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Bob Dylan: American icon
In the fifties and sixties, in college and grad school, I raptly listened to the records of the Weavers, and tried to get to as many Odetta and Joan Baez concerts as I could. Not being musical, I liked the fact that at folk song concerts it was the words that had centrality. Weekly parties turned into impromptu hootenannies where somebody with a bit of talent or sufficient ego would pick up a guitar and begin to sing folk songs: Joe Hill and Pastures of Plenty, I Know Where I Am Going and Goodnight Irene. I may have sung off-key, but I sang with gusto and that's all that mattered. The singing generated a sense of community, and the self-righteous feeling that we were on the side of virtue and justice, since so many of the songs inveighed against political oppression, economic exploitation, racism, and war. We were young, earnest, and devoid of even a hint of irony. And there really was a powerful sense of political hope then-for in Bob Dylan's words, "The times they are a changing."
What brings up these memories is a stunning two-part documentary film that I recently saw on PBS, No Direction Home, directed by Martin Scorsese, dealing with Bob Dylan's life and music from 1961 to 1966. (Paramount Home Entertainment distributes the DVD of the film.) The film begins with Dylan's meteoric arrival on the downtown New York City scene in 1961 - with his little black cap, baby fat, raspy voice, and pounding guitar -and concludes with his near-fatal motorcycle accident in Woodstock in 1966.
I am no Dylan expert or aficionado, but Scorsese is a director whose films I have loved, taught, and written about over the years. Here Scorsese has put together a documentary that, without any narration to guide us, seamlessly integrates footage From Dylan's live concerts, studio recording sessions, unreleased outtakes from D.A. Pennebaker's famed 1967 documentary Don't Look Back, and interviews with Dylan's friends, cultural icons like a penetratingly eloquent Allan Ginsburg, We also hear from fellow performers-an honest and revealing Joan Baez (who had a difficult, intimate relationship with Dylan); a master of blarney and Irish songs, Liam Clancy; and the wise and knowing Dave Van Ronk. Scorsese doesn't allow the talking heads, however insightful, to dominate the film, fluidly cutting from interviews to concert footage to archival material and back again.
What I'm most taken by is the film's portrait of Dylan as an artist who never became set in a groove-who coming out of nowhere succeeded in inventing and reinventing himself. In the film a much older, craggy, and sober Dylan evocatively depicts the artistic journey he takes from his iron-mining hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota (which Dylan saw as a place without any "ideology to rebel against") to the "bigger world out there"-the club-filled folk song mecca in Greenwich Village. He also charts his dramatic shift from imitating his hero, Woody Guthrie, to singing complex protest songs like Blowin' in the Wind and A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall, to playing electric rock and roll with the Band-a move which aroused rage from folk fans and protest singers like Pete Seeger, who felt Dylan had sold out to the commercial mainstream. Dylan, of course, never became a moneymaking hack. He just wanted his art to be free of political and aesthetic prescriptions, and objected to being categorized as a social activist. In his words, "To be on the side of people who are struggling for something doesn't necessarily mean being political."
In the film Dylan the man continues to remain elusive-he tends to obfuscate, feint, weave, and keep himself well hidden. We learn that the work has been primary in his life, that he makes astute career judgments, and that his personal relations are secondary. But if the nature of Dylan's personality can't be pinned down, the film powerfully brings to life the artist who hit all the right cultural notes, loved working with words, was constantly in a state of becoming, and uncompromisingly adhered to his own vision.
In an interview with Charlie Rose that followed the film's screening, Martin Scorsese spoke of what elements make for an artistic genius like Bob Dylan. He mentioned: command of the medium; expressing what you want to express; and being consumed by the process of creating art; The Dylan we see in No Direction Home personified these qualities.
Looking at the film a second time, I was not only struck by how unknowable a figure and striking a performer Dylan was, but I was also especially stirred by footage that richly evoked the Greenwich Village night streets and coffee house scene and the civil rights marches of that period. It was a time, which as someone suggested in the film, where it was more important to have something to say than be driven by money. The film's images poignantly brought back to me those years of my lost youth that could never again be recovered.