Can one Bob Dylan song carry the whole weight of history? For rock critic Greil Marcus, the answer is obvious: How can it not?
''A WORLD TO WIN.'' That phrase recurs in Greil Marcus's new book, ''Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads'' (PublicAffairs) - and it's telling. A field the size of the earth; an ongoing struggle for the soul of its populace; a clash of values you could easily pretend wasn't happening, were you content to turn off the radio and ignore the parking meters. The phrase articulates what for Marcus is the power of Dylan's greatest record, the sense it embodied and encouraged, when first heard, that every door had been kicked open, every dead possibility revitalized - that life itself had come newly alive.
In its three sections, the book details that ''noisy, murderous, idyllic'' American summer of 1965, into which Dylan released his epic like a fragmentation bomb; then the creation and substance of the original performance; and finally the various forms the song has taken in the years since, in the hands of both an aging Dylan and his (often irreverent) interpreters. Marcus's references range from Sam Cooke and Julio Cortazar to Muddy Waters and the Pet Shop Boys, historical touchstones from medieval balladry and Puritan piety to ''American Idol'' and the Iraq war. Nothing, it seems, escapes the song's dramatic suction, or goes unglimpsed in its dilating metaphors. The song was, Marcus proclaims, ''a rewrite of the world itself.''
No surprise he hears it this way. Born in 1945, an activist in Berkeley's Free Speech Movement, pioneer of rock criticism at Rolling Stone, and eyewitness to both the utopian Woodstock and nightmarish Altamont festivals, Marcus has always written with a weighty sense of history and his generation's place in it - of a new world versus an old, with society itself as the ideological battlefield.
Seldom has there been less than this world-sense at stake in any Marcus book, from ''Mystery Train'' (1975; two bluesmen and four rockers as exemplary American artists) to ''Lipstick Traces'' (1989; Dada, Situationism, and punk rock as humanist affirmations in nihilist disguise) to ''Invisible Republic'' (1997; American myth as a mountain saga passed down through murder ballads and Dylan's ''Basement Tapes''). In Marcus's world, the battle occurs when some secret passion or social undercurrent bursts its dam, and the mainstream is flooded with crude and liberating voices. The combatants are punk warriors, bravura rockers, and bird-calling banjoists. The prize is a new cultural openness, some active democratic truth which - hidden in a song, a movie, a book, an idea - is always being lost, found, fought for, provisionally won, and lost again.
For Marcus, no one has waged this battle so loyally or so long as Bob Dylan, in whose music the critic has often heard an encrypted, intensified version of the American moment. Thus, Dylan's epic single contains the Watts riots, Vietnam protests, and pop-induced delirium of its summer. In consuming that world, Marcus feels, the record disgorged a new one for its inheritors to inhabit, challenge, deconstruct. ''A territory of danger and flight, abandonment and discovery, truth and lie,'' he calls the song. Even now, whenever it comes on the radio, ''the country is new again.''
That's just the combination of solemnity and sweep that makes Marcus's skeptics groan. Christopher Hitchens has disapproved of his ''mingled psychobabble and remembered snatches of song,'' his ''improvised foolishness''; Louis Menand of his ''assertions inflated to the point of bathos.'' Earlier this month, J. Hoberman simply asked, ''Why is Marcus so pushy?''
But most complaints have boiled down to this: Aren't you making too much of a song?
. . .
''Good art is always dangerous, always open-ended,'' Marcus wrote in ''Mystery Train.'' ''Once you put it out in the world you lose control of it; people will fit it into their lives in all sorts of different ways.'' Where most critics stop at detailing what a work seems self-sufficiently to be, Marcus cares equally, and sometimes more, about where it goes, what it does, and in what form it returns.
No decent critic would refute the unquantifiable impact of audience response upon a popular art form. But this is where the path forks, and Marcus follows his own torch into the interpretive wilderness. He reaches the clearing of a historically charged moment - the summer of 1965, say - gathers his tools, and gets to work making an imaginative settlement. Like Faulkner in his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Marcus peoples his outpost with multiple characters, but as well as the town's sole owner and proprietor he is really its only citizen: its mayor and madman, its historian and gossip. Invoking mythic exemplars and dead societies, pursuing his images like goblins around tree trunks, he might swing from scholasticism to paganism and back in one densely-packed paragraph.
Since ''Lipstick Traces,'' Marcus has been tracking the fortunes and failures of increasingly isolated types, declamatory cranks and sidewalk mystics - most obviously Dylan, but also Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten and Situationist philosopher Guy Debord, folk archivist Harry Smith and Appalachian balladeer Dock Boggs. It's as if Marcus seeks ever more to incorporate their brand of visionary obstinacy into his own dogged expeditions after social meaning and private pleasure. He takes the factual world as he finds it, decides there's more going on than facts can finger, and finally lets intuition have its way.
This means that Marcus, like every bold critic before him, has often gone afoul of an idiot orthodoxy that ought to have been interred ages ago, alongside the theory of bodily humours, but nonetheless persists. Namely, what literary critic W.K. Wimsatt called the intentional fallacy: the idea that we may not interpret a work in any way that is incongruent with what we know, or may sensibly infer, its creator's intentions to have been.
For instance, Dylan's 1967 basement recording ''Clothesline Saga'' may not be heard, as Marcus heard it in ''Invisible Republic,'' as a response to Bobbie Gentry's contemporaneous hit ''Ode to Billie Joe,'' and thus a dialogue between deadpan folk ballads in the midst of the great psychedelic summer. Dylan is not on record sanctioning this reading, the fallacy goes; therefore it cannot be valid. The song may only be heard as a nonsensical ramble delivered from a toilet seat - since in its approximation of workaday idleness it appears to have had no more inspired a source than a throne-sitting song-poet making his mental and physical evacuations.
Marcus gambles on his reader's willingness to entertain meanings other than the obvious. In doing so, he risks that reader's incomprehension, refusal, disgust. But he risks them anyway - as if he has no choice but to go beyond merely observational criticism into active creation.
. . .
That said, ''Like a Rolling Stone'' is Marcus in extremis, but not par excellence. In structure and scope it is a classic Marcus plunge into the analytical treasure chest that is All Of History, full of world-embracing sentences and crypticisms. (''[Dylan] raised the stakes of life all around himself. As often as not he has done this with the affirmation of an absolute lurking somewhere up ahead or far behind.'')
Hungry to describe, aching to capture, the book is a typically engaged and vibrant performance. But its center is soft. The Dylan song may be rock'n'roll's ''Moby-Dick,'' a text to end all texts containing all human stories, but Marcus fails to locate any archetypal story that would unite his varied actors - from the denizens of a Hawaiian cafe whose sunny repose is disrupted by the song's radio outburst, to Michael Bloomfield, the once-celebrated guitarist who gave the record its talon-like riffs and died years later, an ex-junkie, broke and alone. In his more successful books, Marcus's world has many entrances and exits, its borders fluctuate, but it is mapped internally by organizing metaphors and tenacious focus. Closing ''Like a Rolling Stone,'' you're at a loss to conceive of the town hall or market square where all its vastly differing actors would conduct their common business, thrash out their invisible republic.
Yet Marcus writes more than ever as if there were a world to win, a pop democracy in which we're all significant citizens. ''The song as an event transformed its listeners into witnesses,'' he writes. ''It was up to the listeners-as-witnesses to make sense of what they saw and heard in the song, to tell the story to others ....''
It's been Marcus's contribution to perceive pop culture as a continuation of the folk process, in which songs and narratives are continually remade. He's kept alive a sense of these alchemical currents in a banally reductionist age, and continues to delight in the unaccountable at a time when, among critics, often only the accountable is accounted for - and then in fashionably smug, unflappable tones.
Visionary critics, from Horace to Walter Pater to Pauline Kael, have always gone on the assumption that critiquing a work means recreating it. That is, entering it, and expanding its boundaries from within by finding personal meanings, shaping private forms; and then imagining a way out so that work, artist, critic, and reader cannot avoid being changed - even bruised and torn - in the process. Vladimir Nabokov compared art to a root or grain to be ripped apart and ingested ravenously by the critic. ''Then, and only then,'' he wrote, ''its rare flavor will be appreciated at its true worth and the broken and crushed parts will again come together in your mind and disclose the beauty of a unity to which you have contributed something of your own blood.''
Is it possible to make too much of a song? Of course. But if the alternative is level-headed consensus - which the critical establishment, like any other kind, naturally inclines to - let there be too much, and more. Where most critics offer vinaigrette and call it wine, Greil Marcus has contributed something of his own blood - and it has never tasted like anything but that.
Devin McKinney is the author of ''Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History'' (Harvard). He writes a music column for The American Prospect Online (www.prospect.org).