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Book Reviews

Like A Rolling Stone Indeed: Bob Dylan's Magnum Opus

By Published: June 2, 2005
Greil Marcus
Like A Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan At The Crossroads
Public Affairs
ISBN: 1586482548

Even if you agree Bob Dylan has composed more great songs in a wider span of genres than any other songwriter of the Twentieth Century, you probably don't see even the most tenuous connection between the Minnesota bard and the mighty world of jazz.

But consider this: that Dylan's career,like his own best live performances,follows the progression of the finest improvisations. Stating the main theme, only to and elaborate upon it, digressing into quotes of other tunes in the process, only then to return to the themes, possibly unrecognizable at this point, before venturing into the realm of free playing, perhaps as a means of nothing more than invoking the muse to gather new ideas, until his main themes reappear to be restated authoritatively (though occasionally superficially) before the performance ends.


Greil Marcus uses the summer 1965 release of Bob's "Like A Rolling Stone as the focal point from which to launch an excursion into the history of the United States and Bob Dylan himself. With startling immediacy, the author likens the artistic turning point as Dylan went electric and assaulted the radio waves with a recording twice as long as the norm, with the crossroads of America as it faced the inexorable realization its ideals, particularly in terms of race and class, did not match its reality.

Marcus' scintillating though dense style allows the reader to see his points of view from all angles. It doesn't matter if you were around in 1965 to witness and feel the impact of Dylan's greatest song as it became a hit single. You can sense the profound changes that were occurring in the American consciousness and not just from the perspective of those changing, but from the vantage point of those resisting and refusing the change(s) as well. And while Greil's own point of view is clear enough as you read between his elongated intricate lines of prose, there's little if any judgmental self- righteousness to be found.

In this sense, if no other, At The Crossroads is a read indeed. But it also reads muchlike a mystery novel and a great one at that, conjuring an almost physical sensation ofsuspense because Marcus doesn't explain himself or the effect of Dylan's song too quickly.Very much like the saxophonist who doesn't want to play the melody straight until he'smerely suggested it a few times first, the author looks at "Like A Rolling Stone as Dylan'sgreatest song, but not the only great song he ever wrote and performed: descriptions ofrecent performances of tunes such as "Master of War and "The Lonesome Death of HattieCarroll imply that what is great about "Like A rolling Stone is that Dylan and themusicians who played the song in the recorded version as it was released in 1965 caughtthe virtues of Bob's other great tunes and injected them into this performance of thissong.


By talking about America as it is today in one paragraph, only to flash back (and forth) to the times as they were a'changin' forty years ago, Greil Marcus does a remarkably good job in describing the aftershock of the impact generated by Bob Dylan's song. For those not quite old enough to actually understand its implications, but still sense what Bob Dylan was trying to say(and succeeding)the subliminal effect continues on to this day, just the like the echo of the song itself and how it has affected bob Dylan's career. While Marcus suggests that the Woody Guthrie tributes, the comparatively simplistic protest tunes (which Dylan still performs to this day on occasion) and the socially-conscious folk songs as well as the more expansive pieces such as "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding), just preceding "Like a Rolling Stone were an inevitable part of the process that led to it, he still communicates an exultant wonder that it was recorded at all, much less became as popular as it did.

It's almost as if he's suggesting Dylan was merely fulfilling his destiny with "Like A Rolling Stone, When you read of Bob's own contrived attempt to comment on how time has wreaked havoc on his song,not to mention his own image, in a self-made film called Masked and Anonymous, you begin to realize how possessive we become of our favorite music, listeners and musicians alike. Marcus may not be going after a theme of how deeply personal music of all kinds can be, but his references to age-old folk songs upon which Dylan based tunes such as "Maggie's Farm, vintage R&B such as Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come or Chuck Berry's "Back in the USA, suggest that the greatest music carries that ever-present element of deep surprise that music can mean so much to us, artist and audience alike.


It's a kind of surprise that comes when a great instrumentalist finishes a brilliant solo: you've followed it intently right from the beginning, you believe you've grasped the logic of the progression as well as the elaboration upon it, yet when the artist returns to the main theme, you are neverthless startled by what he or she has achieved. Greil Marcus creates that sensation of constant surprise and a tangibly joyful (re) discovery at every other turn in this book, which makes its title At The Crossroads so appropriate: the various choices in life before us all each present their respective dangers, rewards and enticements, all of which seem of equal worth (or risk) depending on which way we turn. The genius of Bob Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone, Marcus suggests ever more strongly as his book progresses, is that it funnels all the elements from those various crossroads into the chosen path of its performance.

It's as if he's saying a great piece of music is a microcosm of life, whether a song itself, a structured performance of it or a piece of inspired improvisation, with the readily discernible hint the most inspired performances are all improvisations, the culmination of all performances preceding that one, focused into this single rendition of passion and perception. If the progression of Bob Dylan's career, reflecting the evolution of the United States in the 20th century, reached its flashpoint in 1965 with this single song, it's a measure of Dylan's art that he has endured equal to the song itself. But there's an irony here: for a period of years Dylan did not play "Like A Rolling Stone; now that he does again, he cannot play it all the time without reinventing other great songs from his cannon as if to prepare himself for the greatest of all.

Lest you think Marcus' topic not to mention his discursive style (which invites, no demands, you re-read passages not just to grasp them but savor the way he writes them) too solemn for his and its own good, there's an undercurrent of humor at work here much as there is in Bob Dylan himself. It is so broad at times, the tongue so far into the cheek, it seems lengthy passages should be italicized as comedic subtext; you may not believe what you are reading at certain points, just as, with Dylan's own humor, you're often taken aback at the zinger that follows (and often sets up) the serious point to be made.

The section in which Marcus talks about the recordings and performances surrounding"Like A Rolling Stone is a read in itself. It solidifies the distinct impression that theauthor's abiding interest in Dylan's song, and all the songs he references, and music ingeneral, is not an exercise in nostalgia. Yet his description of how the release and popularity of "Like A Rolling Stone in 1965 provided an overweening common bond throughout the United States sounds dated in these days of segmented demographic categories for music (can you say: sales charts for cell phone ring tones?). Still, he's not talking so much about how great this sense of community is, but how ever-present it is for anyone and everyone who loves music and experiences a great musical moment.


The beauty implied in Marcus' vision could be Branford Marsalis and his band bravely tackling Coltrane's A Love Supreme in Paris , Jamie Masefield bringing the lovely stillness of the Green Mountains of Vermont into a New York city studio or The Allman Brothers Band, not outrunning but facing down the hellhounds every time they play "Dreams. Hearing Dylan and his band, in unison, capture the master performance of "Like A Rolling Stone as described in the herky-jerky play-by-play of the recording sessions is, as much as many of the more dense passages in this book, worth re-reading, in part because it recaptures the onrush of ecstasy that flows through most but not all this book.

But Greil Marcus renders his own point diffuse, oddly at the point he begins a journey through Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited album: it's almost as if he's lost his train of thought and his editor didn't notice.

So he goes even further afield to find other comparable touchstones to Dylan's magnumopus, making a point, by not coming right out and saying so, that virtually nothing measures up to Dylan's achievement. His is a merely passing reference to The Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed as a match for Highway 61 Revisited, while his commentary on a single Pet Shop Boys' song seems obsessive, particularly when most of which precedes t sounds justifiably impassioned. A leaner, quicker climax to At The Crossroads would definitely have been preferably to its awkward anti-climactic ending, but that again is a reflection of the subject at hand, which as the author of the book points out, has rarely if ever, in subsequent performance, regained the majesty of the recording once seemingly doomed in the Columbia Records bureaucracy.


Marcus' acknowledgments included the observation that he's been writing this book since he first heard "Like A Rolling Stone. It's true that he captures probably every sensation he's experienced with the tune, except perhaps that rhapsodic afterglow that is so familiar to the true music lover when he or she has finished a listening session. Perhaps Greil simply needs to listen to this recording one more time, then allow it to ring in the silence afterward, much as its first appearance forty years ago, set off a sequence of events that continues to this day, even if you don't see it all that clearly, or hear it all that loudly, all the time.

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