Cultural Criticism at the Crossroads

Greil Marcus' Like a Rolling Stone

The development of capitalist concentration, and the diversification of its function at the global level, have produced the forced consumption of the abundance of commodities, as well as the control of the economy and all of life by bureaucrats, through their possession of the State; or direct or indirect colonialism. Quite far from being the definitive response to the incessant revolutionary crises of the historical era begun two centuries ago, this system has now entered into a new crisis: from Berkeley to Varsovie, from the Asturians to Kivu, it is refuted and combatted.

-- Guy Debord, "Summary of 1965"[1]
In the dime stores and bus stations
People talk of situations
Read books, repeat quotations
Write conclusions on the wall

-- Bob Dylan, "Love Minus Zero/No Limit," Bringing it all back home[2]

Greil Marcus must know that he leaves himself open to a predictable objection when he refers to Guy Debord in most recent book of music criticism, Like A Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan At the Crossroads. An explosion of vision and humor that forever changed pop music (Public Affairs Books, 2005). In the middle of a quotation from a detective novel that uses comfortable, pre-riot Watts as its psychogeographical backdrop, Greil tells us,

as the critic Guy Debord wrote of Watts from Paris, "comfort will never be comfortable enough for those who seek what is not on the market."

The quote is from Debord's strategic analysis of the Watts riots, "The Decline and Fall of the Spectacular-Commodity Society," which -- as Greil notes in his list of works cited -- was first published clandestinely in America, in an English translation, in December 1965 by the Situationist International and later published in French in Internationale Situationniste #10 (March 1966).

In Like A Rolling Stone, Greil is only interested in the Watts riots to the extent that they chronologically preceded the release of Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" as a single on 20 July 1965. Unlike, say, Frank Zappa's 1966 song "Trouble Everyday," Dylan doesn't refer to or try to comment upon those riots. In the same way that Greil doesn't really need the riots to tell the story of "Like a Rolling Stone," he doesn't really need Guy Debord ("from Paris") to tell the story of the riots. Thus, Greil can afford to call Debord "a critic" and leave it at that; to neglect to tell his readers that, in Lipstick Traces on a Cigarette: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (Harvard University Press, 1989), he'd written extensively (and very productively) about Debord's writings, theories and relevance to rock 'n' roll music.[3] But some readers might have benefited from this knowledge: just like Like a Rolling Stone, Lipstick Traces is a risky, rarely undertaken adventure: an entire book -- footnotes, an index, a discography with its own internal digressions and asides -- about a single great rock 'n' roll song (the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the UK" in the case of Lipstick Traces).[4]

The objection that Greil leaves himself open to here isn't really factual, though Debord wasn't a "critic," but a filmmaker, writer and political revolutionary. Though he wrote about art, he refused to write "art criticism," which he denounced as "a second-degree spectacle" in a 1961 text entitled "For a Revolutionary Judgment of Art." Nor is the objection ideological: Greil isn't a "recuperator," to use the phrase that Debord and the situationists used to describe those who use revolutionary ideas or practices to maintain, rather than destroy, the existing order. No: the objection is aesthetic in nature. It is boring to bring Debord onstage (just this one time), only to describe him as a critic. If he is just a critic, why mention him at all? This boredom is far from dissipated or relieved when, in his "Works Cited" entry, Greil writes that "this shocking [sic] analysis of the Watts riots ('Looting is the natural response to the society of abundance . . . The flames of Watts consummated the system of consumption') was written in Paris in French." Shocking?! Not for readers of Lipstick Traces or the reprinted editions of Debord's "Decline and Fall of the Spectacular-Commodity Society" that were published in both French and English in response to the 1991 "Rodney King" riots.

Greil Marcus' Like a Rolling Stone is not a boring book and it includes very few boring passages or references. As a matter of fact, it is a truly excellent book: well-researched, well-illustrated (photos of the recording sessions) and -- as always -- very well-written. I feel confident in saying that one can't really go any further in or with music criticism than Greil has gone. He is simply the best.

To adopt the terminology Greil used in the years leading up to the publication of Lipstick Traces, Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" is a negation: an "act that would make it self-evident to everyone that the world is not what it seems -- but only when the act is so implicitly complete that it leaves open the possibility that the world may be nothing, that nihilism as well as creation may occupy the suddenly cleared terrain" ("Gulliver Speaks," Artforum, November 1983). "The world is not what it seems": in so many words, this is exactly what the young woman to whom the whole song is addressed has just realized; in any event, it's what the narrator of the song keeps telling her (and us). His harsh truths are indeed implicitly complete (she'd been warned; what else could there be left to say after four detailed and merciless verses?). But the song's chorus -- the music and the way Dylan sings, as well as the question posed ("how does it feel?")[5] -- open up many possibilities, among them the possibility that the young woman may now feel absolutely nothing. Her experience? It might also mean absolutely nothing.

But there is nevertheless something missing, not so much from within Like a Rolling Stone, but around it. Greil's half-hearted reference to Guy Debord -- very French, but unmistakeably an internationalist -- emphasizes what's missing. Greil's book does a lot of things -- it educates, it amuses, it satisfies -- but it doesn't impassion. Unlike Lipstick Traces, which, according to one of its blurbs, inspired a woman to (want to) dye her hair the colors of the rainbow, Like a Rolling Stone will simply inspire readers to listen to Dylan's incontestably excellent song one more time or seek out a copy of one of those many bootlegged recordings the book refers to. Greil is right when he says that "Like a Rolling Stone" hasn't aged since 1965 or is always new, always different to our ears, but we are not. We've aged; we've grown tired of ourselves, of our perpetual sameness; we lack the passion of our youth.

Greil writes that the release of Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone"

was an event. It defined the summer, but like the Watts riots the performance also interrupted it -- as, ever since, the song has interrupted whatever might be taking place around it as it plays. It was an incident that took place in a recording studio and was then sent out into the world with the intention of leaving the world not quite the same. This is not the same as changing the world, which implies a way in which one might want the world to be changed. This is more like drawing a line, to see what would happen: to see who the song revealed to be on which side of the line, and who might cross it, from either side.

Unlike Lipstick Traces, which was "divisive" if not "negational" because it broke through the separation between "the pop world" (music and cultural criticism) and "the greater world" (contemporary events and political struggles),[6] Like a Rolling Stone doesn't aspire to make its readers choose sides or make immediate and important decisions about everyday life. It stays within "the pop world," and uses "the greater world" (the Watts riots, for example) as backdrop.

Who could say that "Like a Rolling Stone" isn't the greatest rock 'n' roll song of all time? It's a great song and Greil argues for it very persuasively. Even if one did disagree -- preferring instead Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog," the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" or the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the UK" -- what would be the point? It's only a popularity contest: it doesn't really matter who wins. Or, rather, it's like a "democratic" election, in which everyone who votes is a winner. Paraphrasing what Frank Zappa said about Dylan's song, Greil's book will sell ("win") but nobody will respond to it the way they should: that is, by commencing the social revolution.

Greil seems unsure about the intention behind or within "Like a Rolling Stone."[7] To the extent that he is unsure, or confused, his book stays away from drawing a line that would force his readers to choose sides. Has he "mellowed" over the course of the last 16 years?[8] I seem to remember him (in Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession, from 1991) insisting on the deliberateness, the willfulness, of Elvis Presleys' songs and onstage appearances in the 1950s: this wasn't some simpleton who stumbled out from behind his plow one day to sing some songs he thought his Momma would like; this was a self-conscious actor who clearly intended to change the race relations of his era, if not "the world." In the years leading up to "Like a Rolling Stone," Bob Dylan obviously had some very clear ideas about the precise ways in which he wanted to change the world: an end to war and nuclear weapons, an end to racism and segregation. "Like a Rolling Stone" demands several very precise changes: an end to condescension and snobbery; to vanity and phoniness; to trendiness and vicarious pleasures.

Paradoxically, it is Greil himself who reminds his readers that, thirty years after he wrote and recorded "Master of War," Dylan was still against war, against a particular war (as always). He played the old song on the 1991 telecast of the Grammy Awards, which happened to take place during the first American war on the people of Iraq, and again at Madison Square Garden on 11 November 2002, that is, while the second American war on the people of Iraq was being prepared and publically announced. Taking their cue but also sharing the vision, American anti-war protesters performed the song or quoted it in the flyers, posters and speeches they made in 2003 and 2004.[9]

And so there's where the potentially explosive line could have been drawn: not between Dylan's fans and everyone else, but between Dylan fans who are pro-war ("anti-terrorism") and Dylan fans who are not. Greil could have attacked, insulted or mocked pro-war people who love Dylan's music and still think "Like a Rolling Stone" (or even "Masters of War"!) is the greatest rock 'n' roll song ever. But he didn't, perhaps because he didn't want to appear "mean-spirited," perhaps because he feared the possible repercussions, which might include pro-Bush, right-wing lunatics accusing him of being unpatriotic or even anti-American.

It is, precisely, America that Greil Marcus loves and writes about so well in his many books, especially Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music (1975) and Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes (1997). Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" isn't simply American, as American as Coca Cola and Mickey Mouse. It is about America and it is literally and figuratively addressed to America. But what is "America"? It is two -- no -- three things: 1) a "promise," a Promised Land, a Heaven-on-Earth; 2) a whore, a betrayal, a Hell-on-Earth; and 3) an invisible republic or an unknown or unmapped country (both a geographical location and a society) in which nothing is settled and everything is up for grabs.

It's an ingenious schema, and very useful in the fields of musicology, cultural history and American Studies, but it begs important questions: is this geo-theological drama unique to America? or is it performed in/by other countries, as well? Does each country have its own unique geo-theo drama? or do the countries of the world share in a few basic geo-theo dramas? How does religion -- Dylan as a Jew, as a born-again Christian, as a Muslim (?!) -- figure in here?

None of this is resolved, and it kinda spoils the ending of Like a Rolling Stone:

The unmapped country prophesied in 'Like a Rolling Stone' is still there too, hanging in the air as a territory of danger and flight, abandonment and discovery, truth and lie, but as [Dylan's song] 'Highlands' plays, there is the sense that no one has been there for years. The singer has long since traversed the country; he knows his way around. He wouldn't mind company, but he can do without it. Every once in a while he hears his old song on the radio, and the country is new again, that will have to do.

But this isn't enough, not in 2005,[10] when both #1 and #3 in the schema above (America as Paradise and America as unsettled) are vanishing and #2 (America as Hell) is becoming a reality -- Abou Graib, Guantanamo Bay, officially sanctioned "renditions" and torture, secret CIA prisons, etc ad nauseum.

One of the primary merits of Like a Rolling Stone is that it demonstrates so well that "Like a Rolling Stone" was a collaborative effort (not just between Dylan and his muse, but between these two and all of the other musicians on the track and the people who recorded, produced and mixed what they played). But the book's ending is a vision of a solitary individual who can "do without" company. That is to say, it is a vision of America as it is today -- a loner, a dusty cowboy, haunted by his own echoes, completely isolated from the rest of the world, and not particularly worried about it.

But what if America was no longer #1 with a bullet in the Top 40 of all-time great countries? What if America was, to quote "Anarchy in the UK," "just another country"? What if America, like God, Elvis, and rock 'n' roll itself, was dead? Could Dylan and "Like a Rolling Stone" be salvaged from the wreckage of America and embraced as citizens of the world, at home everywhere? Could Greil have written Like a Rolling Stone from the perspective of an internationalist, and not that of a specialist in American Studies?

-- NOT BORED! 24 November 2005

[1] Appended to the Situationist International's English translation of "Decline and Fall of the Spectacular-Commodity Society," December 1965. The full text of this "Summary" was recently translated into English for the first time and is now available on this site.

[2] The graffiti in question here is "NEVER WORK," inscribed by Guy Debord on a street-wall in Paris in 1953 and cited ten years later as a "preliminary program of the [entire] situationist movement." One need not marvel at the "earliness" (March 1965) of Dylan's awareness of the existence of the Situationist International, which one might have expected to come after December 1966, that is, after "On the Poverty of Student Life" and the Strasbourg scandal. Note Allen Ginsberg's poem, "How to Make a March a Spectacle," also written and published in 1965: when asked about it in 1987, Ginsberg confirmed that at the time he'd been aware of the situationists and their theory of "the spectacle." No doubt both Dylan and Ginsberg learned of the SI through William S. Burroughs' friend, the ex-situationist Alexander Trocchi, who launched his "Project Sigma" in 1964. It doesn't really matter. The point is this: if Dylan knew about the situationists, why shouldn't one use situationist ideas and approaches to appreciate his music?

[3] In contrast, in the "Works Cited" section, Greil makes sure to let his readers know that some of the content in Like A Rolling Stone (Dylan's performances with the Hawks in 1965 and 1966) overlaps with that of Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes (1997).

[4] Unless I'm mistaken, the only other such book is Dave Marsh's book about "Louie Louie," but it (the book) is both thin and filled with padding. Both of Greil's books are thick and all-business. [I am in fact mistaken: there are entire books about such songs as "White Christmas," "Rock Around the Clock," "Strange Fruit," "Stack-O-Lee," and more. Thanks to Greil Marcus for the correction.]

[5] Greil astutely notes that the narrator himself surely knows how it feels, but he might not know what it means. His repeated refain "How does it feel?" might actually or also be "What does it mean?" If so, the woman in the song, despite her fall, has learned something the narrator doesn't know, and so is "still" above him.

In L'Anti-Oedpide, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari are not interested in "How does it feel?" or "How does it mean?" but "What does it do?" What does "Like a Rolling Stone" do? It stops and starts time; it recalls time and takes time; it negates time.

[6] "[In 1965] the race was not only between the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and everyone else. The pop world was in a race with the greater world, the world of wars and elections, work and leisure, poverty and riches, white people and black people, women and men -- and in 1965 you could feel that the pop world was winning" (Like a Rolling Stone). One might say that, in Lipstick Traces, you can feel both worlds collapsing.

[7] Elsewhere in Like a Rolling Stone, he writes that, "If society did not raise itself as a single brave, terrified soul and leave itself behind, sometimes, listening to Dylan's voice as everything around him dropped away, as the demonic, despairing figure in the song threw off everything around itself, you could imagine that society had done just that. If people did not leave their homes to travel the roads making speeches and barbeque -- though many did, and many already had -- you could hear intimations of that, too. Or you could hear that event in its absence, as if, in its failure to instantly change the world, unlike any recording before it 'Like a Rolling Stone' had proven that that was precisely what a work of art was supposed to do, and the standard by which a work of art should be judged" (emphasis added).

[8] In the "Works Cited" section of Like a Rolling Stone, Greil describes an essay he wrote in May 1985 ("Number One with a Bullet") as "mean-spirited." You can't tell if he's joking or not.

[9] In The Invisible Republic, Greil quotes a question that Dylan once asked an interviewer in 1968: "How do you know that I'm not, as you say, for the war?" This is how we know.

[10] Note added 14 July 2006: At this point in the essay, I failed to make the obvious connection with the myth of the American frontier, which was both a place and a weird socio-theological process in which "savages" (native Americans) were supposedly transformed or converted into civilized beings, and ex-Europeans were supposedly transformed into Americans, real Americans. The question today would be what it had been back in 1890: Is the American frontier still open, or has it finally closed? Looking back to 1965, to Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," the American frontier was obviously still open. But in mid-2003, when he was writing Like A Rolling Stone, Greil Marcus found that something was bothering him, something was preventing him from peopling "the unmapped country," from imagining that "the unmapped country" was full of people. Did he sense that, in the forty years since Dylan's song, the American frontier had indeed finally closed? Did the myth of the Frontier finally expire when Bush, the Warrior Cowboy, attacked Afghanistan in October 2001?

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