40 Years Ago-and Today-Dylan Asks, ‘How Does it Feel?’

Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads, by Greil Marcus, Public Affairs, 283 pages, $25.

Greil Marcus, writing about Sam Cooke’s posthumously released single “A Change Is Gonna Come,” rightly called it “the greatest soul record ever made … a tender, terrifying prophecy of what the racial changes already at work in the land would cost; a prophecy, finally, of what they would be worth.” In his new book, Mr. Marcus says of Cooke’s performance, “The music didn’t make you sorry Cooke was dead; it made you glad that he had lived, made you feel privileged to have shared the earth with him.”

As contemporary critical language goes, this is about as unfashionable as you can get. It’s not flip or detached or cheaply ironic, qualities prized in arts criticism right now. So many critics these days are mostly concerned that their aura of cool should remain unruffled and that they never take the “wrong” side; they protect themselves at all costs from the power of books or movies or music to get under your skin.

This is not an approach that Greil Marcus has ever had any use for. Despite the bafflement some readers have expressed at the leaps of imagination he takes, he’s never been emotionally oblique. He’s always operated from the assumption that art can change the world-and he shows us how it does. He charts the ripples left by the subjects that have functioned as his totems-mostly Elvis and punk and Bob Dylan. His method consists of drawing lines and listening for echoes-from epoch to epoch, song to song.

In doing so, he’s participating in what he describes as the public conversation that art provokes, the creative process that continues in the public sphere when work takes on meaning and uses the artist couldn’t have foreseen. Some years ago, Mr. Marcus wrote that he liked hearing classic rock songs used in advertisements because it settled whether the songs were strong enough to resist being swallowed up by the commercial uses they were put to.

As he demonstrates in Like a Rolling Stone, Bob Dylan’s song is more whale than Jonah. In 1965, a six-minute single was unheard of (Columbia at first split the record on two sides of a 45, giving D.J.’s the option of playing just half). Mr. Marcus writes to show how the song has remained disruptive, essentially an unfinished work: “Because the song never plays the same way twice-because whenever you hear the song you are not quite hearing a song you have heard before-it cannot carry nostalgia.”

Nostalgia is the temptation Bob Dylan has resisted throughout his career. “Again and again,” Mr. Marcus writes, “he has refused to give an audience what it paid for.” Audiences and critics have repeatedly demanded the “old Dylan” and rejected the Dylan before them. Here, as in an earlier book about Mr. Dylan, Invisible Republic (1997), Mr. Marcus squashes the story that the crowd at Newport booed because of a bad sound mix-all it took was the sight of Mr. Dylan’s electric guitar to set them off. Those boos and threats that followed Mr. Dylan throughout 1965 and ’66 were a particularly vicious expression of nostalgia for Dylan the “folk singer.” “We’ve got Dylan back” is how the music critic Ralph J. Gleason began his review of New Morning (1970), the false confidence of the phrase working overtime to banish the previous two albums, the pleasant country of Nashville Skyline (1969) and the god-awfulness of Self-Portrait (1970).

At the end of Paul Schrader’s film Patty Hearst, Natasha Richardson’s Patty tells her father that she finally figured out what her crime was: “I lived.” Had Mr. Dylan’s 1966 motorcycle accident killed him, he could have gone out as a prophet, the voice of his generation, and all the other lazy phrases from the land where op-ed sonorousness meets a P.R. flack’s hyperbole. Instead, Mr. Dylan became deeply inconvenient. Which is why, when he shrugged off years of indifferent or lazy albums in the early 90′s and started making music that mattered again, it was baffling to some to have to treat him, after all these years, as something besides a has-been or an oldies act.

This is the inconvenience that Mr. Marcus has taken for his subject, epitomized for him in “Like a Rolling Stone.” The epic length of the song, Mr. Marcus writes, would be aped by songwriters striving for the same grandeur. He uncovers echoes in songs that range from great (the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone”) to ludicrous (“MacArthur Park”), as well as soon-to-be-unbearable warhorses like “Stairway to Heaven” (which Mr. Marcus finishes off by describing as “an escape into the daydream of Druidic forests while riding the escalator up to the lingerie floor of Harrod’s”). “But all of these songs,” Mr. Marcus writes, “masterpieces or embarrassments, were productions; ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ was a runaway train.”

An adventure is only really thrilling if it involves a hint of threat. Mr. Marcus makes the reader understand “Like a Rolling Stone” as a conscious-and exhilarating-act of cruelty, a song that makes the listener pay simply for being present to hear it. Mr. Marcus writes of those mounting, astonishingly beautiful verses of invective, that “the person to whom all this is addressed is no longer merely the girl named by the song. That person is now at once her and whoever is listening. The song has put the listener on the spot.” And so, to escape being put on the spot, we’re forced to admit that we have the capacity to enjoy the song’s cruelty, that we have the same taste for revenge as the singer. That admission lays bare the freedom of the song, a freedom hovering on the brink of disaster, of not knowing where your next meal is coming from and yet still acting like a winner.

Which is to say that Mr. Marcus envisions Mr. Dylan’s song as something like a classic American tale of lighting out for the wilderness (the wilderness, in this case, being Highway 61). Bob Dylan is John Wayne and Claire Trevor, the cowboy and the whore escaping the blessings of civilization at the end of Stagecoach, or Huck Finn deciding he’s been there before. Greil Marcus’ telling is a version of the freedom he finds in the song. In his version, the outsider’s declaration of revenge becomes the most thrilling and violent of familiar epics: the tale of American self-invention.

Charles Taylor has written for Salon.com, The New York Times, The New Yorker and other publications.