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Book Reviews

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

By Published: June 2, 2005

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.


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