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Fragments of Dylan

Bob Dylan — Writings 1968-2010 by Greil Marcus (Faber and Faber)

Greil Marcus clearly thinks he’s the last word on Bob Dylan — the two names appear in the same 64 point gold capitals on the cover of his book.

Is he, though? This 448-page compendium of album and concert reviews spread over 40 years suggests that he often got it right, but that he missed some important tricks.

The format — a procession of generally brief articles — also leaves a fragmentary impression. What is lacking, one feels, is a global sense of the singer and his work.

The book starts with Marcus’s famous assessment of the woeful Self Portrait (“What is this shit?”) – essentially, it is a survey of what Dylan has done since the mid-1960s triple whammy of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde.

Few would quarrel with his assessment that this magisterial outpouring was Dylan’s gift to the ages, and that the only true comeback album has been Blood on the Tracks (although his 1999 memoir from beyond the grave, Time out of Mind, comes close).

Perhaps Marcus’s best review is a searing indictment of that slick, shallow piece of hot-gospelling propaganda, Slow Train Coming, where he argues that the life of the spirit is one of incessant struggle, not a platform for hymns of self-praise (“Born again!” “Rapture-ready!”)

But he is also capable of finding that the fraudulent New Morning is “one of (Dylan’s) best in years” and the country and western potboiler Nashville Skyline “one of the loveliest rock ‘n roll albums ever made”.

These albums now seem ephemeral — but more importantly, they both suffer from the same evasions and loss of intensity as the off-scourings of his evangelical period.

Outsider folk
Dylan is at his most compelling when he tries to confront the existential loneliness and anomie that are his deep nature. Neil Young and Steve Earle work in roughly the same area, but nothing else in popular music matches the pathos and claustrophobic, doom-laden atmosphere of such visionary songs as Hey Mr Tambourine Man and It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.

His worst albums are his least deeply felt, cobbled together when he is whistling in the dark, taking refuge in some specious optimism. It is when he is forced back on himself by the loss of love or comforting belief — Blood on the Tracks and Time Out of Mind both grew out of failed marriages — that he rediscovers his commitment.

It is a delusion, common on the left, to see Dylan as a political musician. Marcus is right to see such songs as Blowing in the Wind and The Times they are a Changin’ as opportunistic campaign jingles that he quickly left behind him.

Dylan is not a “joiner” and couldn’t give a hoot for collective action, as earnest anti-war campaigner Joan Baez discovered to her chagrin. It is the plight of isolated, suffering individuals — Hattie Carroll, Hollis Brown, “Hurricane” Carter — that stirs him, not movements and causes.

Hence the enduring place of the folk song in his work. “It’s all folk music!” he shouted with apparent irony when the purists booed his electrified band in England in the early Sixties — but he meant it, and he was right.

He started out as a superb interpreter of American roots music, the best of his generation. His own songs have always been deeply marked by its elemental motifs, distilled from the suffering of generations of ordinary people, of sex, death, revenge, betrayal, crime and punishment. No ideological abstractions here!>

What he calls “death’s honesty” is one of his most persistent themes, and with it the idea that the only redemptive force the cold cosmos has to offer is the love of men and women for each other. (“Don’t know what to do without it/Without this love that we call ours/Beyond here lies nothing/Nothing but the moon and stars.”)

Gaps in the story
It is a pity that Dylan’s very early material falls outside the scope of Marcus’s book. Released exactly 50 years ago to initial sales of just 5 000, his little-known first album, Bob Dylan, holds the key to his already fully formed musical personality.

All but two of the tracks are traditional, but interpreted so distinctively and with such burning conviction that they are to all intents and purposes original.

To audiences used to the sub-operatic flights of Joan Baez, the album introduced a new kind of vocal, harsh, deliberately unlovely, that cared only about the music’s emotional clout.

Dylan’s version of The House of the Rising Sun was pilfered from Greenwich Village guitarist Dave van Ronk and covered in its best-known, sanitised version by the Animals. But no other rendering of this folk standard approaches his impassioned identification with the doomed anti-heroine, the prototype of all the sorrowing victims of his later albums.

Almost every song on Bob Dylan alludes to death or treats it directly, with an intensity startling in a performer barely out of his teens.

Consider its closing track, the Blind Lemon Jefferson classic See that my Grave is Kept Clean. It is a 16-bar blues that sounds like something else — Dylan uses a folk guitar technique called “scratching” (he has never mastered blues guitar) and a vocal style drawn from the white South.

Yet none of that matters. So deeply felt is the theme, so charged with emotional truth, that the effect is overwhelming.

Marcus writes attractively and has generally reliable taste, but his miscellany of short reactive pieces is not a satisfying read.

It leaves the big questions — about what it is that makes Dylan unique, why he has been so influential and why he remains so important to so many people — substantially unanswered.

Drew Forrest is an associate partner of the M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, amaBhungane

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Drew Forrest
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