Saturday, April 09, 2005

Yet another side of Bob Dylan

Thoughts on Greil Marcus' Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads

Marcus has always had an unique relationship to Dylan. One of his most famous reviews (of Self Portrait) began "What is this shit?" It got him canned from Rolling Stone and Dylan supposedly replied that he felt the same way about Marcus' review. Five years later, Marcus was writing liner notes for commercial release of the fabled The Basement Tapes. One of his recent books, Invisible Republic (1997) dealt specifically with that record. When asked about Dylan's response to the book, Marcus replied that he knew that Dylan had read it and he was satisfied with that. Just this year, he co-edit a book about American ballads (The Rose & The Briar) with Sean Wilentz, a Princeton professor and historian-in-residence at Dylan's official website.

Probably the most striking feature of Marcus' work is always how he can find disparate threads to tie together and make them seem like they weren't happy accidents but purposeful positionings- these include historical incidents, anecdotes, asides, social and political events. While his book Lipstick Traces surely confused some people, anyone who could get past the disjointed narrative found a wealth of intriguing details about the modern day history of extremist art dissent leading up to the Sex Pistols. Also, savor how he can take about a song and make it sound like the most thrilling experience you can have from a record- think Jonathan Richman's "Roadrunner" in Lipstick Traces and the Drifters' "Money Honey" in this book, not to mention the song that's the subject of the book itself.

Bob Dylan is tougher terrain to focus on not just because so much has already been written about him but also because even after all of that's been said, he's still something of a mystery. Think of him as an onion- as you delve into layer upon layer, you find that each part is pretty much the same but also somewhat different too. His always-elusive quality is part of his appeal. Even his recent bio left as many questions as it answered. And just when you think he's used up all his aura, he amazes and confounds everyone by doing something like Victoria's Secret ad or putting out amazing records long after his muse was thought to have dried up. It's no wonder that he's a hero of old shape-shifting rockers like David Bowie (who named a song for him) and Bryan Ferry (whose first solo album began with a wonderfully campy version of "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall").

Marcus chooses to focus on what is and isn't Dylan's signature song- one of his best known songs but as Marcus says, it won't wipe away "Blowin' In the Wind" or "Mr. Tambourine Man." One important difference is that unlike many of his other greatest hits, his original is still the definitive version so far: compare it to covers by Barry and the Remains, Michael Bolton, Glen Campbell, Cher, Sebastian Cabot, Dino, Desi & Billy, Flatt & Scruggs, John Hammond Jr, Hugo Montenegro, Robyn Hitchcock, The Rascals, Rolling Stones, Nancy Sinatra, Mick Ronson, the Sufaris, Johnny Thunders, Turtles and Johnny Winter where it's not even close. Marcus notes Hendrix's version at the Monterey Pop Festival as a great effort but it still doesn't wipe away the original. While his catalog has provided a lot of hit songs and memorable covers for other artists, that's not the case for "Stone." Why is it of such a piece? That's what Marcus tries to answer in the span of his book.

Even in the world of Highway 61 Revisited, "Stone" is still unique. Compare it to mournful, even more acidic "Ballad of A Thin Man" or the warmer "Queen Jane Approximately" or the epic "Desolation Row." The closest match might be "Positively Fourth Street" but that doesn't emit the rush of sound and emotion of "Stone" or have the gravity or assurance either. If there's anything about Dylan that pins him as unique, it's that assurance- even when he throws off duff lines (like "The sky's not yellow, it's CHICK-EN" on "Tombstone Blues"), his force of personality puts it over anyway, the same way that Groucho Marx can plow through a flurry of one-liner jokes before hitting a zinger that kills you or how Jackson Pollock literally used broad strokes that went everywhere on literally larger-than-life canvases.

Another close call for "Stone" might be Mouse and the Traps' "A Public Execution." This garage classic, collected on Nuggets, has the elements down: the whinny vocal, the sunny organ, the curly-cue guitar lines before the chorus. It likely fooled some people to think it was Dylan playing the song but other than being an obvious imitation, it also lacked the language (and clearer production) of "Stone." Even if that language was leaping and running past anything else that was on the radio at the time, Dylan's music was still grounded in the foundation of rock, as if to say that the style could evolve into something so complex yet so simple. Compare that to the urge that rock's other royalty was feeling to progress the music in the mid/late 6o's and you see what a bold statement Dylan's 'conservatism' was (i.e. Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding).

But if you look past "Stone"'s music and listen just to what the words promise or dare, there's even more at stake. While the verses berate an unknown/universal subject for being too big for their britches, the chorus goes on to lay out the promise and the horror of the open road ahead.

How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

One song where Marcus draws a parallel to "Stone" is the Pet Shop Boys' version of the Village People's "Go West." The Boys take up the promise of a utopia out there that won't or can't even happen now but their unwavering believe in this dream makes it all the more noble. But if this sums up the heart of "Stone," so does Talking Heads' "Road To Nowhere." As a chorus starts out:


Just like in the chorus of "Stone," you still have the same two conflicting feelings going on: a wide-eyed giddy sense of adventure and a naive read of a vast landscape that can and will eat you up, no matter how hip you might think you are. It's the same impulse that fuelled and destroyed the protagonists of the movie Easy Rider, whose title song was written by Roger McGuinn with some help from Dylan. But if "The Ballad of Easy Rider" laid out the singer's hope to travel and flow freely like a body of water, "Stone" also had that hope implied but also knew the dangers of it.

But even if it was the occasion of Dylan having a huge hit of his own, "Stone" went beyond that to cause shockwaves throughout the music world. As Marcus explains, Dylan's song terrified not just bands trying to keep up but also producers and songwriters trying to read tea leaves about what was happening and what was coming. It was almost a B.C.-A.D. time line in their lives as they were trying to figure out what the hell they were going to do now that "Stone" was haunting the airwaves.

Dylan himself never settled on it, not because he was sick of the song but more because he was curious about it. He covers "Stone" on numerous live records but he toys with it (as he does with many of his old songs), changing little things as if to say that it's still a work in progress as far as he's concerned and not written down permanently as many fans hope or believe. It's as if he's saying that it can't be pinned down.

And would we want to find out what "Stone" is 'really about'? Marcus knows better than to try to crack that nut- he spends pages delving into the essence of the music but much less time on the meaning of the words themselves so much as the sound of them and how they come out of Dylan's mouth. That fact is that we savor not just the sharp poetry but also the general ambiguity that Dylan refuses to nail down, which is at once striking and yet baffling.

It's that slippery and familiar quality that we love so much from the best prose, occupying our imagination. A recent Scotsman article declared Verse broadens the mind, the scientists find (much more so than novels) and indeed that's the stimulus we find in Dylan's greatest songs: back in the day, his work readily filled need of intellectuals who were already smitten by early Beatles, harping on flighty things like 'Aeolian cadence' (which the Fabs surely had a chuckle over).

But again, what we see in Marcus' book is the focus on the music and the event of "Stone" itself. While providing exhaustive detail for the true fan and also a demystifying of the process, the book's epilogue details all of the takes of "Stone," including flubbed takes, botched intros, etc.. Just as Godard's One Plus One took apart a Rolling Stones' recording session for "Sympathy For the Devil" to show how banal rock (even rock history) can become, we see the same for Dylan's song even if the details tell us revealing things about how this grand work came into being.

But the ground's been trod so much on "Stone" elsewhere too. In interviews, Al Kooper is sick of telling the story about how he played on that tune. In an otherwise boring 60 Minutes interview, Dylan himself just shrugged when asked what his reaction was to the song being chosen at the numero one rock tune of all-time by Rolling Stone.

I believe him too. As he went on to explain, that's what they say about him today but who knows what they'll say tomorrow. He'll reinvent himself and his song another day, not concerned if he or they live up to what people hoped they'd be. He's a traveler, a restless wanderer and we savor his journey.


Blogger Perfect Sound Forever said...

To follow-up on this, there's a fine interview with Marcus in the San Francisco Chronicle, explaining more about his deep-running Dylan connection- evidently, they're fans of each other.

10:00 PM  

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