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

Doug Collette By

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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.



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