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Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes Paperback – May 15, 1998

3.0 out of 5 stars 35 customer reviews

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Holt Paperbacks (May 15, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805058427
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805058420
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.8 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,228,769 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Paperback
Greil Marcus's book isn't so much about Bob Dylan's album "The Basement Tapes" as it is "inspired by" the Basement Tapes. One reviewer here describes it as "fan fiction". I see the point, and to a degree agree with it, but I think there is a bit more meat to the book than that description encompasses.

The strange thing is that I didn't even think that much of Bob Dylan's "The Basement Tapes". I always thought of it as some jams by a great band with some half-finished lyrics slurred and snarled and mush-mouthed bluffed over it. The album made me wish Dylan could have stayed on amphetamines a little longer. His central nervous system and heart probably enjoyed the break, but the Basement Tapes ain't no Blonde on Blonde. With that said, I still love this book, maddening though it is.

Like in his earlier book, "Lipstick Traces", Marcus is interested in making cultural/historical connections. Showing how music from the recent past ties into much older traditions. Some of these connections are brilliant, some are completely mad (but he gets points for audaciousness nonethless) and some I remain dubious about.

What the Basement Tapes have to do with the West Virginia coal war of the 1920's I still don't have a clue, but what I learned of the coal war in this book made me interested enough to order a book Marcus recommended.
Even if the connections aren't really there this book does stimulate your curiosity.

And I can see where the divisiveness comes into it. It's the old argument that "folk music is about social protest" versus the "folk music is about flowers growing from the skulls of murdered lovers in their graves".
Woody Guthrie versus Harry Smith.
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Format: Paperback
Music is a hard thing to write about. You can go clipped and dry in your appoach, with dates and names and other history, which can be pretty dull. Or you can, if you live and believe it like Greil Marcus obviously does, do the stream-of-consciousness thing. Despite its unevenness I think I prefer the Marcus approach. This book is not going to appeal to everyone. The actual Basement Tapes of the title really don't take up but a small portion of the book. Instead, Marcus uses the Tapes like a touchstone for everything authentic - and vanishing, in American culture. "Old Weird America," Marcus calls it. Indeed. Dylan is of course important, since he's the last musical genius (according to Marcus) to understand this. When Marcus does discuss a song on the Basement Tapes, he often, to my mind, overstates his case with pretty wild hyperbole that has me thinking whatever he's smoking, it must be good. But I'm willing to go with that. The payoff comes when he discusses, for example, Dock Boggs (an important figure for Dylan) and the often violent Southwest Virginia music and gun scene in the 1920s. Knowing something about the area, this was indeed a treat, and a high point for me in the book. Also good, is the discussion of folk music compiler Henry Smith, whose efforts would later prove to be so important to Dylan and the folk movement. Smith is an important figure, with a personal history that is both compelling and weird. Another standout is Marcus's discussion of the Bobbie Gentry classic, "Ode to Billie Joe" and its counterpart or answer on the Basement Tapes, "Clothesline Saga." "Clothesline"is a strange, and funny song, but it shares, as Marcus points out, similar Americana turf with Gentry's Ode: deadpan, even lethal, and as traditional as Twain, Poe, Hawthorne, or Melville. The kind of understandings you can't download from today's music world.
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Format: Hardcover
Perhaps I began this book with too high a set of expectations; like, for example, it would actually focus on Bob Dylan's (and The Band's) Basement Tapes. The set piece that opens the book--a brilliant recapturing of the infamous 1966 Albert Hall concert--plays to Marcus' strength as an evoker of places and atmospheres, and includes some incredible quotes from the protagonists. And even though this chapter is too brief to be thorough, it's the best thing in the book, because in setting up the context for The Basement Tapes, it delivers something close to the advertised product.
But it's all down hill from there, because Dylan, The Band, the tapes all dissappear into the shadows. They end up becoming just another facet, rather than the focus of the book. There's a lengthy chapter on Harry Smith's "Anthology of American Folk Music" and Marcus' woefully insubstantial literary analysis of a handful of "Tapes" songs that tell us more about the workings(?) of Marcus' mind than of the music. After all, how much can lyrics like "Ooh baby/ooh wee/it's that million dollar bash" really be explicated? The answer found in this book is: far too much.
If this had indeed been a book about Dylan, about the months he and The Band spent in Woodstock NY, about the process of making music--specificaly the music the book claims it will be about (and The Basement Tapes, as eventually distributed by Columbia are important enough to enough people to merit such consideration)--about the atmosphere and events surrounding the music, this would have been a much more enlightening read. I wanted to see Marcus do for the making of the tapes what he does so well for the Albert Hall concert--make me feel like I'm there. But Marcus' context overwhelms his alleged focus to the point that the title and the jacket are essentially false advertisements. Dylan fans: caveat emptor.
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