Photo by Jean-Luc on Wikimedia Commons

In Other Lives

Greil Marcus—

“I can see myself in others,” Bob Dylan said in Rome in 2001, speaking to a crowd of journalists, and if there is a key to his work from now back to its start, that may be it. The engine of his songs is empathy: the desire and the ability to enter other lives, even to restage and re-enact the dramas others have played out, in search of different endings. That can mean slipping into a situation—historical, as with the men behind the different voices in “Who Killed Davy Moore?” or invented, as with the farmer in “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” or inherited from other songs, especially songs without named authors or knowable provenance, as from the stage if never on record the thief in “When First Unto This Country,” or in “Jim Jones” on Good As I Been to You in 1992—and inhabiting its character so fully he is living that character’s life as you listen. It can mean trying to rescue someone from drowning, as the singer confronts a seduced and abandoned young woman in “Like a Rolling Stone.” It can also mean entering alternate lives and identities one has made up, or discovered, for oneself, as in the transformations of costume, face, hairstyle, and affect Bob Dylan has himself inhabited, as if in a cliff-hanging movie serial of appearance and disappearance, now the next Woody Guthrie, then the last Rimbaud, now the country homesteader, then the preacher damning crowds to hell, now the archivist of what he once called “historical traditional music,” then a highwayman whispering about leaving bodies on the road—and as the filmmaker Todd Haynes puts it, “once one of those people is replaced by another you never see him again.” “I once wrote a song about Emmett Till in the first person, pretending I was him,” Dylan said in 1964. “Writing a song called ‘The Death of Robert Johnson,’” he said in 1962, and you can see him trying to convince whoever might have been listening in the Gaslight Café on any given night that he knew what he was talking about. That because, as he would say of Johnson years later, he was “someone who’s telling me where he’s been that I haven’t, and what it’s like there—somebody whose life I can feel,” as he had the right to sing as a black boy who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, he had the right to sing as a blues singer who was poisoned by a jealous husband in Mississippi in 1938, pretending to be him, maybe both at once, maybe singing, to the tune of Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues,” at first clichéd and sentimental, sentimental because it was clichéd, then maybe not:

I feel so lonesome

You know you can hear me moan

Yes I feel so lonesome

Even you can hear me moan

I can’t walk, I can hardly talk

My hands are cut down to the bone

Such a trickster’s gallery is an argument that there is no knowable self, not for anyone, which is why Bob Dylan could, at eighty, in a 2021 pandemic film noir, sing his songs as if they were by someone else, could then sing “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” as if it were first recorded by Frank Sinatra, or why he can take anyone else’s life as his own. That includes all of the characters in all of his songs, whether drawn from the so-called real, like Tom Paine in “As I Went Out One Morning,” or snatched out of nothing, like the High Sheriff in “High Water (for Charley Patton),” who for all anyone knows might be the 1920s Mississippi blues champion Charley Patton himself, at the wheel of his own new Buick with his spats on his feet—which calls the whole notion of biography, or even biographical significance, into question. “I’ve been married a bunch of times,” Bob Dylan said in 2001. “I mean, I’ve never tried to hide that. I just don’t advertise my life. I write songs, I play on stage, and I make records. That’s it. The rest is not anybody’s business.” What’s left of the idea of biography—and in these pages, an attempt at a biography made up of songs and public gestures—is a format, a frame of reference, a source of life for certain songs, perhaps, or certain songs as a source of their writer’s own sense of his own life, but never a key to their meaning. Which is to say that for a song, a biography of its writer or performer is at worst not a key but a prison, a way of limiting what a song can say and where it can go by returning it always to its author, cutting the listener, the person to whom the song is actually addressed, out of the picture. And it’s to say that at best, at least with a songwriter, a biography is another kind of song. It needs a repeating pattern, the open, idiosyncratic sense of rhythm known in the blues as country time, as present in Bob Dylan’s version of Tony Bennett’s “Once Upon a Time” in 2017 as in his own “Like a Rolling Stone” in 1965, under the supposedly different stories it presumes to tell.

From Folk Music: A Bob Dylan Biography in Seven Songs by Greil Marcus. Published by Yale University Press in 2022. Reproduced with permission.

Greil Marcus is the author of many books, from Mystery Train to Under the Red White and Blue: Patriotism, Disenchantment and the Stubborn Myth of the Great Gatsby. With Werner Sollors he is the editor of A New Literary History of America.

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