A music review! We take a look at “Now” – Chicago XXXVI (36).
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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at you, Greil, as those would be the perfect words to describe this $30 collection of essays, previously published and unpublished.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.
I used to work with a program that trained local prosecutors (deputy district attorneys) and public defenders. One aspect often covered at these trainings was the importance of opening and closing arguments in a criminal trial, and the point was usually made that these arguments needed to be “tight” rather than rambling and lengthy. I often see a parallel with book reviews…
To me, book reviews are both opening and closing arguments. They are an opening argument when it comes to introducing a reader to a book that he/she is considering purchasing. The review says, “Here is what this book is about, and why it may be of interest to you.” But it should also warn, “I don’t know about your own tastes, so I’m going to provide you with my perspective on this novel/nonfiction book.”
The same review is a closing argument when it attempts to convince the prospective reader that this is either something worth reading or passing by. “I think this novel is great because…” or “I really tried to read this survey book about _____ but I just couldn’t grab on to it…” The key, though, is that the closing argument is not about TRUTH in capital letters – a review is an opinion piece, and the opinion is only as good as the structure of the argument it holds.
What I love about reading book reviews is not the bottom line – did this reader/reviewer love or hate the book – but the validity of the argument that takes us to the buy/don’t buy recommendation. Is it logical, is it well structured, is it internally consistent (not a review that praises the author’s writing style at one point while attacking it somewhere else), is it honest? If I write a review indicating that I love a book, I’m just as interested in other reviews that praise or condemn the book. Why? Because I’m not looking to win an argument, I’m looking to see how each and every reviewer made their arguments.
Is there a difference between positive and negative reviews? Yes, I think so. It’s much easier to convince the average reader that you, the reviewer, love a book because (as has been said so many times before) everyone loves good news. If I pick up an interesting-looking new novel at Borders and then use my BlackBerry to find reviews, I’m quite pleased to see 4-and 5-star reviews and flat-out recommendations. I’m much less pleased to do a digital search only to read that this book is a disaster. But, wait, maybe it isn’t – maybe I need to see how good a case is made by those who are criticizing it.
Decades ago, I used to read music reviews in every major publication of the time. There were a number of reviewers that I really admired, including one in particular who never liked the same things I did. But that reviewer always made a great case for his position, an enlightened and entertaining case. He wrote a brilliant negative review of one classic album in a single sentence!
So, yes, it’s not the length of the argument that counts. It’s not the size of the dog in the fight but the amount of fight in the dog. And the next time you read a book review, you may want to ask yourself, “Did this reviewer deliver both an opening and closing argument this time around?” Don’t forget that you are the juror in the court of public opinion, and it’s your vote that counts each and every time.
Pictured: The Good Daughters: A Novel by Joyce Maynard.
The Cambridge Companion to The Beatles, edited by Kenneth Womack (Cambridge University Press)
“(George) Martin was more impressed with the Beatles charisma than their early material.”
The Cambridge Companion to The Beatles is an excellent collection of essays concerning the band’s work. This compendium manages to cover their musical career from simple rockers to complicated composers without missing a beat. The chapter, “The Beatles as recording artists” quotes freely from recording engineer Geoff Emerick. Although it’s a fine summary in a couple of dozen pages, it does not take the place of Emerick’s essential work, Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Beatles.
As with every account of the Beatles, things start out fine and fun before ending in the train wreck of the band’s dissolution. We begin with Meet the Beatles and end up with the mishmash digital meddling – and mess – of Love. It remains, all in all, a sad story. (Hey Jude, anyone?)
One of the writers notes that major educational institutions – like Cambridge – now see the Beatles as a bona fide topic of scholarly inquiry. Fine, but collections like this one completely omit the spirit of the Fab Four; their human energy if you will. This reviewer thinks that mythologizing the Beatles is more destructive than constructive. After all, as John Lennon said, they were just four guys in a band. That was enough.