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Books & CultureMay/June 1998



It Ain't Me, Babe
Bob Dylan, reluctant prophet.

As I first said, it's a privilege and an honor and a courtesy at this time and at this age to be able to confront you with something that may perhaps go down in your hearing and may be in history after I'm gone.

1. This year Bob Dylan will be 58 years old. This does not seem very strange to me—not nearly so strange as the fact that, had he lived, John Lennon would have turned 58 last year, or that Paul McCartney will do so next year. Lennon and McCartney represented what came to be called, in the decade of the Beatles, "youth culture." Dylan may have appealed to many youths, but ultimately the sources of his power were to be found elsewhere: he never spoke as a young man, but rather as the custodian of ancient traditions. From his first arrival in New York City when he was still a teenager, he may have looked absurdly young, but he was clearly an old soul: all his songs said so. When, in 1967, Dylan retreated to a rented house in upstate New York with the group of musicians who would later be known as The Band, he so deeply immersed himself in country, gospel, and blues songs that no one around him could differentiate Dylan's own work from those old tunes.

As Robbie Robertson, The Band's guitarist and chief songwriter, told Greil Marcus, "He would pull those songs out of nowhere. We didn't know if he wrote them or remembered them. When he sang them, you couldn't tell." The songs Robertson refers to, or many of them anyway—some written by Dylan, some by his troubadour predecessors, some by no identifiable person—were released in 1975 (and repeatedly, before and after, in various bootleg versions) as The Basement Tapes, and they are the subject of Marcus's new book, Invisible Republic.

It is an amazingly bad ...

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