What is this gold?
This is Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus Writings 1968-2010 (PublicAffairs), a just-published treasure trove of the author's indispensable riffs on America's enigmatic musical legend. As the most interesting writer about Bob Dylan, Marcus is brutally honest, often with a trenchant wit, capable of seeing connections invisible to everyone else, and brimming with unpredictable passion. And doesn't that description fit Dylan himself? Maybe that's why Marcus is such a perfect Dylan audience.
The book opens in the summer of 1963 with Marcus in a New Jersey field eager to hear Joan Baez and surprised when she introduces a friend, a "scruffy looking guy with a a guitar" whose name Marcus didn't catch. After the show, Marcus found the young Bob Dylan crouching behind the tent trying to light a cigarette. Marcus tried to offer praise, but Dylan would have none of it. And so it began, Greil Marcus' quest to look at Bob Dylan and see how America was reflected in him and how his reflection changed America. It is a long, dazzling journey. It includes the notorious four word opening line of Marcus' 1970 review of Dylan's album Self Portrait, a review that was a succinct declaration of independence from uncritical Dylan adoration. There's a 1979 review of Slow Train Coming about Dylan's embrace of a version of fundamentalist Christianity Marcus calls "southern Californian suburban." Marcus' brilliant take in the review titled "Amazing Chutzpah" is that this kind of religious conversion seems like one more stop on Dylan's restless journey but that such a conversion can end a quest for answers by seeming, falsely, to settle every question. Over and over in this book, Marcus looks at Dylan and uses the singer to offer bulletins from the front lines of American culture. There are great essays on "the myth of the open road," the location of Desolation Row, and much else. I particularly liked Marcus' recounting his visit to Hibbing High School and Dylan's famed English teacher, the late and wonderful B.J. Rolfzen. And then there's "High Water Everywhere," Marcus' response to the September 11th attacks. The "article" is a jarring collection of quotations that, taken together, provides a penetrating look into the American soul. The book concludes on election night 2008 in Minneapolis.
It is difficult to convey the energy of Marcus writing style. I think of it as linguistic pointillism, with Marcus' precise and daring dots of Dylan's career ultimately forming a larger image, a picture of a very strange landscape called America. Whatever Marcus' style is called, it is riveting. Readers won't always agree with him. Indeed, that's the fun. He's so engaging you want to enter the debate.
Greil Marcus is justifiably noted for a string of terrific books, especially about American music. This anthology, vital for every Dylan fan and for those who wish to understand the last forty years of American culture, provides powerful support to those arguing for Marcus' place as the preeminent cultural critic of the country.