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Vandals' Messiah

Bob Dylan

Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes
By Greil Marcus
Henry Holt 1997, 286 pages, $22.50

The artist stripped bare by his basement, even

By Stephen Kessler

AS THE JERRY GARCIAS, Timothy Learys and Allen Ginsbergs of our time steadily disappear from this world, grizzled survivors of the 1960s realize that none of us will live forever. Even Bob Dylan, only 56 and arguably the most immortal of all, was hospitalized earlier this year with a lung infection that reportedly could have been fatal.

Dylan pulled through, but his illness was enough to send deathly chills through even the healthiest of his appreciators. In the 35 years since the release of his debut album, the harmonica-blowing bard from Northern Minnesota, through all the changes of is shape-shifting career, has been one star whose light seems inextinguishable.

By 1967, five long and eventful years since his appearance on the national scene, Dylan's provocative art had excited, seduced, repelled and puzzled millions of fans as he mutated from the seemingly wholesome Dr. Jeckyll of acoustic folk song and righteous protest to an electrified Mr. Hyde of surrealistic rock, crashed his motorcycle after the chart-busting Blonde on Blonde album and disappeared like some premature legend into the Catskills to recuperate.

It was there, in and around Woodstock, NY, that the singer-songwriter and his backup band, the Hawks (soon to emerge independently as the Band), made an informal series of recordings that came to be known as The Basement Tapes, which, via the records of other artists and various bootleg editions (and eventually a legitimate, if much abbreviated, double album in 1975), spilled a whole new barrel of red herrings across the unfollowable trail of Dylan's musical evolution.

Thirty years later, 1967 is remembered in the mainstream media mostly for San Francisco's so-called Summer of Love, but it also was the summer of deadly riots in Detroit and Newark, the deepening nightmare of the Vietnam War and the massive October March on the Pentagon eloquently documented in Norman Mailer's The Armies of the Night. For all the hippie love fests and trippy revelations of that era, it is the darkness that burns most deeply in memory--the disorienting sensation that one was living in a school bus-funhouse without lights or brakes that was wildly hurtling off the edge of history.

In the midst--or over to the side--of such insanity, Dylan and his colleagues were hiding out in the hills, messing around with their music. It is the strangely timeless and often goofy sounds they made in those few months that rock historian Greil Marcus attempts to illuminate in his new book, Invisible Republic.

Anyone familiar with Dylan's work knows that his poetic imagination is steeped in a rich brew of American musical traditions ranging from Anglo-Appalachian ballads and gospel to blues to rock & roll, with side trips every which way. The mix of elements synthesized with Hebraic prophecy and visionary poetry from many times and tongues are all processed through his personal psychic blender to produce a fertile lyricism often imitated but never quite matched in depth or breadth or brilliance.

Every few years since the mid-'60s, we've heard about some "new Dylan," but even the best of these upstart minstrels has never come close to the prototype in range or radical originality. Dylan's simultaneous uniqueness and profound connection with tradition is one of the themes explored by Marcus in his study of The Basement Tapes.

The author of Mystery Train, Lipstick Traces, Dead Elvis and other books on U.S. musical culture proposes in Invisible Republic that The Basement Tapes output is essentially a recapitulation of the history of American folk song--putting the lie to the widespread idea at the time that Dylan had forsaken his folk and blues roots by going electric and fronting a rock & roll band. In Marcus' view, the singer's and the Band's encyclopedic knowledge of practically everything that had preceded them informs even the most absurd improvisations they caught on their anarchic tape.

Though Marcus tends at times to make too much of nothing--attaching portentous implications to riffs tossed off in a spirit of stoned nonsense--he is persuasive in his argument that the dopey madness of the Basement sessions is underpinned by recognizable precedents in the folk canon and may, in fact, be more gravely sobering than what first meets the ear.

Unearthing specific songs from the 1920s and earlier whose style and spirit prefigure selections on The Basement Tapes, Marcus also proves that those presumably innocent tunes are themselves much darker and more bizarre than the contemporary listener might think. The primitive sophistication and worldly weirdness of such early masters as Dock Boggs, Furry Lewis, Jesse Fuller, Mississippi John Hurt and Bascom Lamar Lunsford are naturally complementary to the sophisticated primitivism of Dylan, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson.

According to Marcus, the bedrock source of The Basement Tapes, and the entire 1960s folk revival, was Harry Smith's landmark Anthology of American Folk Music, a three-volume, 84-selection set of LPs issued on the Folkways label in 1952 (and due to be reissued soon on CD).

Along with the engrossing psycho-biographical portrait of backcountry banjo legend Boggs, the most fascinating chapter of Invisible Republic is Marcus' meticulous account of the eccentric Smith and his compilation of the seminal Anthology gleaned from hundreds of old 78s by all-but-forgotten artists, many of whom were still alive at the time and "rediscovered" by folkies of the late '50s and early '60s.

Smith's strange career as amateur musicologist and accidental guru to a generation of musicians is intriguingly evoked by Marcus, who interweaves a portrait of Boggs with vivid descriptions of the songs on his Anthology--from hillbilly murder ballads to country blues to gospel to tortured love songs--all of which informs his foreground discussion of Dylan and the Band and what they were up to in the Catskills in '67.

In addition to exposing the native spookiness of much of folk music--what Marcus calls "The Old, Weird America"--he presents the songs of Dylan and the Band as an effort, conscious or coincidental, to rescue those original traditions and voices from the hallucinated context of that chaotic year of U.S. history.

To support his thesis he cites not only Dylan's early recordings of classic folk and blues, and his gnomic remarks in interviews on Death, Mystery and the genius of the old masters, but also his albums of the '90s, Good As I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, where Dylan redoes, in solo acoustic format with a voice that sounds dredged out of some ancient swamp, many of the songs included in Smith's Anthology. The aging artist has come full circle to honor the historic sources of his art.

The Basement Tapes collection--with its remarkable assortment of songs ranging from the much-recorded "Tears of Rage," "The Mighty Quinn" and "This Wheel's On Fire" to more obscure and enigmatic ditties like "Clothesline Saga" (a parody reply to Bobbie Gentry's smash hit "Ode to Billie Joe"), "Apple Sucking Tree" and "Please Mrs. Henry"--can be listened to, or eavesdropped on, as an intimate free-form conversation among comrades exchanging ideas and jives in an orgy of musical exuberance all the more free for its spontaneous assumption that nothing was at stake commercially: The whole thing was just for kicks.

At the same time, Marcus astutely observes, there are undercurrents of anguish, despair and fear that intermittently surface in the carnivalesque music to make it even more interesting. Though many of the songs are plainly ridiculous and hysterically funny, a sense of doom and bewilderment is never entirely absent.

As in so many tripped-out intimate gatherings of those years, a giddy paranoia and perplexity, a tragic lostness, pervade the desire to just cut loose and party. Demons of the uneasy psyche flicker at the edges or ooze up through the subsurface of the music like the smell of some rotting (Vietnamese?) corpse underneath the house rising inexorably through the floorboards. This subtle ambivalence between play and horror may be one of the things that gives The Basement Tapes enduring resonance.

The songs on The Basement Tapes, like other ambiguous works of art, are a Rorschach test for the beholder. They may be alternately creepy and hilarious or both at the same time, and they may mean absolutely nothing or plumb the profoundest existential truths.

At his best, Marcus does not attempt to pin simplistic meanings to these pieces but guides the reader/listener through their oddnesses, pointing out connections he discerns with many aspects of the American experience. While some of these connections are more convincing than others, Invisible Republic is a suggestive reading of Dylan and the Band's epic artifact of aural graffiti--a sonic mural that makes sense only insofar as one is able to decipher those wild scrawls on the wall.

As a musicologist, cultural historian and literary critic, Marcus has done an admirable job of translating that cryptic script in ways that don't pretend to be definitive. More valuable still, he leads us back beyond the accomplishments of Dylan and the Band to the equally unique precursors who made them possible.

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From the Nov. 6-12, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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