by / May 5th, 2011 /

Books: Top Story: Greil Marcus on Bob Dylan: “70s and the ’80s with Dylan was a real wasteland.”

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.

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  • Steven

    I wish the interviewer had asked Marcus a follow-up: what material was he over-praising in those 70’s and 80’s articles? I’ve read the book and I don’t recall much positive said about those years. Marcus seems a bit hypocritical at times; at one moment he says “understanding something emotionally, there is no barrier,” but he also criticizes Slow Train as “lifeless, cold and stupid.” I guess Marcus couldn’t feel the powerful emotion on that record. I sure could, and still do. Seems like Dylan still feels it too, 30 years later, with several of the Slow Train songs making regular appearances in the set list.

  • duck trapper

    I read Marcus’ Invisible Republic and found it incoherent. I honestly think Marcus has not paid close attention to Dylan’s work during the period he dismisses as a wasteland. Marcus is a cultural critic. He seems to be only interested in what seems to have cultural significance, from a left-field perspective. This is a man who has misquoted Van Morrison in a recent book. Does he really know the music, or is he just riding the current wave of Dylan’s hipness? Dylan produced more great work during the seventies and eighties (and some pretty shoddy work too, admittedly) than just about any other major artist of his generation.

  • I think he may have been just talking generally about Dylan’s work, both live and recorded. I think following the Dylan train for 40 years would make you want to critisize him, no matter what he did. That’s a valid point you make about the Slow Train songs, I wasnt aware of that, Probably because the two times I’ve seen him live, it’s hard to make out what he’s singing! What was your own thoughts on the book? I wasnt gone on it, I’ve read, Chronichles, and this one too and just found Maruus’ book a little tedious…

  • don

    Dylan described people who make a living writing about Rock ‘n’ Roll as “obscene”.(1983 interview)

  • Wasteland? Well, that could be good or bad, I guess. So the artist took some time to raise a family. A large one, with kids who have turned out great. What does the artist “owe” his public? And the few gems from the period more than make up for the clunkers. When Dylan is no longer vital or valid (which he has been very much indeed the last 5 releases) it will be nice to have the wasteland on the shelf to rediscover and learn from.

    Jim Linderman
    Dull Tool Dim Bulb

  • Andy

    I have no respect for people who still subscribe to the old, boring ’60s-centric view of Dylan and dismiss most of his later work as a “wasteland”. Much of what Dylan produced during the 1970s and 1980s would be any other musician’s “Greatest Hits”. Remember that during that period Dylan released albums like “Planet Waves”, “Blood On The Tracks”, “Desire”, “Slow Train Coming” and “Saved” (the fact that those albums do not fit Marcus’ ideology does not say anything about their artistic qualities), “Infidels” and “Oh Mercy”. Those albums (and the albums that followed) mean more to me than anything Dylan recorded in the 1960s.

  • Desire are Blood on the Tracks are probably his best two albums, or up there anyway. I think he was talking about the later 70s stuff, but he did say he didnt like Desire, which I found shocking..

  • david desmond

    some of what he said was interesting. but I let the records speak for themselves. my favorite dylan records are going to be different than others. I love SelfPortrait and find that it reveals something about Dylan’s interest in American music. It just came out too early to be appreciated. I love New Morning. Street Legal and Shot of Love. and while Empire is not suited to Bob’s kind of sound it has a couple of my favorite Dylan songs on it. Dark Eyes is worth the price of the record. I don’t think the period was a wasteland, but Dylan was going through changes and the whole musical landscape was. I feel his most important record is The Free Wheeling Bob Dylan. On several levels. but quite honestly one of my favorite recordings by Bob is When Did You Leave Heaven on either Knocked Out Loaded or Down in the Groove. I don’t even know if he wrote it. But there isn’t a single Dylan record that doesn’t have good songs. I agree with some of Marcus’s points though.

  • David C.

    This kind of generalization is pretty useless, really. Dylan did so much excellent music in the 70’s, especially. (Blood on the Tracks, Rolling Thunder Revue…) And to trash Slow Train Coming is really as much about Christian bashing as it is about the quality of the songs and the album. I personally think Dylan’s gospel period was one of his best. The live shows from that era were surely some of the best performances of his career. He was singing so well and with such passion.

    It is hard to believe Marcus is trading in over-generalizations like this.

  • airoff

    If Dylan was still trying to write “Masters of War” he’d be considered a washed up joke of a hippy from the 60s. Why do we keep paying attention to these over the hill critics desperate to relive their teen years?

    Street-Legal is among Dylan’s finest work. Dylan’s 70”s output was simply stellar. The fact Marcus can’t see this disqualifies him as a legit critic. I can’t believe this guy still makes a living bemoaning how terrible he finds Dylan’s post-folkie era.

  • Be nice? Ok. Marcus’ comment about Slow Train is just the rebelliousness Bob spoke of in those days. Marcus is slow to catch up or may never see the light down the track. Gotta serve up the truth in love. Time is running out fast, Marcus.

  • Mike A

    I just bought a CD titled “the very best of bob dylan ’80s.” Tracks include Silvio, Foot of Pride, Blind Willie McTell, Jokerman, Pressing On, Everything is Broken, Series of Dreams, Most of the Time, The Groom’s Still Waiting, Every Grain of Sand, Sweetheart Like You, Brownsville Girl, Dignity, and Dark Eyes. Not bad I’d say. If Marcus thinks these tunes were a waste then he’s an idiot.

  • steveie

    come on who is this guy 2 judge hes dylan artist let him wander from song 2 song and jus go along 4 the ride i have been with him since 64 just enjoy

  • raggedclown

    I’ve thought for a long time that Greil Marcus’s writings are the purest solipsism — they have nothing to do with whatever he is ostensibly writing about, they are simply the product of his own purely subjective inner workings.

    Dylan had a brilliant seventies by anyone’s standards — Planet Waves, Blood on the Tracks, Desire, and Street-Legal are tremendous albums, all musically and stylistically different, full of brilliant song-writing and incredible performances. Slow Train Coming may be repellent for many people, even Christians who don’t buy into Bob’s cartoon version of the end times that owes more to Hal Lindsay’s The Late, Great Planet Earth than the Bible. But musically it is Bob’s richest album, and his performances on it are superb. The way he handles the Biblical language, blending it with a more modern vernacular, is masterful.

    It is true that all of Bob’s eighties albums are flawed, but there is no one in that decade who wrote songs the equal of In the Garden, Every Grain of Sand, Jokerman, Blind Willie McTell, Caribbean Wind, or Ring Them Bells. And the list could be extended.

  • ian lovell

    Greil you made my day you are a tosser!

  • David C.

    Marcus early work will be remembered as part of a ‘first draft of history’. Certainly he was an influential writer in the 70’s, and through the 80’s as well. He helped shape how people of that period thought about popular music, and this in a time when there was substantially less writing about it that was easily available to the average fan. Although Marcus does matter as a historical figure, it is clear that his voice is no longer especially relevant, even regarding the music he used to write about.

  • Sams

    I think what Mr. Marcus is trying to say is that by the early 90s Bob had given. Tup being a rock star, something he supposedly had been trying too hard to do in the previous two decades. While there’s some truth to this (think of Bob’s problems producing a “modern” record from Infidels to UTRS), it’d be hard to argue there was anything modern about his ouput from from Self Portrait to Shot of Love. For most of this period Bob was producing brilliant songs even if some of the albums as they came out were flawed. It’s great went back to more of a raw approach, but this was more out of exaspertaion with the recording process. I think Bob was always s old school and never lost his connection to traditional music. If you can’t hear that in those songs – think of the gospel tradition in particular – then you are not listening very carefully. You could also argue Bob was more original musically during those decades and not as reliant on traditional melodies as he has been since TOOM.

  • steveie

    why r we judge in jus enjoy come on everybody einstein shakespere mr. dylan