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.