Scanning Mike Marqusee’s bibliography at the Oxford Book Store, where the launch of the updated version of his book Chimes of Freedom: Bob Dylan in the Sixties was being held, I realised what it was about the author that most appeals to me. Look at the titles on his resume and you won’t find an overriding theme, or a consistency of subject; instead, the impression you’ll get is that of someone who just sits down and writes books about various, completely unrelated things - the only link being that they’re things he’s passionate about and wants to write about. How many other people do you know who have, in a relatively short writing career, published a range of titles this varied: 1) a study of Bob Dylan’s work in the context of the socio-cultural movements of the 1960s; 2) a biography of Muhammad Ali, again with the 1960s as the background (Redemption Song); 3) a political title (Defeat From the Jaws of Victory: Inside Kinnock’s Labour Party) and 4) three completely different types of cricket books: a thriller, a critical study of the ills afflicting English cricket and an account of the 1996 World Cup on the subcontinent.
I can imagine the man calling up his editor and saying, “Look, I have this sudden urge to write a book about so-and-so or such-and-such, so I’ll just dust off the keyboard and get started, and meanwhile you can send the advance to the usual address.” It must be fun to be Mike Marqusee.
My personal interest in attending the launch came from sharing two of Marqusee’s passions: Dylan and cricket. The event itself was more fun than these things usually are: the book discussion was forced and wearisome at times - with a little more pontificating than was strictly necessary on topics like American radicalism, the political Right and the political Left - but Marqusee himself never struck the wrong note. When he took the floor, voice booming (he didn’t need a microphone and was proud of it; “one Mike is enough”), his enthusiasm for his subject came across in every sentence. Speaking in an authoritative tone that still managed to be pleasant and conversational, he held forth on the complexity of Dylan’s art, its continuing relevance today (“the targets he attacked are still with us”), the misappropriation of his songs by groups with their own agenda and the irony that he is still remembered foremost as a protest singer despite having turned his back on the form 40 years ago.
He moved between topics as diverse as the unfortunate culture of “national boosterism” in modern India, analogous to the US in the 1960s (“you’re getting obsessed with being greater than China, with being a nuclear power and so on”); the messiness and contradictions inherent in history, something that Dylan’s works are continual reminders of; and how the singer-songwriter always frustrated attempts to read meaning into his works (He once told Joan Baez , just to annoy her, that he wrote “Masters of War” only for the money) - “but then, as D H Lawrence said, ‘Don’t trust the teller, trust the tale’.”
Marqusee also recited, practically sang, verses from Dylan’s songs, giving them inflections that highlighted their meanings -- a far cry from many sanctimoniously dry readings that attempt to give Dylan literary “respectability” by dissociating his poetry from his music. Which is why it was fitting that the evening ended, as it began, not with a barrage of high-sounding words but with a musical performance that captured the essence of the subject better than any discussion could; as a hushed audience listened appreciatively, a young Jawaharlal Nehru University student gently played a Dylan number on his guitar. “There’s nothing more grotesque than watching middle-aged men talk about Dylan and the 1960s,” quipped Marqusee, “so bring on the young musician!”
I only got five minutes with the author for a quick one-one-one exchange after the launch - and even that was interrupted continually - but I managed to get a couple of quick quotes about Indo-Pak cricket. (It was an underarm delivery so to speak, but I couldn’t let him go without asking a cricket-related question!) Back in 1996, Marqusee used George Orwell’s pejorative description of sporting contests, “war minus the shooting”, as the title of his World Cup book. Describing the acrimony surrounding the India-Pakistan quarter-final at the time, he lamented the lack of grace shown by the Bangalore crowds who booed Javed Miandad as he walked off the field for the last time in an international match. That was then. Nearly 10 years on, he’s much more optimistic. “I was at the Bangalore and Mohali Tests recently and was deeply moved to see Pakistani flags fluttering among the crowds,” he said. “There was an ocean of difference between Bangalore 1996 and Bangalore 2005 and it was visible in the behaviour of spectators from both sides.”
“Things have changed” he said knowingly, unwilling to leave his hero out of even this discussion.