Review: Like a Rolling Stone by Greil Marcus

Greil Marcus's sweeping generalisations in Like a Rolling Stone are a poor substitute for precise analysis, says Mike Marqusee

Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads
by Greil Marcus
256pp, Faber, £12.99

On the eve of its 40th birthday, "Like a Rolling Stone", Bob Dylan's splendidly splenetic six-minute rock'n'roll hit, sounds fresher than any number of more recent chart successes. Tantalisingly mysterious yet brutally plain spoken, mean-spirited and deeply humane, this sonic storm of class, gender and generational resentment fully deserves book-length treatment. What a pity the book it got is this one.

Greil Marcus knows this territory well, perhaps too well. He rehashes Dylan's musical sources, but tells us little in the end about where "Like a Rolling Stone" came from, what made it daring at the time of its release or what keeps it new four decades later.

The book is structure-less; there's no guiding argument. The prose is laboured, irritatingly sententious, sometimes senseless. Anyone seeking elucidation of the song's lyrics will finish this 260-page tome frustrated. There's no attempt to decipher the "diplomat / Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat" and no reference at all to the stark injunction: "You shouldn't let other people get your kicks for you."

When he composed "Like a Rolling Stone", Dylan certainly found himself at a "crossroads" but Marcus doesn't bother to locate it on any kind of map - political, cultural, musical or personal. The song's historical background is crudely sketched with the kind of glancing invocations of civil rights, Vietnam and the counter-culture that appear whenever the word "60s" is mentioned in TV news stories.

In reality, the context is rich and complex. In 1965, the successes and frustrations of the African-American freedom struggle were giving birth to a new, militant black consciousness; sober moral witness against the threat of nuclear weaponry was being replaced by urgent protests against an escalating war in Vietnam; and a bohemian sub-culture began to take on the proportions (and contradictions) of a mass counter-culture. But instead of an exploration of these dynamic cross-currents, Marcus treats us to generalisations about an ill-defined Zeitgeist that seems to exist mainly in his head: "There was a kind of common epiphany, a gathering of a collective unconscious: the song melted the mask of what was beginning to be called youth culture, and even more completely the mask of modern culture itself."

Though this is the worst book that Marcus has written, even his best writings lean too heavily on the notion that in any historical moment there's an all-embracing Zeitgeist and that it is the job of the journalist or cultural historian to nail it down in a phrase. As a pioneering rock critic on Rolling Stone and in Mystery Train, his 1975 meditation on "images of America in rock'n'roll music", Marcus undertook the ambitious but necessary task of establishing a canon for the new art-form, and did so with a suitable mix of gravitas and informality. But while his penchant for sweeping generalisations made for provocative journalism, it's always been a poor substitute for precise analysis.

To abandon rigour and discipline in the critique of popular culture is to condescend to it. If that statement makes me sound like Dylan's "self-ordained professor ... too serious to fool", let me add that neither rigour nor discipline need stand in the way of celebration and ecstasy, as "Like a Rolling Stone" proves.

This is a single-minded, relentlessly targeted song, preoccupied with stripping bare the illusions that once upheld an individual's life (and a milieu's lifestyle). Its high-school rage seethes into a broader critique of all aristocracies - the rich, the famous, the hip, "the Princess on the steeple and all the pretty people" - and a warning to all those who forget that high status is transient.

Amazingly, by immersing himself so unashamedly in the gloating and the petulance, Dylan creates a work that exudes lyricism and liberation. Finding yourself "on your own / with no direction home / like a rolling stone" becomes not merely a fall from grace, but also a confrontation with an abiding truth about human existence, and through that a release from fear and inhibition and artifice.

• Mike Marqusee's Wicked Messenger: Bob Dylan and the 60s, a revised and expanded version of Chimes of Freedom, will be published in the autumn by Seven Stories Press


Mike Marqusee

The GuardianTramp

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