When it was time for Greil Marcus to start his reading last night at Magers and Quinn, he suddenly realized that his emcee had gone missing--off, he later suggested, to use the bathroom. So the 65-year old author, perhaps the most famous of all living rock critics, walked over to the podium and got things started on his own.
"I don't think I need an introduction," Marcus smiled politely from behind his small, round eyeglasses. "I know who I am." Then, with the aid of his latest book, Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus, he summed up his plans for the evening in simple, even humble terms. "If there's an arc, it's what's most remarkable about Dylan's career," he explained. "It's a chronicle of one person's experience with another person's music."
Last night, though, Marcus wanted to illustrate his fascination with Dylan not through the man's best known work, but through The Basement Tapes--music Robbie Robertson once referred to as a "conspiracy," music that was never intended to be heard by anyone but the musicians who created it. Marcus describes those sessions as Dylan's way of getting in touch with the strangest, most unusual threads of folk music, so the passage he read on "Lo and Behold!" from The Old, Weird America was ideally suited to the task.
At times Marcus has been criticized for being too dry or overly academic, and anyone who's tried to slog through some of the longer passages in Lipstick Traces' 500 pages can likely sympathize. But at his best, the "West Coast Dean of American Rock Critics" (so named in deference to his friend, Robert Christgau) is remarkably inventive and utterly original, bringing songs to life with his imagination, exploring the open spaces in the music and tying them in with historical figures, doctrines, and sometimes entire epochs.
In Marcus' hands, a comic, even absurd seeming verse--
The coachman, he hit me for my hook
And he asked me my name.
I gave it to him right away,
Then I hung my head in shame.
--is a springboard, first to a railway station platform and a feeling of hope and confidence. Then a seemingly harmless encounter, wherein a stranger asks another person's name, becomes not only a source of discomfort, but an embarrassment, a violation of the very "democratic deference" that de Tocqueville identified as part of the American social contract. Before you know it, three pages have passed, and the scene has shifted first from 19th century America to a Don Henley music video and, the kicker, to Elvis Presley shouting defiantly, "You can't keep a hard prick down!" Each scene Marcus conjures is so vivid and full of life, so rich with detail and sensation, that it can't help but forever alter your sense of a song in extraordinary ways.
Dylan's career has, of course, been the subject of unending debate, which makes Marcus's approach so refreshing, for it touches closely on the spirit of the music and treats the songs as living, breathing organisms. Marcus discussed this very topic later on from a passage in the new book, where he contemplates how a song like "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carol" changes over time, especially if it's used in a soundtrack or--gasp!--in a commercial, such as "Lovesick." "People called him a sellout for that," Marcus observed. "But it raises another possibility: Let's see how strong this song is... Is the song 'over,' or is it just beginning its journey?"
Towards the end of the evening, after Papa John Kolstad said a few words about Dylan's time in Dinkytown in the early '60s, a young woman stood up to ask Marcus a question about The Old, Weird America. One of her favorite things about reading the book, she said nervously, a stutter in her speech, was the delight Marcus takes in connecting Dylan's music with history and in spinning a story around that. At those moments, she wondered, does that delight stem from Marcus having "figured the song out," or from his knowledge that he could never fully understand it?
From behind the podium, Marcus gave a proud, almost grandfatherly smile. "For me, it's a matter of playing with the songs, of trying to dramatize them," he replied. "And in playing with them, in that sort of free assocation, I see it as an act of freedom."
Liberating, you might say, not only for the author, but for the reader and, most importantly, for the song itself.