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Monday, April 25, 2011

'Bob Dylan By Greil Marcus'

Writings illuminate artist and critic

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If any critic has permission to enter the linear progression of Bob Dylan's presence in American popular music through a quirky but at once astute perspective, it is Greil Marcus. Often mixing in his own personal experience of Dylan's music, he gives an insightful, authoritative account of both critic and artist with Bob Dylan By Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010 (PublicAffairs).

Marcus was on hand for the birth of serious rock criticism that began with Dylan, so this text is both a critic's coming of age as well as a chronicle of the artist. The first entry in Writings appeared in the SanFrancisco Express Times on Dec. 24, 1968, and is inventively retrospective before becoming remarkably investigative—as though Marcus had to catch his readers up to where he now was going to take them for decades to come: "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." In the introduction to this book, Marcus remarks on attending a Dylan tent concert in New Jersey, 1963, and having been moved beyond compare: "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 anything 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."

Marcus walked off into a life's career of Dylan commentary. He has consistently examined the work itself in ways that suit both populist as well as academic demands. Writings concludes with prominent pieces for GQ in 2009 and Black Clock in 2010 regarding Dylan's Minneapolis performance on the night Barack Obama gave his victory speech in Chicago. "I was in Minneapolis, in Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota, in the audience, as Bob Dylan played for the first time on the campus of his erstwhile alma mater," Marcus writes. "The second song was 'The Times They Are A-Changin',' a song I've never liked ... But on this night so much history was loaded into the song it was impossible not to be sucked into its gravity." Never afraid to combine historical moment, personal response and highly appropriate, sophisticated music criticism, Marcus remains the headmaster of Dylan criticism.

After reading this book, one gains an incomparable knowledge of Dylan and his most ardent critic. It is not appropriate to ask why Marcus so often includes himself within the insightful writings collected in this anthology, for we are in the presence of a superb para-critical mind as devastatingly inventive as the work it examines. Forever the academician, though, there is little subjectivity involved, but rather the intellectual growth of a seminal critic moving alongside America's most significant songwriter.
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