“So this is a book of cigarette butts,’’ Greil Marcus writes, without apology, in Folk Music – A Bob Dylan Biography In Seven Songs (Yale University Press; 288 pages), his latest attempt to interweave the complicated legacy of the Nobel Prize-winning hobo from Hibbing with Lincoln’s mystic chords of memory, our unresolved racial divide, and the “wild mercury sound’’ emanating from those trying to stand their ground in an invisible republic far outside the white noise of hot takes and cold comfort.
He’s referring, of course, to the unaccountable adulation Dylan (still) draws from armies of obsessed fans, quoting from a piece the late music critic Paul Nelson wrote in 1965 for the Little Sandy Review: “Dylan’s talent evoked such an intense degree of personal participation from both his admirers and detractors that he could not be permitted so much as a random action. Hungry for a sign, the world used to follow him around, just waiting for him to drop a cigarette butt.’’
It may seem like an impossible, perhaps preposterous quest, but it’s clear that Marcus is not voyeuristically poking around the ashes, or writing about the Bob Dylan, if such a personage even exists outside our multifarious imagination (the elderly gentleman offering random riffs in a book called The Philosophy of Modern Song surely isn’t the real McCoy) but using him as a starting point.
Summoning a gig at the Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village in 1962 where Zimmy performs an ode to Robert Johnson, which manages to combine appropriation with homage, Marcus writes, “Such a trickster’s gallery is an argument that there is no knowable self, not for anyone.’’ He makes the case that Dylan’s ability to enter other people’s lives—a far cry from the hostility with which he wards off unwelcome strangers—allow us to be present there, too.
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Ever the contrarian, Marcus deconstructs the anthemic “Blowin’ in the Wind’’ for “flattering the listener, taking for granted his or her own like-mindedness’’ and, for that matter, “The Times They Are A-Changin’’’—“so programmatic that it could have been written by a committee.’’ But he also interrogates his early responses, comparing Dylan covering the tune with his pals in the Band at Woodstock to an imaginary slow stripper’s blues. Asking how many roads a man walks down is not that different, in that end, than asking a lost debutante how it feels to be on her own, no direction known, a complete unknown. These koans answer themselves.
Similarly, the morphing of “The Times They Are A-Changin’’’ into the Oscar-winning tune, “Things Have Changed,’’ is less a betrayal than an acknowledgement of timeless battles and heartbreak. We are born to die, over and over again. “Things have changed,’’ Marcus writes. “That’s how history is made, or dissolved, when you step back and say, nothing ever really happened, and nothing ever will.’’
“Ain’t Talkin’,” he writes, “strikes similar same chords”: “Well, the whole wide world is filled with speculation/The whole wide world which people say is round/They will tear your mind away from contemplation/They will jump on your misfortune when you’re down.’’ He draws a connection between the way that song builds, and the epic “A Hard Rain’s A-’ Gonna Fall’’ (let’s not dwell on the Woody Guthrie-esque abbreviations in Dylan’s titles), which Patti Smith sang in Bob’s stead at the Nobel ceremony. “If he’s retracing the steps from that first journey’’ in the later song, “there’s no urgency, no possibility of seeing anything he hasn’t seen before…The singer doesn’t want to save the world, he wants to punish it for its failure.’’
All this may be too much exegesis for some, but Marcus’s willingness to suspend disbelief, walk down the mean streets most of us go out of our way to avoid, is engaging, provocative, and brave.
The one quibble is with the final chapter’s emphasis on “Murder Most Foul,’’ the 2020 epic covering everything from the Kennedy assassination to Wolfman Jack, the Rolling Stones and (unfortunately) Anne Frank. It carried some weight at the time, but quickly dissipated—in the wind, perhaps. And there are better tracks on the “Rough and Rowdy Ways’’ album it was ultimately included on, including the Whitmanic “I Contain Multitudes.’’
Let’s give Marcus credit for rejecting the simplistic interpretations by those who claimed the tune definitely proved that Dylan was definitely on board the Jim Garrison/Oliver Stone Kennedy conspiracy train. “Each piece was completely convincing and dedicated to the proposition that there is a one-dimensional explanation for anything—as, if explanation is what you’re looking for, there almost has to be,’’ he observes. As Billie Holiday once memorably put it: “Don’t explain.’’
Whatever shortcomings the song, name-checked from Hamlet, may have (praise be to Nero’s Neptune that he didn’t call it “Murder Most a’-Foul’’) are more than made up by Greil Marcus’ bravura coda, describing “a world gathering around a campfire of unanswerable questions,’’ including what the rest of us will do after (to quote another Robert Johnson song) the last fair deal’s gone down. “If you cry about a nickel, you’ll die about a dime,’’ or so we’ve been warned.