One of the country’s leading rock and cultural critics, Greil Marcus collects more than four decades of his journalism on one of his favorite subjects in Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010. The anthology of pieces from Rolling Stone, the New York Times, Artforum and other publications reflects not only the changes in Dylan’s artistry, but the evolution of the critic’s perspective on it.
You write that “becoming a Bob Dylan fan made me a writer.” Can you expand on that?
At the start, when I had no idea how to write about music or even that you could—“It’s all beyond words,” you always heard—the songs were a great subject, and to me, in 1965 or so, they seemed to speak the same language as Whitman or Poe or Melville, and so I wrote about them in those terms. But very quickly I was drawn to writing about performance—strange and inexplicable things that had happened at shows I’d seen. I wanted to tell people about it—almost like someone on the street grabbing someone else to ask if they’d seen that hit-and-run accident, ask what they saw, tell them what I saw. It was that urgent. But it was more complicated, harder to find the words for—a never-ending challenge, one I’ve never gotten tired of.
How early on did you realize that there was something richer, deeper or more significant at stake in writing about Dylan than in writing about other artists?
Highway 61 Revisited sealed it. It was like a tidal wave in different colors—from the cover of the album to the wild humor of [the song] “Highway 61 Revisited,” the regret and desolation of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” and then the whole of 20th-century culture as the Titanic on “Desolation Row.” But in a way, “Like a Rolling Stone” on the radio had already made that happen. But I was a fan: I loved the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Smokey Robinson, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Elvis as much if not more than anyone. What Dylan was doing was clearly different though—inventing his own language from the vowel sounds on up. Everything in his music could change at any moment, which seemed to mirror the delirious way the world seemed to be changing, but with more glamour and more intelligence.
Your book begins with a review of Self-Portrait, an album that many fans considered a bitter disappointment, making some question whether his earlier work was as great as they’d thought. Were you then, or later, ever tempted to give up on Dylan?
No. Not even at that point in the 1980s where I wrote that “Dylan’s music now has meaning only as neuroticism.”
You write of 1992’s Good As I Been to You that “From that point on there was a new story to follow—and it was so strong, so surprising, that it cast everything that had preceded it in a new light.” Why was this album of traditional folk material so pivotal and revelatory?
Dylan approached these old blues and folk songs as if they were mines to find on a map, then to open with magic words—and as if, inside those mines, you could find the keys to wisdom, to how to live a life.
How did Dylan’s own writing about himself in Chronicles affect your understanding or appreciation of him?
Infinitely. It’s a very literary, written book—you can sense the writer as he makes choices between the words. The phrases rise up and can seem to vanish, the tone can be that dramatic.
If Dylan stopped performing and recording right now, how would he best be remembered?
For “Like a Rolling Stone.” It will be played as long as there is radio, which is its truest home.