Cultural critics too often write for (be it to impress or to outdo) their fellow critics, and the results can make an outsider feel like they're peering in through the window of the cool kids' clubhouse. Music critics (with notable exceptions, of course) are no different, and yet the unstoppable coolness of rock 'n' roll allows for their intellectual jargonism to be the meat of some of our most popular periodicals. It's also allowed estimable critic Greil Marcus to indulge in an entire book about a single song: Like A Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads.
Marcus uses "Like A Rolling Stone" as a springboard into a slew of historical reference points that pre- and proceeded that song, once honored by Rolling Stone magazine as the greatest song in modern pop music. Problem is, Marcus may be addressing a great song, but it's still just one song--and to cover it at length, he has to dig really, really deep. He has to write biographies about all the musicians who were in the studio when "Rolling Stone" was recorded in 1965, and he has to write in-depth analyses of not just the song itself, but every notable subsequent cover of the song, and every notable subsequent song that the song inspired, and every notable song that the song was inspired by.
Marcus does best when he departs from his fragmented, referential, stream-of-con-sciousness prose and lets other people talk. Quotes from people involved with the song like guitarist Michael Bloomfield and producer Tom Wilson give insight into, if not Dylan the Man, at least what it was like to work with him. Marcus himself discusses in huge detail the musical and cultural revolution "Like A Rolling Stone" catalyzed, but makes no effort to do likewise. His book is not a loving portrait of popular music's most elusive and mysterious artist, but a contextual manifesto surrounding the artist at a critical juncture in his career. Its epic sense of hyper-informed, cool detachment might just make it a milestone in music criticism.