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Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads Paperback – April 4, 2006

2.7 out of 5 stars 32 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Marcus's engaging exegesis on the musical and cultural ramifications of Dylan's 1965 six-and-half-minute hit is not just a study of a popular song and a historic era, but an examination of the heroic status of the American visionary artist. Recorded when American popular music was "like a running election," Dylan's "music of transformations" induced a conflicted, confused America to look at its social disasters of racism, drug abuse and Vietnam, Marcus says, while simultaneously permitting it to strip away its illusions and hope for a better future. Ostensibly about a rich young socialite's fall from grace, the song's lyrics are open to many interpretations, which may have helped make it such a phenomenon. Marcus displays a comprehensive knowledge of American popular and political history, tracing the song's roots back to Robert Johnson and Hank Williams and spotting its influence on such disparate artists as Frank Zappa, the Village People and various contestants on American Idol. Part scholarly discourse and part beatnik rambling, the book is chockfull of lively metaphors and includes 20 pages of studio outtake banter. Marcus successfully convinces readers that (in the words of hit songwriter Gerry Goffin), "Dylan managed to do something that not one of us was able to do: put poetry in rock n' roll and just stand up there like a mensch and sing it."
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* In Invisible Republic (1997), Marcus delved into the legendary series of "underground" recordings by Bob Dylan and the Band known as the Basement Tapes. Here he narrows focus to a single song of Dylan's, "Like a Rolling Stone," recorded four decades ago but every bit as potent and compelling today. Nearly everything about it was groundbreaking, from its six-minute length to its solidification of Dylan's controversial move from folk to rock, and nothing Dylan recorded before or since has had its musical impact. Marcus provides a detailed account of the recording session, of course, but goes far beyond the standard behind-the-music approach, placing the song in the context not just of Dylan's work but of American music overall, from the folk and blues that informed it to the music that followed it, by Dylan as well as others, including such obscure and bizarre covers of "Rolling Stone" as an Italian hip-hop treatment. Marcus' vast understanding of American culture and intimate knowledge of Dylan's career make this an eye-opening read, and if his sometimes hyperbolic approach will strike some as overselling the song's significance, how many other pop recordings could withstand such intense--and loving--scrutiny? Gordon Flagg
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs (April 4, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 158648382X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1586483821
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 2.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,082,723 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
A whole book about one song? If there's a song that deserves it, it's Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," but this is Greil Marcus, and there's a lot of history, social context and cultural detritus here beyond the song, no surprise. The first section of the book is on the social context into which the song was launched, the middle section is about the making of the song itself, and the last section is about its reception and effects.

I found some of Marcus's cultural commentary compelling and some not so compelling -- the highlights for me are the less disputable "facts" about the great song itself, recorded on June 15, 1965 and released on July 24, 1965. It stormed the pop charts, unprecedented for a 6-minute song, and reached #2 in the USA. What was #1, you ask? It was the Beatles' "Help!" Al Kooper's story of how he ended up playing organ is quite amusing, and Dylan's recruitment and use of Michael Bloomfield in the session is fascinating. Also superb is Marcus's account of the ensuing tour of the new electric Dylan, with the booing in the U.S. and the large-scale disruption of the U.K. concerts, some of it quite purposefully organized by the old British Communist Party, as it turns out, which controlled a network of stodgy folk clubs. "Like a Rolling Stone" was the last song every night on that tour, a perfect howl of anger for Dylan to wreak vengeance on his recalcitrant fans. (See my 9/5/04 review of the LIVE 1966 disc, the official release of the famous "Royal Albert Hall" bootleg of the Manchester concert.)

Once you realize the scope of Marcus's musings, it becomes clear that this book could have been much longer.
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Format: Hardcover
Here lies a biography of a single song. Of course, not just any song, but the "how does it feeeeeel?" song that refuses to disappear since its release as a two-sided 45 in 1965. Has any other or, maybe a better question would be, can any other song receive the in-depth, subterranean, data mined, ultra-nuanced treatment that Greil Marcus gives to Bob Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone"?

That the song remains legendary no one probably doubts. That it stands as one of the greatest rock songs ever recorded may also not meet with much dissidence. But over two-hundred pages on a single song? The idea alone entices a read.

So what happens in this book? And why should anyone read it? First off, this book likely won't appeal to those who don't see a connection between popular music, popular culture, how it potentially affects our lives as consumers/listeners, and how a song can take on a life of its own (which explains the "biography" moniker - this book really tries to capture the life the song took on all by itself). Some of the claims this book makes seem a little far out. Did "Like A Rolling Stone" contain seeds for a "strange revolution"? Does the song have, for lack of a better term, a metaphysical category all of its own (as some of the descriptions and rhapsodies in this book suggest) that seems unreachable and ineffable? Those who like to put on music, dance to it, and not think about it will probably close this book quickly. In other words, it's a heady book for those who want to dig into the mystique of popular music and theorize about what makes it tick. Marcus descends to levels of granularity that don't seem possible when chatting about popular music.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Pompous, overdone, obtuse, containing barely intelligible ideas and meanings. The information and anecdotes are the only things that make it worth the time. I have never had to re read so many sentences in my life and still had no idea what was being expressed. A huge disappointment in more ways than one. The "take notes" in the epilogue were the best part.... Stripped of the author's pretentious windiness, there would be no book. Almost as if the author's motto was never use a simple few word sentence when you can write an essay size sentence with polysyllabic words to send the reader to the dictionary... Sheesh! Reading this book was WORK!
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Format: Paperback
Marcus, especially in this book, reminds me of James Agee. Not Agee the reactionary film critic, but the ecstatic Agee of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men - the way he could look deeply and lovingly at a sharecropper's cabin and find every splinter and stain luminous and profoundly human and dignified. Check out Agee's riff about listening to Beethoven with your head crammed into the speaker and cranking it up until it hurts. When Marcus digs into his obsessions it can be like that, revealing details of perception and levels of feeling that you can't imagine having missed.

On the downside, Marcus also shares Agee's tendency to lapse into rambling and grandiosity, and the words can pile up and stumble over themselves, leaving you wondering what the hell he's talking about. He has so many ideas and passions, and wants to draw connections between his subject and so many other things. When it works it can be fascinating, but sometimes it's a bit of a stretch, and you wish he would at least not try to cram them all into one sentence/paragraph/page. In this book especially, I often found myself wishing for a stronger editorial hand to rein him in and clear up some of the log jams. It raises an interesting question about how far you can push journalism in the direction of literature and have it still be effective. After all, Agee's great tome began as a magazine article that got out of hand...

But I like to watch Marcus' mind at work, even when he goes off the deep end. He's one of my favorite writers to argue with; I may occasionally think he's full of it, but I admire the effort. When so much music writing is either lame fanboy drivel, shallow blurbage, or arid academic nonsense, it's a pleasure to read someone both passionate and scholarly who is prepared to dig so deeply, to stake a claim that this music (whatever it is - in this case Dylan's) really matters.
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