The Shape of Things to Come, by Greil Marcus

Discord in the city on a hill
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The Independent Culture

Greil Marcus, reigning top banana of American rock critics, has stories to tell about the collision of restless musical innovation with a greedy recording industry doing its level best to suck creativity dry, and make money doing so. That David and Goliath story has simplified our understanding of rock, and Marcus rejects it. Rather, he has been obsessed by more complex moments of confrontation, such as Bob Dylan's appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963.

As he vividly told it in Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes, Dylan walked on stage with a Fender Stratocaster, and the shocked audience booed. Backstage, his friends were thinking that this was a lynch-mob. In England, Dylan was accused of being a Judas. With an electronic guitar in his hand, Dylan's back turned towards the audience felt like an act of betrayal.

Coinciding with the early stages of the civil rights movement, the folk revival of the early 1960s saw itself as a crusade for national renewal. In an America reeling from assassinations and racial violence, the songs of the people, especially poor black people in the rural south, possessed a redeeming moral force. Electronic guitars embodied the big-money, high-technology corporate world that repeatedly strangled the authentic voice of the people.

Marcus sees this extraordinary moment as a touchstone of modern culture. He is on Dylan's side, saying in effect that he had to follow where "Like a Rolling Stone" was leading him. In that song he had become a preacher, a voice judging America. He stood alone. Old pieties and loyalties had to be left behind.

The Shape of Things to Come suggests that Dylan's song belongs to a tradition of prophecy that goes far beyond preachers and sermons. Amid the post-11 September flag-waving and patriotism, Marcus has been listening to other voices saying that America has fallen far from its truest self.

The prophetic voice of the 17th-century Puritan leader John Winthrop, proclaiming that the future of the New World was to be a "cittie upon a hill", was glossed by that incomparable salesman of uplift, Ronald Reagan, as a "shining city upon a hill". Along the way, Winthrop's intent disappeared. Americans were to have a special place and visibility because they were to be judged by God, and righteously punished for their sins. All this was lost. The US mainstream has preferred fairy tales of national innocence.

In his second inaugural address in 1864, Abraham Lincoln envisaged an abyss of punishment for the many sins of slavery: "If God wills that it [the Civil War] continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether'."

Prophets have seldom been presidents or comfortable men of social prominence. They are Ishmaels, rejected and driven to the margins. In the recording of the Dylan concert in 1963, Marcus hears another set of voices: screaming whites in Little Rock, Arkansas, trying to prevent the integration of Central High School, and jeering students on the Ole Miss campus in Oxford, Mississippi, determined to stop the admission of black students to a white institution.

In America after 11 September, the smell of mob violence, of moral lynchings, was in the air again. As Marcus writes, in popular culture, at the blink of an eye, "the republic itself can vanish in an instant, leaving each American unknown to every other, with nothing in common, in a state of nature, 'a war of all against all', where the mob can come for anyone at any time."

Marcus writes of three complex, unexpected voices of prophecy in contemporary American culture: in the trilogy of novels by Philip Roth, beginning with American Pastoral; in the films of David Lynch; and in a rock musician from Cleveland named David Thomas, who has never made the charts and never had a hit. Marcus is lively, obstreperous, often outrageous and always digressive. He relishes the slam-dunk possibilities of specific references to concerts, albums, bootleg recordings, and obscure punk fanzines.

Beneath the razzmatazz, he is a Berkeley-educated critic, whose seminar in cultural criticism at Princeton was, well, serious. Strip away the paraphernalia, and calm down the style, and you might think you were reading one of those celebrated American doom-sayers, Susan Sontag or Harold Bloom.

Eric Homberger's cultural guide to New York City is published by Signal Books