Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes
The little bag of honey-roasted peanuts I got on a recent flight to California bore the slogan A Symbol of Freedom. I was especially spooked by this because I was reading Greil Marcus’s Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, a book nominally about a Bob Dylan album but really about what poet Kenneth Rexroth, in the process of describing Carl Sandburg, called “the old free America.” That’s old as in extinct, and free as in the radical freedom sketched in the Declaration of Independence but now neatly envel-oped in a foil pack of airplane snacks.
Marcus looks at America through the hole in the middle of a vinyl record–a two-record set, to be exact: The Basement Tapes, recorded by Dylan and the Band in 1967 and not officially released until 1975, though much of the material was made available in bootleg form. Marcus spies a lot through that little hole–folk culture, 1960s idealism real and fake, the crossroads of storytelling and history, and enough American oddballs and misfits to fill a museum, the curator and chief executive oddball of which would have to be Harry Smith. A drunk, mystic, and avant-garde filmmaker, Smith produced Folkways’ Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952. The six-record set, according to Marcus, captured for Dylan the whole authentic, mysterious tradition he wanted to join and served as a backdrop for the sessions that produced The Basement Tapes.
In a scattered prose style that suits his historical method, Marcus keeps circling back to the image of the mask as a key to the American ethos. The poker face starts out as the handiwork of the Puritans and becomes something of an heirloom that, as it passes from generation to generation, is frequently employed by hucksters and demagogues, sometimes to deceive, sometimes to conceal fear. But for such an ingenious and kaleidoscopic approach to history and folklore, Invisible Republic takes a surprisingly narrow view of Bob Dylan. While Marcus describes The Basement Tapes as a document of musical synthesis and invention more formidable than I had ever imagined, he makes his claim at the expense of almost a quarter century of genius–that is, everything Dylan did between 1968 and 1991.
Marcus pointedly omits that period from his annotated back-of-the-book discography and declares that Dylan spent all those years in “the prison of his own career.” He doesn’t spell out the details of the imprisonment; perhaps he’s merely expressing a sort of roundabout approval for Dylan’s two recent records of traditional folk material, Good as I Been to You (1992) and World Gone Wrong (1993). But I have to ask: what kind of prison would allow Dylan to collaborate with artists as diverse as Sam Shepard, Kurtis Blow, Sly and Robbie, Johnny Cash, and U2, plus heavy metal guitarists, gospel singers, ex-Beatles, ex-Sex Pistols, and Michael Bolton? To embark on a seriously unpopular voyage as a born-again Christian (during which he made some damn good music), to play a cowboy (named Alias, appropriately enough) in a Sam Peckinpah movie, to publish a book of drawings? In what artistic shackles could he have written and recorded “Tangled Up in Blue,” “I Believe in You,” “Jokerman,” and “Blind Willie McTell”?
The prison of his own career. My response to this generalization is the same one I have whenever someone dismisses everything Miles Davis did after In a Silent Way or everything Picasso did after Guernica: when great artists start to suck, they’re probably just up to something you haven’t figured out yet. And if you figure it out, and they still suck, you can bet they’re sucking on their own terms. If anything, Bob Dylan walked away from a prison guarded by those who would keep him doing one thing over and over again. His return to traditional music, notwithstanding Marcus’s celebration of a return to the source, is only further evidence of Dylan’s liberation from other people’s expectations.
In presenting the bizarre logic of current events, from the saga of the Freemen in Montana to the tone of a line that was deleted from the final draft of the Declaration of Independence, Marcus draws instructive, if not precise, links to the pure American spoken by Harry Smith discoveries like Dock Boggs, Clarence Ashley, and Frank Hutchison. He contends that Dylan spoke that pure language, too, for a few months in 1967 and then again in 1992 and 1993, but that by and large he has hidden behind a variety of ill-fitting masks. For Marcus, The Basement Tapes happened because Dylan’s audience unmasked him, and the acoustic albums of the early 90s happened because Dylan unmasked himself. It seems Marcus has fallen for a trick as old as the poker face itself: under one mask is another mask, and under that, guess what?
Around 1960, when Robert Zimmerman began calling himself Bob Dylan, it was the first of many identities he invented for himself. He went on to assume the personae of the apocalyptic preacher, the rock rebel, the country entertainer, and the beat poet, and to populate his songs with supporting characters–Ophelia and Cleopatra, Columbus and Captain Ahab, Einstein disguised as Robin Hood. He didn’t so much lose himself in a crowd as make himself into a crowd; following the example of Walt Whitman, he contained multitudes.
These multitudes distressed those of Dylan’s fans who wanted him to remain a lone figure on the stage: Bob Dylan, protest singer. Marcus describes a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in 1966 where fans scream, “TRAITOR. SELL-OUT. MOTHERFUCKER. YOU’RE NOT BOB DYLAN.” After that, literally fearing for his life, Dylan decided to go incognito. On The Basement Tapes, his songwriting is less Dylan-esque. He eschewed the harmonica, an essential part of what Marcus calls his “trademark, like the peace symbol.” And when the recordings came out as bootlegs, they were attributed to Blind Boy Grunt and the Hawks.
Another band changing its tune under intense scrutiny almost did the same thing in 1967: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was originally conceived as the name of the band releasing the record. Since then big artists have often given bogus names to their experiments and one-off projects: the Honeydrippers, the Hindu Love Gods, the Traveling Wilburys, the Dukes of Stratosphear. Behind the playfulness of the monikers may be a fear of pissing off the likes of Mark David Chapman, or maybe just a desire to detach from the past. As Dylan sang in one song from the Basement Tapes sessions that didn’t make it onto the official release, “I’m not there, I’m gone.”
It’s obvious from his descriptions that Marcus thinks the outraged folk purists showed themselves to be stuffed shirts, but in anointing the Dylan of The Basement Tapes the real Dylan, he makes a similar mistake. Marcus simply doesn’t convince me that one of Dylan’s faces is the face of America and that another isn’t. Dylan in 1974 is as American as Dylan in 1967 is as American as Tupac Shakur is as American as Marilyn Manson. His great achievement lies not in getting one voice exactly right but in getting so many so right. Rock stars can represent freedom for millions of fans, but when a symbol of that freedom–a harmonica peal, face paint, a hit song–becomes a trademark, the freedom it supposedly symbolizes is no longer there. And if the artist still is, then he’s really in prison.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): book cover.