BOB DYLAN BY GREIL MARCUS
By Greil Marcus, Public Affairs, 481 pp., $29.95
BOB DYLAN IN AMERICA
By Sean Wilentz, Doubleday, 390 pp., $28.95
On May 24, 2011, Bob Dylan turns 70. He is still performing. Indeed, his Never Ending Tour has been on the road since 1988. Before he takes the stage, the audience hears the following introduction: "Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the poet laureate of rock'n' roll. The voice of the promise of the '60s counterculture. The guy who forced folk into bed with rock, who donned makeup in the '70s and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse, who emerged to find Jay-sus, who was written off as a has-been by the end of the '80s, and who suddenly shifted gears, releasing some of the strongest music of his career beginning in the late '90s. Ladies and Gentlemen, Bob Dylan!"
No cultural critic has contemplated the meaning of Dylan's music and career more thoroughly than Greil Marcus, who was 18 years old in 1963 when he first heard the singer perform. Marcus recalls being transfixed. Who was this scruffy, diffident youngster standing alone with guitar and harmonica, yet performing songs that told the country's story in a new way, that promised even to change the nation's history?
In the next several years, Dylan was hailed as the voice of a generation and denounced as a Judas. After a motorcycle accident in 1966, he withdrew from touring until 1974. He also released three albums, Bringing It All Back Home (1965), Highway 61 Revisited (1965), and Blonde on Blonde 0966) that transcend nearly anything else ever created by a rock musician. Dylan himself looks back with wonder on his creative outburst during those years. "You've got to have power and dominion over the spirits," he wrote in 2004.
What makes this collection of writings so welcome is that Marcus's career as a critic began just after those profound and turbulent times; over half the book covers Dylan's career since 1990. This is not to say that Marcus has not analyzed Dylan's work from the mid-1960s. Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads (2005) is the most acute study of what many consider the most important song in rock'n' roll history. And The Old, Weird America (1997) probes the depths and dimensions of the basement tapes, recordings of dozens of songs performed with members of the Hawks, soon to be known as The Band. Dylan himself provided a blurb: "This book is terminal. Goes deeply into the subconscious and plows...