Bob Dylan has been a paradox ever since he first burst on the music scene over fifty years ago. He continues to elude easy categorization, but is nevertheless an endless mystery to fathom. One book that plumbed the depths of that mystery is by critic Greil Marcus simply titled Bob Dylan: Writings 1968-2010 which Kevin Courrier reviewed for Critics at Large.
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 Dylanis 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?"
|Bob Dylan and Jack Nicholson at the 1991 Grammy Awards|
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."
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.