Music is a hard thing to write about. You can go clipped and dry in your appoach, with dates and names and other history, which can be pretty dull. Or you can, if you live and believe it like Greil Marcus obviously does, do the stream-of-consciousness thing. Despite its unevenness I think I prefer the Marcus approach. This book is not going to appeal to everyone. The actual Basement Tapes of the title really don't take up but a small portion of the book. Instead, Marcus uses the Tapes like a touchstone for everything authentic - and vanishing, in American culture. "Old Weird America," Marcus calls it. Indeed. Dylan is of course important, since he's the last musical genius (according to Marcus) to understand this. When Marcus does discuss a song on the Basement Tapes, he often, to my mind, overstates his case with pretty wild hyperbole that has me thinking whatever he's smoking, it must be good. But I'm willing to go with that. The payoff comes when he discusses, for...
Perhaps I began this book with too high a set of expectations; like, for example, it would actually focus on Bob Dylan's (and The Band's) Basement Tapes. The set piece that opens the book--a brilliant recapturing of the infamous 1966 Albert Hall concert--plays to Marcus' strength as an evoker of places and atmospheres, and includes some incredible quotes from the protagonists. And even though this chapter is too brief to be thorough, it's the best thing in the book, because in setting up the context for The Basement Tapes, it delivers something close to the advertised product. But it's all down hill from there, because Dylan, The Band, the tapes all dissappear into the shadows. They end up becoming just another facet, rather than the focus of the book. There's a lengthy chapter on Harry Smith's "Anthology of American Folk Music" and Marcus' woefully insubstantial literary analysis of a handful of "Tapes" songs that tell us more about the...
Greil Marcus's book isn't so much about Bob Dylan's album "The Basement Tapes" as it is "inspired by" the Basement Tapes. One reviewer here describes it as "fan fiction". I see the point, and to a degree agree with it, but I think there is a bit more meat to the book than that description encompasses.
The strange thing is that I didn't even think that much of Bob Dylan's "The Basement Tapes". I always thought of it as some jams by a great band with some half-finished lyrics slurred and snarled and mush-mouthed bluffed over it. The album made me wish Dylan could have stayed on amphetamines a little longer. His central nervous system and heart probably enjoyed the break, but the Basement Tapes ain't no Blonde on Blonde. With that said, I still love this book, maddening though it is.
Like in his earlier book, "Lipstick Traces", Marcus is interested in making cultural/historical connections. Showing how music from the recent past ties into much older...
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