You’ve been with the professors
And they’ve all liked your looks
With great lawyers you’ve discussed
Lepers and crooks
You’ve been through all
F Scott Fitzgerald’s books
You’re very well read it’s well known…
Thus ran a verse from a Bob Dylan song, ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’. I don’t suppose it occurred to him when he wrote it that in the following decades volume upon volume would be written about himself, his life, his influence and his lyrics, but the fact is that you would have to be very well read to have ploughed through them all. Thus Mike Marqusee has set himself quite a task to stand out from the crowd with this book, and by and large he succeeds.
The book concentrates on the first decade of Dylan’s career. That is the period from the early 1960s to the early 1970s in which, as Dylan later reflected in song, ‘There was music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air.’
Marqusee not only tells Dylan’s story, but the story of the times: Dylan awakes with much of America’s youth from the stifling conformity of the 1950s, a decade marked by McCarthyite anti-Communist witch-hunts, Cold War fever and deeply conservative values. Dylan’s break with all this coincides with blacks in the Southern states breaking with the notion that they should accept second class citizenship and the ‘back of the bus’.
The young Dylan changed his name, reinvented his past and arrived in New York’s Greenwich Village as a folk singer. Quickly he became more than a singer of old songs, and began writing his own. More and more those songs made statements about the world in which he lived. In this he was not unique – most of the folk singers in the Village began to write and sing protest songs.
He was, though, by far the most talented. Not looking for the obvious, he frequently sought a more subtle or sophisticated route to protest. His songs towered over those of his contemporaries.
It has since become fashionable to dismiss this period as simplistic both musically and lyrically. Marqusee provides a marvellous service in rescuing the significance and brilliance of Dylan’s early work.
But the weight of expectation and the ambitious desire to become ‘a star’ led Dylan away from protest. Those who want to dismiss the protest period have been assisted by Dylan’s desire to burn all bridges with his past, even cynically suggesting that he only wrote protest songs because that’s what his audience wanted. Marqusee rejects this, and goes on to examine the next great period of Dylan’s work, when he horrified his followers by dropping protest, and (even worse for some) picked up the electric guitar.
Despite the fact that Dylan was now writing songs that on the face of them frequently made little sense and appeared to be what he himself referred to as ‘skipping reels of rhyme’, if anything he became even more the voice of protest, and that protest was now looking more towards revolutionary change than negotiated reform.
How could this be? I remember at the age of 16 or 17 finding songs like ‘Desolation Row’ and ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ unfathomable, and yet paradoxically they seemed to say everything I felt about the world. Here Marqusee does the best job yet at trying to explain this conundrum. He shows that Dylan – whatever his rejection of those trying to change the world – snarled all the more at those who conformed to this alienated nightmare.
For instance, although Dylan kept quiet about the Vietnam War his song ‘All Along the Watchtower’, sung by Jimi Hendrix, became a GI anthem with its haunting first line, ‘There has to be some kind of way out of here.’ Marqusee gives many more examples of this, how Dylan inspired the Black Panthers and all sorts of exotic revolutionary groups.
This period was Dylan’s finest musically, and Marqusee catches this wonderfully. Despite occasionally falling into the academic ‘cultural studies’ milieu that I suspect Marqusee is trying to avoid, all in all, it is an excellent work.
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