Off Topic Messages

Scorcese's Bob Dylan "No Direction Home" Debuts

Wed Sep 28, 2005 11:05 pm

Two opinions...from both sides of the pond.
I enjoyed it, personally. I'd love to see something
on Elvis done like this.
Lived to tell
Dylan looks back in Scorsese’s No Direction Home



While the living Bob Dylan continues to tour and make albums, the old Bob Dylan is as good as dead — that is, immortal. Fans, non-fans, and new recruits can argue about the merits and demerits of the 64-year-old legend who plays shows and wins Grammys, but there’s no arguing over the 24-year-old singer in Martin Scorsese’s new No Direction Home, skinny and wired, who answers the now legendary cry of "Judas!" from a Manchester (England) audience with a flat affect, "I don’t believe you . . . You’re a liar," and then turns to his band and instructs, "Play it friendly loud."

Even at four hours, Scorsese takes Dylan only up to the "Judas" performance of "Like a Rolling Stone" on the cusp of the 1966 motorcycle accident that marked the beginning of his eight-year moratorium on touring. The color footage of that 1966 British and European tour is the pivot point to which the film keeps returning — Glasgow, Newcastle, Manchester, Paris — before flashing back to a chronological telling of Dylan’s story, from Hibbing to New York to "going electric" at Newport and then to present-tense interviews with Dylan and pals from the old days, friends, hangers-on, musicians: Suze Rotolo (Dylan’s "first" New York girlfriend), Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Dave Van Ronk, Al Kooper, even the now ancient Columbia A&R lord (and TV pop-orchestra maestro) Mitch Miller.

Fans will want to know "what’s new" in the film, but that’s hard to pinpoint. The 1966 footage is drawn from the never-released documentary Eat the Document, and there are bits and pieces of D.A. Pennebaker’s landmark vérité film of the 1965 British tour Don’t Look Back and Murray Lerner’s Newport documentary Festival. Aside from Dylan’s admitting on camera that he wasn’t very nice to Joan Baez ("You can’t be wise and in love at the same time"), there aren’t any major revelations.

But No Direction Home isn’t about setting the record straight and revealing new "facts" any more than Chronicles: Volume 1, Dylan’s memoir from last year, was about telling "my true story." Aside from great musical performances (and there are plenty of them, with even more on the DVD), you’re watching the film for the storytelling, which amounts to the great mono-myth of modern rock. For anyone who’s ever wondered why all those folkies were upset when Dylan "went electric," here’s the vivid dramatization of the young artist as part of a crucial social movement. This was the era of Cold War paranoia, the McCarthy blacklists, the Cuban missile crisis, the JFK assassination, and, most important, civil rights.

No Direction Home reminds us — in case we ever forgot — that Dylan’s move to amplified rock wasn’t simply about playing friendly loud — it was about going pop. Just as Don’t Look Back gave us the Mother of All Deals in an offstage scene of Dylan’s wily manager, Albert Grossman ("Would it be in poor taste to suggest we have a better offer?" he asks), No Direction Home shows us the birth of the authenticity question that’s been with us ever since — from John Lennon’s quitting the Beatles to the Clash ("the only band that matters"), Nirvana, Liz Phair, and any outfit that calls itself punk. The strident English fan who calls the "new" Dylan she’s just seen "a fake neurotic" isn’t complaining that he’s not writing songs like "A Pawn in Their Game." She’s more in line with the fan who says he came to see "Bob Dylan, not a pop band." It’s a wholly different reaction from that of Baez, Seeger, and the folk-music impresario Harold Leventhal, who see Dylan as abandoning an important social cause in which he was emerging as a leader. For those English fans, the "authentic" Dylan, the punk, was the one who sang "My Back Pages," or for that matter "Visions of Johanna," alone on stage with a guitar and a harmonica.

"Just because you’re on the side of people who are fighting for something doesn’t mean you’re political," the present-day Dylan tells the filmmakers. And the always clear-eyed Dave Van Ronk agrees that Dylan was not someone who met the definition of a "political person" of the early ’60s, not someone who was " interested in the true nature of the Soviet Union or any of that crap." Nonetheless, Van Ronk points out that when Dylan got signed to Columbia, it sent shockwaves along MacDougal Street. The folkies were used to schlepping their wares from Vanguard to Folkways; now here was Dylan on the label of Johnny Mathis. The folkies, Van Ronk says, had to face up to how hungry they really were.

No Direction Home is a great American story, where authenticity is just another commodity. John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers tells the story of running into Mary Travers, the lovely blonde centerpiece of Peter, Paul and Mary, the crossover smash-hit folk vocal group Grossman, in part as a vehicle for Dylan’s songs. It’s February on MacDougal Street, and when Travers mentions she’s been in Florida, Cohen marvels that she doesn’t have more color. She explains that "Albert wants me to be the pale, blonde, indoor type." There you have it — folk authenticity packaged as pop commodity. Yet has there ever been a folk group more committed to their ideals, sticking through one leftist cause after another through decades?

You could argue that in the second half, the film narrows its focus. So far it’s been about history — now it’s about personal fame. Yet as that dean of Dylanologists, Greil Marcus, points out in his new Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads (Public Affairs), the primary Dylan political anthem (and PP&M hit) "Blowin’ in the Wind" "sounded as if it were written by the times, not anyone in particular." The second half of the film brings us more and more into the particular Dylan, the Dylan of "Like a Rolling Stone," witty, irritable, beautiful, sparring with press and fans ("You don’t need my autograph — if you needed it I’d give it to you!"), sitting down at the piano in front of one of those booing audiences, pounding the keyboard and letting rip a hellacious "Ballad of a Thin Man."

So when is personal political? At one point on the tour, there’s a death threat, which everyone backstage laughs off except Dylan. "I don’t mind being shot, man, but I don’t dig being told about it." Already having anticipated Kurt Cobain as a "fake neurotic," he’s now foreshadowing the death of John Lennon. In the present tense, Al Kooper, now irrevocably part of history, of "music that would be forever," recalls looking at the tour itinerary, seeing the name Dallas, and quitting Dylan’s band. "They had just killed the president, and I thought, ‘If they didn’t like that guy, what were they gonna think of this guy?"


The answer, my friend, is that it’s a load of old hype

Melanie Reid September 27 2005

Which of the following statements do you agree with: 1) Bob Dylan is as iconic as Jesus and more influential than Shakespeare. I am lucky to have lived on the same planet as him. 2) Bob Dylan is a self-regarding old money-machine who has been successfully taking the mick for at least three decades. I think he should retire and give us all peace.
If you answered 1), read no further. As you are in all probability a professional, white male aged over 45, and possibly in possession of several woolly jumpers, you will be susceptible to the increased risk of high blood pressure.

If you answered 2), you are probably young, or female, or both. Welcome to one small refuge against Dylan hagiography, that irradicable disease, resistant to all known anti-viral drugs, which is at present recording a serious outbreak in Britain and America.

Last night and tonight, BBC2 is host to Martin Scorsese's three-and-a-half-hour documentary about Dylan, an event described portentously as "the first simultaneous broadcast between the globe's foremost public broadcasters": in other words, it's being broadcast on PBS the same day.
Regardless of the merits of the programme, reviewed by my colleage Ian Bell on page 15, these details alone tell you what you need to know about the vast, inflated Dylan industry, all of it based on the uncontested premise that the man is a genius.

The involvement of Scorsese, another monstrously over-celebrated talent who did his best work 30 years ago – has anyone got to the end of Gangs of New York without being paid to do so? – is symbolism enough. But the hyperbole involved in this transatlantic, public-spirited, nearer-my-God-to-thee Dylanfest, as if venerating some living western saint, marks a high-watermark of pretention. The whole concept is flabby with self-congratulation.

At the heart of the Dylan affliction, of course, is the sly old fox himself, he who has been playing games with his adoring public ever since he first picked up a guitar.

His skills as a wordsmith, good as they once were, have long ago been subsumed beneath his marketing skills. At the age of 64, Dylan has become an intriguing parody; he is either a giant ego rendered genuinely incapable of giving up the stage, or a man so amused by the fact that he can still con people into paying to see him, that he can't stop. Or maybe he's a toxic mixture of both.

And so the older he gets, the more productive he becomes. Last year he published an autobiography, so oblique it failed to reveal anything as mundane as facts, and played more than 100 live gigs. This year, he's still on the road. His tour, he has vowed, is never-ending: a sensation sadly familiar to anyone who has actually been to one of his concerts in the past 20 years.

The audience of loyal middle-aged fans go to hear their favourite songs; the tragedy is they won't be able to tell whether he's played them or not. Today's Dylan concerts are existentialist things, but in the wrong way: a parallel universe where the Great Man starts a song – well, you assume it's a song, because he's making a droning noise and the band are playing – and everyone starts cheering. This wall of indecipherable sound goes on for about five minutes, during which time you try very hard to recognise the tune, if only to avoid embarrassing yourself in front of all the aficionados around you.

This is impossible, because a bored, impassive-looking Dylan is just going "Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaa" and the band, apparently as confused as the audience, are hedging their bets. Eventually, after about 10 minutes, you can just make out the chorus of Mr Tambourine Man, or some such, by which time the song is over. This procedure is repeated several times and then it's time to go home.

So, is it all a game, the tired mischief of a man with a healthy sense of the ridiculous? Or is it – the most terrible option – the product of a man who takes himself so seriously, who is so devoid of a sense of the ridiculous, that he believes he has semi-divine status?

I fear the latter. And for this, we must blame the fans, awash in nostalgia, who keep consuming no matter how bad he is.

For many people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, Dylan wrote the soundtrack for their first love affairs, their birth of political awareness, their first revolutionary stirrings. His lyrical genius was to create pop poetry that caught the glory of being young and preserved it in amber.

Hence the notion that Dylan is heroic. Or that he is intellectual. Hence the cringesome sight of fogies in suits eager to tell us what their favourite Dylan song was. When we get to the point where politicians are lining up – Rosie Kane, Maggie's Farm: "it's about slavery, working for the bosses, being under the cosh"; George Galloway, Tangled Up in Blue: "he's the greatest writer since Shakespeare" – it really is time to strap on the parachute and bail out.

The reality is, yes, that Dylan was a great balladeer of his time, but one who proceeded to become the most over-rated global act of the past 50 years. He is the pop equivalent of trainspotting; he has fostered a particularly acute type of nerdy, intense, sensitive fan: men of arrested emotional development who can quote the lyrics of his songs verbatim and have mythologised him into some kind of Arthur Rimbaud.

There has been more pseudo-cultural dross written about Dylan than about almost anyone else on this planet, with the possible exception of Diana, Princess of Wales. In response to demand, Dylan created a brand which he has been flogging, in a surly way, ever since.

So if we are kind, we read irony into his motives; if we are not, we anticipate he will end up like Frank Sinatra, a dismal icon touring unto death.

Artists are always best separated from their art. To confuse creator and creation is to invite crashing disappointment. A fan may love the work; they should, in my experience, stay well away from the creator, for they are likely to be let down. J D Salinger was right: give the fans nothing, and threaten them with a shotgun if they bother you.

For artists, in real life, have a tendency to be grumpy, ordinary, arrogant. They have weak voices and unkind eyes. They like money too much. They are rarely sensitive or special enough to deserve the undying love their fans wish to give them. Those who adulate Bob Dylan, the pop musician who wrote some wonderful songs but then forgot to retire, would do well to remember that.

There you have it, pro and con, folks.

The product:
Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home film has been on sale as a DVD from Paramount since Tuesday, and it gets an airing (minus all those DVD "extras," of course) in two two-hour parts on WGBH Channel 2 this coming Monday and Tuesday, September 26 and 27, at 9 pm (with repeats on WGBH World Wednesday and Friday beginning at 6). Columbia has released not only a double-CD "companion" set to the film (it diverges from the film with alternate takes of some songs) as part of its Dylan "Bootleg Series" (Volume 7) but also the Starbucks-only Live at the Gaslight 1962 and the half-hour, six-track Live at Carnegie Hall 1963 (available only as promotional giveaway). Simon & Schuster, the publisher of Dylan’s memoirs, has issued a print companion to the Scorsese film, The Bob Dylan Scrapbook 1956-66, a lavish 64-page production with a slipcover case, text by Dylan archivist Robert Santelli, gatefold color photographs, and even facsimiles of Dylan’s handwritten lyrics. It includes its own audio CD of archival Dylan interviews and interviews from the film. WGBH 89.7 FM, meanwhile, will air the two-hour radio documentary The Emergence of Bob Dylan this Sunday, September 25, at 10 pm.