Since Robert Zimmerman changed his name to Bob Dylan, he’s transfixed, confused, annoyed and inspired generations of listeners. Chief among them Greil Marcus.
The cultural critic may be the foremost authority on the singer-songwriter. Sure, you may count yourself a Dylan diehard. You may even say you liked “Self Portrait.” But for more than 40 years, Marcus has been covering Dylan’s concerts and writing reviews of his albums for publications ranging from the Village Voice to Rolling Stone, as well as providing liner notes for records — the ultimate task for any fan.
It all makes for over 500 pages worth of engaging musings, thoughts and critiques — a.k.a. “Bob Dylan: Writings 1968-2010” — an immense retrospective on a career spent covering the voice of a generation.
Between lecturing at the New School and writing his monthly column for the Believer, Marcus doesn’t get into Brooklyn much (the dozens of Dylan concerts he’s seen, alas, doesn’t include the singer’s sold-out show in Prospect Park two years ago). But he’ll make an exception on Nov. 2 when he reads from his new book at Spoonbill and Sugartown in Williamsburg.
For those looking for intimate stories about Dylan the man, a la Suze Rotolo’s recent memoir, “A Freewheelin’ Time,” you’ve got the wrong book. In fact, Marcus has no personal relationship whatsoever with Dylan. The closest he comes is the knowledge that the gravel-voiced singer liked his 1997 book, “Invisible Republic,” about “The Basement Tapes.”
Marcus will occasionally get sidetracked by other subjects — chief among them Elvis Presley, Van Morrison and The Doors — but what keeps him coming back to Dylan over all these years is that voice, a voice that can be as divisive as religion (or Dylan’s religious albums!).
“What captivates me more than anything is the way he sings, the way he can put emphasis on a word and make it come across in so many different ways, and sometimes with such enormous impact, It’s listening to somebody make meaning through speaking,” said Marcus.
That’s been the one constant, he said, even as Dylan’s voice has changed over the course of more than 30 studio albums.
“When he started, people said his voice sounded like a cat stuck in barbed wire. Not everyone thought it was supple then, but it was,” said Marcus. “His voice is much more of a growl and a mutter today, but you know, muttering can be enormously alluring and seductive.”
Marcus has not always been enamored by Dylan’s music. One of his most famous reviews owes itself to the 1970 album, “Self Portrait,” a deservedly panned record that Marcus starts critiquing with the line: “What is this s—?”
That review, of course, is included in Marcus’s new book, as is his Top 10 lists from Rolling Stone and ArtForum, and pithy 25- or 50-word comments on records, books, concerts and radio commercials. It’s a collection that’s perfect for the Dylan obsessive or a music fan interested in reading about the singer’s contributions over the past 40 years as seen through the eyes — or, rather, ears — of one of the foremost cultural critics of our time (this is the guy who wrote the rock and roll manifesto “Mystery Train,” after all). If you’ve ever questioned why Dylan mattered, this will tell you why, and then some.
Greil Marcus reads from “Bob Dylan: Writings 1968-2010” at Spoonbill and Sugartown [218 Bedford Ave. at N. Fifth Street in Williamsburg, (718) 387-7322], Nov. 2 at 8 pm. Free, but seating is very limited. For info, visit www.spoonbillbooks.com.