Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes

Overview

In 1967, Bob Dylan and five other musicians (later known as The Band) met in a bungalow in Woodstock, New York, and wrote and produced the music that ignored the psychedelic sounds of the times. This work would eventually come to be known as 'The Basement Tapes". In this book, Marcus explores this music and the cauldron of the American experience in which it was formed.
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Overview

In 1967, Bob Dylan and five other musicians (later known as The Band) met in a bungalow in Woodstock, New York, and wrote and produced the music that ignored the psychedelic sounds of the times. This work would eventually come to be known as 'The Basement Tapes". In this book, Marcus explores this music and the cauldron of the American experience in which it was formed.
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Editorial Reviews

Charles Taylor

Walt Whitman heard America singing; Greil Marcus listens for the echoes in those songs. Ghosts populate the peculiarly American landscape of Invisible Republic, Marcus' superb new book, as surely as they populate his subject, the legendary "Basement Tapes" made by Bob Dylan and the Band during the summer of 1967. Listening to the songs from those sessions, you can hear spirits becoming flesh, characters from a past remembered or imagined, memories of forgotten folk and blues singers speaking through Dylan's vocals -- or those of Rick Danko or Richard Manuel -- as clearly as if those lost souls were sitting next to them. Yet the voices the singers assume, or channel, are always on the verge of disappearing into the country from which they emerged ("the old, weird America," Marcus calls it), taking with them whatever stories or secrets they've promised to divulge. "The Basement Tapes" is at once the most tangible and the most evanescent of music, music that draws you into its mysteries only to create deeper ones, a door to the past that casts its shadow over the present and the future.

The performances came about casually, as if they were nothing more than a way of passing time. Members of the Band had rented the house that would come to be known as Big Pink, in West Saugerties, N.Y. Dylan was living in nearby Woodstock. Across the country, in San Francisco, it was the Summer of Love. In the basement of Big Pink, it was as if Dylan and the Band had sensed in the air the storm that would break the next spring and summer with the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the Days of Rage and the Democratic Convention in Chicago.

"The world fears a new experience more than it fears anything," D.H. Lawrence wrote in Studies in Classic American Literature, one of the texts Marcus returns to again and again in Invisible Republic, "because a new experience displaces so many old experiences." In the vivid chapter that opens "Invisible Republic," Marcus smells that fear in the response to Dylan's move to electric music. Dropped like cluster bombs on the pop world in 1965 and '66, "Bringing It All Back Home," "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Blonde on Blonde" charted Dylan's movement from folk hero to rock-star dandy. In the folk world, that was a movement from Christ figure to Judas, as an audience member shouted at Dylan during his tumultuous tour of England in May 1966.

The body of Invisible Republic shows how that sense of betrayal was based on a crucial misapprehension of what folk music -- and by extension democracy -- was. In the folk revival, Marcus writes, "The kind of life that equaled art was life defined by suffering, deprivation, poverty and social exclusion." It was a well-meaning, but nonetheless condescending liberal fantasy of the purity conferred by poverty. And it couldn't have been further from what Dylan and others had heard in the voices of folk and blues performers like Dock Boggs, Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, Frank Hutchison and Bascom Lamar Lunsford. Those singers, as described by Marcus, assumed the impassivity of the American mask, the face once adopted by both Puritans and pioneers, in order to dissolve it, to get at the fears and cruelties and desires behind it.

This was the sound of what Marcus calls "a mystical body of the republic ... a declaration of a weird but clearly recognizable America within the America of the exercise of institutional majoritarian power." In other words, it was the sound of people stepping forward to declare themselves, exercising their paradoxical democratic prerogative of individuality, even if the result was exile from the community that's supposed to be the democratic ideal.

These singers are resigned to that aloneness. But the feeling of deep sadness that comes from exile depends upon the never-extinguished possibility of community, epitomized at its most relaxed and generous and haunting in the camaraderie of "The Basement Tapes." If America is little more than "the undifferentiated people of the nation as a whole" -- nightmare words Marcus borrows from Clarence Thomas but which, he shows, could have come equally from multiculturalists or white supremacists -- the voices Marcus conjures so vividly must fall on deaf ears. "If there is no national experience there can be no such thing as a national voice."

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. Marcus' idiosyncratically imaginative leaps don't shut anything down. Instead, he offers his readers a breathtaking sense of freedom, a chance to make their own leaps. He writes not to explain but to evoke, not to demystify but to go as deeply into the mysteries of his subject as he can. No matter how far he gets, he retains a sense of awe, an unspoken desire to be worthy of what he writes about. To paraphrase him, when the possibilities of a work are foreclosed, our experience of it is dead. "Into the Laboratory" is the title he gives his prologue and, by extension, the whole basement experiment. But a laboratory is much too cold and exacting an atmosphere for the sense of unfinished living history in Invisible Republic. This book takes part in a séance parlor where the air and light of the outside world are perfectly welcome, and where, no matter how hard he tried, Houdini himself couldn't find any trick wires. The spirits Marcus conjures here are the real McCoy. -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Village Voice music critic Robert Christagau hinted at it when the so-called "Basement Tapes" were officially released after years of continuous rumors and bootlegging: "We needn't bow our heads in shame," he said, "that this is the best album of 1975. It would have been the best album of 1967 too." Never mind that only a portion of the basement tapes actually saw official release. Marcus, who authored the album's liner notes, contends here that the music Dylan performed in Woodstock that summer would have sounded just as familiar a century earlier. Hiding out from an audience that had all but consumed them a year earlier on Dylan's first electric tour, the six musicians can be heard playing out of a tradition older and darker than any music found on the radio during the Summer of Love. Traditional murder ballads as well as throwaway parodies of recent hits traced Dylan and The Band's topographical map of America. Invisible Republic further unravels the historical and mythological resonances in such classic performances as "Tears of Rage" and "I'm Not There, I'm Gone." A folklorist by dint of his years spent playing coffee houses and hootenannies, Dylan would have no doubt known histories behind many of his traditional song choices. In a book that is a worthy sequel to the classic Mystery Train, Marcus makes the case that Dylan and The Band contributed equally important footnotes to those histories. (May)
Library Journal
Marcus here expands on his liner notes to the 1975 Basement Tapes album, the first official release of the legendary recordings by Bob Dylan and the Band in 1967. One of rock's most respected writers, Marcus (Ranters and Crowd Pleasers: Punk in Pop Music, 1977-92, LJ 4/15/93) draws on a dizzying breadth of references that link Dylan's music with such disparate sources as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Jefferson, and Moby Dick. Strongest are the parallels drawn between the basement tapes and the Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music compilation album, which was the catalyst for the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s. Unfortunately, Marcus often seems overly impressed by his own prose at the risk of obscuring his point: "The performance turned the wheel of its lassitude" sounds good, but what does it mean? Extremely useful is the annotated discography of all known recordings (more than 100) from the basement tapes sessions. Expect demands from fans of both the author and artist.Lloyd Jansen, Stockton-San Joaquin Cty. P.L., Cal.
Geoffrey O'Brien
For both Marcus and Cantwell the old music remains a source of disquiet, like a nagging unanswered question: they circle around it, sifting through its codes and exceptions, weighing the varying responses of those who listened to it at different times and places. -- The New York Review of Books
Kirkus Reviews
Ostensibly about the recordings Bob Dylan made in the house called "Big Pink" in upstate New York, in 1967, veteran rock critic Marcus's study in fact uses the tapes more as a departure point for an innovative view of American folk music and folklore and how it shaped Dylan's imagination and career.

Dylan and his backup musicians, the Band (who would go on to a successful career in their own right and be immortalized in Martin Scorsese's film The Last Waltz) recorded traditional songs like "Lo and Behold" and "I'm a Fool for You," and Dylan's selections inspire Marcus (Lipstick Traces, 1989, etc.) to meditate on the true folk tradition, as opposed to the glossier versions of folk represented by many modern performers. It's a tradition documenting violence, loss, and opposition to authority, embodied by such disparate figures as John Henry, the steel-drivin' man, and Lizzie Borden. Marcus takes a close look at violence in the American folk tradition, symbolized not only by Borden but by such elements as the countless Mississippi Delta songs of cuckolded men who kill their lovers. The "invisible republic" of the title is the "undiscovered country" of an older, rural, more communal world, now lost, that Dylan gave unique voice to in the basement tapes. The invisibility in question is the sort that Ralph Ellison bestowed on his anonymous protagonist, who was invisible because his fellow Americans refused to allow themselves to see him. Marcus reveals the true roots of folk music, exploring what that history has to tell us about violence and loss in American life.

Of course, a basic knowledge of Dylan's career is assumed by the author, but this rarely hampers an otherwise brilliant look at how America's often unseen folk tradition shaped one of America's greatest folk musicians.

From the Publisher
"This book is terminal, goes deeply into the subconscious and plows through that period of time like a rake. Greil Marcus has done it again."—Bob Dylan

"[Marcus's] 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 magazine"

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805033939
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 5/28/1997
  • Edition description: REV
  • Pages: 286
  • Product dimensions: 5.87 (w) x 8.58 (h) x 1.08 (d)

Meet the Author

Greil Marcus

Greil Marcus wrote the liner notes for The Basement Tapes in 1975 and is the author of Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music and Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. He lives in Berkeley, California.

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