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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