REVIEW: Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes

The United States of America is a curious place. Its citizens are taught a common history punctuated by wars, but the intentions that built this history are are contested a million different ways, in a thousand different places. Unlike the temples of Thailand, the English rain, the long winters of Iceland, the steppes of Russia, the mangrove coasts of Pohnpei, or the ramshackle recording studios of 1970ʻs Nigeria, there is no singular, dominant feature of the United States–it is a big, broad space of death elevation deserts, tropical islands, mountains that caress those big blue cheeks of sky, low-income housing, buildings full of computers on desks, forests so deep the sunlight doesnʻt quite come through, and suburbs so dull they must be what heaven is like. And Americans themselves are furiously disagreeable about what happened when and why, and will wade through the sewage of daytime talk shows and internet comment threads so that they can speak their piece. Americans are a race of beings who have been conned and hustled since the words “that all men are created equal” were posited in a letter to a failing king; and instead of transcending the con, Americans perpetuate it, reinforce it, believing that through inelegant rhetoric they can hustle their fellows into the philosophical holes they think theyʻve dug for themselves, but which have been dug for them a long time ago.

There are times, though, when concordance is achieved in this great nation, when pilgrims and artists unite in like-minded sentiment, a shared dream in which neuroses, fetishes, and unconscious Freudian drives are reproduced through one anotherʻs imagination and misshapen characters–Americans, all of them–from unfinished stories ooze from the the deep pits of collective memory. Where these freaks live, where these fatalistic hopes and discarded masks engage and make love, is in the interstitial America of murders and gossip, a landscape of banjo-playing miners, electric guitarists and extraordinary alcoholics. The arcs of these American lives, as fragile as they are, may only be recalled in fragments. Where these freaks live is Greil Marcusʻs Invisible Republic, also known as The Old, Weird America, and sometimes called Smithville, sometimes Kill Devil Hills. The truth in the Invisible Republic is not the ever-present con, the current American sophistry of political stances– the only thing worth mentioning is that everybody will die, either by murder or something more awful. The rest is all sublime nonsense.

Greil Marcusʻs argument, in Invisible Republic, is that Bob Dylan weirdly, with a group of Canadians who paid their dues through endless tours behind an Arkansas rockabilly singer, was able to summon this great American spirit of inevitable death, and the perpetual churn of nonsense that surrounds it, in the summer of 1967, in a basement in West Saugerties, New York. All of them beautiful singers with terrible voices, Dylan and the Band gave testimony of the Invisible Republic on tape, their minds and tongues all twisted in the same way by what theyʻd witnessed through the summoning. 

“Iʻm hittinʻ it too hard / My stones wonʻt take / I get up in the morning / But itʻs too early to wake,” they sang–then, together, “Nothing is better / Nothing is best / Take care of yourself / And get plenty of rest.” Also “They say everything can be replaced / But every distance is not near.” It was the weird, old America of nonsense, of cowboys riding cyclones, a steel driver in a fight to the death with a machine. Dylan and compatriots espoused riddles, koans, sometimes little bits of helpful advice Blues singers might flick off at the end of a 12th bar, what hobos might imprint on the fence of an unfriendly residence. Itʻs this death and nonsense, Marcus proposes, that perpetuates the ineffable mysteries of a place both tall and wide, where everything canʻt simply be explained away through dissenting opinion. There ainʻt no use in speculating, even–only letting be. 

As a text where one might become acquainted with Dylan and his influences, Invisible Republic isnʻt the place to start. A working knowledge of The Basement Tapes is required, even those tracks not released on the bastardized official album from 1975. But the lyrics of these songs are only half the story–the music that elevates those words should be learned, absorbed, their melodies evident in the line breakdowns into text. Between these lines Marcus evokes the ghosts of the Old, Weird America: Dock Boggs, Bobbie GentrySister Rosetta Tharpe, and, essentially, Harry Smith, that last great seer of American truth and hypocrisy.

Invisible Republic is not a bible, an encyclopedia, or a piece of creative non-fiction. It is a glimpse into the cosmic machinery that produces the voices of great artists, a view of the invisible under the visible, a vista both dark and brilliantly mad. It is a keyhole. The reader, with all the buried failings and imaginative power to see through the con laid upon the land by the hustlers of reality, is the key.                   

Review by Jeffery Ryan Long

Jeffery Ryan Long is Chief Editor of Hawaiʻi Review.