Veteran rock critic and cultural historian takes on Dylan’s rock ’n’ roll legacy.
Marcus last held forth on Bob Dylan in his 1997 work, Invisible Republic (later retitled The Old, Weird America), which put Dylan’s 1967 “Basement Tapes” recordings with The Band under the microscope. Here, he tackles Dylan’s explosion into rock consciousness and mass culture with the release of the six-minute single “Like a Rolling Stone” in the summer of 1965. It’s a cornerstone record in the Dylan canon: it was his highest-charting hit, reaching number two (kept from the top slot by, who else, the Beatles), and providing a staggering demonstration of his imagination and artistic ambition. Marcus calls the song “an event” and relates it to the cultural, social and political ferment of the time. He has always had a rare talent for making exciting and unexpected connections, and he does so here, pulling such diverse artists as R&B singer Clyde McPhatter, reggae stars the Wailers and the punk band the Replacements, among many others, into the mix. (Some digressions, like one about England’s Pet Shop Boys, are less convincing.) His retelling of Dylan’s move from folk musician to electric prophet is compelling. During the singer’s stormy world tour of 1966, Marcus says, “Like a Rolling Stone” was thrown into the faces of outraged audiences like a curse, and indeed the present book’s strongest suit is its recounting the thrill of that moment when Dylan’s vision and sense of risk came together in one (and only one) perfect take of a song that summed up his time. Unfortunately, as in Invisible Republic, the volume is also weighed down by Marcus’s overcooked and contorted attempts to get inside the music. When he grapples with Highway 61 Revisited, the album that featured “Like a Rolling Stone,” things grind to a numbing halt. On the history and reverberations of the music, however, Marcus is near the top of the game.
How does it feel? Pretty good, most of the time.