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?
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.
If Greil Marcus indulges in some of the giddy associations of the lapsed graduate student, though, in Dylan’s Visions of Sin, Christopher Ricks displays the Olympian but not always illuminating erudition of the eminent academic. It’s quite a leap across the pond from Muddy Waters to the Oxford Professor of Poetry, and Ricks is aware that his own Anglophilic reading list is not the same as that of his venerated subject. “I certainly don’t make many claims for allusion,” Ricks told the Boston Globe. “I don’t think that ‘Lay, Lady, Lay’ is an allusion to ‘Come, Madam, come.’ I think that there are an extraordinary number of affinities between the Donne poem [“To His Mistress Going to Bed”] and the Dylan song, and the affinities…are very illuminating.” For more than 500 pages, Ricks dotes over Dylan lyrics and tries to tease out affinities between selected Dylan songs and the seven deadly sins, the four heavenly graces and his own Miltonic, Keatsian, Tennysonian and Eliotic predilections, along with puns, chummy asides and learned ruminations. Dylan is indeed a reader, who not only went through a well-known religious phase as a born-again Christian but also scattered Old Testament prophecy throughout his earlier work, particularly on the 1967 John Wesley Harding. And there’s no argument with Ricks that Dylan has a way with words. But there is no evidence that Dylan ever conceived of the grand schema the professor lays out for him in Dylan’s Visions of Sin. “We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us,” wrote Keats, a shared favorite of Ricks and Dylan. The design of Ricks’s book is palpable.
Dylan’s songs, of course, are intended for the ear and not the eye. Betsy Bowden, a medieval literature scholar by training who published the first scholarly book on Dylan back in 1982, said it all in her title: Performed Literature. Dylan’s lyrics, Bowden states, “are not poems. They are songs: words and music combined for oral performance.” Dylan has mentioned Keats as an influence in interviews, and famously imagined Eliot and Pound “fighting in the captain’s tower” in “Desolation Row,” but wresting the words from the performances, and their cultural context–at least the way Ricks does it–ends up saying much about the learned author of Dylan’s Visions of Sin but surprisingly little about its purported subject. Even when looking at the words themselves, Ricks’s donnish sleight of hand can shockingly miss the meaning of the lyrics.
The section on Dylan’s 1983 song “Blind Willie McTell” is as revealing an example as any of how Ricks can get lost in the minutiae of dictionaries and literary and biblical concordances while losing track of what the song is actually about. He discusses William Tell’s arrow (since the first line of the song contains the word “arrow”), makes many references to the Psalms (not a bad hunch, since Dylan was still on the tail end of his fire and brimstone mode) and many asides to let you know that the Warren Professor of Humanities at Boston University and this year’s choice for Oxford Professor of Poetry is aware of Homer’s and Milton’s blindness. “William Tell’s arrow hit the apple on the head of the apple of his eye, his son. Since Mc means ‘son of,’ the son of William Tell may be living in another country under another name: William, or Willie, McTell.”
Over twenty pages of precious wordplay and meta-Dylan references (to “Gotta Serve Somebody”), Ricks does not even mention that Dylan was not merely summoning up William Tell or adding the “Mc” for any fancy reason, but that McTell was an actual blues musician and the song’s true subject. Blind Willie McTell was not blind because of Milton but because he was blind from birth. And the McTell of the song was so named not because of William Tell but, according to legend, because a teacher at a school for the blind had mistakenly changed it from “McTear.” Music and history don’t exist for Ricks’s own metaphorical convenience.
“Them charcoal gypsy maidens/Can strut their feathers well/But nobody can sing the blues/Like Blind Willie McTell.” Dylan’s use of “charcoal” suggests that he is not only singing about black women wearing ruffled feathers but perhaps also about minstrel singers with charcoal-smeared faces, imitating and appropriating the blues, which, Dylan plainly says, McTell sings better than anyone else. Minstrelsy has long been an obsession for Dylan: He named his 2001 album Love and Theft after Eric Lott’s landmark study of blackface minstrelsy of the same title, and even had Ed Harris in blackface as a minstrel fury in his 2003 film Masked & Anonymous. But for Ricks, it’s all about phrase placement, dictionaries, Milton’s “L’Allegro,” anything and everything on Ricks’s shelf but the song and its themes, racial guilt and Dylan’s anxiety of influence as a white bluesman. Dylan’s Visions of Sin is a cautionary tale about the kinds of elaborate misfires that can occur when his words are stripped from their musical and cultural contexts. Dylan’s been with this professor, and he likes his looks, but there’s something happening there, and Ricks doesn’t know what it is. Still, Dylan’s Visions of Sin also shows that Dylan can appeal to the passions of an extremely learned and accomplished scholar, and it’s worth noting that Dylan himself invited Ricks and his wife backstage after he played a gig at BU, Ricks’s turf. The conversation has been kept a secret. One hopes, at the very least, that Dylan saw his name bandied alongside canonical selections from the Norton Anthology of Poetry and felt gratified to be placed in such visionary company.
But if there is one group with whom Dylan currently resists association despite, or perhaps because of, his formidable contribution, it’s the 1960s counterculture. When the brash young Dylan of ’65 quipped, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” he might have thought he could make it into Bartlett‘s (he did), but how could he have predicted that, just five years later, three allusively named Weathermen would set off a bomb on Manhattan’s West 11th Street and accidentally die in his name? And when it did happen, and self-styled “Dylanologists” were digging through his trash, chanting outside his apartment and parachuting into his Woodstock home, how could he have felt? Hardly like a member of Woodstock Nation. Mike Marqusee’s Chimes of Freedom: The Politics of Bob Dylan’s Art is sensitive to this incongruity. Years before the Weathermen, Dylan marched with SNCC and was an opening act for Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But his period of political engagement was but a sliver of time (albeit glorious), from 1962-63. And he has since admitted, in Chronicles, to having a soft spot for Barry Goldwater and has still refused to take a position on the war in Vietnam or, more recently, Iraq.
The cover of the book has Dylan getting his Guthrie on circa 1963, complete with a plaid work shirt, tattered jeans and a waterfront in the background, just waiting to unite some workers of the world. Marqusee writes like a professional journalist but isn’t out of his depth when he busts out the Adorno and Marcuse. He’s an anguished, aging New Lefty who wants to let Bob be Bob but wishes he’d crawl out his window a little more to fight the good fights. Dylan, of course, is the last person who ever wanted to be a voice of a generation, as he told Ed Bradley on 60 Minutes last winter, and as he says repeatedly in Chronicles. But Marqusee and Dylan are also keenly, painfully aware that the moment for Dylan to be that voice has long passed anyway, even if some stray, incoherent remarks before a subpar performance at Live Aid twenty years ago did help raise millions of dollars for struggling American farmers. Dylan may have allowed Bank of Montreal to use “The Times They Are A-Changin'” in 1996, but the songs of that 1962-63 period continue to provide a soundtrack to civil (and, in the case of the Weathermen, uncivil) disobedience. At a recent protest in the streets of Taipei, the words of Dylan still resound, even as they are somewhat lost in translation: “How many rocky roads must the people of Taiwan walk, before really achieving democracy?”
Marqusee doesn’t idealize the Dylan of that period. Even when he was pointin’ fingers at the assassins of Medgar Evers or the sociopathic good old boy who knocked off poor Hattie Carroll, he was still a royal pain in the ass: Accepting the Tom Paine Award, he got toasted before the speech and told the crowd, weeks after the Kennedy assassination, that he identified with Lee Harvey Oswald. As Marqusee aptly put it: “Throughout the sixties, Dylan is writing both within the historical tide and against it.” If you remember the 1960s, the cliché goes, you weren’t really there. But for Dylan, emblematic and inspiring as he was, he wasn’t there, he was gone. At one point, after Marqusee has established an earnest, responsible argument about Dylan’s place in the 1960s, he issues the following judgment about Dylan’s capacities as a prose writer: “Without the verse structure, without the disciplines of popular music, Dylan flounders, as readers of Tarantula will know.” That statement was perfectly fair back when Chimes of Freedom was published in 2003. Marqusee must have rued it as soon as he received his review copy of Chronicles.
Marqusee is correct that Tarantula, Dylan’s 1971 novel, is, despite the claims of a minority of well-meaning and sensitive apologists, an incoherent mess, a sophomoric imitation of Finnegans Wake that without a rock-star byline would have languished in a publisher’s slush pile. In Chronicles, Dylan steers clear of Joyce and instead recalls the plain-spoken voice of The Grapes of Wrath and Bound for Glory, although its hidden allusions and true intent could prove to be as elusive and opaque as in a Modernist novel. But it is compulsively readable, a kooky journey where he can remember every shop and bar that lined Bleecker Street in 1961, every blade of grass outside Archibald MacLeish’s house in 1970 and every thought that ever went into the making of two curios from his oeuvre: 1970’s New Morning and 1989’s Oh Mercy. While there are many puzzling observations and omissions, Dylan is very clear when it comes to how the hero of Chronicles differs from that of Chimes of Freedom. “The big bugs in the press kept promoting me as the mouthpiece, spokesman, or even conscience of a generation. That was funny. All I’d ever done was sing songs that were dead straight and expressed powerful new realities.” Oh, that’s all.
Dylan continues to perform those songs as a vehicle for expressing powerful new realities, but the further he gets from their political moment, the less they are about pointing his finger at a topical issue and the more they become eternal and strange. Nowhere is this more recent incarnation of old protest anthems more apparent than in the closing credits of Masked & Anonymous. Dylan starred in the film, co-wrote the script and made a movie that was almost a complete train wreck (although a fascinating one for revealing the allegorical contents of Dylan’s brain). But then, on the voiceover, Dylan intones a monologue that introduces an eerie version of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” not one that demands answers to questions but a slower, weirder version that never expects to really figure out how many roads a man must walk down. “Truth and beauty are in the eye of the beholder,” Dylan rasps as the song begins playing, doffing his cowboy hat to Keats. But he follows that up with a gnomic shrug, in what could be an apt response to all those writers and critics prophesizing with their pens: “I stopped trying to figure everything out a long time ago.”