"No Direction Home": How Did It Feel?
Although he continues today, at the age of 64, to tour and record on a regular basis, the foundation of Bob Dylan's towering renown was laid in the years from 1961 to 1966. During that brief time, he created a poetic new form of "protest" music out of the American acoustic folk tradition; then, turning his back on the new folk audience he'd engendered, he went blazingly electric (inspiring the development of folk rock); and, over the course of five enormously influential albums, recorded a series of songs that continue to sing out to new generations of listeners: "Blowin' in the Wind," "Masters of War," "Chimes of Freedom," "Like a Rolling Stone," "Visions of Johanna," "Just Like a Woman." How many people can there be who haven't heard at least one of these?
Dylan's dazzling career has been analyzed to death, to the point where a lot of people must feel there's nothing else they need to know about it. But "No Direction Home," the brilliant new documentary directed — or perhaps "assembled" is a more accurate word — by Martin Scorsese, brings Dylan's volcanic cultural achievement to life with electrifying, rarely seen concert footage, illuminating interviews with old friends and benefactors and strikingly self-aware commentary by Dylan himself. Anyone with more than a superficial interest in rock music and its possibilities should either see this film (it'll air in two parts on PBS this coming Monday and Tuesday night) or own it (it was released as a two-DVD set on September 20).
The movie's adroit use of period archive footage creates an emotional tug — a wistful feeling of time irretrievably passed — at the heart of Dylan's early history. We see the cold, bleak vistas of Hibbing, Minnesota, where he was raised ("Just a rural town on the way to nowhere," he says), and we hear the Monroe Brothers' high-lonesome rendition of "Drifting Too Far from the Shore" — the first record he ever heard played. ("The sound of the record made me feel like I was somebody else," he says. "Like I was maybe not born to the right parents or something.") In his high school yearbook, he cited as his ambition a desire to join Little Richard's band; looking back at his graduation, the only thing he has to say is, "I left the very next day."
After drifting into and right out of college, Dylan arrived in New York City in 1961, and we see the bars and coffeehouses of the day, like the Gaslight and the San Remo, and the burgeoning folkie sing-along scene in Washington Square Park. The late Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, a presiding eminence of the new youth-culture bohemia that was being born, weighs in, as does the late, great folk-blues singer and guitarist Dave Van Ronk, who tells a funny story about Dylan lifting his unique arrangement of "The House of the Rising Sun" and using it on his 1962 debut album. (Van Ronk says that Dylan's version became so widely known that he himself was accused of copying it, and had to stop performing the song; later he says, when a British Invasion band, the Animals, copied Dylan's version and scored a number-one hit with it, Dylan was in turn accused of copying them, and had to stop performing the song himself.)
Dylan's phenomenal rise to the top of the early-'60s folk-music scene — phenomenal for a performer derided by many mainstream critics as having the voice of a goat — coincided with the flowering of the civil rights movement. We see him in Mississippi with folk patriarch Pete Seeger during a voter registration drive, and we see him at the 1963 march on Washington, D.C., at which Martin Luther King made his unforgettable "I have a dream" speech. ("It still affects me in a profound way," Dylan says.) But just as the media and the folkniks themselves were poised to crown him the king of the protest singers, Dylan walked away from them, and never looked back. His 1965 album, "Bringing It All Back Home," was decidedly a rock and roll record; and when he returned to the Newport Folk Festival that year accompanied by an electric band, he was booed and cursed. In the movie, we see the unctuous Peter Yarrow, of the pop-folk group Peter, Paul and Mary, scurrying to the microphone after Dylan's performance and beseeching him to return to the stage and give the audience the familiar folk stylings it wanted. Dylan stalks back with an acoustic guitar, delivers an acidulous rendition of his great kiss-off song, "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," and stalks back off again without saying another word.
Ignoring the remarkable hostility of his old fans, Dylan began scoring hits with such singles as "Like a Rolling Stone," "Positively 4th Street," and "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35." His songs also charted in versions by a new breed of folk-rock bands, like the Byrds and the Turtles, who also appropriated elements of his style for their own material. ("People were writing jingly-jangly songs that seemed to have something to do with me," Dylan says with considerable residual irritation.)
With the release in the spring of 1966 of the aggressively electric Blonde on Blonde — possibly the greatest of his several great albums — Dylan entered into the most exclusive inner circle of international pop royalty. (The breadth of his influence can be gauged by listening to the Beatles' song "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," a track released the previous summer, which is adoringly Dylanesque.) But he was growing weary of being peppered with numbskull questions by the press. ("Do you think you should be the leader of people who protest?" asks a French reporter.) And while he could deal with the jeering audiences who refused to accept his new music ("It's hard to get in tune when they're booing," he jokes at one point), and he wasn't even entirely thrown by the occasional death threat ("I don't mind being shot," he wisecracks. "I just don't wanna be told about it."), his weariness with the trappings of stardom was mounting. Finally, at a famous show in England in 1966, being booed with extraordinary venom by a theatre full of folk fans as he prepared to do "Like a Rolling Stone," Dylan finally just swings around and shouts to his band, "Play it f---in' loud!" It was the last tour he would undertake for eight years.
Seeing Dylan move through this rich period in the company of people like folkie queen Joan Baez and Johnny Cash (who gave the young singer his own guitar as a sign of respect), and seeing the wondrous array of live clips of performers who influenced him (from Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie to Gene Vincent, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and even Billie Holiday), you have to marvel at the architecture of this film. The performance footage — especially the extended clips of Dylan onstage with his most ferocious group, the Band — brings the era swarming back to life; the songs offer an understated commentary on the events we see (and of course on the man who wrote them); and the Dylan of today, now grizzled and gray, offers his own tart views on just about everything.
Does "No Direction Home" reveal to us at last the "real" Bob Dylan? Well, one of them, maybe. As Ethan Smith reported in the Wall Street Journal this past Tuesday, almost all of the interviews in the film were conducted by Dylan's own people, who also compiled most of the footage, long before Martin Scorsese was brought into the project. In a way, the documentary can be seen as another manipulation by this famously mercurial figure. But it may be as close as we're ever likely to get to the "real" man. As Dylan says in the movie, "An artist has gotta be careful never really to arrive at a place where he thinks he's at somewhere. You always have to realize that you're constantly in a state of becoming."
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