Tag Archives: Public Affairs

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at you, Greil, as those would be the perfect words to describe this $30 collection of essays, previously published and unpublished.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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In the City

The Archaeology of Home: An Epic Set in A Thousand Square Feet of the Lower East Side by Katharine Greider (Public Affairs; $26.99; 352 pages)

Freelance writer Katherine Greider works hard at doing right by her subject, a one hundred and fifty-year-old tenement building in New York City’s Lower East Side where she and her husband, David Andrews, spent several years creating their first real home.   The Archaeology of Home is her second book; however, due to the personal nature of the subject matter, it feels like it is the first.

There’s an almost self-conscious and nostalgic tone to the descriptions Ms. Greider provides the reader about her own experiences in the humble abode.   She emphasizes the overwhelming evidence that we are heavily impacted by the place we call home.   Our daily lives are filled with immediate issues and the layers of other lives lived before our occupancy are quite invisible to us.   This layering of past lives seems novel and foreign to someone who currently occupies a 16-year-old development home in California that was brand new when it was purchased.

Ms. Greider begins the book with a painstakingly constructed history of the geography and populations that inhabited the Lower East Side area where Number 239, East Seventh Avenue now sits.   The reader is made painfully aware of the appropriation of land from the Native Americans who had existed in the swampy area for hundreds of years before the arrival of Europeans who imposed their style of cultivation and land division upon the place.   Greider uses a monumental vocabulary that borders on pretentiousness when describing the various waves of inhabitants.   Perhaps it is the source material that’s influenced her voice?   Regardless, the reader may need the assistance of a dictionary or Google to clarify the meaning of some of the oblique words she’s chosen.

The tale warms up as does Greider’s voice when she gets to the relationships that matter most to her.   The two children she and her husband bring into the world during their occupancy of Number 239 are somewhat incidental to the telling.   Rather, it is her marriage and the travails she endures sorting out the meaning of living in a space with others that seems to dominate her personal revelations.

Some years into the author’s occupancy, Number 239 is deemed uninhabitable by building officials as its foundation has crumpled and the damp basement is a harsh reminder of the original swamp where the building was placed a century and a half ago.   Because Greider and her husband are co-op owners, they must deal with the other members of the co-op in order to decide the fate of the structure.   Their struggle is easy to relate to for anyone who has been a dweller in a multi-unit building or planned unit development.   No spoiler alert needed here as a quick search of Zillow will reveal the current status of the location.

The Archaeology of Home is an interesting and admirable, though flawed, effort by a New Yorker who clearly loves the notion of small parts of a city being home in the truest sense.   The reviewer spent the summer of 1968 living at 404 East 66th Street and enjoyed the sense of community found within the enormity of New York City.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Silence is Golden

The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise by Garret Keizer (Public Affairs, $27.95, 385 pages)

“Lou Reed’s (music) is not noise; Gregorian Chant piercing my bathroom wall is.”

This is a highly entertaining and sometimes annoying survey account of noise around the world and its impact on humans.   Garret Keizer occasionally cites relevant points, such as that one’s reaction to noise is often tied to personal factors.   If I’m married to a professional pilot, the noise from the nearby airport does not bother me the way it troubles my neighbors.   (Human transportation remains the number one noisemaker around the world.)   He also notes, importantly, that we do not become “used to” noise, and that its damage to our ears is all too permanent.

But Keizer also includes considerable material of little relevance that seems to be an attempt to justify his travels around the globe in the guise of doing research for this book.   Is he serious about discussing the noise made by foreign sex workers?   Keizer also makes one whopper of a questionable pronouncement, which is that noise is something imposed on us against our will.   If we enjoy something, such as rock music, it is not noise.   Nonsense.   I love Live at Leeds by The Who but played at any volume it remains noise, even if a joyful one.

This compilation of random thoughts and scientifically based findings on noise is interesting but meandering.   The editor was missing in action.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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Into the Mystic

When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison by Greil Marcus (Public Affairs, 208 pages, $25.95)

“To this day it gives me pain to hear it.   Pain is the wrong word – I’m so moved by it.”   Lewis Merenstein, producer of Astral Weeks

listening-to-van-morrison

Greil Marcus has provided the world with a love letter – one addressed to Van Morrison.   Anyone who’s heard Van Morrison’s music is likely to admire this book.   It’s one of the few nonfiction books in which the Prologue and Introduction do not serve as unnecessary baggage, Marcus taking us back to the world of a very young Morrison with Them.

Rough God (the title taken from a line of poetry by Yeats) is a series of essays on the artist as a young and very mature man rather than a conventionally structured biography.   The entire point of the book, however, is to pay tribute to Morrison’s now 41-year-old masterpiece, Astral Weeks.   The producer of the record said that just 30 seconds into recording the album, “My whole being was vibrating.”   Marcus delves deeply into what Lester Bangs called the “mystical awe that cut right through the heart of the work.”

If you’ve never quite understood the meaning of Astral Weeks, Marcus translates it and makes it clear.   This in itself is worth the price of admission, as if one were unlocking the core of Pet Sounds or Rubber Soul.  This work also examines some of Morrison’s lesser known recordings.   Like his song “Domino,” it’s joyful noise.

Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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Up On The Roof: A Review of What Else But Home

What ElseThe subtitle of this book by Michael Rosen is Seven Boys and an American Journey Between the Projects and the Penthouse.   Nicholas Whitaker, a friend of the author’s, wrote this about the book on his blog (a life less mediated):   “…it’s a touching story about fathers and sons, New York and baseball, race, growing up and struggling to be the best person one can be.”

The story itself is a positive one about how Rosen took in five kids from the local housing projects to live with him, his wife and two adopted sons.   It’s a nice tale in which everything turns out fine in the end (“Afterwards they went to college.”).   The problem I had was with the manner of telling the story, which made it a bit of a struggle to get to page 361.

It starts off well…   There’s a nice easy flowing style in the introduction which oddly disappears once we reach Chapter One and the thirteen that follow.   Rosen does his best to capture the urban slang used by Carlos, Kindu, Phil, Juan and Will; which is also sometimes imitated by his sons Ripton and Morgan.   This would have been interesting for, say, 10 or 15 pages but it persists quickly tiring the reader.

The word “right” is substituted  by “rah?”, “coming” by “comin”, “alright” by “Ollrot.”   It becomes even more tiring once you try to read passages of the boys’ dialogue written in this fashion.   Here’s an example:

“You stuuupid.   Phil, was, you whack,” Will pushed, his voice back to loud.   “You tight, n—-.   Tight, tight,” Carlos crouched…   “Tight you tight, n—-, tight.”   Ripton mimed Carlos.

Yes, a little of this goes a very, very long way.   Despite this, I did finish the book and I would recommend it to others with some tenacity and patience.   Deep down it’s a story about how tolerance and understanding can enable others to succeed.   It’s also about the shallowness of economic and rural barriers.   One of the best scenes in the book is one in which the kids from the projects, out on a nice night on the town with their second-father Rosen say to him – in effect – “You see now what (discrimination) we have to put up with?”  

Mr. Rosen is clearly a fine man who leads by example in his life.   Kudos to him.   I just wish that this book had been more finely edited – 75 pages could easily have been trimmed away – and that the gritty language had been translated into easier-to-read passages.

Maybe this would have worked better as an “as told to…” book or perhaps I’ll go back to this one day, re-read it and say:   “That was one inspiring story!   I wonder why it didn’t stick with me the first time around?”

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   Thanks to Public Affairs for the review copy!

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