Greil Marcus has been a leading American music and culture critic for over four decades. He is the author of 18 books including Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads and Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music.
His latest book, Bob Dylan: Writings 1968-2010, is a collection of essays, reviews and critical analysis of just about anything Dylan did from 1968 onwards. Marcus is a critic who isn’t afraid to speak his mind; in fact, one could say there is as much criticism as there is praise for Dylan’s work in this book.
It makes for some uninteresting reading at times but there are some noteworthy observations nonetheless: particularly Marcus’ criticism of Dylan’s Christian album Slow Train Coming in 1979. One of Marcus’ obsessions is linking Dylan with the American vernacular tradition, in both song and literature. A strong trait of Marcus’ criticism is that he concentrates on his own responses to the songs, rather than trying to figure out what Dylan’s responses or ideas of the songs are, which let’s face it, would probably be an impossible task, given the layers of ambiguity in his songwriting.
In your latest book, Bob Dylan, Writings 1968-2010, you discuss the great American writers such as Melville, Thoreau and Whitman. Where do you rank Bob Dylan, among these writers?
I don’t rank Dylan in one way or another. Obviously the kind of work that he is doing is different to what Whitman and others are doing, but what’s interesting, is that Dylan is working in a tradition that these writers were working in: which is the tradition in where the artist’s subject is, America. Trying to figure out what the place is about, what its promises are, how they’re betrayed, how you fulfil them. Dylan has read these writers, and is energised and sparked by these writers. He is aware in every conceivable sense of ancestor, whether, it’s musical, literary, cinematic, political and religious. So I think he is very intentionally working in that tradition and that can be very liberating for someone like Dylan, who has an enormous imagination.
“For me, most of the ’70s and the ’80s with Dylan was a real wasteland.”
Most your new book concentrates on Dylan’s later years. Do you agree that much of his work after the 1970s was rubbish?
Well in Chronicles, he specifically says that- he says- there was a time when I had power and dominion over the spirits, to write songs like ‘Masters of War’, you have to have this. He’s basically saying, he couldn’t write those songs anymore, and he’s not going to try. It’s interesting in that book that he ignores the period of a combination of albums: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde.
It seems to me Dylan gets to the early ’90s, and says I can’t do it anymore, all these albums I’ve been putting out for 20 years, they’re fakes, and so he puts out these two albums of old blues and folk songs: Good As I’ve Been To You, and World Gone Wrong. I think in these albums he blew away all the self consciousness and careerism, and maybe even money problems of the previous decade. At that stage he’s ready again to start singing about the world outside and not just his own private problem. That’s when his second musical career begins, and I think it’s as rich as anything that came before it. For me, most of the ’70s and the ’80s with Dylan was a real wasteland.
You write two long essays, on both, ‘Visions of Johanna’, and ‘Desolation Row’, in your latest book? What is it you feel Dylan captures in these songs as a lyrist?
I remember back in 1966 before Blonde On Blonde was released, reading the lyrics of ‘Visions Of Johanna’, and how well they read, which is not the way most Bob Dylan songs work, but in this case they had a mathematical precision to them, they had gravity as poetry, the song is like a weird horror movie. With ‘Desolation Row’, The Getty Museum in Los Angeles, had this great painting by James Ensor- the great, misanthropic Belgian artist of the 19th century- called: Christ’s Entry into Brussels, which is this huge panorama of chaos, blasphemy, and corruption, with all values being destroyed; and someone at The Getty had created a book where he had combined images from that painting, with lyrics from ‘Desolation Row’, and I was invited to give a talk about this book. The reasons I wrote both essays, however, is that the music in both songs is so compelling.