Mateo's Reviews > Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads

Like a Rolling Stone by Greil Marcus
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Aug 10, 09


One stroll through the music section of any bookstore immediately brings to mind one question: Why are there so many freaking books on Bob Dylan? Why are there entire bookshelves devoted to this man and so few about other poets? Why are people not penning books about John Greenleaf Whittier?

(One answer: because Bob Dylan, in addition to having written some of the most astonishing songs in pop history, is the most astute and relentless self-mythologizer since his friend and mentor Johnny Cash; by many accounts, Dylan is apparently something of a prick who has made "never apologize, never explain" an accessory as necessary to his legend as sunglasses and motorcycle boots.)

Like many suburban teenagers, I spent years as a Dylan fanatic--listening to the same dozen or so albums (including bootlegs) over and over and over again, hundreds of times, thousands of times. I don't regret that too much, because that was great music, and, besides, Dylan was my doorway to Baudelaire and Ginsberg and Howling Wolf and Hank Williams. I was almost equally devoted to Greil Marcus's Mystery Train, a grand work of imagination and perception that was every bit as much of a doorway into poetry, history, and music. Over the years I've read a few other Marcus books, and while they've always had their flaws, they were always interesting, always worthwhile.

Except for this one. This is the Greil Marcus book you were always afraid he might write.

With Marcus, there was always the danger that his flights of allusion and imagination might lead him right off into the deep end of the pool, and that he'd wind up wandering around the back yard of rock and roll spewing long ribbons of verbiage about The Platters and the last Sex Pistols concert and Doris Day and Chester Alan Arthur and Elvis's penis. And it finally happened, because this is a book that, frankly, needs a tin-foil hat. It isn't criticism, it's a combination of hero-worship and gushing logorrhea that occasionally veers over the edge of incoherence. Marcus always had a tendency to fill his prose with helium, but his earlier books always had a thesis to serve as a tether (fun vs. puritanism in Mystery Train; influence of the Symbolistes on punk in Lipstick Traces, the links to old-time music in Invisible Republic, etc.), whereas this book seems to be Tiger Beat for the intellectual class; one can't help think that if Marcus had just spent 10 minutes in Bob Dylan's crotch, he could have saved the life of many a pulp tree.

One of the main problems with this book is that if you don't already think that "Like a Rolling Stone" is the greatest song ever, you're not going to be convinced that it is. Rather, you're going to feel like there's a Monty Python fan in the room, nudging you in the arm and saying, "Oooh, oooh, this part is good, this part is good! Listen to this!" I mean, I've probably listened to "Like a Rolling Stone" hundreds of times, and I don't think it's even the best song, or one of the top four songs, on its own album, and nothing in this book made me think otherwise. Look, there's someone out there who feels the same way about Prince or Foghat or Squirrel Nut Zippers, and he could write a similar book, and the only difference would be that a book about a more recent song wouldn't feel like it was another gasp by Boomers telling each other how great the music was back then, man. You know, honestly, I would have preferred a book on Fountains of Wayne.

Oh, and as a final comment: I was at Dylan's new-Christian 1980 Warfield concert that Marcus considers a triumphant, transcendent artistic experience. It wasn't, though. It was shitty, is what it was. So much so that it made me realize that Bob Dylan was just a very talented guy who'd written, years before, some damn fantastic songs, and it was time to move on to X and Black Flag and Elvis Costello and the Talking Heads and....
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