Greil Marcus is considered an "eminence grise" of music criticism. In fact, his Wikipedia entry states that “he is notable for producing scholarly and literary essays that place rock music in a much broader framework of culture and politics than is customary in pop music journalism.” So fair warning; his books are about more than sex and drugs and rock’n’roll. Much more. I think.
But this…hoo, boy, nothing prepared me for Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010. This damn thing is impenetrable. While the writings are grouped by dates, there isn’t a shred of narrative and no real flow to the book. I cringed when one of the “Real Life Rock Top Ten” pieces that dot the book came calling — Marcus describes them as “noise” from the conversations about and created by Dylan and his work. I guess that’s a good word, but I have no clue what these interjections were about. Some were tangentially about the man and his work; more often, they veered into connections that I simply could not make — I was lost.
There are a couple of nice pieces — a recounting of The Last Waltz and an appreciation of Rick Danko stand out — but I truly hated this book. It was a chore to struggle through, and at times, I simply couldn’t care less and moved ahead — or, at least, tried to. I probably should have bailed out completely when Street Legal was compared unfavorably to Steve Martin’s “King Tut,” Bob Seger’s “Turn The Page” wins out over Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart,” and The Wallflowers “One Headlight” is “too flat to be more than a mild headache” and is ”like watching someone do a jigsaw puzzle with four pieces, over and over again.”
To paraphrase Sinatra, “This book is Greil’s world, baby,” but it’s not one I want to visit often, much less live in. I’ll give Marcus the last word, recycling the opening line of perhaps his most famous review for Dylan’s Self-Portrait: What is this shit?
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