So we called Greil Marcus to see what he thought. He’s been writing about Dylan for more than 40 years — in places including Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Artforum, Interview, Salon, City Pages, Threepenny Review, and The Village Voice; all those pieces have been collected and published in the book Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010. It’s 481 pages long.
And he had a new piece, about Bob Dylan getting the Nobel Prize, online at The New York Times last week.
JON WIENER: Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature — do we have to argue about whether what Dylan writes is “literature”? Do we have to say Homer sang his epics, or that Virgil was a lyricist?
GREIL MARCUS: I have no interest in those questions. I’ve always thought the question of whether Bob Dylan was a poet was a waste of time.
And I always thought the campaign to win him the Nobel Prize didn’t have much to do with Bob Dylan at all. Campaigning for Nobel prizes is anything but unknown. A whole cohort of people worked very hard to get Toni Morrison the Nobel Prize. There’s nothing odd about that. People have been promoting Bob Dylan for years as someone who must win the Nobel Prize — and it always struck me that those were people wanting validation for their own admiration and obsession with Dylan. They wanted the Nobel committee to certify them and their seriousness. I always thought that was pretty ridiculous. He doesn’t need it.
On the other hand, when I heard about the news, I felt really good. I was very happy about it. And I was happy for him. And I was curious about what he might end up saying. He gave this extraordinary talk at the Music Cares award ceremony a year or so ago: a 30-minute talk, all written out ahead of time, nothing random about it; a lot of score settling, and a lot of pretty serious analysis of why he wrote his songs. Remarkable. I just hope that at the Nobel ceremony he doesn’t get up there and quote Faulkner: “We will endure.”
Okay we don’t need to have Bob Dylan be a poet. And yet the words of his songs do have real mystery and power — something like “literature,” I guess.
Who knows what literature is? And, really, who cares? I don’t care.
Bob Dylan is working in an area in the broadest sense that began with the troubadours in southern France in the 12th century. The troubadours took up subjects that were forbidden, that you weren’t supposed to talk about, and they were able to hide these in songs: attacks on power, the affirmation of romantic love between different classes of people. This is the realm in which Bob Dylan has always worked.
I think the first thing I ever wrote about Bob Dylan was a college paper about Bob Dylan and Walt Whitman. All you really need to know about that topic is not what people said in the ‘60s: If Walt Whitman were alive today he’d be playing an electric guitar. No. I think you could say, as Bob Dylan has certainly recognized, that Walt Whitman is his comrade. And Whitman would recognize Dylan as his “comerado,” in his word. You don’t need to say more than that.
In the song “Highway 61 Revisited” from 1965, Dylan sings these lines: “Abe says ‘Where you want this killin’ done?’/ God says ‘Out on Highway 61.’” A friend told me, “he deserves the Nobel prize just for those two lines.” You heard him sing this song two weeks ago at the Desert Trip festival in Indio — what was that like?
That was the big gathering of the Rolling Stones and the Who and Dylan and Paul McCartney and, let’s see who else, Elvis was there, and Little Richard; Frank Sinatra made an appearance, and Al Jolson really stole the show.
“Highway 61 Revisited” is probably the best song Bob Dylan ever wrote. It seemed like that in 1965, and it seems like that today: the way the language begins to break down in that first voice: “Abe say, ‘what?’” So fast.
The first time I ever drove onto Highway 61, which was in the Twin Cities, I really expected to have some sort of mystical vision. The highway had taken on such a charged sense from that song that it just didn’t seem like a real place, it didn’t seem like it could be ordinary in any way.
I grew up in Minnesota, so Highway 61 had been part of my life. It’s the way you got from Duluth to Minneapolis and St. Paul — Bob Dylan was born in Duluth and went to college for a year in Minneapolis. And then if you followed Highway 61 south, it went down the Mississippi all the way to New Orleans.
James Marsh came to the US to make four hour-long films for the BBC that were biographies of songs, and “Highway 61 Revisited” was one of them. He shows you that, among other things, Elvis Presley lived on Highway 61, Martin Luther King was assassinated on Highway 61, and Bessie Smith had her fatal auto accident on Highway 61. Just to name a few things.
“Masters of War” is a Dylan song we first heard in 1963: “You that never done nothin'/ But build to destroy/ You play with my world/ Like it's your little toy…” In 1963 it was stunning, but it soon came to seem heavy-handed and much more literal than what he was doing just two years later with “Highway 61 Revisited.” You must have heard him sing “Masters of War” live dozens of times.
He closed his set at Desert Trip with that song. From 1963 to 2016 — that’s one hell of an arc. You can say the world still has lots of wars, so this song is still current. But the song is very specific: It’s about what Franklin Roosevelt used to call “war profiteers.” People who make money off wars, people who are invested in wars. It’s not an anti-war song as such. But it comes across that way, with a tremendous sense of weight, permanence, regret, despair, and defiance. Part of that is because its melody comes from a very ancient British folk song called “Nottamun Town.” Nobody knows how far back it goes, how old that melody is. That melody is part of what has kept that song alive because it just carries so might weight, its roots are so deep. You can feel that. It comes across. It doesn’t have to be discussed, it’s just the body of the song.
On the other hand, in 1991, when the first Gulf War was about to start, Dylan accepted a lifetime achievement award at the Grammy ceremonies. He comes on with his band, which at the time might have been the hottest band he’d ever played with, and he launches into a song, very fast, very noisy, with streaks of electricity all over it, and it’s almost completely incomprehensible. He is purposely slurring one word into another, you can’t make out the words, and it wasn’t until somewhere around the third verse that the melody crept back into the performance, and I said “Oh my God, this is ‘Masters of War!’” Then I could sort of begin to pick out a word here or there. It was an astonishing performance, one of the greatest of his career: to play “Masters of War” with more ferocity than he had ever played it, just as a war was beginning; and yet at the same time disguise it, so that the performance would go off like a bomb — maybe minutes, maybe months, maybe years after the fuse was first lit.
So this is a song that is alive for Bob Dylan. I’ve heard him do it in so many different ways. I wrote a long piece once called “Stories of a Bad Song” about “Masters of War.” In some ways it’s just incredibly heavy-handed and self-righteous and self-affirming in a cheap way. And yet given what he and other people have done with it, this may be the song that outlasts him the longest. Who knows.
I also want to talk about “Like a Rolling Stone”: “Once upon a time/ you looked so fine/ threw the bums a dime/ in your prime,/ Didn’t you?” A friend said “Hell, I'd give him the Nobel Prize just for the ‘aaah’ before the fourth verse.” The song is magnificent, and so is the performance.
I can’t listen to that song without feeling as if I’m hearing it for the first time. Every note in that song, every word, every inflection is a breakthrough. There is an energy that has come to bear on all the people in that room, all the people playing that song in that moment, that is taking them past themselves, taking them somewhere they’ve never been, somewhere they’ve never played, they’ve never sung with that kind of synchronicity. Every person playing off every other, and every person stepping into a realm where he’s never been before in terms of passion, expressiveness, intensity. Taking a form and pushing it to its absolute limit and pushing yourself past your limits. That’s what you hear over those six minutes.
Let’s put it this way: a song like that, a work of art like that, comes to no artist more than once. But it doesn’t necessarily come in anyone’s lifetime. We are lucky we are alive when that song can be played.
This interview was originally recorded for The Nation podcast and has been edited and condensed.