Pass it Around

"If I made records for my own pleasure, I would only record Charley Patton songs." - Bob Dylan

Greil and the Deal Gone Down Marcus on Dylan Book Review

I am not a writer. Greil Marcus is a writer, and I even sat near him at the preview of a play he wrote 15 years ago just so I could shake his hand after and tell him how much his writing has meant to me. (The play "Lipstick Traces" was way too deep to understand, him being the man I think of when I think of the word "erudite" after all... but I thanked him anyway) I had seen a Mamet play the same week with no trouble at all, so let's say Lipstick Traces is a better book than it is a play.

Believe me, nearly 50 years in now, I can assure you not only has Bob Dylan's career been more than enough to occupy one writer his whole life, but dozens of them. He is literally our less, and we are fortunate to have had his work chronicled so well and for so long by such a talented and informed author. Whether either wants it or cares, they will be joined at the hip forever.

Marcus writes other things and always has, but no one can deny his greatest work has been on his Minneapolis muse. His masterpiece Invisible Republic remains one of the most accomplished and most useful books I have read, despite the second title they gave it later... and just reading the footnotes is the best education in American music I can imagine. And what an honor to have written the liner notes for the (unfortunately botched) Columbia release of the Basement Tapes. When they release the whole she-bang, I hope it comes with the complete text of Invisible Republic as well.

I hesitated to kindle up the new collected works for only one reason. I'd read them all. From the Village Voice to Art Forum to Salon, I had even tracked Greil's Dylan droplets as they were were published over the years by checking websites and earlier by using all manner of indexes and retrieval techniques available to a librarian...and being a fan of both Dylan and the writer, every read was a pleasure. So I was surprised to find things I had forgotten and misremembered in Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus that I am grateful all over again.

Upon reading, and in nearly every case rereading decades later, I was struck by his fairness...To call Marcus a fan would be an understatement, but if he (famously) smells shit he hesitates not to call for Lysol. I might not agree with some of the smears (in particular Street Legal which despite a horrible, horrible sound nonetheless contains "Changing of the Guard" and "Where are you Tonight?" both which ring true lyrically anyway.) I mean, c'mon...If Patti Smith performs the song, it is likely a fairly good one, even if she also has the same blurred eyes of a fan.

A minor quibble...for the most part even the lesser works Marcus has contributed to Dylan's legacy are spot-on and so beautifully written, so well-researched and so damn profound, who can complain? No one places a song in such rich context. I stopped to shake my head, read a passage again and mutter "genius" numerous times. You will find better examples, but two stood out to me personally.

Marcus on Bascom Lamar Lunsford:

" ...or a song called "I wish I was a mole in the ground" put down by Bascom Lamar Lunsford in 1928. "I wish I was a mole in the ground--like a mole in the ground I would root that mountain down--And I wish I was a mole in the ground."

"Now, what the singer wants is obvious, and almost impossible to really comprehend. He wants to be delivered from his life, and to be changed into a creature insignificant and despised; like a mole in the ground, he wants to see nothing and to be seen by no one; he wants to destroy the world, and to survive it."

Marcus on Rick Danko:

"It's just a three-note pattern, coming up again and again for a second when the song needs to be suspended, when the boys have shot over a cliff, looked down, decided they don't care and kept going. Rrrrum-bum-bum, Danko says with his bass, flipping the whole enormous piece of music to the drummer. The move is so casual, so striking, that there's a split second before the drummer accepts the song, slashing down on his cymbal, kicking the music back to the group as a whole. It's the coolest thing I have ever heard."

Part of my great affection for this writer is that he has always heard the bootlegs, and written about them as if they were product just as important as the Columbia releases. He was also writing about them the same time I was hearing them. Certainly, like me, he plays the bootlegs more than the commercial releases and recognizes Dylan deserves no less. Would you ignore a Picasso drawing left behind on a restaurant table? Maybe sometimes it is up to the educated consumer to do the editing.

He is also outstanding at both making contextual connections and in documenting them with discographical and bibliographical sources. Like he invented the hyper-link before it was possible. A good Marcus paragraph with two sources can tie a pair of ears and eyes up for hours. How many critics can you say that about?

More than that, Marcus often stops to realize what he is writing about is a pop song, and yet he can comprehend a momentous importance simultaneously. A song which can literally change the world, but it's just a song, it can't change the world. A dichotomy difficult to keep in check, but Marcus does it.

Music is an intrinsic part of life and death... two subjects both Dylan and Marcus have been dealing with for so long after all, and both are very good at it. Neither will escape alive, nor will any of their fans, but the process has been wonderful to observe, in real time, from both of them. In the future when words will be digitally merged with song somehow in a technology we have yet to find, a molecular level of information so complete (or insidious) we can not yet imagine it...Dylan's lyrics will be followed by a Marcus paragraph so often it is a good thing they seemingly get along like a sliced apple and a cheese bagel.

Jim Linderman

Dull Tool Dim Bulb Books HERE