- Flirters, Deserters, Wimps, and Pimps: Thomas Pynchon’s Two Americas
So the bad Ninjamobile swept along on the great Ventura, among Olympic visitors from everywhere who teemed all over the freeway system in midday densities till far into the night, shined-up, screaming black motorcades that could have carried any of several office seekers, cruisers heading for treed and more gently roaring boulevards, huge double and triple trailer rigs that loved to find Volkswagens laboring up grades and go sashaying around them gracefully and at gnat’s-ass tolerances, plus flirters, deserters, wimps and pimps, speeding like bullets, grinning like chimps, above the heads of TV watchers, lovers under the overpasses, movies at malls letting out, bright gas-station oases in pure fluorescent spill, canopied beneath the palm trees, soon wrapped, down the corridors of the surface streets, in nocturnal smog, the adobe air, the smell of distant fireworks, the spilled, the broken world.Thomas Pynchon, Vineland
The story is well-known by now, is in fact one of the defining fables of the sixties. In 1967, after a run of albums that shaped the folk movement, a blistering stylistic turn from folk to rock and roll, and a devastating motorcycle crash, Bob Dylan retreated to the basement of the famous “Big Pink” house in upstate New York. There he and the musicians of the Band produced a series of raw, rollicking songs that circulated as bootlegs for years. They were known [End Page 565] collectively as “the basement tapes,” a name that suggests a retreat from the world, a hidden secret or conspiracy, a process of going “underground.” For Greil Marcus, these recordings are significant precisely because they do tap into a specific kind of underground tradition in American music and politics. As the title of his book on the basement tapes, Invisible Republic, suggests, Marcus sees these songs as the key to a lost or hidden national identity, one that he memorably calls the “old, weird America” residing in the traditions of American folk music, or what is sometimes now called “roots” music—blues, work songs, ballads, bluegrass. The makers and characters of this music—steeped in death, perversity, greed, and passion—present in Marcus’s reading a genuinely democratic and free community, “a mystical body of the republic, a kind of public secret: a declaration of what sorts of wishes and fears lie behind any public act, a declaration of a weird but clearly recognizable America within the America of the exercise of institutional majoritarian power” (125).
Marcus contrasts the “old, weird America” that Dylan and the Band were tapping into in 1967 with the cultural movement that Dylan had previously been associated with. The folk revival—encompassing a variety of acts, from Dylan to Pete Seeger, Joan Baez to Leadbelly—had its high-water mark in the early sixties and distinguished itself from other pop music in its insistence that music should be politically relevant. This rejection of commercial pop suggests the extent to which the folk revival drew its effects from the dissatisfactions of consumer culture, from the desire for an authenticity that could be the antithesis of consumerism. As Marcus writes, “It was this purity, this glimpse of a democratic oasis unsullied by commerce or greed, that in the late 1950s and early 1960s so many young people began to hear in the blues and ballads first recorded in the 1920s and 1930s, by people mostly from small towns and tiny settlements in the South” (21). The notion of “authenticity” is crucial here, because if commerce is seen as degraded or disenchanted, then some notion of authenticity is necessary in order to formulate an oppositional stance toward the culture of commerce. [End Page 566]
Marcus ultimately argues that the folk revival was hopelessly earnest and hopelessly committed to a romantic vision that rejected the darkness inherent in American culture in favor of an idealized faith in the virtues of “the people.” But Marcus’s invocation of the “old, weird America,” with all its grinning violence intact, nonetheless preserves much of the folk revival’s structure: this is still a country apart, an alternative America that is simultaneously the real America, the...