Sunday, June 23, 2013

A Critical Review of Greil Marcus's Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads

When I travel I like to load up my Kindle with the beginnings of lots of books, since it's free to download a portion to whet your appetite. On one recent trip I read the opening chapter of the Ian Fleming series of Bond books, most of which I last read in my mid-teens long ago. Another flight took me through Dave Barry's catalog. On my most recent trip I downloaded the early sections of a multitude of books about Bob Dylan. Dylan Days was approaching, and it seemed a suitable theme.

When I got home from my trip I went further this time. I found that many of these books are available used and at exceedingly reasonable prices. I order five for a total of less than ten dollars, with about twenty dollars shipping. (Ah, there's the rub.)

With my bedtime reading is lined up for the summer I began with Greil Marcus' biography of the song Like A Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads. Despite the negative reviews on, I went ahead because I was curious how anyone could write a whole book about a single song. And perhaps there was a measure of curiosity on my part as regards any backstory and additional meaning that could be gleaned.

As I've noted in another place, my first attraction to this song was in junior high school because it was the longest slow song in the playlist, which meant if you like slow dancing you could out there on the dance floor for over six minutes when it played. I don't think I ever heard the words at the time.

Once upon a time you dressed so fine
threw the bums a dime in your prime,
didn’t you?

Most Dylan junkies are already familiar with how Al Kooper became part of the recording session that laid down the tracks for this song. He claims that we was only supposed to watch, but he knew he wanted to be part of it, and found a way. Kooper’s keyboards seem to be a key component in the “sound” on this song which hit the airwaves in 1965, climbing up the charts to number 2. Kooper’s story is in here.

The book begins with Marcus setting the context for this song’s emergence. The opening chapter is The Day Kennedy Was Shot, an indicator of the turbulence America would be undergoing as it navigated the Sixties. The second chapter fills in details about the music scene, a “Top Forty Nation” in which pop radio ruled and every musician saw their ultimate value in relation to where their songs appeared on the charts. Numerous musicians were finding their way into the charts by doing covers of Bob Dylan’s songs, most notably the Byrds and Peter, Paul and Mary.

There’s a problem, however, with the way Greil Marcus tells the story of the song. I will illustrate it like this. You know how in a really good poem you trust the author’s judgment as regards what to leave in and what to leave out? You make assumptions as you read that the images connect somehow, that if you work at it an understanding will emerge. You trust the author there will be a payoff. Unfortunately, halfway through the book I began to lose my trust.

There are anecdotes a-plenty, but most tiresome are the Marcus assertions which one can also begin to question. He writes with authority, has assembled plenty of material that when thrown together has the appearance of a book, but once you lose your way it’s like wading in a swamp.

The book seems to have received plenty of accolades from such auspicious sources as the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, The Nation, Variety and the Denver Post (to name a few) but reader comments at are far less effusive. One of these wrote: Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. This was the book that cured me of my belief that you have to finish reading any book you start. You leap at the first chance to escape the drunken bore at a party, right? Putting this book back on the shelf? Same thing.

I can't say that this book is uninteresting. I just got tired at the point where it felt like Greil Marcus was that guy at the party you always avoid because he talks just to hear himself talk. You keep hoping it will add up to something and it never does.


superdave said...

you're absolutely right. i have this book, and have read it, but it goes nowhere. the main problem is that marcus spends 10 hours thinking about and analyzing a line dylan probably spent 10 minutes writing. marcus is the master of over analysis.

Vegard Martinsen said...

I think Marcus doesn´t get Dylan at all. All his writings (or the pieces I have read) is completely pointless and uninteresting.