Greil Marcus likes to mythologize. Some of his finest work (especially that in Mystery Train) comes when he takes a musical act and enlarges it to enormous stature, in the process making it symbolize an aspect of its time, or of the American mind or some such thing. In Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads Marcus starts with an artist who’s already as mythic a figure as exists in pop music and hones in on a song that, despite Rolling Stone magazine naming it the best ever, still maintains credibility as an important cultural artifact. His work, then, is not to create a legend, but to contain one.
Marcus relies on two key ideas to propel his book: 1) that “Like a Rolling Stone”, the song, or more exactly, the specific recording that first came as a single in 1965 and later as the opening track on Highway 61 Revisited, is itself, an event; 2) that the music is a sound, in that its force lies in an audible aspect not merely the sum of various instruments and a singer. Despite his forays into surprising topics (such as the relationship between “Like a Rolling Stone” and the Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West”), Marcus always circles back to these ideas.
The first idea, the song as event, depends upon Marcus’s declaration that “the pull of the past was as strong as the pull of the future — and the pull of the future … was very strong.” As the song draws on the spirit of Son House and Hank Williams and Muddy Waters, it also dictates the sound (and the mind) of the country to come. It’s a heavy claim, and it’s one more buoyed along my Marcus’s own enthusiasm than by his critical work.
That scholarly side does show through, though. Marcus digs up quotations from Dylan and interviews numerous people associated with or involved in the recording. His discussions and research reflect on the impact of the song on Dylan, pop music, and America, but never so forcefully as his own energy; rather than convincing your intellect, Marcus simply makes you want to believe his theory. The idea that a turning point in American culture was crystallized in one song is absurd, but the idea that a recording is a significant event during a period of upheaval isn’t. And if nothing else, people want to believe or to remember that there was a time when music could have that sort of impact.
As much as anything else, Marcus claims, the actual sound of “Like a Rolling Stone” led to its great impact. On this topic, Marcus is less precise, but even more invigorated. He reads various performances of the song (from live performances to various releases to obscure bootleg versions) to point out just how unique the original release is. The song’s impact might have been at its greatest on the road, but it was in the studio (and we’re given an epilogue that runs down the takes from the entire two days of recording) where that guitar and organ and opening drum crack made history.
And please don’t forget that drum crack. Marcus obsesses over the snare shot to a degree that would be irritating if he wasn’t so much fun in his analysis. He even admits that he’s gone beyond musicology. He claims the moment is “completely singular — not, it’s plain, because it is singular, but because the drama created by the isolation of the sound for ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ perhaps the echo that surrounds it, for me erased all analogues.” When friends and colleagues point out the vast number of songs that start with a kick-off drum hit, Marcus responds directly: “I am sticking to my guns. There is nothing like it.” In moments like this one, as joyful as it is ridiculous and unacademic, Marcus doesn’t lack scholarship — he surpasses it.
Ultimately this enthusiasm makes the book successful. The stories, whether recounting studio work or investigating the tumultuous live performances after Dylan “went electric”, are interesting in their own right, but Marcus’s reveling makes them lively enough to be enjoyable. You might even miss how full of facts and details the book is — Marcus has done his research. It’s just that he’s carried away by the Romantic style of exploration that starts from within.
As great as that energy makes the reading, it also leads to the book’s sole weakness. In his excitement, Marcus fails to dwell for any satisfactory length on the lyrics themselves. Dylan’s music and sound can be fascinating, but to write a book on one of his songs without a close reading of the lyrics seems more like slapdash writing than passion hurrying. Marcus’s main lyrical point — turning the song from a bitter criticism into an ode to liberation — is a striking one, and important in considering Dylan the artist, but he could use some deeper critical analysis to draw out the elements of this idea. How does the phrase “You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you” fit into this theory of freedom? Even a cursory reading of this line would support Marcus’s thesis, but he doesn’t touch it. If the song “forever changed pop music”, then surely its lyrical contents deserve as careful analysis as its musical ones.
But mostly you’ll forget to notice such absences. With tight, running prose, you’ll be more directed to the joys of hyperbole and nostalgia and memory and sometimes fact and earnestness and surprise and everything else that Marcus throws in there. Like a Rolling Stone is not great cultural analysis or musical study, but it’s a work that’s both insightful and fantastic.