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The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes Paperback – September 22, 2001

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"It is the speculative intelligence with which Marcus chases the specters and wraiths of this country's musical past that emerges as the exhilarating feat of [The Old, Weird America] . . . No previous writer has so transportingly or authoritatively revealed Mr. Dylan against receding vistas of American music and culture."--Robert Polito, The New York Times Book Review

"The year's best work of criticism, hands down . . . Marcus draws bold freehand loops around Dylan's music, loops so wide and loose that they take in not just the breadth of American folk music, but huge chunks of American history as well. This is the best kind of history book, one that acknowledges that mythology is sometimes the truest kind of fact."--Stephanie Zachareck, Newsday

"Marcus has always been set on discovering how much a performer can bring to bear on his or her material, and how much a critic can bring to bear on those performances . . . He offers his readers a breathtaking sense of freedom."--Charles Taylor, Salon

"Nearly everyone will be dazed at one point or another along the mystery trip that Marcus leads, because his desire is not to settle your notions but to vaporize them . . . But Marcus knows where Dylan is at all times, in his absence as well as his presence. That's because, on the haunted back roads of [The Old, Weird America], these two elusive old masters, tricksters both, have fully met their match."--Anthony DeCurtis, Rolling Stone

"Chances are, twenty years from now, [this book] will stand as one of the classics of American criticism."--Mikal Gilmore, The Observer (London)

"His work is very likely the most imaginative criticism being done, but it's more than that: It's a light in dark times."--Luc Sante, New York

"Dylan once famously described folk music as 'nothing but mystery.' Here the mystery is thoroughly explored and gloriously deepened."--Ross Fortune, Time Out (London)

"A poetic encounter with the latent stories of America's manifest dreams . . . Nonfiction novel of the year."--Graham Caverny, Arena
ar"The wisest, funniest book about rock since Marcus's own 1975 Mystery Train."--Rob Sheffield, Rolling Stone

"Discussing such virtually unknown singers as Dock Bogs and Clarence Ashley, Marcus lays out a thesis about the authority of radical individualism in American culture. He finds in [their] songs an idea of America as a place where what matters most is not the distribution of goods or the regulation of morality, but rather the way 'people plumb their souls and then present their discoveries, their true selves, to others' . . . This is, in many ways, his most subtle book. Marcus's love for the gnostic of self-creation, of the idea of infinite possibility, is tempered here by a profound awareness of the power of tradition, of the way in which the new makes sense only because of, not despite, the old."--James Surowiecki, Boston Phoenix

"Marcus finds in the 'Basement Tapes' an unfinished synthesis of free speech and the shaggy-dog story, the two obsessions of [his own] writing, and perhaps finally of American history."--Anthony Miller, New City (Chicago)

"We owe God a death, and Greil Marcus owed all God's children a lifework on Bob Dylan. And here it is, one heaven of a book . . . What Marcus brings to these songs is a variety of good things: fierce fervor, social convictions, a loving discrimination, never a touch of envy, and an extraordinary ability to evoke in words the very feel (throaty, threatening, thorough, thick with thought) of a man's voice, of this man's voice."--Christopher Ricks, The Guardian (London)

About the Author

One of America's most original and incisive critics of pop music and pop culture, Greil Marcus is the author of Double Trouble, Dead Elvis, Lipstick Traces, and Mystery Train. He lives in Berkeley, California.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Picador (September 22, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312420439
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312420437
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 1.1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,683,019 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

3.1 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

23 of 24 people found the following review helpful By John Proctor on April 14, 2009
Format: Paperback
This is what seems to be a word-for-word reissue of Marcus's Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes, confusingly given a completely different title. In the Author's Note, Marcus says this is the title he originally wanted to give it. I have to say, they still got it wrong. The new subtitle, The World of Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes, is an improvement, but still doesn't completely address the main fault with every title and subtitle given so far - the book isn't really about Dylan, and only tangentially about the Basement Tapes. It's just as much about Harry Smith and his Anthology of American Folk Music, and in fact gives probably as much space to the relatively unknown Dock Boggs as it does Dylan or The Band, and it's just as much an attempt to mythologizes history as it is a work of musical criticism.

This isn't necessarily a complaint - one could argue that folk music's primary function is to mythologize history, and Marcus is simply attempting the same thing as the musicians he writes about. Boggs, for example, would make a logical choice for a book with this intention, as there's not that much written about him (especially compared to Bob Freakin' Dylan) and Harry Smith gives in the liner notes and Boggs gives in his own recorded conversations cloak him in both mystery and danger, two of Marcus's defining elements of the "old, weird America.
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53 of 60 people found the following review helpful By J. Smith on September 18, 2001
Format: Paperback
This is a retitled re-issue of _Invisible Republic_. For its content, then, it clearly deserves a 5-star rating (at least from here). However, you ought to know what you will be getting if you already have that classic.
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30 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Chris Stolz on August 12, 2006
Format: Paperback
(this is the updated verion of Marcus' "Invisible Republic")

In 1965, Bob Dylan played Newport with an electric band. Playing songs from the groundbreaking "Highway 61 Revisited", Dylan-- in one of the finest performances of his career-- was roundly booed by the audience and condemned by critics.


Greil Marcus' fascinating book starts with this question: why were audiences so hostile to Dylan's new material and style? Marcus' thesis is that Dylan on Highway 61 rediscovered the folk music that America had forgotten, a folk music which had been co-opted by the '30s (and subsequent) Left, a music which was much older and much, much weirder than the work of Woody Guthrie and other late '50s exemplars of the folk tradition. Audiences were in for a shock when Dylan's surreal imagery and often apolitical but weirdly resonant lyrics replaced his plainer earlier folk tunes and protest songs.

The book's former title is an allusion to Ralph Ellison's novel "The Invisible Man," whose protagonist is invisible to his fellow Americans because they choose not to see him. In the same way, the very, very weird music of Dock Boggs, Mississippi John Hurt and many others, documented with loving care by Harry Smith, the compiler of the seminal "The Anthology of American Folk Music," was invisible to mainstream audiences during the 1950s and '60s, just as the history they documented was invisible to the majority of its time. It is a countercultural history in song of the U.S., including everything from slave narratives, love ballads, ancient blues, mythical re-tellings of political events, etc. This music is much richer and more complex than the mid-twentieth century folk music familiar to Dylan fans.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By desert girl on August 12, 2006
Format: Paperback
I like Greil's approach, which worked so much better in the recent "Like A Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan At The Crossroads", of honing in on small detail to produce something profound. Maybe this book can be considered practice for the latter, because it simply didn't work here. I welcome experimental writing, but in this case the wash of minute detail combined with nonlinearity produced confusion rather than clarity. I'm afraid for me the insights are Greil's alone rather than universal. To his credit though, in the same way I'd rather see an ambitious indie movie that fails than a Hollywood blockbuster, reading this is worth a shot. I may try again some time.
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9 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Wolfman on April 26, 2012
Format: Paperback
I was sorely disappointed in this book. It is free form writing and literary masturbation. It is in dire need of an editor. As a massive fan of The Band I was wanting some insight into the Basement Tapes of Bob Dylan with The Band.....I did not receive this. I wish it had been more informative and less of a rambling diatribe.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By R. Mumma on December 30, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Please note that when your Kindle informs you that you've completed reading, you're only 59% of the way into the book. The back matter of the book is much more than dry reference material; the long Discography section is much more than a listing and there are very interesting song-by-song insights into almost all the individual recordings on The Basement Tapes with anecdotes from members of The Band and others. I'm currently listening to the complete Basement Tapes and using these references to enhance the experience (Greil Marcus and his publisher may want to revise 'The Invisible Republic' / 'The Old, Weird America' once again to take advantage of all the songs, titles, and versions on this latest complete official Bootleg Series Vol 11 edition of the Tapes that appeared in 2014).
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