LIKE A ROLLING STONE – BOB DYLAN AT THE CROSSROADS by Greil Marcus (Faber & Faber, 2006)

Greil Marcus is a man of many words. His verbosity is not to everyone’s taste. Many readers have, with just cause, accused him of being deliberately obtuse and willfully pretentious.

At the same time, his scholarly writings on music and cultural history are well worth the effort since they are frequently illuminating and consistently insightful.

Bob Dylan, the man and his music, is a subject he comes back to time and time again; taking fresh aims at a moving target he knows will never be fully defined.

It is the very elusiveness of Dylan that makes him so intriguing.

In this book, Marcus tells the story of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, charting the song’s origins and impact. He rightly identifies this as being more than just another rock song but, rather, a unique work of art more akin to an event. It may not have changed the world but it certainly set a new benchmark for what could be achieved in popular music.

Marcus notes how Dylan’s performance on the recorded version had an explosive impact, he writes: “The words aren’t merely bombs, they are land mines. They have been planted in the song for you to find”.

In placing a stress on words like STEAL- INVISIBLE -ALIBIS -KICKS -NEVER there is no identifiable pattern or logic yet the effect still seems deliberate and strikes an attitude of defiance that places its sentiments in the same milieu as Jack Kerouac’s fiction and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl.

What is true of ‘With God On Our Side’, the first Dylan song Marcus heard, is also true of Like A Rolling Stone: “He was telling those who were listening a story they already knew but in a manner that made the story new – that made the familiar unstable. and the comforts of familiarity unsure”.

This helps explain why the song retains its power to this day. It has survived numerous manglings in live shows where Dylan frequently slurs or mumbles the words knowing that it is enough merely to intone ‘How does it feeeeel?’ to ensure he gets an enthusiastic response.

It was not always thus. When the song was released as a single in 1965, its six-minute length was deemed unmarketable by record company executives and unplayable in its full version by daytime deejays. When it was first performed in public it was regarded as a betrayal of Dylan’s folk roots and, along with his other electric songs, greeted with boos, heckles and slow hand-claps.

Greil Marcus - "Pretentious? Moi?"

Greil Marcus – “Pretentious? Moi?”

Marcus’s dogged analysis of the song’s history follows a meandering route from A to B with more than a few dead ends along the way. His method is to stubbornly prod and probe beneath the surface in an attempt to reveal hidden truths and unepected connnections.

It doesn’t always come off. For instance, a contrived comparison with Go West by The Pet Shop Boys leads nowhere. Fortunately, however, he is on the right path more often than not so is well placed to set Dylan’s iconoclastic classic within a wider cultural and social context.

He puts Dylan on a pedestal but in his hero-worship he is not blind to his faults.  He notes that when Dylan plays his songs live he consistently fails to perform them in a way his fans would prefer: “Again and again he has refused to give an audience what it paid for”.

What Edgar Allan Poe called ‘the imp of the perverse’ therefore applies equally to the poet-musician and his most eloquent critic. Both see their role more to infuriate and challenge than to entertain. And why not? As Dylan himself sagely commented in 1966, “Anyone can be specific and obvious”.