But Marcus shows how, far from being a song only of 1965, "Like a Rolling Stone" is rooted in faraway American places and times, drawing on timeless cultural impulses that make the song as challenging, disruptive, and restless today as it ever was, capable of reinvention by artists as disparate as the comedian Richard Belzer and the Italian hip-hop duo Articolo 31. "Like a Rolling Stone" never loses its essential quality, which is directly to challenge the listener: it remains a call to arms and a demand for a better world. Forty years later it is still revolutionary as will and idea, as an attack and an embrace. How Does it Feel? In this unique, burningly intense book, Marcus tells you, and much more besides.
Wank. Two ways, I was saying, and one is to take that "spin it out" approach, like Ulysses, famously five hundred pages on Leopold Bloom's walk across Dublin. But there's a lot (a LOT) of filler even in Ulysses, and Marcus, while he makes a couple of gestures to contextualization (some of which are quite nice, and really get across the feeling of what it felt like to be alive in that hot summer of 1965, and make you wonder why he didn't write a book on the Watts riots and Sam Cooke), isn't using the song as a focalizer. He's taking the opposite approach--literally trying to write 100,000-odd words on "Like a Rolling Stone"--the writing, the recording, the production, the tour, the Albert Hall concert--and there's no way all those words are ever gonna be winners. (And I'm not just talking about "and" and "the".)
Wank. And so I picked this book out of a stack of more promising topics because it was Greil Marcus, and somewhere I had the idea that he knew what he was about. But now I'm wondering if it was just that he was the first to have a big but obvious idea, about rock music in pop culture and tracing back those lines to Moby-Dick, Stagger Lee, etc., and as such is just another fucking baby boomer coming along at the right time to pretend nothing else has ever been as real, music has never been as hot, love never as free, the future never as big. The Randy Bachman of journalism, although I guess Bachman's trying to make a case for himself on the radio with the same sort of retro-necro bullshit. (When Nick Currie started shopping that term around, I said he was constructing a conservative paper tiger to rebel against and if you just stopped acknowledging the existence of those Jeff Beck fans in paunches and shorts they'd up and blow away, but clearly I was wrong).
Wank. Because this just does not get across on its literary merits at all. Marcus is a journalist, and my expectations are not unrealistic, but here is a sentence representing his default mode:
"As thousands of people from Selma, and all over the country, and from beyomd the country, marched out of the town, and, under the protection of the federal government, walked the fifty-four miles to the state capital in Montgomery to demand an end to disenfranchisement, a Constitutional crime that four months later would be ended by the Voting Rights Act, passed by Congress and signed by Lyndon B. Johnson as the greatest legacy of his presidency--one of the marchers Joan Baez, one of them a one-legged man on crutches, one of them a thirty-nine-year-old volunteer from Detroit, Viola Luizzo, who would be shot to death that night from a car full of Klansmen--the Supremes replaced the shimmering smile of the Beatles' "Eight Days a Week" with "Stop! In the Name of Love", their fourth number one record in a row, and so passionate, so well-crafted, it made the first three seem like soft-drink jingles."
And so you can see why it's tempting for me to just treat Marcus like Matt Taibbi did Tom Friedman, because this is laughable bullshit. But Marcus didn't marry an heiress and his moustache isn't taken seriously in the corridors of power, so whatever. Just another flabby boomer indulgee, always cool in own mind because cool is by definition whatever they are--or at least, if "cool" is too ambitious, they'll still always be the only ones that matter. What's really happening in this book is what was always gonna happen when the boomers aged, combining the worst features of their solipsistic generation with the rambling obliviousness of oldies--set the donkeys walking down the grassy paths in Marcus' brain and he can go on autopilot for hours, I have no doubt, saying all the same old TV Sixties bullshit . . . .
I'll give you another example. "[Dylan and his band] carried the country with them; the drama they enacted was no more or less American than Coca-Cola or Mickey Mouse, Charlie Chaplin or the Vietnam War."
This may be the smuggest, emptiest sentence I have ever read. And the cack-handedness penetrates from the semantics into the syntax; the "more (or less)", with its junior-high pomposity (would anyone ever suggest Dylan was more American than Mickey Mouse? Are you suggesting he is less? Are you saying anything at all, you fuck?) is matched and beaten by:
"Dylan is singing Hank Williams' "Lost Highway", from 1949. It was a rare Williams song that he didn't write. 'Once he was in California hitchhiking to Alba, Texas, to visit his sick mother," Myrtie Payne, the widow of Leon Payne, the song's composer, told the country music historian Dorothy Horstman . . . (etc.)."
Wank wank wankwankwank! Is there ANY POSSIBLE REVISION of that sentence that wouldn't make it less confusing? Is there any way to wrongfoot the reader more times in that short a space? This is barbecue-sauce-on-your-shirt stuff.
I don't want to say there's NOTHING in these 224 pages. He calls Little Richard "a foot of pomade, a pound of makeup, and purple clothes," which is cute and makes you go "Holy shit! Little Richard is Prince!" And there was a moment in there where he referred to the summer of '65 from the perspective of a kid just out of school, and you're like "Oh yeah. Wow. Everything about those years seems so historic and heroic now, but they were just twelve months one after the other." What is the summer of 2009 doing? (Not a fucking lot. Tweeting, mostly, or writing LibraryThing reviews). And then you have a little bit of sympathy for Marcus' garbage, because you think "Imagine being 15 in 1965--25 in 1975--35 in 1985--holy God, what a life." I think how I'm still young, partying, figuring it out. Whereas my dad, at my age, had put seven years into the newspaper and was about to undergo the greatest failure of his life when it was bought out. He had been married for seven years, a father for five. I think of my parents as "from" the Sixties and Seventies, because that's when parents come from, but for Christ's sake, my dad was 30 in 1987. We are older than we think.
And look at the way his life diappeared--a decade on driving cabs, a decade and counting on home care. Maybe that's why I, why my whole generation, but especially me, have so much trouble with staying power: if I fritter myself away on everything, never stay in one place long enough to really get to know how it feels, never invest enough ofmyself in anything to really feel the failure, I'll never get old, never die, never gather moss, like a rolling . . . yeah.
And that is no way to live. Heavy shit, right? But then you get to the end and Marcus's cute comparison of the "Like a Rolling Stone" to the Pet Shop Boys version of "Go West", and you feel kinda good for a minute because "Go West" is clearly one of the all-time greats, but then you realize that you're actually feeling good about Neil Tennant and Lego hats and early '90s computer graphics and the gay Internationale. Greil Marcus is just a fucking vampire who thinks he owns it all and knows it all because he was born at the right time. Wank . . . .
In conclusion, don't read this book.read more