Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Nothing but Mystery

By Steven Robert Allen

FEBRUARY 9, 1998:  Between March 1965 and May 1966, Bob Dylan released a total of eight album sides of original music. On tour across America and England, he fought with audiences who believed he had betrayed folk music by picking up an electric guitar, playing loud and howling crazy. Dylan and his back-up band--then called The Hawks, later renamed The Band--played in a perfect amphetamine swirl, each night teetering on the brink of a musical apocalypse. Dylan's cawing vocals gouged into the crowd, and the angry mass lashed back screaming, "Judas!" and "Cocksucker!" into the frenetic silences.

The nightmare ended in June when Dylan crashed his motorcycle and abruptly dropped out of public life. Until the beginning of 1968, he remained silent. No albums, no tours. Rumors circulated that he was dead, a vegetable, an amnesiac. The truth, as is often the case, was somewhat different. To recuperate from the accident--and from those heinous 13 months--Dylan fled to upstate New York with The Hawks. There, in the basement of a house called Big Pink, the five men idled away a long summer playing music. Someone eventually set up a tape recorder to capture these raucous creations. The result is known as the Basement Tapes.

Although never intended for public release, a few of these 100-plus tracks were pressed as an acetate disc and sent to other musicians. Subsequently, other Basement songs were stolen, reproduced and circulated around the world. Columbia officially released some of these tracks in 1975, and over the years a handful of others have appeared on official Dylan compilations. To this day, though, most of the Basement Tapes are only available as illegal recordings.

The thesis of Greil Marcus' Invisible Republic is that the Basement Tapes are Dylan's private response to the angry crowds, to the one-dimensional, political interpretations of traditional music made by members of the folk movement. In Marcus' view, this response reveals a lot, not only about Dylan's music but about American folk music in general, as well as the ignored history and culture of America's marginalized groups in Appalachia and the Deep South.

At this point it would be helpful to note that the debate between Dylan and the movement he had abandoned was essentially a debate over authenticity. Most folkies believed that Dylan's electric music was false because his sound was electric and his words were no longer simple. Dylan meanwhile had adopted a belief that folk music was anything but simple. In his words, true folk music was "nothing but mystery." Songs from Blind Lemon Jefferson, Dock Boggs, Robert Johnson, Frank Hutchison and their ilk crawled out of an older, weirder America where murder, betrayal, passionate obsessions and dangerous, impossible secrecies were ubiquitous. In the eight sides released during those 13 months, in the Basement Tapes themselves and in the best of Dylan's more recent recordings, Dylan succeeds in integrating that sense of mystery into his own music. In doing so, Dylan has become a more genuine successor to the throne of the old performers than any of the folks who accused him, with such fury, of selling out.

At the very least, Invisible Republic attempts to give Dylan's music the serious treatment it deserves. Yet Dylan is not an easy subject to write about. He is a musician who has made a career out of embracing chaos and mystery. And Marcus' ambitions here are high. Maybe too high. No writer has yet been able to adequately describe Dylan's importance, and Invisible Republic, while perhaps more interesting than most attempts, ultimately fails with all the rest. The language is sometimes free-flying, sometimes literal and usually at the wrong moments; and Marcus resorts too frequently to pretension at the expense of clarity. In many instances, his writing is so convoluted it's hard to figure out exactly what the hell he's talking about. His analyses of specific Basement Tape songs like "Apple Sucking Tree," "Clothesline Saga," "Tears of Rage" and "Lo and Behold!" are tenuous in that they try to define something that is precious largely because it can't be defined. As Dylan showed us last year with his bleak, brilliant CD Time Out of Mind, the final word is not in on this tiny, shriveled performer. It may never be. (Henry Holt, cloth, $22.50)

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