My friend J.D. hates Steve Earle. I mean, he writes entire sections of comic books he sells at his band’s shows devoted to hating on Earle – the leftiMy friend J.D. hates Steve Earle. I mean, he writes entire sections of comic books he sells at his band’s shows devoted to hating on Earle – the leftist, terrorist-loving, drug-addled, out-of-it Steve Earle that exists in J.D.’s own quite-strange mind. It could be professional jealousy, as J.D. fronts a Nashville rockabilly band that (to my knowledge) has never been invited to open for Earle, or it could just be that J.D.’s a bit of a backwoods arch-conservative and it’s purely ideological.
I say all this because I feel it’s important to say that I don’t hate Steve Earle. He writes some of the most stirringly romantic rock and roll/country happening anywhere near Nashville (barring, of course, the Old Crow Medicine Show), and I tend to agree with a lot of his ideology, if not his stridency. But this, his first venture into the literary world, reveals his limitations. He can condense a story, an emotion, even a basic truth into three chords and a melody as well as most anyone, but the man is not a story writer.
And, to be fair, he strikes out soundly from a few different angles. There are the thinly-disguised cheesily romanticized biographical pieces that should have never made it past a decent editor like , say, the title track (er, story) and “Billy the Kid,” thin cardboard characters acting out his political dogmas like “The Red Suitcase” and “The Witness,” attempts to makes stories out of songs like “Taneytown” and “A Well-Tempered Heart,” and a few variations thereof.
And here I’ll admit a little professional jealousy of my own – as a writer, I have to say it pisses me off to see people who should never see publication past a vanity press getting book tours and big-press circulation entirely because they’re good at an entirely different medium. But I guess Rick Moody struck back on behalf of the writers with his Wingdale Community Singers, a band equally bad as the collection. And that’s something, I guess. ...more
This is what seems to be a word-for-word reissue of Marcus’s Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, confusingly given a completely differentThis is what seems to be a word-for-word reissue of Marcus’s Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, confusingly given a completely different title. In the Author’s Note, Marcus says this is the title he originally wanted to give it. I have to say, they still got it wrong. The new subtitle, The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, is an improvement, but still doesn’t completely address the main fault with every title and subtitle given so far – the book isn’t really about Dylan, and only tangentially about the Basement Tapes. It’s just as much about Harry Smith and his Anthology of American Folk Music, and in fact gives probably as much space to the relatively unknown Dock Boggs as it does Dylan or The Band, and it’s just as much an attempt to mythologizes history as it is a work of musical criticism.
This isn’t necessarily a complaint – one could argue that folk music’s primary function is to mythologize history, and Marcus is simply attempting the same thing as the musicians he writes about. Boggs, for example, would make a logical choice for a book with this intention, as there’s not that much written about him (especially compared to Bob Freakin’ Dylan) and Harry Smith gives in the liner notes and Boggs gives in his own recorded conversations cloak him in both mystery and danger, two of Marcus’s defining elements of the “old, weird America.”
And this is what’s best about the book, and its intentions – Marcus frequently does succeed at his central aim of showing the ominous mythic undercurrents of not just the music of Dylan, The Band, Dock Boggs, or any of the musicians singing of this old, weird America, but also the irony of, for example, civil rights protesters’ sense of betrayal when Dylan essentially denounced his leadership of them and took away their mythic prototype, or the eerie forlornness of the Cumberland Gap or North Carolina tar fields that produced the Carter Family, Frank Hutchison, and of course the eminent Boggs.
But the book has its flaws, most of them stemming from the fact that most music critics (besides Marcus, Nick Tosches and Samuel Charters come to mind) the subject and delivery just aren’t up to the task of a book-length work. Marcus’s impeccable Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music is a thematically cohesive collection of meditations on the relationship between fact and fiction, myth and antecedent which works nearly perfectly, mostly because none of the individual pieces runs over 10 pages. The Old, Weird America feels like one of Marcus’s less fastidious editors told him to take a related 10-page article and somehow make a book of it, and Marcus decided to fill in the blanks with tired half-metaphorical imagined Americana like “Smithville” (named after Harry Smith – get it?) and “Kill Devil Hills” that he beats into the ground over the last half of the book. (Unlike Tosches, though, at least Marcus spares his audience the boring and pretentious details of his own personal and professional life to make his word count.)
NOTE: In a strange case of inverted logic, the most solid critical research is provided in the 40-page discography at the back of the book, with some revealing background research on both Dylan and the folk songs mentioned in the body of the book. Dylan and American folk music aficionados looking for something they don’t know already will probably want to pick up this volume just for those last pages. ...more
I love, love, love Barthes’ ability to use formal, critical terms like “representation” and “cosmology” in such a graceful, artistic way. I also loveI love, love, love Barthes’ ability to use formal, critical terms like “representation” and “cosmology” in such a graceful, artistic way. I also love the way he writes about whatever he happens to be reading or watching on TV or at the movies at any given time — Einstein, professional wrestling, dishonest criticism, toy advertisements — making each essay seem simultaneously like a primary historical document and a universal statement on humanity. The long essay “Myth Today” at the end is a bit, well, long, but each of the short pieces is a gem....more