By Greil Marcus (PublicAffairs, 283 pages, $25).
"Dylanology," or the obsessive interpreting, decoding, and analyzing of the works of singer, songwriter and now author Bob Dylan, has been around since the late 1960s, when its more obnoxious practitioners nearly drove Dylan away from his art. At least, that's how he describes their effect on him in his recently published memoir, Chronicles, Vol. I. Ironically, the Dylanology that was blighting his life in 1969 helped to resuscitate his career 20 years later. By the late 1980s, Dylan, fearing himself washed up and increasingly irrelevant, realized that all those nosy, demanding geeks who pestered him in the 60s had grown up to be a dependable fan base for what would become his "never-ending tour" and the various "bootleg series" CD collections he has now issued over the past 15 years or so. Just like the Grateful Dead, Dylan now had a flock of maniacally attentive fans who followed him from show to show all over the country, keeping him afloat through the fallow years of the late-80s and early-90s until he returned to mainstream favor with his album Time Out of Mind in 1997. (Nearly dying of a heart infection didn't hurt, either.)
Greil Marcus, an ambitious critic of popular music and a passionate advocate of its power to provide an "alternative history" of culture, has now produced a quintessential work of Dylanology, Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads. Marcus takes Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," his breakout rock hit of 1965, and gives it a very sophisticated analytical treatment, as though it were a Mt. Everest from which to survey the other peaks of Dylan's career and also, typical of Marcus, to throw in any random cultural observation that seems to come to mind.
To provide such a survey, you've got to climb the mountain. All of the lyrics to "Like a Rolling Stone" are reproduced at the beginning of the book, and a good thing, too, because at one time or another Marcus manages to comment on every line. There's also well-researched and interview-driven information on the musical arrangement and recording process, complete with a melodramatic account of how Tom Wilson, who produced the song, was replaced with Bob Johnston, who produced the rest of Highway 61 Revisited, the album on which it appears. Marcus also offers, as a an epilogue, an analysis of all 15 session takes of "Like a Rolling Stone," every hiccup and false start included to drive home the point that in only one of those takes did Dylan and his session musicians manage to complete the entire song.
In a recent interview in the online magazine Perfect Sound Forever, Marcus either bragged or admitted that he turned out this 65,000-word book in less than a month. He clearly did not waste any of that time working out a linear plan of organization. At one point or another, his discussions include detailed accounts of Dylan's performance practices and audience rituals, the cultural significance of any number of blues artists, the highlights of the Billboard Top 100 of 1965, and numerous references to American politics in the 20th century. As he leads the reader on his elaborate mental hopscotch game, Marcus reminds me of a brilliant but absentminded college professor lecturing without notes and following his musings wherever they might go. In fact, just like a professor's scholarly work, some of the freshest and most illuminating material in the book is included in the 27-page "Works Cited" section, where Marcus's annotations offer all manner of delightful trivia and tidbits.
As you may have guessed, what we have here is not introductory Dylanology; it's definitely graduate-level. Professor Marcus offers a fascinating class, but you'd better have the prerequisites as a Dylanologist before you sign up. I'm only partially kidding when I recommend that you should have attended at least a half-dozen Dylan concerts, preferably in at least two different decades, and have listened fervently to all of the albums from 1962-1966, 1975-80, and 1997-2001. You should also have read Chronicles, Vol. I, of course, and at least one of the unauthorized biographies. The final tweak on your resume as graduate Dylanologist would be a willingness to enjoy at least one album from Dylan's collected works that the other cognoscenti believe is garbage. (Self-Portrait, Saved, and Knocked Out Loaded are good candidates.) Believe it or not, I think Marcus's Dylanology 601 will draw a strong enrollment.