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.