Faber & Faber £15.99 (491pp). £14.39 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Bob Dylan: Writings 1968-2010, By Greil Marcus
Friday 29 April 2011
So here it is, the big one. America's top (or at any rate longest-lasting) rock critic on America's top (or at any rate longest-lasting) rock star. Except that it isn't. Anyone expecting something similar to, say, Harold Bloom on Shakespeare is going to be disappointed.
There is some brilliant writing here, as you would expect from the author of the thrilling, eerie book Mystery Train, but it is an uneven book containing many oddities. Towards the end of this 40-year haul, when Marcus's ruminations tend to come from the online magazine Salon, Dylan is often notable by his absence.
In his introduction, Marcus writes, "I was never interested in figuring out what the songs meant. I was interested in figuring out my response to them and other people's responses." This spares us much tedious Christopher Ricks-style lit-crit of Dylan's obscurities. Marcus hit the bull's eye when he wrote about "All Along the Watchtower" after 9/11: "It may be that a citizen, especially a citizen who is also an artist, avoids speaking falsely by offering nothing less than the very best of what he has to say – which sometimes might mean nothing at all."
In Marcus's early championing of Dylan, his writing was marred by schoolboy taunts about rival rockers. Discussing a performance in 1974, he wrote, "Any comparison between [Bob Dylan and the Band] and an earnest, talented group like the Allman Brothers Band would be a joke. This was rock'n'roll at its limits."
He is equally dismissive of Ry Cooder's guitar-playing compared to Dylan's backing for "Buckets of Rain": "Cooder couldn't play with as much soul if he practised for 100 years." Both comparisons are twaddle though Marcus rightly says: "No singer could put more inflection, more wit and irony into a shout than the Bob Dylan who was singing in the mid-Sixties."
Marcus sets Dylan in the dark musical tradition he delineated in Mystery Train. In the Scorsese documentary No Direction Home, a 1966 concert in Newcastle is described as "unspeakably intense... a dervish possessed by a god you don't want to meet." Though humour is not Marcus's strong suit, he admits a lighter moment when describing a 1991 performance of "Masters of War" in which "Dylan broke the words down... until 'Jesus', 'Guns', 'Die' lit up the night like a tracer bullet." Later asked to explain his slurred delivery, His Bobness sniffed: "I had a cold."
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