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Invisible Republic
Greil Marcus
Henry Holt, $22.50

by Tim Riley

For the past twenty-odd years, Bob Dylan has played out one of the most excruciating endgames of any rock career. The steadfast still flock to his shows for the odd flash of inspiration, but after one too many of his inert performances, even the hard-bitten lose faith. At his thirtieth anniversary celebration in 1992, surrounded by friends like Roger McGuinn, George Harrison, Tom Petty, Neil Young, and Lou Reed, Dylan played the fading rock icon as pale, puffy ghost, the burned-out shell of the protean voice-of-a-generation who had written the evening's parade of classic songs. Can anyone imagine the Dylan of an earlier era allowing Sinead O'Connor to be booed offstage for defying the Pope--without so much as a retort? Alongside fiascoes like his ambivalent 1985 LiveAid set, his indecipherable 1991 Grammy appearance, this thirtieth anniversary performance reinforced the impression that Dylan was more a casualty of the sixties than a survivor.

This Dylan makes no appearance in Greil Marcus's Invisible Republic, a literary fantasia on the fabled 1967 Basement Tapes. Rock's most erudite and graceful stylist, Marcus is best known for Mystery Train, his 1975 treatise on rock as American myth, and Lipstick Traces, a forbidding historical tour of the avant-garde by way of the Sex Pistols. His passion for Dylan began with early articles for Rolling Stone: an early bootleg discography in 1968, and a famous pan of Self-Portrait, the 1970 Dylan twofer that was a lot more prophetic than anyone imagined. In Invisible Republic, he tries to justify what was great about Dylan's sixties, and pretends that no amount of artistic dissipation can alter it.

Like the later Dylan it ignores, Invisible Republic falls prey to the hoariest clichs about rock critics and their conceits. To begin with, Marcus has mastered the short form so thoroughly that his longer work lacks coherence. His one-offs are so thick with insight and broad in taste that he has no peer as a magazine journalist (as in Mystery Train, Invisible Republic's best stuff is in the endnotes). In short takes, Marcus brushes up against greatness; in the long form he leaps from Dylan to Alexis de Tocqueville to Don Henley in a single paragraph. The book lacks an overarching theme that gets developed, restated, and carried to a satisfying conclusion. Along the way, Marcus gets even higher on his own fumes than he does on Dylan's:

For then, in the shifting humors of the old Americas that loom up in the songs, neither a secret identity nor a faked death, more or less what has been acted out in "Clothesline Saga," would be worth a dollar or a dram, and anyone listening would have to answer for which song he liked best, for who she really was.

Marcus's identification with Dylan is even more vexing than his feverish ID with Elvis Presley, his other great subject. As a result, the Basement Tapes have a lot to answer for. To Marcus, Dylan is the whole of sixties culture rolled up into one cultural sparkplug of a rockabilly intellectual, the era's self-conscious primitive with an aesthetic gene pool that reaches back to Kentucky warbler Dock Boggs and folkie anthologist Harry Smith.

Although Dylan and the Band's work on the Basement Tapes is possessed by greatness, Marcus's hyperbolic style, like that of Pauline Kael (to whom the book is dedicated), distorts his judgment. In any case, no music could live up to what Marcus writes about Dylan and the Band ("their ringing voices make it plain that what they're really selling is America, because in America the fantasy of the country sells everything else and everything else on sale sells the country"). There's no way Elvis Presley could live up to people's idea of Elvis, so he squandered it on Vegas comebacks, Cadillacs and peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches, and in Mystery Train and Dead Elvis, Marcus turned that spectacle into indelible subject matter.

Dylan carries an even larger burden than Presley, according to Marcus. Over 280 pages, he bloats the Dylan myth up beyond recognition:

More than thirty years ago, when a world now most often spoken of as an error of history was taking shape and form--and when far older worlds were reappearing like ghosts that had yet to make up their minds, cruel and paradisiac worlds that in 1965 felt at once present and impossibly distant--Bob Dylan seemed less to occupy a turning point in cultural space and time than to be that turning point. As if culture would turn according to his wishes or even his whim; the fact was, for a long moment it did.

There are important ideas behind all this smoke. Marcus is at his best when recalling the fifties' folk revival, the emergence of Dylan as the conscience of the early sixties Civil Rights movement, and Dylan's "betrayal" of folk ethics by going electric at the Newport Folk Festival of 1965. He remembers the music in pithy, vivid strokes: "Desolation Row" is "a funny, tense, graceful eleven-minute parable of utopia as absolute exile and twentieth-century culture as the Titanic." There may be nobody better at translating abstract sounds into descriptive, meaningful words, and Marcus's ear is tuned in to every nuance, every flutter of Dylan's harmonica.

But even if you agree with Invisible Republic's provocative thesis--that secret histories can be brought to life through traditional song, and that Dylan once held this country's fantasies by the small hairs--the language catches you up short: "Out of some odd displacement of art and time, the music seemed both transparent and inexplicable," he writes. Even aimless marijuana reveries are lovingly described as musical enlightenment. "Music made to kill time ended up dissolving it," and so on.

Marcus's scholarship is rich in detail, but selective. He points out that the antebellum song "No More Auction Block" is a melodic source for Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," but cannot concede how overrated the Dylan's most famous song is. Held up as a prime example of sixties utopianism, "Wind" is a naive piece of songwriting, a vapid list of questions with a cop-out hook. At times, Marcus reaches outside the Basement Tapes arbitrarily but ignores some obvious and important connections.

Marcus also downplays Dylan's relationship to Woody Guthrie: he prefers Dylan's inward, psychological approach to Guthrie's outward, agitprop persona. But Dylan's greatness lies in just how ingeniously he straddles these two approaches, keeping the listener guessing as to his ultimate intentions--and how much is pure accident. His first public appearance after the Basement Tapes goes unmentioned here: at a Guthrie tribute in early 1968, Dylan offered up three Guthrie songs with the Band ("I Ain't Got No Home," "The Grand Coulee Damn," and "Dear Mrs. Roosevelt"), extending the folksy mood of the Basement Tapes even as he brought these Guthrie songs (hardly agitprop) some neurotic grit, and emotional depth. The best Dylan is even more complex--and inconsistent--than Marcus would have you believe.

Late Dylan holds little interest for Marcus, except when he serves his purpose: he ignores everything after 1968 until 1992's Good as I Been to You and 1993's World Gone Wrong, two acoustic efforts that redeemed his "inexorably decaying public life." These records handily tie in with Marcus's central idea of Dylan as supernatural channel of the old, wild America, reviving lost treasures as a way of shedding light on rock's tributaries. These two records, he writes, "removed him from the prison of his own career and returned him--or his voice, as a sort of mythical fact--to the world at large." (Exactly what is a "mythical fact"?) Forget that Marcus dubbed Dylan's Empire Burlesque (1985) "another dead battery," or bemoaned the lead-boot title of Under A Blood Red Sky (1990).

Invisible Republic has an invisible agenda: the make the sixties respectable again. But there are whole worlds of music here that are still unavailable and difficult to find even if you collect bootlegs and plug into Dylan forums on the Internet. So Marcus falls prey to another exasperating clich: he writes about music so rarefied that few will ever hear it.

The Basement Tapes give off an aura of the artist-in-the-wilderness, listening to how far his voice, and these song traditions, can carry him. They include peerless songs like "I Shall Be Released," "This Wheel's on Fire," "Tears of Rage," and "Million Dollar Bash," which were overdubbed and published only after widespread bootlegging in 1975. Along with the work of Gram Parsons and the Byrds in this period, they are the source for country rock, a mess of songs that tower above psychedelia's, and twice as fascinating for being so widely known and so privately guarded. Marcus's grandiosity is out of sync with the humble tone of these sessions. (And humility could be the strangest thing Dylan was ever accused of.)

Dylan emerged from the Basement Tapes obliquely, with 1968's John Wesley Harding (which Marcus dubs "the basement's second mind"), the kind of move only Dylan could make seem logical. But by the late seventies his career began jumping aesthetic rails as perversely as he had ridden them. Marcus contends Dylan's still "at the top of his game"--he even published a pre-release rave of Dylan's Highlands on the Internet. Invisible Republic may persuade you that the Basement Tapes make sense of America's promise and curse, and of Dylan's particularly American moment, the sixties. But Marcus doesn't follow through to explore the implications of that idea, why music so alive with possibility now seems out of its creator's reach. More than that, he doesn't make any connection between the man who made this music and the one who threw it all away.

Originally published in the October/ November 1997 issue of Boston Review

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