As many commentators have remarked, Dylan is himself a fair to middling instrumentalist: listen to his erratic, off-duty strumming on “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Tombstone Blues” or the shrill harmonica on many of the early live recordings. Together with his raw voice, these blemishes helped to create the distinctively coarse-grained texture one hears on his mighty triptych of mid-Sixties rock-and-roll albums, Bringing It All Back Home (1965), Highway 61 Revisited (1965), and Blonde on Blonde (1966)—those hectic, fizzing records that stood in such sharp contrast to the lush, velvety soundscapes of so much of the era’s pop music.
At the same time, Dylan owes a tremendous debt to the remarkable musicians who have played on his albums over the years. Highway 61 Revisited would be a severely diminished piece of work without Paul Griffin’s breezy barrelhouse piano, which weaves and jitters its way around “Approximately Queen Jane” and “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.” John Wesley Harding (1967) owes much of its disquieting mood (at once jaunty and funereal, forthright and evasive) to Kenny Buttrey’s bustling drums and Charlie McCoy’s playful bass riffs, which prod and propel Dylan’s sedate vocals and acoustic guitar. And The Basement Tapes (recorded in 1967 but not released until 1975) would not be The Basement Tapes without the merrily boisterous accompaniment of Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson, and Levon Helm.
It was precisely this musical backing that so horrified and bewildered Dylan’s fans when he first began playing with a band in 1965. The folk revivalists, who regarded rock and roll as commercial fluff, were dismayed by his new direction, and for the next year, during which he toured incessantly, Dylan was routinely greeted by a roiling ocean of boos, jeers, and catcalls. As Wilentz points out, however, Dylan had in fact
explicitly honored traditional folk music, with its myth, contradictions, and chaos; indeed, insofar as the folk revival prized old-time music for its supposed simplicity as well as purity, Dylan’s break, and even his turn to surrealism and electricity, can be seen as an effort to preserve the wilder spirit of folk music.
There is a telling vignette in Martin Scorsese’s 2005 documentary No Direction Home, in which a gaggle of morose young Brits, shuffling out of a venue after one of Dylan’s 1966 electric shows, complain about what they have just witnessed. “I came here to see Bob Dylan,” scoffs one young man, “not a pop group.” To which someone else in the crowd responds, “There aren’t many pop groups like that.”
Both these new books devote themselves for the most part to the long postlapsarian phase of Dylan’s career, which began with his motorcycle accident on July 29, 1966. Dylan has certainly made some astonishing records since then, most notably The Basement Tapes, John Wesley Harding, and Blood on the Tracks (1975); but for years at a stretch—from 1971 to 1975, from 1978 to 1989—he went into creative tailspin, releasing album after album of generally insipid material.7 One of the pleasures of Marcus’s book, which gives a journalistic record of this miserable decline, is the eloquent bitterness with which he registers each new low in the Dylan oeuvre.
“What is this shit?” is the famous, and entirely warranted, opening sentence of his piece on Dylan’s Self- Portrait (1970), that congealed and tepid slurry of studio outtakes, recycled hits, and perfunctory cover versions, which at the time seemed to signal an abnegation of artistic seriousness. Bemoaning the album’s utter lack of dynamism or invention, Marcus says that
unless [Dylan] returns to the marketplace with a sense of vocation and the ambition to keep up with his own gifts, the music of the [mid-Sixties] will continue to dominate his records, whether he releases them or not.
And this is exactly what happened: as the years went by, Dylan found himself trapped inside the aspic of his own legend.
Of the strident, overeager live album Hard Rain (1976), Marcus writes, “Dylan’s presence [on stage] was overshadowing any questions of musical quality.” (Compare what Marcus wrote of the bloated 1970s Elvis in his first book, the magisterial Mystery Train: “Elvis’s performance of his myth is so satisfying to his audience that he is left with no musical identity whatsoever.”) This question of musical quality is not one that Marcus himself shies away from: “Dylan doesn’t phrase, he bleats,” he writes of Dylan’s voice on Hard Rain, “and for the first time in his career, he sounds stupid.” Later in the review, Dylan’s vocals are likened (not injudiciously) to those of “a dying horse.”
By the time we get to the sterile slickness of Empire Burlesque (1985), possibly Dylan’s nadir, Marcus seems to have all but given up on his former hero, whose voice he describes as “cracker-barrel wise” and that of “a crank who wants you to believe he’s seen it all but really just wants to complain that he hasn’t liked what he’s seen.” Such phrases demonstrate one of Marcus’s principal virtues as a critic: the aphoristic and figurative wit that enables him to capture in language what a piece of music actually sounds like. (Elsewhere he rather magnificently describes the sound of Blonde on Blonde as that “of a man trying to stand up in a drunken boat, and, for the moment, succeeding.”) Marcus is also admirably severe: he knows that not to hold Dylan to the highest possible standard is to condescend to him. Glancing longingly back at the efflorescence of the mid-Sixties in his Empire Burlesque review, he observes that Dylan was then “rooted in history and rooted in the present moment,” but that “there are no roots in his music now.”
A search for past influences is what seems to have led Dylan in the early Nineties to record two albums made up entirely of old folk and blues standards, several of which—“Love Henry,” “Stackalee,” “Frankie and Albert”—he’d encountered over three decades earlier on the Anthology of American Folk Music. Both Marcus and Wilentz view these records, Good As I Been to You (1992) and World Gone Wrong (1993), which received little attention when they were first released and to some extent remain buried in the Dylan canon, as the hinge of his career. Having spent most of the Eighties making music that, in its bright and airless overproduction, felt slavishly up-to-the-minute (and thus redundant the very next), Dylan now returned to songs that, in one form or another, had been around for generations before his birth.
Dylan’s star began to rise again with the two tradition-steeped albums that followed, Time Out of Mind (1997) and “Love and Theft” (2001). Both are made up of Dylan originals, and yet the degree to which some of the new compositions appropriated riffs, chord changes, melodies, and lyrics from older music is striking: on tracks like “Cry a While” (which, as Wilentz points out, lifts the melody from the Mississippi Sheiks’ “Stop and Listen Blues,” recorded in 1930) or “Mississippi” (whose chorus lyrics are taken from the old work song “Rosie”), Dylan seems to flaunt his borrowings as never before. His voice, too, was bursting with inheritance: no longer “cracker-barrel wise,” it had grown into a rustling, honeyed croak that recalls the bluesman Charlie Patton one moment and crooners like Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra the next. Dylan had rediscovered what was central to his genius: the “ability to write and sing,” as Wilentz puts it, “in more than one era at once.”
Wilentz has valuable things to say about Dylan but his prose can be careless and flat-footed and he never brings the music itself to life in the way Marcus is able to. At moments Bob Dylan in America also lacks the requisite critical detachment. Since 2001, Wilentz has served as the “historian-in-residence” at Dylan’s official website (www.bobdylan.com), where several of the chapters in this book first appeared. It is thus not surprising that Wilentz’s commentaries, especially those on Dylan’s recent work, should err on the side of giddy approbation. The following is not untypical:
After the critical triumph of Love and Theft in 2001…, [Dylan] began turning out fresh work like a man possessed. Not a year passed over the ensuing seven when he failed to produce something of significance, including two albums of original music…and Theme Time Radio Hour with Your Host Bob Dylan, the most original radio show to appear on the air in recent memory…. All the while, he performed, on average, more than a hundred shows a year, and never fewer than ninety-seven—a punishing schedule almost unheard of these days for an artist of Dylan’s stature and renown, let alone one who was past sixty.
Such cheerleading is of little use to anyone besides Dylan himself, who now, in his late sixties, bedecked with laurels, seems content to hide behind the hagiographic projections that are directed at him from all sides, whether in the form of Todd Haynes’s fawning and complacent biopic I’m Not There (2007) or the reams of Dylanology that continue to appear.
What both these books do capture well is the combination in Dylan of plainness and elusive exceptionalism, the way he can seem, on the one hand, to submerge his identity in the vastness of tradition, and on the other to brand everything he touches—a twelve-bar blues, a borrowed lyric—with his emphatic singularity. In the introduction to his new book, Marcus recalls seeing Dylan perform for the first time in the summer of 1963, “in a field in New Jersey.” Among the songs Dylan played was “With God on Our Side,” which opens:
Oh my name it is nothin’
My age it means less
Dylan, Marcus writes, did seem ageless and anonymous, “as ordinary as anyone in the audience.” And yet, Marcus continues, “something in his demeanor dared you to pin him down, to sum him up and write him off, and you couldn’t do it.”
7 Although there are undoubtedly some fine songs stranded on these dire albums, such as "Changing of the Guards" from Street Legal (1978), "Pressing On" from Saved (1980), "Every Grain of Sand" from Shot of Love (1981), "Jokerman" from Infidels (1983), and "Brownsville Girl" (cowritten with the playwright Sam Shepard) from Knocked Out Loaded (1986. ↩
Although there are undoubtedly some fine songs stranded on these dire albums, such as “Changing of the Guards” from Street Legal (1978), “Pressing On” from Saved (1980), “Every Grain of Sand” from Shot of Love (1981), “Jokerman” from Infidels (1983), and “Brownsville Girl” (cowritten with the playwright Sam Shepard) from Knocked Out Loaded (1986. ↩