What I love about Bob Dylan is the otherworldliness of his music. He can take you to a different place through his storytelling, and he can do this because the stories aren’t always his. He plugs into an old tradition of songs that trace back through the history of America and beyond into the old country; a musical collective that references “the old, weird America.”
It’s the phrase that titles a reissue of Greil Marcus’s 1997 book Invisible Republic. Dylan turned 70 this past May, and the re-issue was in honor of his birthday. It’s got an updated discography that serious Dylan fans will appreciate.
The subject of the book is “the world of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes,” the low-key recordings made by Dylan and The Band during the summer of 1967 in Woodstock, a time when Dylan was in retreat after a motorcycle accident the year before. The music wasn’t intended for public release, only for some fellow musicians, but many a bootleg has been passed around over the years, building the Basement Tapes up to legendary status.
As a whole, Marcus sees the Basement Tapes as sketches of a cultural map of America, not America as we now know it but as a forgotten place that holds mystery and darkness, populated by shady characters. Murder, suicide, betrayal, rejection, deception, and loneliness rule, and the songs live on, regardless of who’s singing. You can put on a mask as a musician (as Dylan does) and tap into this tradition and feel the timeless depth of the songs, the way they use you as a tool while you’re being transported and transformed by them. After reading The Old, Weird America, this is how I feel when I play “Blackjack Davey” on guitar, a folk song covered by Dylan on his album of traditional tunes, Good as I Been to You (1992). A forgotten world comes alive again, and it’s strange and creepy, but I keep on playing and singing because I’m fascinated by what the song conjures.
I won’t go into the intricacies of the cultural map that Marcus ferrets out because paraphrasing would be a dim effort next to his brilliant writing. Suffice it to say that his book is worth a careful, close read. Take your time and savor it. It will stick with you, as it did with Todd Haynes, who based part of his Dylan-centric 2007 film I’m Not There on the images and ideas he saw while reading this book.
Thanks to Marcus for reminding us that while Dylan is a legend and a mystery, he’s also part of older, deeper legends and mysteries; touchstones that have shaped what Dylan is and why he means so much to us.