Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited, which leads off with the The Greatest Song of All Time, share the title of "the best rock 'n' roll album ever made." Dylan's 1966 Manchester concert with the Band (then known as the Hawks), released as Live 1966, was "likely the greatest rock 'n' roll show ever played." Such hyperbolic assessments are the stuff of consumer guides, of course, but do they have a place in serious cultural criticism? Is Hamlet the Greatest Play Ever Written? List, oh list.

Marcus's writing has always been more about making connections (from the inspired to the improbable) than drawing conclusions. As the New York Observer memorably quipped, "everything reminds him of everything." In a section on cover versions of "Like a Rolling Stone," Marcus quotes the singer from a band called the Mystery Tramps, who introduces the song by explaining, "This is a story about a girl who goes from riches to rags, and it's a drag, so check it ouuuuuut." "It's the most reductive story in the song," says Marcus. Maybe so, but his book would have benefited from being more reductive, instead of darting hither and thither from reference to reference. It might even have gotten him to the Old, Weird America he has so successfully plumbed elsewhere.

"Like a Rolling Stone" explodes with fury, but it's never been clear exactly who its target is. The speculations have ranged from Joan Baez in particular to his audience in general, with more than a shmear of misogyny in the former case, misanthropy in the latter. Miss Lonely, who has--according to that "reductive" reading--gone from riches to rags, is asked in a tone of bitter contempt how it feels to be like a rolling stone. It was Muddy Waters who proudly intoned, "I'm a rolling stone," and Hank Williams wasn't ashamed of identifying himself that way either. (In D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back, filmed shortly before the song was written, Dylan is caught backstage playing Williams's "Lost Highway" with its "I'm a rolling stone" lyric.) Miss Lonely graduated from "the finest school all right," but no one ever taught her how to "live out on the street." Like many a white college student in 1965, she might have fetishized an old bluesman like Waters, but she probably would not have wanted to live like him.

The anger of the song, in other words, is partly about being a simulacrum rolling stone, a pseudo bluesman. In Chronicles, Vol. 1, while Dylan steers clear of 1965, that crucial year in his career, he does describe a moment in a considerably less fecund year for him, 1987, when the 46-year-old burnout of Knocked Out Loaded came closer to finding his own inner Muddy Waters than the 24-year-old wunderkind of Highway 61 Revisited. He recalls taking a break from a listless rehearsal with the Grateful Dead in California (anyone who has heard Dylan & the Dead would understand his despair) and wandering off to a jazz dive, where an old black singer got under his skin. "The singer reminded me of Billy Eckstine," Dylan recalled. "He wasn't very forceful, but he didn't have to be; he was relaxed, but he sang with natural power. Suddenly and without warning, it was like the guy had an open window to my soul. It was like he was saying, 'You should do it this way.'" Dylan had a revelation that he didn't need to strain to hit notes coming from a younger man's angst long eviscerated by nicotine and howling. Rather, he could dig into his lower register and become not just like a rolling stone but closer to the thing itself.

For Marcus, though, Dylan at his best is already the thing itself, and Marcus at his best has some vivid descriptions of Dylan performances darting around a vast record collection and amassed experience. The book also has a completely bizarre, head-scratching climax involving a Pet Shop Boys "togetherness" anthem. Yet Like a Rolling Stone, despite its exasperating moments, will still be essential reading for anyone who wants to get closer to Dylan's masterpiece of vitriol. Because Dylan can't simply go through the motions of professional nostalgia, he performs the song differently at every stop--sometimes with power and gusto, sometimes with a seemingly drunk halfheartedness, several keys lower than the whippersnapper of 1965. On his current tour with Merle Haggard, he's dropped the song from his usual encore. No one really knows why Dylan does anything, and he did provide a well-deserved blurb for Marcus's Old, Weird America, but could it be that, unless Victoria's Secret models and $1.25 million are involved, Dylan's not doing product placement? Or has Marcus's book made him too self-conscious of the song's broader significance, making it harder for him to simply belt out a heartfelt performance, if, every time he has to sing it, he's At the Crossroads, Changing Popular Music Forever--playing the Best Song Ever Written? If you witness the encore of a Dylan concert and he avoids "Like a Rolling Stone" in favor of "Mississippi," "All Along the Watchtower" or even Haggard's "Sing Me Back Home," you might get a hint of how it feels for Dylan right now. The mystery tramp refuses to be solved.

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