Local Current Blog

Greil Marcus goes deep on Bob Dylan

Jay Gabler/MPR

Greil Marcus is one of the most storied names in music journalism, and last week we were honored to have him stop by our studios for a quick conversation. With Bob Dylan coming to town on Wednesday, that’s naturally where the conversation headed. Marcus picked a few songs to talk about, and he’ll be saying more on Tuesday night at Carleton College.

Bill DeVille: You’re an author, famed music journalist, and you’ve done some teaching over the years.

Greil Marcus: I’ve been teaching since 2000, all over the place.

Have you taught at the University of Minnesota at all?

I sure have, in 2008.

Bob Dylan went to school there for a short time and lived around the Dinkytown area, and spent some time in the West Bank area as well.

I saw Bob Dylan at Northrup on election night in 2008.

I remember that show very well. What can you tell us about the event?

Well, this is a talk that I’ve been working on for a long time and I’ve given it in different forms and places. It always changes. What sparked it was a fascination with this song from 1963, “Masters of War,” sort of the ultimate protest song. You know: I’m righteous, you’re evil, very heavy-handed, very absolutist song. There’s complete right over here and complete wrong over there.

I was fascinated by what was in some ways a really bad song. The way it had continued to live such a vibrant life over what’s now well over 50 years. That people continue to perform it, all different sorts of people continue to record it in radically different ways. Dylan himself stopped singing it in 1963 and then took it up again around 1991 and has been singing it ever since — he sang it in Hiroshima.

I saw him once in the early 2000s at Madison Square Garden, where he sang it surrounded by three or four other musicians playing acoustic guitars and acoustic bass, all seated. It was like a coven of witches summoning up this curse from the bowels of the Earth. The song just does not seem to wear out, for Bob Dylan or for countless other people. So I began to follow that story and it turned up so many wonderful tales of the involvement of high school students, the actor Viggo Mortensen, so many other people…the way they get sucked into this song, and they want to use it to express their view of the world.

It’s pretty incredible. How old was he, 21, 22, 23 years old when he wrote this song?

I think 22.

What do you want to say about “Scarlet Town,” a more recent Bob Dylan tune?

That’s from 2012. His album Tempest, his last album of original songs so far. One of the things that fascinates me about that song, [the reason] I wanted to play that along with “Masters of War”: Bob Dylan has a great gift for melody. Sometimes borrowed melodies that are transfigured into completely new context, sometimes his own [melodies]. “Masters of War” is based on a very ancient British folk song called “Nottamun Town.” It’s a very distinctive kind of lumbering, doomstruck melody. You just have this sense of dread coming up immediately. “Scarlet Town” is his own melody but it’s a revisiting or a revisioning of probably the best-known folk song there is, “Barbara Allen.”

“In Scarlet Town where I was born,” “Barbara Allen” begins. Bob Dylan has written a song about what it would mean to grow up in the town where the double suicide of Handsome Willie and Barbara Allen took places hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years ago, and where that event hung over everyone who grew up in this cursed place. So again, there is this sense from “Masters of War” in 1963 to “Scarlet Town,” almost 50 years later, of transposing this sense of cursed ground. “Masters of War” ends with “I’ll stand over your grave ’til I’m sure that you’re dead,” this curse on arms merchants and warmongers. “Scarlet Town” is a much more everyday version of that same sense.

I think Dylan is fascinated by ancient warnings that come out of folk music and he has never turned away from that. He has never ceased to kind of deepen the mysteries that these songs carry within themselves.

We also listened to “All Along The Watchtower.” What do you want to tell us about that particular song?

It’s an end-of-the-world song. Again, the melody is part of what’s so striking about it…it just gets into your gut instantly, but it also feels like something you’ve always known even though you couldn’t put your finger on how or where you’ve known it. It’s a song where the world is shutting in, it’s closing in, there’s nowhere to run. Here are these two people sitting in a tower somewhere talking about, “Yeah, the end of the world, we sort’ve been looking forward to this for a long time, here it is!”

Like “Masters of War,” it’s a song that has lived such a varied life. First there’s Bob Dylan’s version in 1968; Jimi Hendrix takes it up very soon after that. The ultimate version, the ultimate cover of any Bob Dylan song is Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along The Watchtower,” that was probably recorded in 1969. It has never been off the radio in all that time. It’s probably the most-played Jimi Hendrix song there is.

In [1992] at Madison Square Garden there was an event called Bob Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Celebration where all these different musicians came onto the stage to play Bob Dylan’s songs, and Neil Young came on and played “All Along The Watchtower” with this staggering, apocalyptic, arrangement that I think shocked everybody. As if he dug something out of that song that nobody, Bob Dylan included, quite knew was there. Bob Dylan then adopted Neil Young’s arrangement and whenever he plays “All Along The Watchtower” — which for years he has used to close his shows — he plays the Neil Young version. Covering Neil Young who covered Bob Dylan, that’s the wonder of these songs. They live there own lives out in the world, free of their creator.

I chose the version [of “Highway 61 Revisited”] from Before the Flood, the album from his 1974 tour with the Band. This was really the first time he was playing in public — aside from popping up here, popping up there — since his motorcycle accident in 1966. So he’s back for the first time in eight years, that’s a long time. Particularly in the pop music calculus of the ’60s and ’70s. “Highway 61 Revisited” was one of the last songs he would play at these shows; it wasn’t the finale but it came near the end, and the version on Before the Flood I think was recorded in Los Angeles, near the very end of the tour if not the last show. It is just so chaotic.

As it appeared on the album Highway 61 Revisited in 1965, it’s this very uproarious, hilarious, breakneck pace of a song, speeding down the highway, looking at every direction. You know, reading, texting, drinking, eating, while you’re driving, just that crazy. But here it’s crazier still. There are times when Robbie Robertson almost can’t keep up with himself on guitar, and he’s flailing around and that is making the song more exciting and more dangerous than before.

Love and Theft came out on Sept. 11, 2001. Some people who like to ascribe the gift of prophecy to Bob Dylan say, “Oh, he saw 9/11 coming, because this was a very dark album.” Albums at that time were released on Tuesday; now they’re released on Fridays, but that’s the way it happened then.

Yet that isn’t to say that, without predicting a terrorist attack in New York City and Washington D.C., [Dylan was] sensing that things were going off the rails, that predictions weren’t going to hold, that expectations were going to be dashed. I think that feeling is all through that album. The very last song on it, “Sugar Baby,” is as dark, bitter, and dead-end a song as you can imagine. Not that it’s not full of humor, not that it’s not wonderfully funny. It’s like a tall tale, a shaggy-dog story where you’ve got a sheriff saying, “I’ve got Charles Darwin out on Highway 105 and I want him in here dead or alive.” That’s very believable, but it’s also out of some Bob Hope Western at the same time. There is a tone to it of, “the hell with it, who cares, never mind,” that is hard to get out from under.

The thing that makes the song so strong is this slow, beautifully-shaped, melody that seems like a wheel. It rolls from one verse to the other without any effort on the part of the musicians and singers. Its has if the melody is just pulling them along. Again, it’s one of those things that sounds familiar but [you] don’t know why.

Turns out that Dylan based this song, musically, completely on a recording by Gene Austin. Gene Austin was called “The Voice of the South.” He was a hugely popular lead singer of the 1920s. “The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi” was one of his big hits. He was the ultimate mainstream smoothie. He started out as a old-timey singer; he had a old-timey string band. Then he made the leap to RCA and New York City and became this huge star, but “The Lonesome Road” was an old southern folk song that he made into a huge pop hit. The arrangement that Bob Dylan uses for “Sugar Baby” is Gene Austen’s “Lonesome Road.”

Austin went on and moved to Nevada in the 1940s, ran for governor there in the 1950s. He just lived that smoothie life till the very end and yet here was a moment of deep soul music. I’ve played his version for all sorts of people. I’ve played it to a ten-year-old girl, to my father who was in his 90s, was old enough to [remember] hearing it on the radio. Everyone who hears it is just, “That’s so captivating, what is this? I have to hear it again.” Dylan knew that record and knew that there were other tales for that melody, for that arrangement to tell.

Then he got into the Sinatra covers. What’s your theory on that?

I don’t have a theory. I don’t have an idea of why he was drawn to these songs and why was he was drawn to recreate them, to sing them himself. Now, obviously Frank Sinatra and the other people who sang these songs — whether it was Bing Crosby, or Hoagy Carmichael, so many other great singers — Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington. These were people with mellifluous voices, these are people who had what we consider to be “good voices,” as opposed to Bob Dylan, who has a folksinger’s voice, who has a rocks-and-gravel voice. To apply an ordinary voice, an ordinary guy-in-the-street voice, to these lovely songs…who knows what that would produce?

I remember listening to his last of his so called “Sinatra albums,” Triplicate, which is three albums’ worth. These songs that he’s covering there range from the 1920s into the 1950s. While I was listening to it a friend said, “You know, he has such a nice voice.” Which is not how people would normally describe Bob Dylan today. What she meant was that this voice had taken these songs and dressed them honestly, and they came out as if they were ordinary speech. Just something that one person would say to another — regardless of how dark or how bright the messages in these songs might be. She also said, this makes me so sad, listening to these songs. Thinking of all of the people listening to these songs. All the people who love these songs, and they’re all gone.

In some way you can think of this as a tribute to the people who grew up with these songs, who deeply love these songs, who lives were shaped by these songs, and who are no longer around to hear them. I can’t remember if he said this in his memoir or if he said it in one of his songs, but he said, “the dead can’t speak, I’m speaking for them.” I think Bob Dylan’s life as a writer and a performer has always been in part to speak for the dead, to say what others can’t say. I think with these albums it’s really happening.

Have you met Bob?

I met him once.

How did that go?

Well, it was kind of funny. At one point I introduced him to my wife. This was at a gathering where he was receiving an award and I was giving a talk at the award ceremony. I said, “This is my wife, she’s from Minnesota, too.” He said, “Oh, what part of Minnesota are you from?” She said, “St.Paul.” He said, “Well, that’s a very different Minnesota that the one I’m from.” I said, “Well, that may be but two of my wife’s aunts went to your bar mitzvah,” and, you know, no one likes to be reminded of their bar mitzvah. He wasn’t real thrilled with that, but it was true. Abraham Zimmerman, I think, invited just about every Jewish person in northern Minnesota to his son’s bar mitzvah, and that included two of my wife’s aunts.

Wow, small world. You’ve written three books regarding Dylan?

I wrote a book called The Old, Weird America about his Basement Tapes and the whole world of music that surrounded them. I wrote a book about “Like a Rolling Stone,” about the song; and a collection of pieces I had written about Bob Dylan from 1968 to 2010, a book called Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus. I think I have to stop.

Are you more, or less, fascinated with him after writing three books?

Oh, just as much.

Transcribed by Erianna Jiles