Bob Dylan in the Land of Obscurity
Greil Marcus, Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes (aka The Old Weird America) (1997)
This is one of the those books I heard about years ago and had been half-planning to read while at the same time half-dreading the experience; when I saw a paperback for $5 I decided the time was finally right. As it turned out, the “dreading to read” side of my feelings was more prescient than the “wanting to read” side – the book is a tedious slog, occasionally broken by an over-reading of a song conducted with such dead-serious reverence that it becomes laughable.
Obscurity, Of Course
The first reference to Canada comes in a description of the band that accompanied Dylan on his 1966 tour (documented on the famous “Royal Albert Hall” bootleg):
In a combination completed by various temporary drummers, most notably Mickey Jones of Trini Lopez fame, the musicians Dylan played with on his tour were bassist Rick Danko, organist Garth Hudson, pianist Richard Manuel, and guitarist Robbie Robertson. They were four-fifths of an obscure Toronto honky-tonk outfit called the Hawks, once the backing band for Arkansas-born rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins…. (xiii)
Toronto is nothing more than a point of origin here, or a location that is simply mentioned; for our purposes, the key point is to note the attachment of the word “obscure” to Toronto, which seems to be placed there almost automatically, as if anything to do with Toronto is invariably also obscure.
The other reference comes in the lead-in to the discussion of one of the Johnny Cash songs covered on The Basement Tapes:
You begin to sense people digging deeper, bored with the obvious. Someone excavates an obscure Johnny Cash number – lifelong Cash fan Dylan, or perhaps Hudson, who with Paul London and the Capers, his Ontario-based teenage rock ‘n’ roll band, backed Cash in Detroit bars in the early 1960s. (73)
Marcus is certainly a fount of obscure knowledge. It’s remarkable that a group of Ontario teenagers would have been chosen to back Johnny Cash – but perhaps his star was still in the early stages of its ascent at the time.
How Insecure Canadians Impress Americans
Since we’re on the subject of this book, we might as well note a couple of other references to Canada, for the sake of completeness if nothing else. The following is a description of one of the basement performances:
After this the evening went off the rails. Professor Hudson returns: ‘Too many of us are ignorant of the vast, untamed wilderness to the north, and the odd graces of Canadians that have contributed to the scene, if you’ll pardon the expression, in their own, inimitable fashion. Here, is a flower song, a veritable prayer dance for mushroom sauce, invented by the Sasquatches, a great and beautiful tribe of more than a dozen happy’ – and Hudson sticks on the word like a nick in vinyl – ‘happy – happy souls, completely covered with hair, if you can imagine.’ The Bigfoot aria that follows – and sustains itself – features a chorus of preverbal grunts and squawks and a lead that sounds as much like a vocal recorded underwater as a tape played backward. As the creatures strain toward words, you realize they don’t need them. (80-81)
Note Hudson, a Canadian himself, begins by saying “too many of us” are ignorant of Canadians. What we have here is a Canadian impersonating an American in order to laugh about Canada with other Americans, clowning and making a joke of his national identity for the benefit of his American audience – though who exactly he thinks that audience is is difficult to say. This is obviously not a reference to Canada by a non-Canadian, but making fun of Canada in order to ingratiate oneself with Americans represents a characteristic type of Canadian insecurity, and that seems to be what is expressed here, albeit obliquely.
And then there’s this, during Marcus’ lengthy discussion of the song “I’m Not There”:
As Dylan sings, as the shimmering northern lights in the sound Hudson, Manuel and Danko are making rise to meet him, a phantom town gathers around the woman in the song, and like the phantom text of the song it disappears as soon as it is apprehended. (201-202)
I suppose there are places in the U.S. where you can see the Northern Lights, but it still seems noteworthy that Marcus chooses this particular metaphor to describe the music made by a group of Canadians. As for the rest of it, if you feel that sentence deepens your understanding of the song “I’m Not There,” then maybe you should check out the book. I’ve listened to the song many times, and I have to admit I can’t hear the Northern Lights in the sound; maybe you can pick them out.
I don’t mean to sneer at Marcus: while I don’t go in for his style of reverent Bobolatry, and I don’t consider the Basement Tapes a watershed moment in human cultural history, there is some pretty good music on them, and “I’m Not There” is certainly worthy of praise as one of Dylan’s most mysterious and hauntingly beautiful songs. But….
It’s Not There
Ordinarily, at this point I would provide a link to “I’m Not There” on YouTube, so you could listen for the “northern lights” yourself. Bob and his lawyers, however, seem to have done a fairly thorough job of removing his songs. There are some cover versions you can listen to, a couple of which are bearable, but since none of them have the band Marcus is referring to, you won’t hear any northern lights.
For lack of anything better, here is what strikes my ear as the least offensive cover of “I’m Not There”:
I like the way some of the lyrics are supplied seemingly at random; the Basement version of the song is notoriously incomprehensible (even by Bob Dylan standards), so perhaps these were the only ones the singer felt confident typing up. (An added benefit of the video is that, if you’re a guitar player, you can pretty much learn to play the song from watching it. The capo’s at the 4th fret, and then just standard chords.)
One thing Marcus does capture well in his book (as suggested by its alternate title) is the sheer weirdness of the Basement Tapes, and the way that weirdness grows out of, and pays homage to, the weirdness to be heard on something like the Anthology of American Folk Music. This idea of weirdness can be overdone: to me it remains an open question, at least in some cases, whether the apparent “weirdness” of a song’s lyrics is intentional, or merely the result of the singer recombining remembered lines and verses from other songs more or less at random (I’m talking about songs from the Anthology, not the Basement Tapes songs, which I think are consciously constructed to try to create that effect). Viewed in this way, weirdness would be a natural result of what is sometimes called the “folk process”; the seeming discontinuities and contradictions in the Homeric epics, and the attitude of the “analytical” critics to them, might be a useful comparison.
Having said that, I feel this post would be incomplete without at least a taste of the Anthology, which certainly lies behind the Basement Tapes in some sense; here’s a favourite of mine:
And here’s a song that strikes me as a possible example of the “folk process” in action: