Greil Marcus discusses Bob Dylan’s basement tapes at M&Q

Greil Marcus, author of The Old, Weird America, discussed Bob Dylan’s basement tapes at Magers & Quinn Booksellers last Thursday.

The room was packed and hot, spewing into the aisles of bookshelves in the back of Magers & Quinn. A fan was sputtering in the corner. The lot looked like an aging crowd of hippies, cheerfully hanging on to the memories of those old days like the idea of hope, which is still here, existing in a similar underground collection of hipsters that will always be its staple figure. It’s part of our culture. It’s part of the real America. In those that believe the record player will always reign as the king of our favorite wood-floored rooms. It’s almost laughable, but it’s true.

Greil Marcus was inspiring. He was almost not real. A different breed. An encyclopedia-brained type, he spoke with the eloquence of a History Channel narrator. This man knew everything there is to know about Bob Dylan, and everything that falls into that era. He spoke without specific opinion, but retained a journalistic, observational quality. His writing style, he noted, is similar to William S. Borroughs, and to me, carries an energy close to that of Allen Ginsberg or John Clellon Holmes.

Here’s an excerpt:
The basement tapes–the name shifted slightly in the journey to contraband–became a talisman, a public secret, and then a legend, a fable of retreat and fashioning. When a collection of sixteen basement recordings, plus eight Band demos, was officially released in 1975 and reached the top ten, Dylan expressed surprise: “I thought everybody already had them.” From the first, the most immediately striking basement tape numbers–”I Shall Be Released,” “This Wheel’s on Fire,” “Tears of Rage,” “Down in the Flood,” “Million Dollar Bash,” — were recognized for a peculiar grace and spark; for a spirit, as I wrote in the liner notes to the bawdy house. The music carried an aura of familiarity, of unwritten traditions, and as deep a sense of self-recognition, the recognition of a self–the singer’s? the listener’s?–that was both historical and sui generis. The music was funny and comforting; at the same time, it was strange, and somehow incomplete. Out of some odd displacement of art and time, the music seemed both transparent and inexplicable.

“Marcus draws bold freehand loops around Dylan’s music, loops so wide and loose that they take in not just the breadth of American folk music, but huge chunks of American history as well. This is the best kind of history book, one that acknowledges that mythology is sometimes the truest kind of fact.”–Stephanie Zachareck, Newsday

The conversation on Thursday wove back and forth from tales of Dylan times, to a discussion on Dylan’s career, is it time for him to give it up, as his voice becomes distorted and strained, or should he play on, so a new audience of fans can tell their children that they saw Dylan, live. No decision was made. But the observation was noted, and similarly, Marcus added, was a common topic of dissension he hears about Dylan these days.

This book has been said to “read like a thriller” (Entertainment Weekly) and exhibit “a mad, sparkling brilliance” (The New Yorker). It is as much for the avid Dylan fan, as it is for the Dylan novice, looking to get a closer, deeper picture of a man who is a multi-talented legend.

About Ashley Ellen Goetz

Hi, my name is Ashley Ellen Goetz. I work out of Easthampton, MA and do freelance graphic design, logo design, print design, illustration, custom large scale art and painting, freelance photography, interior design, and freelance writing. If you can't tell, my passions are painting, writing and design. I also love to bike whenever possible, travel, and read.
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