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Mixing Up the Medicine

INVISIBLE REPUBLIC: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes. By Greil Marcus . Henry Holt: 286 pp., $22.50 : BOB DYLAN: The Recording Sessions 1960-1994. By Clinton Heylin . St. Martin's: 256 pp., $14.95 paperback

May 25, 1997|ERIC WEISBARD | Eric Weisbard is music editor of the Village Voice and the editor of the "Spin Alternative Record Guide."

Rock fans often play the game of selecting a "desert island disc," the album they'd carry into oblivion. Mine, and perhaps Greil Marcus' (in 1979, he edited a book of essays on the subject, "Stranded," without picking a disc himself) would be "The Basement Tapes," recordings that Bob Dylan made in 1967 with Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko and, eventually, Levon Helm, who afterward declared themselves the Band. For these songs, finally released in 1975, and then only in part, are a soundtrack for oblivion, a leap into shadows. Not to mention cheesy fun.

Titles like "Too Much of Nothing," "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" and "Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood)" deliberately spin their wheels; they're put-ons, doodles built out of old folk music, new rock attitude and an early whiff of the tribalism that would eventually unravel the counterculture. Having just finished touting his new electric wares (the '65-'66 revolutions "Bringing It All Back Home," "Highway 61" and "Blonde on Blonde") before apoplectic audiences, who revered "Blowin' In the Wind"--baiting the media all the way--Dylan used "The Basement Tapes" to jump ship. Someone else could speak for everyone; he was going to raise his own consciousness, conjure his own community. It was a respite that essentially lasted forever.

Yet the magic of "The Basement Tapes" is that the universe Dylan and the Band discover playing only to impress each other feels as large as the one they've abandoned. The range of Dylan's singing is extraordinary: Old Testament prophet one second, deadpan provocateur the next, a giggling silly-billy with the timing and gravity of a bluesman. The members of the Band match his moods: They rock and they roll, with Hudson's organ sweeping in like the credits to finish everything off. Lewd and worldly wise, drunk but respectful, a testament both to friendship and to exile, these are mysteries you can never fathom, a spirit you can't exhaust.

And that makes them perfect subjects for Marcus, a rock critic whose gift has always been for exploring that portion within the ephemera of pop culture that's irreducible. "The Basement Tapes" he wants to think about aren't the ones Columbia released two decades ago (with Marcus' liner notes) but a set of five bootlegs, marketed as "The Genuine Basement Tapes," that's both larger than the original--including outtakes, a huge number of covers, alternate versions--and smaller: It leaves out all tunes (one-third of the official release) that Dylan didn't sing lead on. The author of "Mystery Train," with its classic chapter on the Band, subtitled his new book "Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes" for a reason.

Yet even then, Marcus is pursuing a more specific tale: the link between the songs Dylan was driven to sing during the basement sessions and a six-record Folkways release titled "Anthology of American Folk Music" compiled in 1952 by an occultist, bohemian, experimental filmmaker and collector of 78s named Harry Smith. The selections, drawn from the earliest commercial recordings of regional music, were chosen, Smith would later acknowledge, "because they were odd": Appalachian murder ballads and badman blues sung by black and white performers (Smith refused to distinguish) in voices that ranged from gleeful cacophony to a fatalist calm. To the young Dylan, who recorded tunes from the anthology as a college kid in Minnesota, then with the Band, then most recently in two albums of folk material released in 1992 and 1993, Smith's portfolio proved that traditional music could be as surreal and revelatory as rock itself.

For an in-depth account of the "Anthology," read the chapter in "When We Were Good" (Harvard University Press), Robert Cantwell's history of the folk revival, or wait for August, when Smith's handiwork will receive a much-deserved reissue. For minutiae on the basement tapes, there's Clinton Heylin's "Bob Dylan: The Recording Sessions 1960-1994", now out in paperback.

But Marcus writes a different kind of history. He's a critic, a democrat with severe standards, who in previous essays, whether about Elvis Presley or about the Sex Pistols, has always been obsessed with the occasional legacy of popular art--the way that under certain circumstances ("The Basement Tapes" or a Harry Smith favorite like singer Frank Hutchison, whose eerie reserve came from watching unionizers lose West Virginia's mine wars), the history that passes through a song is like none that could otherwise have been written. As Marcus puts it, in his typically barbed, forbidding prose:

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