Henry Holt, $22.50
by Tim Riley
For the past twenty-odd years, Bob Dylan has played out one of the most excruciating
endgames of any rock career. The steadfast still flock to his shows for the
odd flash of inspiration, but after one too many of his inert performances,
even the hard-bitten lose faith. At his thirtieth anniversary celebration
in 1992, surrounded by friends like Roger McGuinn, George Harrison, Tom Petty,
Neil Young, and Lou Reed, Dylan played the fading rock icon as pale, puffy
ghost, the burned-out shell of the protean voice-of-a-generation who had written
the evening's parade of classic songs. Can anyone imagine the Dylan of an
earlier era allowing Sinead O'Connor to be booed offstage for defying the
Pope--without so much as a retort? Alongside fiascoes like his ambivalent
1985 LiveAid set, his indecipherable 1991 Grammy appearance, this thirtieth
anniversary performance reinforced the impression that Dylan was more a casualty
of the sixties than a survivor.
This Dylan makes no appearance in Greil Marcus's Invisible Republic,
a literary fantasia on the fabled 1967 Basement Tapes. Rock's most
erudite and graceful stylist, Marcus is best known for Mystery Train,
his 1975 treatise on rock as American myth, and Lipstick Traces, a
forbidding historical tour of the avant-garde by way of the Sex Pistols. His
passion for Dylan began with early articles for Rolling Stone: an early
bootleg discography in 1968, and a famous pan of Self-Portrait, the
1970 Dylan twofer that was a lot more prophetic than anyone imagined. In Invisible
Republic, he tries to justify what was great about Dylan's sixties, and
pretends that no amount of artistic dissipation can alter it.
Like the later Dylan it ignores, Invisible Republic falls prey to
the hoariest clichs about rock critics and their conceits. To begin with,
Marcus has mastered the short form so thoroughly that his longer work lacks
coherence. His one-offs are so thick with insight and broad in taste that
he has no peer as a magazine journalist (as in Mystery Train, Invisible
Republic's best stuff is in the endnotes). In short takes, Marcus brushes
up against greatness; in the long form he leaps from Dylan to Alexis de Tocqueville
to Don Henley in a single paragraph. The book lacks an overarching theme that
gets developed, restated, and carried to a satisfying conclusion. Along the
way, Marcus gets even higher on his own fumes than he does on Dylan's:
For then, in the shifting humors of the old Americas that loom up
in the songs, neither a secret identity nor a faked death, more or less what
has been acted out in "Clothesline Saga," would be worth a dollar or a dram,
and anyone listening would have to answer for which song he liked best, for
who she really was.
Marcus's identification with Dylan is even more vexing than his feverish
ID with Elvis Presley, his other great subject. As a result, the Basement
Tapes have a lot to answer for. To Marcus, Dylan is the whole of sixties
culture rolled up into one cultural sparkplug of a rockabilly intellectual,
the era's self-conscious primitive with an aesthetic gene pool that reaches
back to Kentucky warbler Dock Boggs and folkie anthologist Harry Smith.
Although Dylan and the Band's work on the Basement Tapes is possessed
by greatness, Marcus's hyperbolic style, like that of Pauline Kael (to whom
the book is dedicated), distorts his judgment. In any case, no music could
live up to what Marcus writes about Dylan and the Band ("their ringing voices
make it plain that what they're really selling is America, because in America
the fantasy of the country sells everything else and everything else on sale
sells the country"). There's no way Elvis Presley could live up to people's
idea of Elvis, so he squandered it on Vegas comebacks, Cadillacs and peanut-butter-and-banana
sandwiches, and in Mystery Train and Dead Elvis, Marcus turned
that spectacle into indelible subject matter.
Dylan carries an even larger burden than Presley, according to Marcus. Over
280 pages, he bloats the Dylan myth up beyond recognition:
More than thirty years ago, when a world now most often spoken of
as an error of history was taking shape and form--and when far older worlds
were reappearing like ghosts that had yet to make up their minds, cruel and
paradisiac worlds that in 1965 felt at once present and impossibly distant--Bob
Dylan seemed less to occupy a turning point in cultural space and time than
to be that turning point. As if culture would turn according to his wishes
or even his whim; the fact was, for a long moment it did.
There are important ideas behind all this smoke. Marcus is at his best when
recalling the fifties' folk revival, the emergence of Dylan as the conscience
of the early sixties Civil Rights movement, and Dylan's "betrayal" of folk
ethics by going electric at the Newport Folk Festival of 1965. He remembers
the music in pithy, vivid strokes: "Desolation Row" is "a funny, tense, graceful
eleven-minute parable of utopia as absolute exile and twentieth-century culture
as the Titanic." There may be nobody better at translating abstract sounds
into descriptive, meaningful words, and Marcus's ear is tuned in to every
nuance, every flutter of Dylan's harmonica.
But even if you agree with Invisible Republic's provocative thesis--that
secret histories can be brought to life through traditional song, and that
Dylan once held this country's fantasies by the small hairs--the language
catches you up short: "Out of some odd displacement of art and time, the music
seemed both transparent and inexplicable," he writes. Even aimless marijuana
reveries are lovingly described as musical enlightenment. "Music made to kill
time ended up dissolving it," and so on.
Marcus's scholarship is rich in detail, but selective. He points out that
the antebellum song "No More Auction Block" is a melodic source for Dylan's
"Blowin' in the Wind," but cannot concede how overrated the Dylan's most famous
song is. Held up as a prime example of sixties utopianism, "Wind" is a naive
piece of songwriting, a vapid list of questions with a cop-out hook. At times,
Marcus reaches outside the Basement Tapes arbitrarily but ignores some
obvious and important connections.
Marcus also downplays Dylan's relationship to Woody Guthrie: he prefers Dylan's
inward, psychological approach to Guthrie's outward, agitprop persona. But
Dylan's greatness lies in just how ingeniously he straddles these two approaches,
keeping the listener guessing as to his ultimate intentions--and how much
is pure accident. His first public appearance after the Basement Tapes goes
unmentioned here: at a Guthrie tribute in early 1968, Dylan offered up three
Guthrie songs with the Band ("I Ain't Got No Home," "The Grand Coulee Damn,"
and "Dear Mrs. Roosevelt"), extending the folksy mood of the Basement Tapes
even as he brought these Guthrie songs (hardly agitprop) some neurotic grit,
and emotional depth. The best Dylan is even more complex--and inconsistent--than
Marcus would have you believe.
Late Dylan holds little interest for Marcus, except when he serves his purpose:
he ignores everything after 1968 until 1992's Good as I Been to You
and 1993's World Gone Wrong, two acoustic efforts that redeemed his
"inexorably decaying public life." These records handily tie in with Marcus's
central idea of Dylan as supernatural channel of the old, wild America, reviving
lost treasures as a way of shedding light on rock's tributaries. These two
records, he writes, "removed him from the prison of his own career and returned
him--or his voice, as a sort of mythical fact--to the world at large." (Exactly
what is a "mythical fact"?) Forget that Marcus dubbed Dylan's Empire Burlesque
(1985) "another dead battery," or bemoaned the lead-boot title of Under
A Blood Red Sky (1990).
Invisible Republic has an invisible agenda: the make the sixties respectable
again. But there are whole worlds of music here that are still unavailable
and difficult to find even if you collect bootlegs and plug into Dylan forums
on the Internet. So Marcus falls prey to another exasperating clich: he writes
about music so rarefied that few will ever hear it.
The Basement Tapes give off an aura of the artist-in-the-wilderness,
listening to how far his voice, and these song traditions, can carry him.
They include peerless songs like "I Shall Be Released," "This Wheel's on Fire,"
"Tears of Rage," and "Million Dollar Bash," which were overdubbed and published
only after widespread bootlegging in 1975. Along with the work of Gram Parsons
and the Byrds in this period, they are the source for country rock, a mess
of songs that tower above psychedelia's, and twice as fascinating for being
so widely known and so privately guarded. Marcus's grandiosity is out of sync
with the humble tone of these sessions. (And humility could be the strangest
thing Dylan was ever accused of.)
Dylan emerged from the Basement Tapes obliquely, with 1968's John
Wesley Harding (which Marcus dubs "the basement's second mind"), the kind
of move only Dylan could make seem logical. But by the late seventies his
career began jumping aesthetic rails as perversely as he had ridden them.
Marcus contends Dylan's still "at the top of his game"--he even published
a pre-release rave of Dylan's Highlands on the Internet. Invisible
Republic may persuade you that the Basement Tapes make sense of
America's promise and curse, and of Dylan's particularly American moment,
the sixties. But Marcus doesn't follow through to explore the implications
of that idea, why music so alive with possibility now seems out of its creator's
reach. More than that, he doesn't make any connection between the man who
made this music and the one who threw it all away.