by Tim Cumming
[ bookreviews ]
Mike Marqusee's Wicked Messenger is an updated version of 2003's Chimes of Freedom, with extra protein in the form of chapters on Chronicles and Masked and Anonymous, though it misses out on last autumn's No Direction Home and the typically eccentric recent news that Dylan is to become a DJ on the world's first satellite radio station, playing his favourite old records, interviewing guests, and reading out listeners' emails in a generally ad-free environment. I'm hoping for a show like Alexis Korner's great Sunday-night residency on Radio 2 in the 70s and 80s, spinning blues, gospel, R & B and soul rarities in a generous fug of marijuana smoke. We don't know how Dylan will prepare for his own broadcasting hour of power, but the odds are that the playlist will be fascinating.
Dylan is also recording a new album, the first in five years, following a week of rehearsals at the beginning of February with his road band at the 1969 Bardovan Opera House in Ploughskeepie. Many Dylan books will need updating over the next year or so. Hell, he'll probably be doing his own chat show soon.
There's a lot of heavy Dylan tomes I couldn't pick up, let alone read, but Wicked Messanger isn't like that. Its author, American-born British resident Mike Marqusee has written numerous books on the Sixties, politics and cricket, and has been a political activist - that means a community-minded, socially-oriented kind of vocation, I guess - for longer than that. And for longest of all, a Dylan fan.
He writes from the viewpoint of that Sixties generation for whom Dylan meant almost everything, the generation that couldn't get to the bottom of why he wanted to give them nothing by the decade's close. For them, Dylan was a public rather than a hermetic voice. There are questions you don't have to ask Dylan if you came to him after the Sixties – he won't be the voice of your generation, but you become spellbound, though for different reasons.
Marqusee believes that Dylan's songs are indivisibly attached to the decade that made him such an icon, but it might just be the audience and the media that is umbilically attached to not only Dylan and the decade, but also to "what it all means". Dylan's songs will always float free of their moorings, and it may strike future generations as bizarre (if any of it strikes them at all) that so many commentators from the Sixties have insisted on pinning Dylan's work down to one source, ideology or context.
It's a fever of textual legwork that often seems less about the artist that the audience itself, as if without the complex underground of meanings, the magical songs of Dylan's first golden age couldn't exist to that audience in the way they thought they should exist. But his work isn't about meaning so much as experience. His songs exist as worlds unto themselves, full of suggestion and juxtaposition. They are what they are, and we still don't know quite what that is.
With a figure like Dylan, surrounded as he is by this great big library of commentary, the first and best port of call is probably your own responses, even in the face of a text as lucid as this one. For this is a very good book in lots of ways although it inevitably falls short in dealing with its central figure. It's excellent on everything around Dylan in the early 1960s, especially in the political and social mechanics of the American civil rights movement, the clash between authenticity and self-invention, the overwhelming consumerism that emerged with the counter culture that defined itself in opposition to that very consumerism, and how Dylan connected so strongly, in his work if not in his person, with the voice of the underdog - political, racial, sexual, economic. Dylan's whole artistic biography is a struggle between immersion and extraction, authenticity and invention; he certainly had enough authenticity of imagination to smother his own early self-inventions and blow all that smoke out of the room with the great work that was to come.
Marqusee's focus is the call-and-response creative pulse between the Sixties Dylan and his audience - in the early years a mix of mentors and sources, politicos and early converts - and later on, his estrangement from those same mentors and politicos, and from the mass audience and mass media that followed.
He is very good on the growth of Dylan's art and the fracturing of the underground, torn between commitment and the hedonism of sex, drugs and rock n roll. And good, too, on the message songs of the 62-64 period, when Dylan's public address system was at its sharpest. But once he had reached a certain level (in depth or height, take your pick), that PA was shut down, and the figure walking out of the crowd was the hermetic dandy of Bringing It All Back Home and beyond, a much harder figure to put in his place. Marqusee concentrates what Dylan had left behind, the left-leaning, political roots of his underdog personae which would suffer under the yoke of surrealism and history as much as they once endured poverty, racism and violence. It's here that most Dylan Beideckers begin to deflate, for what can be said about that hermetic, carnivalesque camouflage of metaphor that drives and raises the great songs of the mid-Sixties? As Bunting said of Pound's Cantos: there are the Alps, now climb them. Or dance.
Marqusee's political interpretations, the sociological weights and measures he applies to the likes of Rainy Day Women or Tom Thumb's Blues, are fair enough, but we instantly know that this is only a part of the story, and that any single interpretation is missing something; some light is being omitted here. And here we get to the problem of the Dylan industry: after four decades of mythologizing and chronicling, we already know more than there is to know. Almost every stone has been turned over and broken open, every lyric has been strip-mined for some final, absolute meaning, when the songs are simply too big for such absolute certainties. They change with the weather.
As Joan Baez said, if you're into him, he goes way deep, and we all have to get there by ourselves, and without books, whether its the 1960s or the 2060s. It's our own meanings we're looking for. It's been many years since I read any Dylan books, and to be honest, my favourites are the likes of Wanted Man, full of biographical asides and absolutely no extrapolation. Nevertheless, the context Marqusee provides is often fascinating, and makes it work as a book tackling one part - albeit a key and formative one - of Dylan's life and work. It helps that it comes in the wake of Chronicles, and the curiously elusive but vivid frankness of those memoirs. Marqusee doubts the veracity of some of its contents, and it is true that so much of it is depicted in such extreme close-up that you can't get a handle on the full picture. You don't know how far in you really are. But that's the joy of Dylan's work, and why people will sing his songs long after they will have forgotten what the 1960s was meant to be about.