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From: SPINYN AT aol.com Date: Thu, 6 Nov 1997 16:17:34 -0500 (EST) To: karlerik AT monet.no Subject: Greil Marcus essay Here is the Greil Marcus essay on TOOM that might be nice for you to put up on your site. Very interesting perspective... ------------------------------------------------------------------------------ San Francisco Chronicle/Examiner Magazine, Sunday, November 2, 1997 by Greil Marcus "Lost In America: Bob Dylan's 'Time Out of Mind' Conjures Images of an Endless Highway" The challenge of Bob Dylan's 'Time Out of Mind' (Columbia)--his first collection of self-written songs since 1990--is to take it at face value. There is no point searching for autobiographical confessions ("It's a break-up album, right?" said a friend, referring to all the tunes about lost love and a broken heart) or messages of hope. This is as bleak and blasted as any work a major artist in any field--and by major artist I mean an artist with something, a reputation, an audience, to lose--has offered in ages. 'Time Out of Mind' is hedged only by craft, by the performer's commitment to his material. The world may be meaningless; he has no choice but to try to shape that void. At first the music is shocking in its bitterness, in its refusal of comfort or kindness. Then it settles in as something like a conventional set of songs, and then a curve in one of them--the finality of a life left behind in the way Dylan gets rid of the seemingly traditional lines "I been to Sugartown, I shook the sugar down" in 'Trying to Get To You,' perhaps, or the quiet drift of 'Highlands', a nearly 17-minute number so unassumingly mysterious you feel it could have unwound its ball of string over the entire length of the record without exhausting itself--upends any casual listening and throws every bit of wordplay or quiet testimony into harsh relief, revealing a tale seemingly complete and whole. The story opens with the singer, the tale-teller, walking dead streets and ends with him walking the streets of an almost deserted city: "Must be a holiday, " he mutters to himself, as if he could care less if it is or not. Images of homelessness and of endless wandering drive song after song. Sometimes that motif suggests a man who doesn't want a home ("I know plenty of people," he tells you at one point, "put me up for a day or two"); sometimes it calls up the tramp armies of the Great Depression, or the film director in Preston Sturges' 1941 'Sullivan's Travels, ' disguised as a hobo, riding the boxcars like a railroad bum in order to meet the masses, the dispossessed and the defeated-- and finds that the rags of poverty and anonymity are easier to put on than to take off, that they don't merely hide the signs of wealth and celebrity, but dissolve them. As in that old movie, made as the Depression was about to disappear into the maw of the Second World War, when 'Time Out of Mind' plays, another country comes into view. It's less the island of one man's broken heart than a sort of half-world, a devastated, abandoned landscape where anyone might end up at any time, so long as that time is now. This is a land as still as the plains, its flatness broken only by a violence of tone or the violence of syncopation, of hard truths or a band's rhythms rushing up on each other like people running out of a burning house. "I thought some of them were friends of mind, I was wrong about 'em all," Dylan sings in 'Cold Irons Bound,' letting the whiplashed rhythm carry his words around their corner. But on that rhythm, the word 'all' isn't really underlined at all; the drama of 'Time Out of Mind' is in its moments of queerly shared vehemence, when a solitary man seems to speak with 50 states and 400 years in his voice, but that vehemence is never obvious. Here the whole line is not stressed but swung--"Wrrrrrrong about 'em allllll"--with the first word tipped up, the last tipped down, an organ sweeping up the song like wind. For a moment the landscape--which from song to song takes names, "Missouri," "New Orleans," "Baltimore," "Bostontown"--is eased by the movement taking place upon it, and the singer moves out of earshot, when he returns nothing has changed. The country that emerges is very old, and yet fresh and in sharp focus, apparently capable of endless renewal. At the same time the place is very new, and all but worn out. "I got new eyes", Dylan sings coolly in one of his deadliest lines of his writing life, "Everything looks far away." Verbal, melodic, and rhythmic signatures from ancient blues and folk songs fit into the songs on TOOM as naturally, seemingly as inevitably, as breaths--say in the way Dock Boggs, standing on the railroad platform in his 'Danville Girl' in 1927, passes the song's cheap cigar to the singer on the platform in 'Tryin' To Get To Heaven. ' That the reappearance of the forgotten past in an empty present is a talisman of TOOM is sealed by the art Dylan has chosen to imprinted directly onto his disc, the classic "Viva-tonal/Electrical Process" Columbia label from the late 1920's, a label that ran one series for "Race" or Negro recordings, another for "old Time" or country. Dylan's record spins on that label in the way certain of its choruses and verses seem to write themselves, tossed off with a throwaway gruffness that suggests Dylan knows that after hearing half of a line the listener will automatically complete it even before he, Dylan, has sung it: "That's all right, mama you/Do what you gotta do," as he drawls in 'Million Miles.' But the label also spins backwards, until nothing on it can be read. In many incidents the music seem to come out of nowhere, the nowhere that is both the present and the future of the country where the story Dylan is telling takes place. "Maybe in the next life," Dylan says elsewhere in 'Million Miles, ' "I'll be able to hear myself think." Over and over, with resignation and sly, twisting humor, with the flair of a Georgia string band or the dead eyes of a gravedigger, the tale-teller poses the same question, sometimes almost smiling when he asks "if everything is as hollow as it seems." So often, listening to the songs on TOOM is like watching people pass through revolving doors: the ambiance is that abstract and vague and untouchable. You have as much right to expect someone to reappear as quickly as she vanished as to expect never to see her again. That's how it is in the central incident in 'Highlands, ' where a man walks into a restaurant, empty except for a waitress. They banter, almost flirt, and in an instant--an instant of fatigue, of boredom, of his or her memory of too many instants just like it, any of that or just a single word uttered with an edge it shouldn't carry--the mood dies. The room, the city outside, the nation around it, its entire history and all of the pieces of music and dramatic scenes that so quietly enter and depart from this one--'One Meat Ball', Skip James' 1931 'Hard Times Killing Floor Blues', Jack Nicholson's diner dialogue in 'Five Easy Pieces,' Dylan's own 'Desolation Row' cut down by Robert Burns' half-original folk song 'Farewell to the Highlands'--all of that, from song to nation, turns hostile and cold. For a moment the waitress turns her back and the air in the restaurant is now so mean you're as relieved as the singer when he quietly slips out of his chair. You can feel yourself tensing your muscles as he tenses his. Yet the singer barely has to go out the door, or the song down its Boston street, for you to imagine that this might have been the last conversation the tale-teller ever had--or, in Boston, on the ground where his nation began, the last conversation that could even begin to suggest the possibility of a story that hadn't been told before. That is what is new in TOOM, and in the country it traces as if it were a map you can read once and then throw away, because you won't be able to forget it whether you want to or not. Though crafted out of fragments and phrases and riffs far older than anyone living, bits of folk languages that joke and snarl as if for the first time, this is a picture of a country that has used itself up, and the peculiar thrill of TOOM is in its completeness, its absolute refusal to doubt itself. This new story does not come out of nowhere, or at the least it is not quite a solitary voice in the wilderness. The same cynical, damaged, sardonic, absolutely certain acceptance of one's own nihilism has been all over Bill Pullman's face in the last few years, in 'The Last Seduction, ' 'Malice, ' 'Lost Highway,' in Wim Wenders recent 'The End of Violence'--for just as TOOM is an end-of-the-American-century record, closing with a fantasy of a retreat to the Scottish highlands, to the border country where the oldest ballads first came to life, Bill Pullman, in these films, is the ultimate end-of-the-American-century man. His face may have the cast of knowledge as a movie begins, or it may take most of a movie for the sheen of unsurprise to settle over his features. He may walk with the looseness of the already dead, as in 'The Last Seduction, ' or shatter before your eyes, as in 'Lost Highway,'--regardless, as in 'The End of Violence' and as with the narrator in TOOM, the fact that in some essential way the story he has to tell ended before he even took the stage only increases his wariness. In 'The End of Violence,' Pullman is a movie producer whose life, not unlike that of Preston Sturges' director John L. Sullivan (played by All-American boy Joel McCrea) is turned upside down. We first see him in his aeries looking down over all of Los Angeles, surrounded by computers and cell phones, soon he is dressed in rotting clothes, part of a crew of Spanish-speaking gardeners, hefting his leaf-blower, moving invisibly through the perfectly groomed estates where, only days before, he looked past his own gardeners as a lord. With an old baseball cap on his head, his eyes squint against the sun; weirdly, they also squint inwardly, as if it's only with a squint that he can bear to look at himself. Unseen by everyone else, a drifter, unshaven and penniless, he misses nothing, but the more he understands, the less need he has to say anything to anyone. Who would listen? Blowing his harmonica through passages in 'Tryin' to Get To Heaven, ' until the song builds on itself like a folk version of the Ronettes' 'Be My Baby, ' it's not a question Bob Dylan has to ask himself. Though most often spoken of today as a figure from the past, as someone now marginalized along the dimmer borders of the pop world, Dylan might well answer that when the music is as uncompromised as it is on TOOM, it's the old songs and the people in them that listen, the dead streets of his songs, as depopulated, somehow, as the streets of his 1963 'Talkin' World War II Blues', will have to take care of themselves. And Dylan may be far less marginalized than he seems, he may be less of a crank, or a pop outsider, than an embodiment of the sort of cultural memory he plays with in TOOM. Last May, in the college town of Iowa City, on the Dubuque mall, a soul band set up its amplifiers, and soon a woman was belting Chaka Khan imitations, driving the afternoon street singers into the corners, there their acoustic-guitar-and-harmonic renditions of Prince's 'Purple Rain' and the Replacement's 'I Will Dare,' could barely be heard. As the night came on the crowds got younger, the basement bars noisier, the street singers more numerous--by 10, there was one every 20 feet or so, each looking equally bereft and ignored, each with a girlfriend in idolizing attendance--and the repertoire more ambitious: 'These Foolish Things,' 'You Belong to Me,' the old folk song 'Railroad Bill,' something that must have been by Phil Ochs, the Rolling Stones' 'Singer Not the Song.' Every singer seemed to want nothing more than to sound like Bob Dylan, and in his own way, every one did. Mark Grissom Berkeley, CA firstname.lastname@example.org