Reviews

Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads by Greil Marcus

Justin Cober-Lake

Like a Rolling Stone is not great cultural analysis or musical study, but it's a work that's both insightful and fantastic.


Like a Rolling Stone

Publisher: PublicAffairs
Length: 283
Subtitle: Bob Dylan At the Crossroads
Price: $25.00
Author: Greil Marcus
US publication date: 2005-03
Amazon affiliate
Amazon

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.

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Music

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

Acid house legends 808 State bring a psychedelic vibe to Berlin producer NHOAH's stunning track "Abstellgleis".

Berlin producer NHOAH's "Abstellgleis" is a lean and slinky song from his album West-Berlin in which he reduced his working instruments down to a modular synthesizer system with a few controllers and a computer. "Abstellgleis" works primarily with circular patterns that establish a trancey mood and gently grow and expand as the piece proceeds. It creates a great deal of movement and energy.

Keep reading... Show less

Beechwood offers up a breezy slice of sweet pop in "Heroin Honey" from the upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod.

At just under two minutes, Beechwood's "Heroin Honey" is a breezy slice of sweet pop that recalls the best moments of the Zombies and Beach Boys, adding elements of garage and light tinges of the psychedelic. The song is one of 10 (11 if you count a bonus CD cut) tracks on the group's upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod out 26 January via Alive Natural Sound Records.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image