Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Q: When is a song more than just a song?

A: When the year is 1965 and the song is Bob Dylan's “Like A Rolling Stone.”

I have some thoughts of my own about the cultural significance of Bob Dylan and his songs, but first take a gander at this snippet of prose from Greil Marcus's Like A Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan At The Crossroads, and see if his voice doesn't remind you of someone else's:

And then the song took off, over mountains, through valleys, across rivers, across oceans, each line more expansive, more triumphant, heroic, and modest than the last, for the singers were claiming no more than what anyone else could take as a birthright. As the choir thundered again and again, with [the singer] oddly taking its place and the choir his ... you rose to the story as you listened, eager to join it, even if, then, if not before, you realized that the massed voice of the choir stood for all the voices of the dead, and [the singer] ... was the voice of an adventure that had come to an end before he was ready to take part. As you listen, you hear history tearing the song to pieces — but the song will not surrender its body. At five minutes it seems to go on forever, and you want it to. You can't play it once.

Alright, back to Bob. One of the bitter disappointments that comes with reading a singer's memoirs is the realization that this person isn't quite as clued in as you once assumed. Alice Cooper, for instance, has a facility for clever lyrics that work with the rock & roll template, and he still has terrific instincts for what thrills an arena-sized audience. He's obviously got a shrewd sense of the music biz. But beyond that, he's just a guy who golfs a lot, goes to church and pays a shrink to help him puzzle over why he wants a beer for breakfast.

There is a good reason why the majority of entertainer's memoirs deliver that come-down: it doesn't matter what sort of entertainer is under the microscope — actor, musician, bodybuilder, politician, preacher or stand-up comedian — they have to have the capacity to present a blank screen on which the audience can project their desires, fears and fondest hopes. The performer provides a few bold details (“Check this out: I'm freakishly huge!”) while the beholder fills in the blanks with personally revealing nuances (“He's big and NO-ONE CAN PUSH HIM AROUND!!”).

Some personalities have an easier time holding up this screen than others, and Dylan is a cat who has to work harder at it than, say, Alice Cooper does. Dylan's brain is on a constant low boil: he can't resist a beautiful woman, or just about any direct appeal to his religious sensibilities. And if his memoirs are any indication, the drugs he took in the 60s don't seem to have damaged his encyclopedic knowledge of traditional American music. He meditates on just about everything, but still refuses to be pinned down on any given issue. Frankly, the guy strikes me as being a bit crackers, but that's not an altogether bad thing. He is the Jokerman, and so shall he be to the end of his days, because anything more definitive than that is downright unattractive — to him, and to us.

I don't mind saying I'm a fan, but I still find it galling that this guy is THE cultural presence of the last 40 years when the vast majority of his songs could mean this, or they could mean that, or they could mean nothing at all. The effect of his best music is to suggest that he isn't just deeply inside a given cultural moment, but that his point of view actually transcends it as well. But does it really?

I was born the day Dylan laid out “Like A Rolling Stone” on the reel-to-reel. I own a worn-thin copy of Highway 61 Revisited, and I've got to say: “Like A Rolling Stone” just doesn't do much for me. It's always sounded to me like Dylan's being snarky to an ex who's fallen on hard times — a real class act, that's only marginally easier on the ears than “Positively 4th Street” and its grating Hammond Organ hook: “Dee-Doodely-Doot-Doot-Dooo.” Man, those two songs ... I'm begging here — no mas!

“Desolation Row,” on the other hand, knocks me on my ass every single time I hear it. The lyrics are typically dodgy, but they evoke for me my handful of years in Bohemia when everyone who walked into my studio apartment seemed a little dangerous, and a little sad. I figured I was living on Desolation Row; as far as I'm concerned it's still just a block or two away from where we live.

Unlike yours truly, Marcus Greil was a cogent-sounding young guy back when “Like A Rolling Stone” hit the airwaves. For him, the song's blank-slate quality invited the public to project their anger and anxieties over the struggle for racial equality, the Vietnam war, and all those debilitating assassinations that struck at the heart of the nation. The song stood up to all this and had the strength of architecture to carry it, too.

I wasn't there (not really), so I'm not entirely convinced. But I'm digging Marcus Greil and just about anything he says, and here's why: that quote I began with is his riff off the Pet Shop Boys' “Go West.” Again, I can't say that particular song inspires quite the same reverence in me. but I get a kick out of the way it inebriates Greil, 'cos it reminds me of this guy:

The tenorman's eyes were fixed straight on him; he had a madman who not only understood but cared and wanted to understand more and much more than there was, and they began duelling for this; everything came out of the horn, no more phrases, just cries, cries, “Baugh” and down to “Beep!” and up to “EEEEE!” and down to clinkers and over to sideways-echoing horn-sounds. He tried everything, up, down sideways, upside down, horizontal, thirty degrees ... finally the tenorman decided to blow his top and crouched down and held a note in high C for a long time as everybody else crashed along and the cries increased and I thought the cops would come swarming in from the nearest precinct.

That's Kerouac, of course. And Greil, God love 'im, is Kerouac's natural heir apparent — encyclopedic, unashamed to employ exaggeration, surprisingly unsodden, yet every bit as passionate and persuasive. In other words, an American Original, something I rather enjoy reading — on occasion.


Scott said...

Wow, Darrell, I admire your bravery in going up against the Cult of Dylan. I think he's a madman-genius but you're completely right in how so many of his songs are really just ornate frames for the audience to fill in.

As for 'Go West,' well, I worship that song for the way it works as both a crushing lament for a lost utopia AND a rousing anthem that honours its disco roots. It's majestic and sad and yet somehow I could never rate it as highly as Greil does! Your Kerouac comparison is funny and apt -- I read him, I love him, yet I shake my head and think, 'I could never be that UP.' :)

PS: Bike pictures soon!

Cowtown Pattie said...

I am equivocal when it comes to Dylan. I know is it very uncool to admit not being a worshipful minion of Dylan, but I can't say that I truly adore a lot of his music.

I think I really prefer his delta blues kinda music, with that great harmonica, than I do his "protest" folk music.

As is true for me in regards to a lot of balladeers, I prefer to hear my musical heroes "unplugged" (think James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Townes Van Zandt, and of course, Dylan.)

Lot has been written about Dylan "selling out" with his talent, but we all know - pedestals are notoriously tiny on the top.

DarkoV said...

My feelings (not that you asked) are that I don't have the time in aany day to read any bio about him, no matter how well (as it seems with Mr. Marcus' version) it is written.

I wish I could explain it better; it's just that to me anyway, Bob Dylan is the Barry Bonds of Folk/Rock music.

Whisky Prajer said...

scott - you'll be happy to know I thought of you as I typed Marcus' words! Looking forward to the bicycle pix.

cp - re: Dylan sells out, the perspective is a little different for Canadians, who, prior to Bob's appearance on a panty commercial (and cam any red-blooded hetero male begrudge him that?) witnessed "The Times They Are A-Changin'" being put to use by a national bank. The guy has never been one for half-measures.

DV - Greil doesn't do biography so much as he does extended personal improvisations off music he really, really luuuuuvs. To be honest, there's only so much of that sort of thing I can take, and this book is just the right length. Doesn't (quite) wear out its welcome by book's end.