The song turns 40, occasioning a Greil Marcus “biography.” Marcus can’t match Dylan either in nearness or displacement. Or can he? (In Chronicles a moody Dylan, the winter before Oh Mercy, nails both: “I had nothing more to bitch about . . . then it hit me.”) A chapter called “San Jose Idol” sends up a radio station competition in which contestants sang Dylan to win concert tickets: “Were the winners . . . really going to keep the tickets they won? If this is who Bob Dylan is to the people on this show, why would they want to see him? Why would anyone?” If American Idol made “received inflections and grimaces” our inheritance from the world of pop, was it ever any different?
Maybe that’s a non-question, like the one about whether our land is like or unlike (Marcus: “unlike”?) the land in 2003’s Masked and Anonymous, a Dylan-co-written not-exactly-vehicle that has him playing once famous, ill-forgotten singer Jack Fate. The third world has colonized the first; the inhabitants are “not the Statue of Liberty’s huddled masses” but “looters,” or “self-loathing, culturally narcissistic middle-aged white people trying to find something better to do than sing Townes van Zandt’s ‘Waiting Around to Die.’
Day two, take two (you knew these would be there) from the epilogue is austere: “There’s a bright introduction, but the piano slips, and after ‘Once upon a time’ everything is confused.”