Sunday, October 31, 2010

Mind Out of Time: Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010

For close to fifty years, Bob Dylan has transformed himself into any number of incongruent characters while keeping his fans both baffled and infuriated in the process. Critic Greil Marcus is one of those baffled and infuriated fans. But rather than worship at Dylan's altar, or burn him in effigy, Marcus has instead assembled a fascinating chronicle of reviews, stories, asides and rumours about Dylan that he has written over the last four decades. In Bob Dylan: Writings 1968-2010 (Public Affairs, 2010), Marcus has created a riveting and imaginative collection of criticism where he not only traces a popular artist's erratic career through a chronology of pieces, his book also becomes an engagement where sometimes the hunter gets captured by the game.

While Marcus shapes the arc of Dylan's work, as one would untangle a long, convoluted mystery, we also witness how Dylan has equally shaped him as a writer. "I was never interested in figuring out what the song's meant," Marcus writes in the introduction. "I was interested in figuring out my response to them, and other people's responses. I wanted to get closer to the music than I could by listening to it - I wanted to get inside of it, behind it, and writing about it, through it, inside of it, behind it was my way of doing that."

Although Bob Dylan: Writings 1968-2010 bears some resemblance to Marcus's last book When That Rough God Goes Riding (see Critics at Large review here), which took us through the equally uneven career of Van Morrison, that book shifted back and forth through time as if Marcus was randomly picking Morrison's albums from the shelf to see if they still added up. By contrast, Bob Dylan is a more linear tale. Yet the very nature of Dylan's art has a way of pulling the rug out from any assumptions concerning what happens next, so Marcus's book becomes (to invert the title of one Dylan album) a mind out of time.

From the moment Dylan arrived in New York in the early sixties, with the emblem of Brando's corduroy cap from The Wild One on his head, he had the cunning of a vaudevillian troubadour. He slung an acoustic guitar over his shoulder and sang as if he were the second coming of Woody Guthrie. Like Guthrie, Dylan set out initially to be a man of the people, leading a charge against social injustice. Yet just as audiences and fans were starting to embrace the acoustic "Blowin' in the Wind" and "The Times They Are a-Changin'" as anthems for storming the barricades, Dylan started a-changin' himself. Abandoning the cap and donning a leather jacket, Dylan altered his repertoire, picked up an electric guitar and plugged in. In response, a loud and unhappy throng expressed their displeasure during the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Simultaneously, Dylan began tearing up the charts with the electrifying six-minute single, "Like a Rolling Stone," boldly announcing to his followers that, yes, maybe rock & roll was folk music, too.

Bob Dylan's Self Portrait

Then, just as people caught on to the urban blues of Highway 61 Revisited (1965) and Blonde On Blonde (1966), Dylan once again started having other ideas. While folks tripped out to the heavy rock of Cream and Jimi Hendrix in 1967, Dylan put out a stripped-down and staggering country folk record (John Wesley Harding) that couldn't have appeared more archaic next to something like Cream's Disraeli Gears.  A few years later, in 1970, Dylan pulled yet another fast one by releasing an album called Self Portrait. What may have appeared, by its title alone, to reveal the man behind the mask, it did, in fact, do the exact opposite. How could this record be considered a self-portrait when 95 per cent of the songs were written by other people? What were we to make of Bob Dylan singing Rodgers and Hart ("Blue Moon") and performing a duet with himself, playing both Simon and Garfunkel, on "The Boxer?" When he did sing his own material, like the desultory "Wigwam," the man behind the mask became even more obscured. On "Wigwam," Dylan hummed his way indifferently through a bed of Muzak that might have been dreamed up by James Last. (Compounding the joke, Dylan released "Wigwam" as the album's single.) The counterculture became so perplexed by Self Portrait's hodgepodge of musical styles that Dylan earned some of his worst reviews. And that's where Greil Marcus's book truly begins with his famous first words on Self Portrait: "What is this shit?"

That hilarious and familiar quote, which would also find its way into Nick Hornby's 2009 novel, Juliet, Naked, revealed a fan scorned and a critic puzzled. It was also the beginning of a decline that Marcus traces for years - with speed-bumps in the road - that include Dylan's shocking conversion to Christianity in 1979 and his resurrection at the beginning of the Clinton years when he would re-emerge by finding his true voice in the American folk songs he once sang in Greenwich Village. "[I]t would take more than twenty years to play his way out of the trap set for him by his own, once-upon-a-time triumph, that after all that time of wandering in the desert of his own fame - that time, as Dylan once put it, explaining the imperatives of folk music, by which he meant the Bible, by which he meant the mystery of plenty and famine, of 'seven years of this and eight years of that' - that the old pop star, the antique icon, the dormant oracle, might then begin again as if from the beginning, with no limits to what he might say or how he might say it," Marcus explains. But reading Bob Dylan also casts new light on Greil Marcus's views of Dylan's work over the years because he's also in the process, as a critic, of encountering "no limits to what he might say or how he might say it." Sometimes a mysterious deed ends up somewhat understood in a piece written years later. (Marcus makes sense of Dylan's born-again period when he sees Todd Haynes's 2007 I'm Not There.)

Greil Marcus has written about Bob Dylan in other books including The Old, Weird America (1997), his examination of The Basement Tapes made by Dylan and The Band in 1967 while recovering from their fractious world tour the previous year, to Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads (2005), which investigated the origins and impact of what is arguably Dylan's greatest song. Bob Dylan excerpts none of those writings (although his perceptive liner notes from the CBS Records 1975 release of The Basement Tapes are included), but the book covers more than its share of Dylan's inconsistent work. On Before the Flood (1974), his largely panned live album from his 1974 tour with The Band, Marcus writes, "Before the Flood offers not ideas but passions, and its ambitions are the same." On Dylan's masterful Blood on the Tracks (1975), he says simply, "Bob Dylan wasn't kidding when he called his new album Blood on the Tracks - the songs are covered with it." But when Dylan transforms into Elvis-in-Vegas on Street Legal (1978), the words turn biting as only a spurned fan's could. "'Is Your Love in Vain?' is particularly cruel: compared to Dylan's posture here, Mick Jagger in 'Under My Thumb' is exploring the upper reaches of humility," Marcus writes. "The man speaks to the woman like a sultan checking out a promising servant girl for VD, and his tone is enough to make her fake the pox if that's what it takes to get away clean." He's succinct and sharp with his thoughts on Dylan's first Christian flavoured Slow Train Coming (1980). "What is new is Dylan's use of religious imagery not to discover and shape a vision of what's at stake in the world but to sell a prepackaged doctrine...Jesus is the answer, and if you don't believe it, you're fucked."

Bob Dylan and Jack Nicholson at the 1991 Grammy Awards
Although there are fallow years that follow, Marcus would discover what he cited as "new land" in his 1992 Good As I Been to You and World Gone Wrong (1993) where Dylan would find the skeleton key to his startling Time Out of Mind (1997) ("As bleak and blasted as any work a major artist in any field - an artist with something, an audience, a reputation, to lose - has offered in ages"). But he first sees hope in Dylan's performance of his "Masters of War" at the 1991 Grammy Awards during the first Gulf War when he sang the song as if it were hidden inside an enigma. "The song was buried in its performance, as if history were its true audience," adds Marcus. And what's fascinating about Bob Dylan is how "Masters of War" dogs the author throughout the book. What begins as an emblem of the protest songs that Dylan left behind when he largely abandoned topical music, "Masters of War" eventually reveals itself as something more complex. It may begin by turning the world into black or white, but it ends with the singer becoming his own master of war over the arms merchants ("I hope that you die/And your death will come soon/I'll follow your casket in the pale afternoon/And I'll watch while you're lowered/Down to your death bed/And I'll stand over your grave till I'm sure that you're dead.") Like Elvis Costello's "Tramp the Dirt Down" and Bruce Cockburn's "If I Had a Rocket Launcher," "Masters of War" doesn't give comfort to the aggrieved.

Many leftist performers like Joan Baez would do "Masters of War" but omit that verse. The late historian Howard Zinn, in his Artists in Times of War, would also airbrush it out of his study because, as Marcus states, "[t]o have associated his heroes...with such venom might have robbed them of their saintliness." The song forms something of a leit motif that weaves through the book until Marcus concludes with, "You can't come to the song as if it's a joke; you can't come away from it pretending you didn't mean what you've just said. That's what people want: a chance to go that far. Because 'Masters of War' gives people permission to go that far, the song continues to make meaning, to find new bodies to inhabit, new voices to ride."

The key to understanding the varied responses to Dylan's work in Bob Dylan comes early on in the Self Portrait review. In it, Marcus refutes the auteur theory which recognizes that art is about "the personality of the [artist]." As he goes on to say, "[T]he greatest auteurs are those with the most consistent, obvious, and recognizable mannerisms, quirks, and self-indulgence." If a critic uses that dictum, Marcus explains, "Self Portrait is a better album than Highway 61 Revisted because Self Portrait is about the auteur, that is, Dylan, and Highway 61 Revisited takes on the world, which tends to get in the way." In Bob Dylan: Writings 1968-2010, Greil Marcus strips the mystique and auteur worship from Dylan and he collates as varied a portrait of one of America's most enigmatic performers as we'll likely ever see.

In his review of Bob Dylan's memoir Chronicles, Volume One (2004), Marcus quotes Dylan describing the days he spent in the New York Public Libraries pouring over the foundations of his country's history. "I crammed my head full of as much of this stuff as I could stand and locked it away in my mind out of sight, left it alone," Dylan writes. "Figured I could send a truck back for it later." Marcus calls Chronicles his truck. Bob Dylan: Writings 1968-2010, to quote a line from a Dylan song, is Greil Marcus's freight train.

   — Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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