Article

Alan Jacobs


It Ain't Me, Babe

Bob Dylan, reluctant prophet.

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As I first said, it's a privilege and an honor and a courtesy at this time and at this age to be able to confront you with something that may perhaps go down in your hearing and may be in history after I'm gone.

—Legendary Delta Bluesman Skip James, in concert, Circa 1967

1. This year Bob Dylan will be 58 years old. This does not seem very strange to me—not nearly so strange as the fact that, had he lived, John Lennon would have turned 58 last year, or that Paul McCartney will do so next year. Lennon and McCartney represented what came to be called, in the decade of the Beatles, "youth culture." Dylan may have appealed to many youths, but ultimately the sources of his power were to be found elsewhere: he never spoke as a young man, but rather as the custodian of ancient traditions. From his first arrival in New York City when he was still a teenager, he may have looked absurdly young, but he was clearly an old soul: all his songs said so. When, in 1967, Dylan retreated to a rented house in upstate New York with the group of musicians who would later be known as The Band, he so deeply immersed himself in country, gospel, and blues songs that no one around him could differentiate Dylan's own work from those old tunes.

As Robbie Robertson, The Band's guitarist and chief songwriter, told Greil Marcus, "He would pull those songs out of nowhere. We didn't know if he wrote them or remembered them. When he sang them, you couldn't tell." The songs Robertson refers to, or many of them anyway—some written by Dylan, some by his troubadour predecessors, some by no identifiable person—were released in 1975 (and repeatedly, before and after, in various bootleg versions) as The Basement Tapes, and they are the subject of Marcus's new book, Invisible Republic.

It is an amazingly bad book, filled with page after page of wobbly Kerouacky ramblings. The style is supposed to be hip and allusive; Marcus intends to impress us with his range of cultural reference and what he must think of as the panache with which he offers it to us. But what we really get are huge chunks of undisciplined prose that collectively constitute the best argument yet for the abolition of American Studies programs.

Here's an example, chosen almost at random, from Marcus's hermeneutically overdriven reading of a couple of lines from Dylan's song "Lo and Behold!" ("The coachman … asked me my name / I give it to him right away, and I hung my head in shame"):

"And he asked me my name," the singer remembers; as he spins the incident back, he can feel how he'd pulled away, and underneath the worry that's how he sings it, a cold half smile on his face, his fish-eye all over the coachman's mug. … His name? He's not supposed to have to tell his name. Suddenly all his confidence is gone, as if the seat holding his back has fallen away like the chorus giving up its last word. Now he is faced with a demand that goes just past the endlessly rehearsed gestures of fellowship and distance, acknowledgment and evasion, that in 1835, in Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville caught as the very stuff of a democratic walk down the street of the American small town—"that same small town in each of us," as Don Henley could still imagine in 1989, in "The End of the Innocence."

Let me make one thing perfectly clear: I do not object in principle to the citing of Tocqueville and a former member of the Eagles in the same sentence. Rather, I object to the fatuousness of this particular sentence. Don Henley aside, Marcus's references to popular music are usually well-chosen and appropriate, but his invocations of American "high" culture (Tocqueville, John Winthrop, Michael Wigglesworth, Lincoln's second inaugural address) are another matter, since they all seem to come straight from The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Was there any chance that Jonathan Edwards, whose portrait may be found on the back of the dust jacket of Invisible Republic, would be referred to here as anything other than the author of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"? As a cultural historian, Marcus is a rock-skimmer rather than a scuba diver.

Marcus has always had a propensity for stylistic hyperinflation and intellectual wooliness, but it has worsened as he has gotten older. It only occasionally afflicted his early and fascinating Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock and Roll Music (1975)—which has an excellent chapter on The Band—but it made Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century (1989) almost unreadable and Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession (1991) scarcely less so. Today one can say of Marcus's writing what Mark Twain said of Wagner's music: it has some wonderful moments, but some absolutely terrible quarters of an hour.

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