Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus

Writings 1968-2010


By Greil Marcus

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Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan’s life in music is revisited by his foremost interpreter — weaving individual moods and moments into a brilliant history of their changing times.

The book begins in Berkeley in 1968, and ends with a piece on Dylan’s show at the University of Minnesota — his very first appearance at his alma mater — on election night 2008. In between are moments of euphoric discovery: From Marcus’s liner notes for the 1967 Basement Tapes (pop music’s most famous bootlegged archives) to his exploration of Dylan’s reimagining of the American experience in the 1997 Time Out of Mind. And rejection; Marcus’s Rolling Stone piece on Dylan’s album Self Portrait — often called the most famous record review ever written — began with “What is this shit?” and led to his departure from the magazine for five years. Marcus follows not only recordings but performances, books, movies, and all manner of highways and byways in which Bob Dylan has made himself felt in our culture.

Together the dozens of pieces collected here comprise a portrait of how, throughout his career, Bob Dylan has drawn upon and reinvented the landscape of traditional American song, its myths and choruses, heroes and villains. They are the result of a more than forty-year engagement between an unparalleled singer and a uniquely acute listener.


Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music
(1975, 2008)
Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century (1989, 2009)
Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession (1991)
In the Fascist Bathroom: Punk in Pop Music, 1977-92
(1993, originally published as Ranters & Crowd Pleasers)
The Dustbin of History (1995)
The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes (2000, 2011, originally published as Invisible Republic, 1997)
Double Trouble: Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley
in a Land of No Alternatives (2000)
"The Manchurian Candidate" (2002)
Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads (2005)
The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice (2006)
When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison (2010)
As Editor
Stranded (1979, 2007)
Psychotic Reactions & Carburetor Dung, by Lester Bangs (1987)
The Rose & the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the
American Ballad (2004, with Sean Wilentz)
A New Literary History of America (2009, with Werner Sollors)


In the summer of 1963, in a field in New Jersey, I'd gone to see Joan Baez, a familiar face in my hometown, in Menlo Park, California, and suddenly a familiar face everywhere else—she'd been on the cover of Time. This day she was appearing at one of those old theaters-in-a-round, set up under a tent. She sang, and after a bit she said, "I want to introduce a friend of mine," and out came a scruffy-looking guy with a guitar. He looked dusty. His shoulders were hunched and he seemed slightly embarrassed. He sang a couple of songs by himself, then he sang one or two with Joan Baez, and then he left.
I barely noticed the end of the show. I was transfixed. I was confused. This person had come onto someone else's stage, and while in some ways he seemed as ordinary as anyone in the audience, something in his demeanor dared you to pin him down, to sum him up and write him off, and you couldn't do it. From the way he sounded and the way he moved, you couldn't tell where he was from, where he'd been, or where he was going—though the way he moved and sang somehow made you want to know all of those things. "My name it is nothing, my age it means less," he sang that day, beginning his song "With God on Our Side," which would turn up the next year as the lynchpin of The Times They Are A-Changin'—and while the whole book of American history seemed to open up in that song, the country's story telling itself in a new way, the song also kept the singer's promise. As he sang, you couldn't tell his age. He might have been seventeen, he might have been twenty-seven—and to an eighteen-year-old like me, that was someone old enough.
When the show was over, I saw this person, whose name I hadn't caught, crouching behind the tent—there was no backstage, no guards, no protocol—and so I went up to him. He was trying to light a cigarette, it was windy, his hands were shaking; he wasn't paying attention to anything but the match. I was just dumbfounded enough to open my mouth. "You were terrific," I said, never at a loss for something original to say. He didn't look up. "I was shit," he said. "I was just shit." I didn't know what to say to that, so I walked off. I asked someone in the crowd who the person was who along with Joan Baez was getting into her black Jaguar XK-E, then the most glamorous car on the road. When I got back to California I went straight to a record store and bought The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, his second album, the only one in the shop. I couldn't figure out why some of the songs—about the John Birch Society and a "ramblin' gamblin' Willie," something with a band I called "Make a Solid Road"—didn't fit the songs described in the liner notes. I took it back and told the store owner there was something wrong with it. "Oh, they're all like that," he said. "I've had a lot of complaints. Come back next week and I'll have some good copies." But I never did go back. I fell in love with "Don't Think Twice." I played it all day long. I figured if I exchanged my album it might not be on the next one.
For me, for a lot of other people, perhaps in ways for Bob Dylan himself, his life and work opened up from right about that time. Very quickly—with, say, "Blowin' in the Wind," "Masters of War," "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," a score more songs about conflict and justice, truth and lie, that could be epic and commonplace in the same moment, songs orchestrated by nothing more than the singer's own bare guitar and harmonica—and then with the mid-sixties albums Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde, filled with visionary performances, most with equally visionary rock 'n' roll not so much behind the songs as all through them—Bob Dylan became in the common imagination far more than a singer who had, by some happenstance, caught his moment. To do what he'd done, Dylan wrote years later, you had to be someone "who could see into things, the truth of things—not metaphorically, either—but really see, like seeing into metal and making it melt, see it for what it was and reveal it for what it was with hard words and vicious insight." In the early 1950s, kids like Bob Dylan watched someone seeing into metal and making it melt every week on The Adventures of Superman; in the next decade, as Paul Nelson puts it later in these pages, Dylan "evoked such an intense degree of personal participation from both his admirers and detractors that he could not be permitted so much as a random action. Hungry for a sign, the world used to follow him around, just waiting for him to drop a cigarette butt. When he did they'd sift through the remains, looking for significance. The scary part is they'd find it—and it really would be significant."
This is where I came in, as a writer—six years after the show in New Jersey, at the end of Dylan's adventure as an oracle on the run, just after he released his spare, cryptic album John Wesley Harding, an album of parables of the republic, riddles about its cops and robbers, and love songs that took the sting away.
Bobby Darin had three hit records under his belt when he announced his goal in life: "I want to be a legend by the time I'm twenty-five." He didn't make it, but Bob Dylan did.
Those are the first lines from a piece I wrote in 1969 that is not included in this collection of most of what, outside of two earlier books—one on "Like a Rolling Stone," one on the songs that travel under the name of the basement tapes—I've written about Bob Dylan over the years. In 1969 Bob Dylan was twenty-eight. He'd been a legend—a story people passed on as if it might even be true—at least since 1964. But time moved fast then—Bobby Darin, you can imagine, wanted to be a legend by the time he was twenty-five because after that it might be too late.
As a chronicle of events happening as they were written about—which this book, much of it a matter of reviews, reports, sightings, comment in monthly or bi-weekly magazines and weekly newspapers, to some degree is—that heroic period hangs over what I wrote. It's a given that I am writing about someone who has done signal work, has made music so rich that even as it appeared it suggested it might be untouchable, not merely by others but by Dylan himself. It was an enormous achievement: the rewriting, in all senses, of American vernacular music, from the fiddlers who took up "Springfield Mountain" at the end of the eighteenth century to Little Richard, at once a recapturing of the past and the opening of a door to what had never been heard and had never been said. All of that is in this book. But at least for its first half it is present as a shadow, a shadow cast by a performer who, as I began to write about him, had fallen under it himself.
The story I followed was, in its beginning, the story of Bob Dylan as he tried to transcend, match, avoid, deny, or escape what he'd already done. I was a fan; I looked for those dropped cigarettes. But if the achievement of the previous years was a given as I began to write, what was not a given was how the story unfolded, and how so far it has turned out. This chronicle really begins with Dylan's 1970 double album Self Portrait; by the end of the year, the Beatles would be defunct; Jimi Hendrix, a great Bob Dylan fan and perhaps his greatest interpreter, in time maybe a partner, would be dead; and the notion of Bob Dylan as someone who could not open his mouth without telling his own kind of truth would be gone, too. So I began as a disbeliever: Is that all there is? This can't be all that there is. One record, one show followed another as the seventies turned into the eighties, as Ford replaced Nixon and Carter Ford and Reagan Carter and all through those years Bob Dylan sang, "Even the president of the United States sometimes has to stand naked"; for a time, I tried to convince myself that whatever the record or the show, it was as good as I wanted it to be, until the falsity became just too clear.
If the decline, a kind of public disappearance, became a given in itself, what was not was the almost biblical story the music would tell: that it would take Bob Dylan more than twenty years to play his way out of the trap set for him by his own, once-upon-a-time triumph, that after all that time of wandering in the desert of his own fame—that time, as Dylan once put it, explaining the imperatives of folk music, by which he meant the Bible, by which he meant the mystery of plenty and famine, of "seven years of this and eight years of that"—that the old pop star, the antique icon, the dormant oracle, might then begin again as if from the beginning, with no limits to what he might say or how he might say it. There was no telling that this turn in the river would occur in 1992, with a quiet little album released on election day, carrying the cigarette-butt title Good As I Been to You, a collection of the kind of songs Bob Dylan was singing in coffeehouses, in friends' apartments, before he ever stepped into a recording studio. It was an event that passed almost unnoticed, and which opened up the next two decades as fields in which anything was possible, where any new song could be discovered and any old song could be, in itself, the oracle that, once, people had taken the singer to be.
From that point on there was a new story to follow—and it was so strong, so surprising, that it cast everything that had preceded it in a new light. That is the arc of this book.
Along with a lot of other things, becoming a Bob Dylan fan made me a writer. I was never interested in figuring out what the songs meant. I was interested in figuring out my response to them, and other people's responses. I wanted to get closer to the music than I could by listening to it—I wanted to get inside of it, behind it, and writing about it, through it, inside of it, behind it was my way of doing that.
The pieces collected here begin with a rumor and end with a presidential election. There are reactions in the moment and long looks back for undiscovered stories. But more than anything there is an attempt to remain part of the conversation that Bob Dylan's work has always created around itself: You have to hear this. Is he kidding? I can't believe this. You won't believe this—
A lot of the noise of that conversation is in the items scattered through the book from my column Real Life Rock Top 10, which I began writing in 1986 at the Village Voice, and has since migrated to Artforum, Salon, City Pages in Minneapolis, Interview, and the Believer, where it is as I write here. From any particular column it might be a 2) reconstructing an advertisement, a 7) quoting someone's letter or e-mail, along with a 1) for one song from an album and a 10) for another. But as much of that conversation is in longer pieces following the way a Bob Dylan song found its way into people's lives, real, as with "High Water" after the terrorist attacks of 2001, or fictional, as with the episode of Homicide that was not ripped from the headlines but from "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll."
More than half of this book was written in the last thirteen years, both because that period in Bob Dylan's career and work is infinitely interesting in its own right, and because what he's done in those years has brought all of his previous work, heard and unheard, and all that lies behind it, back into play. There are pieces here I cannibalized in the course of writing other books, but that may have said more, or anyway something else, in their original and shorter form. There are any number of times when what I wrote was wrong—usually when I convinced myself something was better than it was—and in these pages I'm still wrong. I have edited to omit redundancies as best I could, but I haven't gone back to make myself look smarter than I was, or for that matter to make myself look like a better writer. There are a few early pieces that are not here because they're simply too puerile to see the light of day. But I stand behind everything that is here, even when it's wrong—in the midst of a conversation, especially one I think many somehow knew would last their whole lives, the heat can't always be separated from the light.
The conversation I'm speaking of ultimately goes back to Bob Dylan's voice—his conversation with his audience, his songs, other people's songs, and himself. It's a conversation that has enlisted Ma Rainey and Roy Orbison, John F. Kennedy and Brigitte Bardot, Charlie Chaplin and Blind Willie McTell, Medgar Evers and Stagger Lee, Tom Paine and the Fifth Daughter on the Twelfth Night, Gene Austin and Robert Burns, Georgia Sam and Martin Luther King, Jr., Lyndon Johnson and Diamond Joe, Arthur McBride and Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Jack-a-Roe. Finally, in that conversation, I think Bob Dylan has kept his promise. Heedlessly, haltingly, clumsily, with mastery, from Hibbing, Minnesota, to wherever he might be playing tonight, from the age of twenty, when his public life began in New York, to almost fifty years later, he has worked as if his age meant nothing and his name less. He has moved from state to state and decade to decade as if nothing was certain, as if everything was up for grabs. The conversation in and around his music has for many made life more interesting than it would have otherwise been, more fun, more frustrating, and it has raised the stakes of the lives of those who have taken part.
This is a constant, and it is a constant subject of this book, by the happenstance of pieces following one after the other over more than four decades, the left hand likely not remembering what the right hand did in any one moment, but ending up holding the same albums and singles and books and movies and letters. The constant is Bob Dylan's voice—I mean the physical thing, what you listen to. It's not the pitch, the tone. In the songs that come to life, whether in 1962 with "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" or 2009 with "Forgetful Heart," it's the attack, the point of view, the way the voice enters a piece of music, what it does there, how it gets lost, how it gets out, how it remains the same, which is to say that voice remains unpredictable.
This is music as a game of three-card monte. It's what happens in the curls in the words in "As I Went Out One Morning," the heavy steps in the cadences of "Ain't Talkin'," when you are, suddenly, taken out of yourself, out of your house or your car or the street where you're walking, into a place that you recognize but can't name. It's this ability to unsettle, to unhand the conventions by which anyone lives a life—what one expects to hear, say, be told, learn, love, or hate—that defines Bob Dylan's voice, in the smallest and in the greatest sense. It's the ability to bring the whole world into focus with the dramatization of a single syllable—the way the word care drops off its line in "High Water" like someone quietly stepping out of a tenth-story window, or being pushed—and that I've tried to follow.



San Francisco Express Times
24 December 1968
Raised high above the audience were three paintings done in orange and red, somehow a confusion of the masks of comedy and tragedy, now in their own spotlights. The bass player, bending his instrument into circles, was bopping all over the stage, even in motion like a still photograph of the personality of movement which is the freedom of rock 'n' roll. The singer was flashing a red axe at the lead guitarist, sending out the last lines of "Baby Let Me Follow You Down" as he set up for the crash of notes that was sure to follow. They hit it; the two musicians whirled around the microphone, guitars only inches apart, fingers almost touching, the sounds climbing higher and up to the rafters, the roof getting in the way.
Moving out now, the singer twisted around with a grin for the crowd, the band on its own, building toward the final chorus, the singer framed by the tangles of his own hair, hands traveling fast over the red guitar:
You can do anything that you want to baby
That you want to baby
Yes, if you want to baby if you
Just don't make me hurt!
That was Bob Dylan in the fall of 1965, over three years ago. Bob Dylan and the Hawks onstage—there's been nothing like it before or since. Three years of memories, of waiting, scares of the end and false starts toward another chance. Will we remember the thrill of that last time? Memories turn inward and return with legends, images too big to hold.
Legends are out of sight but not quite out of mind; they never intrude, but only emerge out of the day, off the streets, out of the walls. Legends are supposed to represent the pomposity of death, but they can tell jokes, too. The legend of the sightless blues singer used to mean a lot in Berkeley; somehow that story brought people into contact with suffering and creation on the road, down the American highway, maybe to the mountain men before the beaver were trapped out of the high streams, back to Oedipus and Homer, the man who walked but couldn't see, the man carried by his own secret knowledge.
It got to be something of a cult, and cults don't tell jokes. People turned around and laughed at their legends, and lo, out of Blind Lemon Jefferson came Blind Joe Death and the immortal Blind Ebbets Field. New legends were appearing, though, some that at times seemed too grand to speak with, figures with an innocent grandeur that somehow made you nervous. Such was the mood one night in the old Jabberwock in Berkeley.
The place was filled and it was late, time for that ever-recurring Berkeley rumor. One guy turned to another and began it. "I heard ...I heard that Dylan's in town." Two minutes, and everyone in the place had heard it as well. By itself, the process began to grow. "Somebody said he might show up here, don't know yet..." Every time the door opened or closed heads turned and eyes brightened and then turned away. Before half an hour had passed the tension was almost unbearable.
Backstage, eager minds were plotting. A man stepped onto the platform. Quiet came, and he began to speak. "Tonight a very wonderful thing has happened. As some of you may know, someone who has created much of our finest music has arrived in Berkeley—a singer, a musician, a songwriter. As a special favor, he has agreed to do a song for us, but because of complications in his contract—I just can't explain them right now—he cannot allow us to announce his name. But," he winked, "I'm sure you all know who I mean." It was going to happen. Everybody beamed. The announcer retreated backstage, and returned. "I've just learned," he said, "that because of those complications I just mentioned, B—, I mean, he, cannot actually appear in person. But"—and there was a pause—"he will perform!"
There was a great scuffling noise. Backstage, a figure was being lowered into a huge box, harmonica in hand. Out front, the audience edged closer. The announcer moved in for the kill. "And now, since he cannot actually appear in person, since we cannot actually pronounce his name, we bring you—Blind Steamer Trunk!" The enormous box was carried onto the stage, the lid propped up, and out of the old timbers and rusty hinges came a tantalizingly brief harmonica solo in the best Dylan style. The lid plopped down and the great box was borne way into the night. Blind Steamer Trunk belonged to the ages.
Bob Dylan, "Baby Let Me Follow You Down," on Long Distance Operator (Wanted Man bootleg, recorded Berkeley Community Theatre, 4 December 1965). An even hotter version can be found on the bootleg series volume 4: Live 1966—The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert (Columbia, 1998, recorded Manchester Free Trade Hall, 17 May 1966).

Breath Control, 1970-1974

Rolling Stone
23 July 1970
Written and arranged by Greil Marcus
Chorus: Charles Perry, Jenny Marcus, Jann Wenner, Erik Bernstein,
Ed Ward, John Burks, Ralph J. Gleason, Langdon Winner, Bruce Miroff,
Richard Vaughn, and Mike Goodwin


What is this shit?
(1) Sung by a female chorus, "All the Tired Horses" is a gorgeous piece of music, perhaps the most memorable song on this album. In an older form it was "All the Pretty Horses in the Yard"; now it could serve as the theme song to any classic western. Can you hear the organ standing in between the strings and voices? Shane comes into view, and The Magnificent Seven: gunmen over the hill and out of time still got to ride. It sounds like Barbara Stanwyck in Forty Guns singing, as a matter of fact.
The beauty of this painted signpost promises what its words belie, and the song's question becomes the listener's: he can't ride when the horse is asleep in the meadow.


"I don't know if I should keep playing this," said the disc jockey, as the album made its debut on the radio. "Nobody's calling in and saying they want to hear it or anything . . . usually when something like this happens people say 'Hey, the new Dylan album,' but not tonight."
Later someone called and asked for a reprise of "Blue Moon." In the end it all came down to whether radioland really cared. The DJ kept apologizing: "If there is anyone who needs—or deserves to have his whole album played through it's Bob Dylan."
(2) After a false beginning comes "Alberta #1," an old song now claimed by Dylan. One line stands out: "I'll give you more gold than your apron can hold." We're still at the frontier. The harmonica lets you into the album by its nostalgia, and it's the song's promise that matters, not the song itself, which fades.


"What was it?" said a friend, after we'd heard thirty minutes of Self Portrait for the first time. "Were we really that impressionable back in '65, '66? Was it that the stuff really wasn't that good, that this is just as good? Was it some sort of accident that made those other records so powerful, or what?
"My life was really turned around, it affected me—I don't know if it was the records or the words or the sound or the noise—maybe the interview: 'What is there to believe in?' I doubt if he'd say that now, though."
We put on "Like a Rolling Stone" from Highway 61 Revisited and sat through it. "I was listening to that song five, ten times a day for the last few months, hustling my ass, getting my act together to get into school—but it's such a drag to hear what he's done with it..."
(3) Something like a mood collapses with the first Nashville offering, "I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know," a slick exercise in vocal control that fills a bit of time. After getting closer and closer to the Country Music Capital of the World—and still keeping his distance with Nashville Skyline, one of the loveliest rock 'n' roll albums ever made—the visitor returns to pay his compliments by recording some of their songs. How does it sound? It sounds all right. He's sung himself into a corner. It sounds all right. Sign up the band.


GM: "It's such an unambitious album."
JW: "Maybe what we need most of all right now is an unambitious album from Bob Dylan."
GM: "What we need most of all is for Dylan to get ambitious."
JW: "It's such a..."
GM: ". . . though it is a really..."
GM & JW: ". . . friendly album."


On Sale
Oct 19, 2010
Page Count
512 pages

Greil Marcus

About the Author

Greil Marcus is the author of Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus, When that Rough God Goes Riding, The Shape of Things to Come, Mystery Train, Dead Elvis, In the Fascist Bathroom, Double Trouble, Like a Rolling Stone, and The Old Weird America; a twentieth anniversary edition of his book Lipstick Traces was published in 2009.

With Werner Sollors he is the editor of A New Literary History of America, published last year by Harvard University Press. Since 2000 he has taught at Princeton, Berkeley, Minnesota, and the New School in New York; his column “Real Life Rock Top 10” appears regularly in the Believer. He has lectured at U Cal, Berkeley, The Whitney Museum of Art, and Princeton University. He lives in Berkeley.

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