Rock & roll history doubling as American history, Greil Marcus’ Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes is an enthralling meditation on the 1967 recording sessions by Bob Dylan and The Band that came to be called the Basement Tapes. Marcus summons up the era vividly, describing the Dylan of this age as ”funny, outrageous, prophetic, denunciatory, appalled, unpredictable; inside any of those qualities you could hear wariness, slyness, thinking, a will to stay a step ahead, in control.” Dylan had just incited folk-purist fury for performing electric rock songs at 1965’s Newport Folk Festival; The Band had until very recently been a tough touring group called the Hawks. They all came together to goof around, to swap a few songs, to figure out if they might want to cut a record.
Marcus, probably best known for 1975’s acclaimed Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music (recently updated and reissued), makes great claims for this casually made, ferociously tempered music that was definitely never meant for commercial release. (Band guitarist Robbie Robertson later told Marcus the sessions were like ”a conspiracy. It was like the Watergate tapes. A lot of stuff, Bob would say, ‘We should destroy this.”’) The author hears in songs like ”Lo and Behold!” and ”Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread” a recapitulation of all the folk and blues music that had come before, and he takes long, entertaining side trips to discuss Dylan/Band precursors and influences such as mountain balladeer Dock Boggs and folklorist and filmmaker Harry Smith.
Rock criticism at its most pungent, Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes reads like a thriller. Don’t skip the discography at the end; it’s the beating heart in the basement of this book. A