Some thoughts on Time as experienced while reading
Bob Dylan By Greil Marcus and
Bob Dylan Complete Discography by Brian Hinton
If, like me, you need the music of BD like you need sunlight and good food, both of these books are well worth your Time.
In truth, I’m only a few years into the Marcus book, but the little I’ve read so far has already inspired me to comment. As Dylan once said (or borrowed from another most likely) in a 1978 interview, “the highest function of art is to inspire.” I trust Marcus’ intelligence and insight and I love the mysterious syntax of his writing, a style that is filled with gaps and leaps. I also disagree with him often. But that seems to be okay. In this latest collection, he had me hooked from the introduction, when he writes of Dylan commentary not as a matter of authority or ignorance but as a “conversation . . . that has raised the stakes of the lives of those who have taken part.”
I’ve owned Brian Hinton’s stout little text for years and I believe it is the only essential summary of the albums and songs. (I have been unable, thus far, to finish Clinton Heylin’s more comprehensive volumes — the tone of the first book, in contrast to both of these works, seems condescending. I’m sure I will try again.)
Time is the subject here. Both of these books both move through time. BD by GM is a collection of columns and essays written from 1970 until the present. Hinton takes us on a retrospective full circle, from 1962’s “Bob Dylan” to the of the 2005 release of “Bob Dylan Live at The Gaslight, 1962.” The obvious difference is that Marcus is aging and changing through time in his pieces, while Hinton is looking back from a future position, from the comfortable perch of experience. Both of these points of view are essential in assessing one’s relationship with Dylan’s art. That’s why I join them together here — two ways of looking.
Most of us remember the past like Hinton, and that is only natural. We include in our recollections the wisdom of our years, the shadows of distance and mortality, and the absorbed commentary of whatever group-mind we admire. We reflect on the past in a fond or detached or critical mental tone. But reading Marcus reminds me that we — those of us of a certain age — have experienced Bob Dylan’s musical chronicle from another point of view. In some way or another, we were there. Each one of us experienced a set of songs and performances in an actual past time. It’s unavoidable that our history has become mythic, an abstraction we create as we go. We layer the years and thoughts with a sediment that filters both up and down. Memory is always a reconciliation but it must not become a pure fiction. At the time, we were not making it up. We simply lived there, in a gone age.
Using this model (let’s call it “duality, mortality”), springing back and forth in a personal time machine, and speaking of 1978 and inspiration, I want to think a little on STREET-LEGAL. Perhaps you also have an opinion to share. STREET-LEGAL is, after all, the most contentiously debated record Bob has recorded. On the discussion boards, the subject of STREET-LEGAL always lights fuses. In the year of its release, in a Rolling Stone review reproduced in the current book, Marcus called it “dead air.” I doubt he has revised that opinion since — the album goes unmentioned for the last 300 pages of his book. Why would he reconsider anyway? I suppose its possible to think of a thing as “utterly fake” in the day and mind-blowing in later years, but probably not. When Marcus reflects back, I can only imagine that he hears the same white noise that he heard at the time.
Greil Marcus heard falsity and emptiness in that year of 1978. His head was elsewhere, in other music or culture or personal detail. STREET-LEGAL didn’t appeal. It seems to have made him feel queasy.
I heard something else. And I wasn’t alone. On July 15, 1978, more than a quarter million of us showed up at a disused aerodrome in the Surrey countryside. The promoters called it “The Picnic at Blackbushe” and STREET-LEGAL was the strange atmosphere we breathed. It was nearly chaos but not quite. It was nearly madness but not quite. It didn’t make sense but it was magnificent. It was majestic and dangerous, teetering on the edge of a dark chasm. It went on all day in the heat and the dust. You couldn’t really move. In the night there were fires. Clapton played guitar that evening, one more insistent wave of sound in Dylan’s largest band, melding with and separating from David Mansfield’s mandolin and Steve Douglas’ saxophone. I can understand why some critics and fans dislike STREET-LEGAL. If you weren’t in the place it describes — a place in the unpredictable reaches of the psyche, of which Blackbushe was the largest manifestation, nearly a dream, but not quite — I can see how it comes across as a very strange record, poorly recorded.
STREET-LEGAL, and the Christian records, are the most static in time of Dylan’s work. In my last post I wrote of how, in the modern songs, Dylan travels effortlessly through time, from the 1800’s to the near future. Hinton points out that on Blood on the Tracks Bob had found a way to write music that put him outside of time. On the mid-sixties records Dylan is channeling time and often, although he denies it vehemently, he seems to be actually creating it. On STREET-LEGAL and the gospel LPs, we have something different again. Bob was absolutely inside of time. I do not mean expressing it. I mean trapped inside of it.
Some of us were caught there with him — for the entire year of 1978 and several years that followed. Greil Marcus was not stuck with us. Good for him. He was free and elsewhere. From the outside, from a critical distance, the confusion and disorientation, and that chorus of women repeating our thoughts, may have seemed unappealing and insane. Bob’s trio of African-American ladies was disparaged by the critics, but we relied on them with desperation. They had a power over us. Dylan introduced them as “my ex-girlfriend, my girlfriend and my fiancée.” Where exactly in time are we talking about? We are in Portland, Oregon in the autumn of 1978, when the make-up, such a clever conceit back in the days of Rolling Thunder, now dripped off Dylan’s face like blood. In Tucson, Arizona, a couple weeks later, when someone threw a small silver cross onto the stage.
What does Brian Hinton have to say about STREET-LEGAL? “an enigma . . . as unreadable as the Sphinx . . . might prove in the long run to be one of Dylan’s most profound records . . . a man whose self-confidence is shot away . . . post-cocaine burn-out atmosphere” Apologies for the lack of context, but I hope Hinton would agree that lack of context, when it comes to STREET-LEGAL, is part of the point. The world is sexual, magical, unpredictable, violent, and deceptive, and your next step might land you in a place you only imagined, or feared, existed.
How about “Is Your Love in Vain?” Marcus calls it, smartly, “a sultan checking out a promising servant girl for VD.” But this cold analysis reaffirms that GM, in 1978, was in a land far away from the emotional country of the singer. Hinton, on the other hand, is on track when he refers to the “weariness” in Dylan’s voice. And dead right on when he calls the song a “xerox of a xerox” of the Dylan’s earlier, self-proclaimed, “thin, wild Mercury sound.” The singer seems to be buried just under the ground with his band.
Marcus reads “Is Your Love in Vain” as the height of arrogance. On the contrary, I hear a heartbeat that is completely vulnerable, if arrhythmic and muffled. A heart so smudged by despair that it is unreadable to its owner and everyone else. “All right, I’ll take a chance, I will fall in love with you.” Marcus comments, rightly, that this is “an odd notion of how falling in love works.” But somehow he misses that this is exactly the point. The singer is so separated from the reality of love that he believes he can decide to feel it. He hopes, without a shred of confidence, that it is a matter of his will. Of course he knows this approach is doomed. He does not truly see the woman he is looking at. The possibility of falling exists but love is not at the bottom.
This song at least unites Hinton and Marcus in their feminism, with both disparaging Bob’s query of whether the woman in question can “cook and sew, make flowers grow.” I will certainly agree that this fellow Dylan seems a bit desperate and needy, but let’s face it guys, we’ve all been there. Actually, that’s exactly ONE ASPECT of what I wanted in a wife. And you know what? She understands my pain too.
Where was I? Time. Jimmy Carter. Bob Marley. The Shah of Iran. Ronald Reagan. “Memory, ecstasy, tyranny, hypocrisy” Are these random words, vaguely portentous and chosen with a rhyming dictionary? I don’t think so. Perhaps they are haphazard but they are taken straight from the air that we breathed in the late 70’s . . .
“then Savage Rose & Fixable come by & kick him in the brains & color him pink for being a phony philosopher -- then the Clown comes by and screams "You phony philosopher!" & jumps on his head” — from the liner notes to Highway 61 Revisited.
To be continued . . .