Many people—and especially those just now getting turned on to Bob Dylan's immense catalog—tend not to grasp how omnipresent Dylan was during the 1960s. He was everywhere, emanating from radios, jukeboxes, and phonographs, echoing from the streets of America to the jungles of Vietnam—a cultural alloy with immeasurable influence. The first step toward truly understanding Dylan's impact on music, politics, and culture is to understand the sheer magnitude of this saturation. Mike Marqusee's 2005 book, Wicked Messenger: Bob Dylan and the 1960s, has become the number one reference on Dylan during that fascinating decade.
In the world of Dylanologists and Dylan writers, Mike Marqusee is the new kid on the block. Now that everything has been written about Dylan that can possibly be examined, Marqusee—an American-born teen living in Britain during Dylan's late-60s prime—now looks back on that decade with a fresh set of eyes and ears, plundering the vaults and putting everything into perspective.
An updated and revised version of his earlier 2003 book, Chimes of Freedom, the subtitle tells you exactly what you're getting: “Bob Dylan in the 1960s,” a ten year window into Dylan and the decade on which he still holds the deed. As Marqusee writes in the introduction, “The music Bob Dylan made in the sixties has long outgrown its national origins, just as it has outlived its era, but to understand it, to make best use of it, you need to trace its roots in both time and place.”
The book is broken into five sections: 1) “The Whole Wide World is Watching” covers Dylan's arrival in Greenwich Village and his rise to fame during the civil rights movement; 2) “Not Much is Really Sacred” follows Dylan as he slips out of political songwriting, on to rock 'n' roll, and into his status as pop music icon; 3) “Little Boy Lost” details the maturity of his rock phase leading up to the 1966 motorcycle accident; 4) “The Hour Is Getting Late,” examines Dylan's post-motorcycle accident era and The Basement Tapes; And finally, 5) “Corruptible Seed” takes a look at post-1960s Dylan.
The Pied Pundit
Marqusee's chief concern in Wicked Messenger is not only putting Dylan's music in context with the times they were made, but providing an understanding of events that led up to those times. In the first chapter, for instance, the author explores the initial folk revival's leftist roots in the 1920s and '30s, giving a full overview of Woody Guthrie's importance to that movement. Meanwhile, Harry Smith's 1952 Folkways release, Anthology of American Folk Music, and Alan Lomax's important field recordings of forgotten folk and blues artists in the 1950s had a profound influence in shaping Dylan's worldview and destiny.
After meeting his first true love Suze Rotolo, Dylan plunges into political songwriting, performing topical songs, soon becoming the darling of the folk revival and the civil rights movement. Rehashing the history of Dylan's performance at the Greenwood, Mississippi voter registration rally and at the 1963 March on Washington, Marqusee writes about Dylan's activities with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, giving a full synopsis of that group and its importance to the movement. Bringing that epoch current, the author writes, “Dylan's songs live inside the historical moment in a way that more programmatic efforts do not. As a result, they live beyond that moment. They rise out of their era and speak to ours, not least because of Dylan's hard-edged, increasingly radical political perspective.”
High or Low Art?
Throughout the book, Marqusee deviates from writing exclusively about Dylan to dig into events taking place across the country at the time. For instance, he recaps the letter that Martin Luther King wrote from a Birmingham, Alabama jail cell. Meanwhile, he gives a biographical account of folksinger Phil Ochs, who is central to Dylan's own story, yet also writes at length about R&B singer Curtis Mayfield, who has nothing to do with Dylan. This straying from the main avenue textures Dylan's experience while giving readers a broader scope on the stirrings in America and its changing attitudes.
Although Marqusee picks apart snatches from songs and lyrics right from the beginning of the book, by halfway through, they become a disproportionately larger chunk of the story. For new Dylan initiates, these forays into song analysis are great for getting a different read, but for people who know Dylan well, this kind of stuff gets redundant very quickly, like listening to someone's blow-by-blow account of a dream. But despite this, Marqusee goes into these tremendous debates and exercises in critical thinking, for example about the merits of high and low art using the argument of Theodor Adorno, who condemned popular music and warned against the dangers of creating a “culture industry.” Tossing Dylan into the equation, the author pores over whether his music constitutes high or low art.
Post Motorcycle Accident, Post Millennium
Marqusee's hefty examination of The Basement Tapes, recorded after the 1966 “motorcycle accident,” is an excellent introduction into what amounts to the end of the peak and beginning of the valley in the first stage of Dylan's long and winding career. Still framing Dylan's narrative with the politics of the age, the author points out that Dylan was “writing against the times,” when he recorded The Basement Tapes, along with the country albums John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline as the 1960s came to a close.
Dedicating a chapter to Dylan after the '60s, the author does a comparison between Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, who was the first recording artist touted as “the next Bob Dylan.” Reviewing Springsteen's albums The Ghost of Tom Joad and The Rising, Marqusee soon digresses further with a precis on Steve Earle's album Jerusalem, finally bouncing back to Dylan with a spitfire synopsis on his 2003 film Masked and Anonymous and his 2004 autobiography, Chronicles: Volume One (two profound subjects that demand much more than the light, vaporous treatment they get here). Wrapping the book up with a three-page paean to Dylan, Marqusee tries to find a place for his subject in the post 9/11 age of the iPod. This last chapter would be the “revised and expanded” portion of the book, which really adds nothing to the original text and seems awkward and rushed. But regardless, like the rest of the book, it's thought-provoking material.