Sunday, April 12, 2009

Premature Burial: Greil Marcus Mummifies A Great Song

Like A Rolling Stone:Bob Dylan at the Crossroads
By Greil Marcus
(Public Affairs Books)

Greil Marcus has made his name as rock critic by insisting that the tide of History is directly mirrored by the pop music of the period. This can make for exhilarating reading, because Marcus is, if nothing else, an elegant stylist given to lyric evocation. But it is the same elegance that disguises the fact that he comes across a middling Hegelian; the author, amid the declarations about Dylan, The Stones, The Band and their importance to the spontaneous mass revolts of the Sixties, never solidifies his points. He has argued , with occasional lucidity, that the intuitive metaphors of the artist/poet/musician diagnose the ills of the culture better than any bus full of sociologists or philosophers, and has intimated further that history is a progression toward a greater day. Marcus suggests through out his more ponderous tomes--Lipstick Traces, Invisible Republic, The Dustbin of History
--that the arts in general, and rock and roll in particular, can direct in ways of getting to the brighter day, the next stage of our collective being.

Marcus, though, isn't the one to draw us the map.But what has been aggravating with Marcus since he left the employ of Rolling Stone and began writing full length books and essays for cultural journals is that he chokes when there's a point to be made--he defers, he sidesteps, he distracts, he rather gracelessly changes the subject. Again, this can be enthralling, especially in a book like his massive Lipstick Traces The Secret History of the 20th Century" where he assumes some of Guy DeBord's assertions in Society of the Spectacle and situates rock and roll musicians in a counter-tradition of groups that spontaneously develop in resistance to a society's centralized ossification and mounts an attack, through art, on the perceptual filters that blind the masses to their latent genius.

He never quite comes to the part where he satisfyingly resolves all the mounting, swelling, grandly played generalizations that link Elvis, The Sex Pistols and Cabaret Voltaire as sources of insight geared to undermine an oppressive regime, but the reader has fun along the way. Marcus wants to be a combination of Marcuse and Harold Bloom, and he rarely accomplishes anything the singular criticism either of them produced in their respective disciplines, political philosophy and literary criticism, but he does hit the mark often enough to make him a thinker worth coming back to.

One would wonder about the value of coming back to this man's store front, though, if his book Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads. Marcus is one who has written so much about Dylan, or has absorbed so much material about him, that he can produce a reed-thin on one song and pretends that it is much, much more than what it really is. The problem is a lack of thesis, a conceit Marcus at least pretend to have with his prior volumes; depending entirely on third-hand anecdotes, half-recollected memories and a flurry of details gleaned from any one of the several hundred books about Dylan published in the last 30 years, this amounts to little more than what you'd have if you transcribed a recording of the singer's more intense fans speaking wildly, broadly, intensely amongst themselves, by passing coherence for Sturm and Drang. For the rest of us with a saner appreciation of Dylan's importance , Like A Rolling Stone is messily assembled jumble of notes, press clips and over-told stories; Marcus , obvious enough, attempts an impressionist take on the song, but the smell of rehash doesn't recede, ever.


  1. I haven't read Marcus' "Like a Rolling Stone" and probably won't get around to doing so, what with the three-volume History of the Count Five to digest and so forth. But I do think the essential question of the song's significance is worth talking about, because "Like a Rolling Stone" IS in fact a pivotal creation in pop music history. Put simply, the song is an extended insult, making it perhaps the FIRST insult ever to be an American hit song. Ungallantly enough, it is a public humiliation of a woman, almost certainly making it the most venemous song ever addressed to a woman by a man to make the Top 40 charts. The blunt, uncouth nature of the lyrics -- as well as its weird ambiguities and surreal threats -- make it historically significant alone. It simply decimates the entire romantic convention of commercial songwriting in one sustained sneer. If it were simply just one singer's gob of spit aimed at the public, "Like a Rolling Stone" would be unprecidented. The fact that millions of youngsters enjoyed and apparently identified with what Dylan was saying is only icing upon a very bitter hunk of cake...

  2. The book was dreary to read and did not sustain any argument or thread long enough for me to become involved. I am a mature fan who took him off his pedestal decades ago, but this book simply doesn't add anything positive to Dylan lit. A pity - a good title wasted.

  3. manmarble, I do think that "Like A Rolling Stone" is worth an analysis, and I agree with you in principle that it should be studied as an object of art, not social forecasting. Marcus obscures his lack of a point with this mosaic of gossip and such and wastes a good amount of time just revving he engine, no where to go.If someone had come along and presented a credible study comparing this tune and hip-hop, we might have something worth adding to our library shelves. Rock and roll, if nothing else, has given pop music the license for verbal alacrity, and that's something that has influenced even the hard ghettocentric cadences of rap.

    Andrew, I think you and I are on the same page here; I believe Marcus much of the time wants the esteem accorded other famous critics--Bloom, Jameson, Terry Eagleton--without really having to broaden his scope, or make his thesis more coherent. As graceful a writer as he can be, I think he has been very lazy for the past ten years or so.


Comments are moderated due to spam. But commentaries, opinions and other remarks about the posts are always welcome! I apologize for the inconvenience.