Greil Marcus Reads at the Boogaloo

This is another London Line piece. Not sure I like its tone, and it tries too hard in places.

Greil Marcus is The World’s Greatest Rock Critic, like Steven Hawking is the Cleverest Man in the World and Jamie Cullum is an excellent British jazzman. Which is to say he isn’t, and there’s no such thing.

He’s a good rock writer, but in the mephitic world or music journalism that’s only to say he neither writes puff after being offered a line of brick dust by a PR in a Brixton toilet, nor believes he is in some sense a rock star because he once had a drink with Bob from Pavement. He is not, in short, a slut.

Marcus came to the Boogaloo in Highgate last Thursday to read from his new book, Like A Rolling Stone. Like a Rolling Stone is all about ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, the song by Bob Dylan. You maybe guessed that.

It’s a dismal den, The Boogaloo. So authentic. So rock. The clientele have naggingly familiar faces – like you saw them with more hair and fewer wrinkles at the back of a photo in a Mojo article about the 60’s British blues boom. The jukebox is ‘curated’. That should tell you everything.

The place was packed with Dylan fans, mostly, a fascinating, deluded species who believe that the third-best member of the Travelling Wilburys is a prophet. They seem scared of many things – dressing like they’ve thought about it, for instance, or direct sunlight, or the brave new world of mobile phone culture. They are thus an irrelevance, and history will pity them for droning through their Guinness about the warm sound of Blood on the Tracks instead of wondering, excitedly, when the Dylan of ringtones will come along.

Marcus was a pleasant reader. He looks like Jerry Springer. You sense he’s good at TV. He lulled me into not hating the sixties or Dylan fans for an hour. Impressive. He read well and answered a lot of questions affably. He didn’t even laugh at an out-and-out Dylan nut, who believed Blowin’ In The Wind to be a mystic Koan about being and not-being rather than an adenoidal dirge re: nothing in particular.

You can live without the book. Too many flights of fancy, too many reflections on the Sixties and on Dylan’s head. It’s unpersuasive – doesn’t make you go to the song. Marcus can be great – Invisible Republic, for instance, another book on Dylan and ‘the old weird america’ – but there’s no great moment of illumination here. Like an anorexic actress – too showy, nothing to grab hold of.

Just read Dylan’s Chronicles instead. It’s an old-fashioned sort of book, an artist recording his education in music and life, and watching the world with a deadly, comprehensive eye. Christ knows what he’d make of this crowd.