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Mr. Tambourine Man

Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010 (Public Affairs; $29.95; 481 pages)

“You have to pay to get out of going through these things twice.”   Bob Dylan

In 1985, rock critic Greil Marcus was asked to review the book A Darker Shade of Pale: A Backdrop to Bob Dylan by Wilfred Meller, and his review began with these words:  “This is a confused and confusing book about a confused and confusing figure: Bob Dylan, born 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota, as Robert Alan Zimmerman.”   Well, back at you, Greil, as those would be the perfect words to describe this $30 collection of essays, previously published and unpublished.   They all deal in some way – and some barely – with the subject of Bob Dylan.   It might be said that Marcus’ essays on the man are dazed and confused.

It’s a bit shocking that Marcus does not come even close to enlightening the reader about Dylan the musician or the man.   That’s shocking because just last year, he released a brilliant tome about Van Morrison (reviewed on this site on August 26, 2010), When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison.   There, Marcus seemed to capture both Van’s heart and his soul, and it made the reader want to run to play his or her Morrison CDs.   He was spot on there; here, no way.

Marcus seems confused because there are four Bob Dylans:  the genius songwriter (“Like A Rolling Stone,” “Visions of Johanna”); the oh-so-casual writer of throw-away songs (“Watching the River Flow,” “Rainy Day Women No.s 12 & 35 [Everybody Must Get Stoned]”);  the overly serious, angry and controlling musician (where there are similarities to Morrison); and the Joker, whose every action and comment is a complete put-on.   Because Marcus cannot reconcile these four personalities in one person, he appears continually lost as to what’s going on with Mr. Hughes in his Dylan shoes.   Sometimes he loves Dylan, sometimes he’s disappointed by him, sometimes he blasts him, but mostly he’s watching the parade go by and  wondering about the meaning of it all.

As an example, he prints a section of the interview that Dylan gave to Playboy magazine back in 1966.   The entire interview is a big joke – although it was lost to the magazine’s editors – and none of it is real.   But Marcus has no comment on it.

One problem is that to properly understand and analyze Dylan, one must have a breadth of background as big and wide as Dylan’s.   Such is not the case in this compilation…  At one point Marcus does note that Dylan has relied on religious writings as the inspiration for many of his songs (the same is true of philosophers, not just prophets), but he does not supply any actual references.   It’s a shame and one has to wonder if Marcus cribbed that point from another writer.

The writing is dull and flat and lacks the excitement of, say, a Lester Bangs or a John Mendelsohn.   And yet when Van Morrison appears on the scene, as when Marcus writes of The Band’s final concert, The Last Waltz, the writing is suddenly sparkling – until Morrison leaves the stage, and it returns to being flat.   So it seems that Marcus simply gets Morrison in a way that will never apply to Dylan.

“Along with a lot of other things, becoming a Bob Dylan fan made me a writer.   I was never interested in figuring out what the songs meant.”

As you can see from this quotation, you’re not going to get much from Greil Marcus that’s going to help you understand Bob Dylan’s songs…  Except…  Except that he includes an almost-perfect review of Dylan’s singular 10-song masterpiece Blood on the Tracks.   Which, as the Chuck Berry song says, goes to show you never can tell.

Marcus was quite tough in that ’85 review of Wilfred Meller’s book:  “Meller’s language collapses along with his conceptual apparatus.”   That sounds very harsh and professorial, does it not?   Getting back to Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus, I’ll just say that there’s far less here than one would expect from a writer who wrote the liner notes to one of Bob Dylan’s major albums.   Making your way through all of this is like going on an Easter egg hunt where no one finds any of the eggs.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Over and Over

The Boomers in our audience will remember what things used to be like during the late 1950s and the early 60s.   A recording artist, like Chubby Checker, would have a hit with a song like The Twist; which meant that the follow-up 45 single had to sound as close to it as humanly possible (this usually meant a virtually identical tune with different words attached to it).   In Chubby’s case, the next song was Let’s Twist Again.   It is to the credit of the Beatles that they broke this pattern of releasing songs that were virtual clones of each other.

Sometimes as a reader and reviewer I see this same pattern applying itself when it comes to popular fiction.   Let’s say that our debut author Christy Crafty writes a novel called Becky from Bakersfield.   Against seemingly all odds this story of a woman who can see what is going to happen in people’s futures becomes a moderate success.   So what happens next?   You guessed it, Christy does not want to rock the boat so she releases a follow-up (and the titles and book covers will naturally be quite similar) called Florence from Fresno.   This will turn out to be almost the same tale except for the fact that this time around our female protagonist can see what happened in the past of the lives of the strangers she meets.   The third book may be Sally from Stockton, about a woman who knows when people will die as soon as she encounters them.

Now this may not be such a horrible strategy from a sales standpoint, except for the fact that book one is likely going to get great reviews, and each succeeding variation is going to be less charitably commented on.   Eventually, Christy herself is likely to see that she’s put herself into a rut.   And then even her most loyal readers will begin calling for something new and original from her.

Why are reviewers and readers going to be increasingly disappointed in this commercial product?   Because the freshness that accompanied the original novel from author Crafty is slowly leaked out like air from a damaged tire.   The once delightful story that gets reworked over and over again becomes dull and flat.

It is my own view – and it’s much easier for me to say since I do not write novels – that the moderately to highly successful new author should, after the release of the first well-sold and reviewed novel, quickly change styles before the release of the second book.   Why?   To prove to readers, critics and the world that he/she is a writer, one who can write novels of many forms, short stories, poetry (if the muse strikes), and perhaps articles on politics and sports.   Again, why?   Because this is the creative process – this is the essence of writing.   Writing the same story repeatedly is not creative and fails to display one’s talents.

It was the singer Natalie Merchant who noted that you simply cannot give the public what it thinks it wants, which is candy (musical or literary) all of the time.   If you do, the public gets tired of you after it comes down from the sugar high – the false creative rush.   Once they get tired of the same old thing, they not only stop buying it, they also join the critics in their anguished howls.

So what is the moral of the story?   That creativity has its costs.   Being creative, continually and over a career, takes courage.   It takes real courage to write what you need to write even if it is not what you wrote before…

Just look at the careers of this country’s most highly rewarded authors – the Capotes, the Mailers and others of their ilk – and you’ll see that they did not settle for rewriting one story time after time.   (Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood could not be less similar.)   They branched out; they changed even if simply for change’s sake.   They stayed alive, as the Beatles did with their music, ever evolving, ever-growing; each and every collection of songs by John, Paul, George and Ringo was the result of new periods and experiences in their lives.

To borrow the words of Bob Dylan, life should be about new mornings.   It’s not dark yet, unless you elect to go living in the past, the shades drawn tight.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:  The Girl in the Green Raincoat: A Tess Monaghan Novel by Laura Lippman, which was released by William Morrow and Harper Audio on January 18, 2011.   This book (actually a 176 page novella) has absolutely no relationship to the matters discussed in this article – I simply like the intriguing cover image which makes me want to read it.   Look for a review of The Girl in the Green Raincoat to appear on this site in the near future.

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