We’re back in the old, weird America on this one.
Greil Marcus has been writing about Bob Dylan for more than forty years, and all those pieces were collected and published in the book Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010.  (He’s written more than a dozen other books, including Lipstick Traces and the classic Mystery Train.) I spoke with him recently on KPFK-FM in Los Angeles about Bob Dylan’s new album Tempest—it’s Dylan’s thirty-fifth studio album, released fifty years after his debut album in 1962.
Jon Wiener: How does Dylan sound to you on Tempest?
Greil Marcus: He sounds like himself. He sounds sly, as he’s always sounded. He sounds as if there’s a twinkle in his eye; as if there’s a joke he’s letting you in on, maybe halfway, and you’ll have to find your way to the end of the joke yourself. That’s pretty much been his mode all along. And he sounds utterly eager to keep exploring the unanswered questions of the music that has captivated him for a long time. Mostly that has been the old, old American folk music that first transformed him when he left behind Robert Zimmerman and became Bob Dylan in Minneapolis in the late fifties and very early sixties.
You’ve written about the music of what you call “the old, weird America,” the murder ballads and songs about disasters and floods. We’re back in the old, weird America on this one.
There are four or five songs on this album that don’t do anything for me, that seem very repetitious, songs with a kind of overblown emphasis that don’t give back what they pretend to contain. But there are more songs: there’s “Long and Wasted Years,” and “Scarlet Town,” and a hilarious song called “Early Roman Kings,” and “Tin Angel,” “Tempest,” and “Roll On John.” Most of these go back to old mountain ballads like “Gypsy Daisy,” “Mattie Groves,” “Barbara Allen” and also “The Titanic”—which is not a mountain ballad but a folk song that spread all over the country in 1912, that was sung and recorded by countless people in the 1920s, and today too. He’s looked at these songs, and said “these songs are unfinished. They’re all vague. They are all full of clues. That means there’s room to retell these stories, to burrow underneath the surface story that we know, and say, ‘Why did this happen? Why do people still care about it?’ ”
“Long and Wasted Years” is a song about a long-dead marriage.
It’s the song that got me into this record. I just love it. I have to tell you I haven’t listened to the words at all. I have no idea what story is being told. I love the way he speechifies through the song. He sounds like Luke the Drifter, Hank Williams’s religious alter-ego. He sounds like Elmer Gantry. He is a preacher, a con man; he is lying through his teeth. And he believes every word he’s saying. For me this is just a declamatory voice, and it breaks the mold of this record.
“Scarlet Town” begins “In Scarlet Town, where I was born/There’s ivy leaf and silver thorn.”
“Scarlet Town” is the song on this album that’s most remarkable for me, and most shocking. The old ballad “Barbara Allen,” probably the most widely disseminated and loved folk ballad in the English language, begins, “In Scarlet Town.” But here he’s not singing “Barbara Allen.” He’s not talking about the heartbroken young man and the woman who spurns him and then turns her face to the wall and wills her own death in a double suicide. He’s talking about what it would be like to grow up in a town where that horror overshadows absolutely everything. It has an allure, maybe a kind of beckoning toward your own annihilation, or an allure of romance that, along with the ugliness and fear and terror, makes it a place that’s impossible ever to forget.
What do you think of the band on this album?
The band that Bob Dylan works with now is not a strong band. They’re not a challenging band, except for Charlie Sexton, the lead guitar player. There’s no one with an individual sensibility, with his own grasp of a song and where to take it, to challenge Dylan as a singer. The music for the most part is backup. It’s often a repetitive figure played over and over again, so that all your focus is on the singing, on the voice. But Bob Dylan has always sung best, he’s always been most alive, combative and finding surprises in a song, when a band is challenging him, when the musicians are going somewhere he couldn’t have anticipated. I don’t think that’s happening here.
But then we have…“Tempest”—a fourteen-minute chronicle of the 1912 sinking of the Titanic, a 6/8 waltz with forty-five verses.
Yes. It doesn’t get boring, and that’s because his engagement with the story he’s telling is so complete. It’s a song that’s kind of like the album as a whole: for the first three or four minutes you might think, “Well, okay, I’ll be back in a minute.” Then it becomes a lot harder, a lot more dangerous, a lot uglier, and you begin to feel a sense of horror and dread at what’s going on. Characters that he’s introduced before are being disposed of, are being wiped out of the song. It becomes like a battle, like a war, rather than a sentimental “oh, it was sad when the great ship went down.”
Many critics have pointed to the violence and high death toll on this album; some have thought this has some kind of contemporary political relevance.
There’s been a streak of vengeance and carnage in all of Dylan’s records, except for the Christmas record, since 2001, since Love and Theft. Particularly on Modern Times in 2006. Listen to “Ain’t Talkin’,” one of the great songs of his career.
“Scarlet Town” reminded me of “Ain’t Talkin’.”
They are very much akin. As the singer goes on the road in “Ain’t Talkin’ ” in pursuit of his enemies, he comes upon them sleeping and slaughters them where they lay. I wouldn’t speculate about where this comes from or what it’s about. It’s a theme that has been there a long time. I think Bob Dylan really does go by his own clock, his own calendar. He talks in Chronicles about what was so wonderful about the folk milieu in Greenwich Village: you could ignore all the noise of the contemporary world, all of its self-importance, and if somebody said to you, “What’s new? What’s happening?” You could say “President Garfield was shot!” That mythic calendar was more real to Bob Dylan than the everyday calendar that most people were living by. I think that has got to be true here too.