"What is this shit?" That's how rock critic Greil Marcus opened his review of Bob Dylan's album Self Portrait in Rolling Stone 40 years ago. Marcus has since become one of America's premier cultural critics and has penned much prose that is both probing and poetic, but those four words still constitute his most memorable line."It was simply what everybody was saying," Marcus admits. His review is one of the first entries in his latest book, Bob Dylan, a collection of writing about the legendary singer/songwriter from 1968 to 2010. "I realized I'd been writing about Dylan for 42 years, and with Obama's election, it had brought the story to a kind of verge," Marcus says. "With this piece, I have a book with a beginning and a conclusion, though not an ending."
The book opens in 1968 with rumors that Dylan is to appear at a Berkeley coffeehouse after three years out of the limelight. A giant box is wheeled onstage, the lid is propped open, and the sounds of a harmonica briefly emerge before "the great box was borne way into the night." By the time the book ends with "Blowin' in the Wind," sung on election night 2008, Dylan has emerged from seclusion as a country crooner, become a born-again Christian gospel singer, embraced his native Judaism, written a memoir, and returned to his roots. And Marcus has grown from a rock critic for the underground press into a master stylist delving deeply into the soul of America. Though he has written volumes about Elvis, as well as punk's subversive antecedents, Dylan has remained a favorite topic.
"Along with a lot of other things, becoming a Bob Dylan fan made me a writer," Marcus writes. "I was never interested in figuring out what the songs meant. I was interested in figuring out my response to them, and other people's responses."
Sat., Nov. 20, 12:30 p.m., 2010