Reefer run amok

INVISIBLE REPUBLIC: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes by Greil Marcus, Picador pounds 16.99

Between 1965 and 1966, Bob Dylan released three classic albums, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde. So classic are they that anyone who comes to them now can have no idea how radical and genre-shattering they were. Dylan's defection from acoustic folk to explosive psychedelic rock upset and confused many of his fans, whose most famous response to the new sound was at 1965's Newport Festival. His speedily recruited, temporary band had to deal with the crowd booing in front of them and Pete Seeger trying to hack through their power cables with an axe behind them. Dylan knew that he was onto something.

He commandeered a backing group, the Hawks, who would later approach mythical status themselves as The Band, but in the meantime were to accompany Dylan on a world tour, and to drown out the jeers of "Judas" that greeted him wherever he went. The times were a-changing as fast as they have ever done in popular music.

Things came to a dramatic halt in July 1966, when Dylan was badly injured in a motorbike crash. He was out of action until 1968. Or so the world thought. In fact, he spent from June to October of 1967 in the basement of a house in Woodstock, making music for his own amusement with the Hawks/Band. The basement tapes were recorded (note the lack of initial capitals: Marcus's subject is not just the album which CBS released officially in 1975, but the hours of material which they didn't), and the rest is a mixture of history and mystery.

This long-awaited book about the basement tapes, by the man who wrote the sleevenotes, opens in grand style. A bravura first chapter brings home the reasons why, in the context of folk music's links with the civil rights movement, Dylan's electrification was seen as such a scandal. The catcalls weren't necessarily those of spoilt Luddites, but of people who genuinely felt that Dylan was a turncoat: "As he stood on the stage he was seen to affirm the claims of the city over the country, and capital over labour ... the hustler over the worker, the thief over the orphan." Marcus presents Dylan's argument that he was the one making folk music - "It comes from legends, Bibles, plagues, and it revolves around vegetables and death" - while the folkies were writing political songs, something altogether more transitory.

It's a highflown, daringly ambitious, formidably scholarly essay that brings the scenes to vivid life with the aid of a stack of bootleg concert recordings. If Marcus had kept up this level of focus and engagement, Invisible Republic would have been a very different book, and possibly a better one. As it is, his powers as a deep thinker are unbalanced by his instincts as a bewilderingly lateral one, and as he flies from one subject to another, one's response soon becomes: Yes, but what's that got to do with the basement tapes? There is little here about what actually went on in Woodstock, about whether the players really never intended their recordings to be heard, about the charge that the musicians, ignoring Vietnam and the Summer of Love, were making "deserter's songs".

A few of these songs, some of which are available only in bootleg form, get the full Marcus treatment: Dylan will pause for breath midline, and the author will dive into the gap, filling it with pages of extrapolation and exegesis. Robbie Robertson of The Band, on the other hand, summarises a day's recording more economically - "Reefer run amok" - in one of the book's few direct quotes from the Bandmembers.

Worse, as Marcus charges off on his fanciful adventures, he often loses sight of the tapes altogether, and the reader comes away having learnt less about Dylan than about Dock Boggs, an obscure banjo player who may have influenced him, and less about the basement tapes than about The Anthology of American Folk Music, six LPs of songs from 1927-32. One wonders why Marcus didn't just make these records the nominal subject of his book and have done with it.

Still, completists will find the discography invaluable, particularly the catalogue of every known basement recording. And they will be intrigued to read Marcus's view that the only cover of "This Wheel's On Fire" that does it justice is screeched by Patsy and Edina on an episode of Absolutely Fabulous.

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