Exploring the Unmapped Country
Merle Haggard’s song "I Am a Lonesome Fugitive" is on the radio as I write this. "I’m on the run, the highway is my home" goes a line from the song’s chorus. This coincidence is too much to overlook. After all, I’m pulling together my thoughts about Greil Marcus’ newest book on Bob Dylan: Like a Rolling Stone: Dylan at the Crossroads. Yeh, it’s about that Dylan song. That masterpiece that starts off the listener’s trip down Highway 61 with Bob Dylan and his band doing the driving. Marcus is not only one of the best of the rock critics; he is the best of the critics who take on Bob Dylan. He places Bob securely in the tradition of American folk songs and tales-with Uncle Remus, Doc Boggs, Leadbelly, and all those hillbillies, gospel singers, and bluesmen who truly tell the story of this nation and its many lives. If Bob Dylan is Neal Cassady driving the Merry Prankster bus across the United States back in 1964 and ’65, then Greil Marcus is an early and hopeful Jack Kerouac telling the story of the trip, just like he told the tales of Neal’s earlier cross-country escapades in the novel On the Road.
Marcus’ book on this great song does not pick it apart word by word or measure by measure. Instead, Marcus does what he does best. He tells the story of the song’s creation-the production and the musicians; the fortuitous decision by Al Kooper to leave the production booth and play some chords on the organ; and the equally fortuitous failure of producer Tom Wilson to call Kooper back into the booth. With the studio action as the seed of his tale, Marcus takes the reader on a ride through these United States with the only guide being this song, "Like a Rolling Stone." Only the third song on the Top 40 playlists to reach six minutes, it was originally released with three minutes on each side of the 45 rpm record. That meant the DJ had to turn over the record if he wanted to play the whole thing. At first, most DJs didn’t bother to do so. Dylan demanded that the entire song be put on one side of the 45. Columbia Records complied and the rest, as Greil Marcus notes, is history.
Think of the song. Think of that rim shot on the snare that starts the whole thing. Think about Napoleon in rags and think about having to scrounge for your next meal. That’s the point of this book. To make the reader think about that and more. How does Bob Dylan fit into the US literary pantheon? Is there a US literary pantheon? Imagine freedom, where it’s more than wars and PATRIOT acts. Imagine democracy in America. Sound far-fetched? It is Greil Marcus’ contention that Bob Dylan, like the greatest of those American poets from Walt Whitman to Sam Cooke, believed that the democratic ideal had a chance in the United States. Especially, continues Marcus, if the masters of war that Dylan lambastes in another song of his that he continues to feel a need to perform (because of the continued grip on the nation of those "that never done nothin’/ But build to destroy", no doubt)-especially if we can rid the country of their grip. The actual Highway 61, Marcus reminds us in a chapter titled "Democracy in America," runs "from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border." It was, writes Marcus, "a magic road" for Dylan and his friends when they were in high school. They would take it over to Duluth and head to the Twin Cities for a dose of rock and roll. It’s a road that goes through the heartland, just like Mark Twain’s Mississippi.
Marcus writes criticism like Bob Dylan writes songs. The stories start out small. Maybe they’re about a romance or maybe they’re about a circumstance. By the time the Dylan song is over, it’s about the psyche of the nation or the universal cry of love. Marcus begins a book describing a song and ends up writing a book about a poet’s life and the history of the country he lives in. Like a Rolling Stone is the story of a song forty years after it was created. It is also the story of the song’s creators, a story that includes not only the narrative of Bob Dylan’s life, but also the tale of the band that first formed the piece. Furthermore, this book is the story of the United States and its dying struggle to be the beacon of freedom and democracy some of its founders hoped that it would be. It is a tale told by a wordsmith that paints a broad stripe across the nation’s psyche, just like the album that "Like a Rolling Stone" begins. Bob Dylan and Merle Haggard are currently touring the country with their respective bands. Now, the reader might think this pairing to be somewhat strange, but only if they think Merle is still thinking like his character in the song "Okie From Muskogee." While that was always a part of Merle’s history, one is much more likely to find him agreeing with the Dixie Chicks and their anti-Bush message than they would hear him agreeing with country music’s right wing. Merle always sang about the downtrodden in the American tale. The migrant worker, the working-class guy who can barely pay his bills no matter how much overtime he puts in at the plant, the guy who ends up in jail because he screwed up one too many times-these are Merle’s people. They are the people who truly make a nation, not (as Bob Dylan sings in "Like a Rolling Stone") "all the pretty people/They’re drinkin’, thinkin’ that they got it made"
Musically, Dylan has always had a bit of the country twang that Merle does so well. In addition, both artists understand the blues and its fundamental place in almost all American popular music, especially country and rock and roll. Given this, it’s a wonder that this pairing took so long. It’s also a bit of a drag that I don’t have a ticket.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org