INVISIBLE REPUBLIC: BOB DYLAN'S BASEMENT TAPES by Greil Marcus; Henry Holt, 1997

In 1975 all-American music critic Greil Marcus scripted the liner notes for Bob Dylan and the Band's The Basement Tapes LP and published his first book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music. Since then Marcus' work has focused primarily on the avant-garde or European approaches towards art. Marcus attributed this change largely to the despair he felt over the course chosen by America during the Reagan administration. Twenty years later Greil must have renewed optimism in the future of America. In his latest book, Invisible Republic, he traces the roots and shoots of The Basement Tapes and in doing so comes to the conclusion that America remains a place where one is free to invent their own identity.

In Marcus' opinion the mass of music created by Bob Dylan between 1965 and 1967 reflects a pivotal period of transition as popular music became more engaged with the persona of an artist than with the objective content of a song. Dylan fired up his creative cauldron during three months of informal jam sessions which were held with musicians from The Band. These sessions resulted in new material which appeared on records by both artists, but the bulk of the output consisted of unique interpretations of traditional folk songs which had been long time favorites of Dylan. Marcus devotes a sizable portion of this book to an analysis of the history of these songs and explains how they were passed between generations via their original recordings, an archival compilation curated by filmmaker/alchemist Harry Smith and finally, The Basement Tapes. As he does this he indirectly (and unintentionally?) pays tribute to the very visible Republic of the United States of America which affords the more privileged members of its constituency the freedom to adopt a persona in both life and in artistry. This analysis could raise some challenging socio-political questions but Marcus offers as an aside that, over time, a personal statement made by an artist can often end up charged with a power that is independent of the intent with which it was created.

Like much of Marcus's work, Invisible Republic addresses a scope which is broader than its title would lead one to expect. This book would probably not satisfy a Dylan fan who is searching for biographical information. It also might not engage someone who is trying to grasp the sorcery which lurks beneath the mystical folk music of the South but it sheds a unique shade of light on both these topics and illuminates numerous paths which are worthy of further exploration.

-Lord Ouch

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This review originally appeared in Your Flesh #37

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