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Tucson Weekly Pop-Cultural Contraband

From Bob Dylan's basement tapes to a treatise on America.

By Gregory McNamee

Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes, by Greil Marcus (Henry Holt). Cloth, $22.50

DECEMBER 8, 1997:  GREIL MARCUS, A thoughtful and ironic student of popular culture, is a master at following slender threads of evidence to their (usually) logical conclusions. Following a labored postmodern tactic of hit-and-miss inquiry that involves ransacking whole libraries, he's turned out good books (Mystery Train, Dead Elvis) and not so good books (Lipstick Traces, The Dustbin of History), all of them attempts at ferreting out what might be called the hidden history of our times.

Marcus' misses are a lot more interesting than most scholars' hits. Invisible Republic is a case in point: From a tiny fragment of pop history--namely, Bob Dylan's holing up with the members of The Band in upstate New York in 1966 in a retreat that would yield multiple bootlegs and the official 1975 release The Basement Tapes--Griel crafts a multi-faceted treatise on American society. Those contraband sessions turn up some surprises in Dylan's half-remembered, half-invented versions of the folk standards on which he built his career, some of which came back from memory's grave on the recent albums Good As I Been to You and World Gone Wrong. For Marcus the sessions are a point of departure to talk, in no particular order, about the history of the blues, racism, coal-mining strikes, the big-band sound, Jeffersonian idealism, the American penchant for violence, and the creation of legends. About all this he has much to say, and as Marcus travels his odd path from one historical datum to another, he makes some remarkable discoveries, all set to a good beat.

Marcus extracts perhaps just a few too many resonances of meaning from a bunch of guys in their 20s sitting around a living room and beating on various musical instruments while waiting for hard rain. Still, he makes good sense most of the time, which isn't an easy thing to pull off in the pomo-crit enterprise. And even when he doesn't, Marcus sets up some arguments that will send readers to spinning their Howlin' Wolf, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Bobby Zimmerman platters and Folkways anthologies while thinking of a suitable retort.


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