No Direction Home
What can you say about Bob Dylan anymore? He’s approaching his elderly years, as are all of us who came of age listening to his music. He’s doing it in a fairly dignified manner, still doing concerts, but he can pull it off, like Crosby, Stills and Nash, who never jumped and shouted during performances, not like The Rolling Stones, those wrinkled rebels who look way beyond stupid doing the same show they did 40 years ago. When will you hang it up, Mick?
Turns out there’s a lot still to say, four hours of it, which is the length of this documentary by Martin Scorsese. It may be the best rock documentary I’ve ever seen.
The core of it is a long interview with Dylan, done recently. Contrast this old guy with the dude in the earlier footage, who was 20 and looked younger. The young Dylan was a smart-ass, a joker, a liar, and a deliberate provocateur who wouldn’t put up with the media blitz surrounding him and sometimes came off looking like an asshole because of it. We recently saw Dont Look Back, portions of which are used in this new film, and there he is, the nasal sphinx, tossing questions back to reporters, obfuscating, and time and time again never allowing himself to be pigeonholed. Nobody knew what to do about this guy. He wasn’t playing the PR game … or he was playing it so subtly and ironically that no one ever got the joke.
He hasn’t changed. He is adamant that he isn’t and never was a “folk” singer or a “protest” singer. At one point he says he writes “contemporary” songs, and that’s as clear as he ever gets.
I am always stunned to look back and realize that there was actual hatred, bordering on warfare, between “rock” and “folk” musicians and fans. They never reached the stage that rappers commonly do, where the weapons come out, but they really thought it was important whether you were a rocker or a folkie. You know, I never spent one second worrying about the distinction. Part of that was because the war was being fought when I was in high school, and wasn’t listening much to either camp. I mean, we listened to the Everly Brothers, to doo-wop, to the maudlin “Teen Angel” or boppin’ “Rock Around the Clock” mindless music of the time, but no one except my friend Chris had ever heard of Dylan in 1965, when he was getting booed at Newport, and when the Beatles came on the radio singing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” most of us said … what’s the big deal? (This was Texas, remember.)
But later, while the battle was still raging and I was vaguely aware of it, I didn’t give a shit. It was always the music that mattered to me, and I didn’t care if it was played by one guy with a guitar or seven guys with electric equipment and a brass section. I was never interested in knowing what category a piece of music fit into; in fact, if I couldn’t categorize it I usually liked it better. But it mattered to the folkies. Whew, boy, did it ever matter to the folkies! In this movie we are treated to human turds in the audience in England shouting out “Traitor!” and other epithets when The Band comes out to join Dylan for the second set. They actually booed him! People with less musical talent or appreciation than Dylan has in his little finger, presuming to judge him because he wanted to explore new musical horizons. This is the key fact about Bob Dylan, and about all musical geniuses: They will not be boxed in. They will not sing what you want them to sing, which is the same old shit you always sang, and which you’re so tired of you could just spit. You see this in Dylan’s first set in England, where he does his old standards with a contempt he doesn’t bother to conceal (he never bothered to do that), twisting and sneering the lyrics, loading the final notes with a dissonance and contempt that is a lot more eloquent than a raised middle finger. Then you see the older Dylan, not apologetic, but bothering to be a lot more cogent than he used to be, and you have to be on his side.
Why all that anger at Dylan? Nobody sneered when the Beatles broke all the molds with Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Nobody shouted that they wanted to hear “Twist and Shout.” (Maybe a live audience would have, but they weren’t performing any more by then, they didn’t have to face audiences.) I guess it’s because the Beatles were always rockers, and rockers just didn’t give a shit, like me. Is it a good tune, man? That’s all we want to know.
Folkies are different. They’re on a mission. If it ain’t relevant, it ain’t folk, and anything that ain’t folk, ain’t shit. And if you bring in a drummer and start singing some crazy crap about “God said to Abraham ‘Kill me a son,’ Abe said ‘Man, you must be puttin’ me on!'” and who knows what the fuck that means … you’re a traitor to the cause of folk music.
Only problem is … what the fuck is folk music? Nobody has ever defined it very well for me, not even my friend who is a folkie to his core, who got upset at the satire A Mighty Wind because it made fun of the lamer aspects of the genre. You can say what definitely is folk music (Woody Guthrie, The Weavers, Pete Seeger) and what isn’t (The Rolling Stones, Tupac Shakur, Lawrence Welk), but what defines it? Here’s some folk singers: Burl Ives, The New Christy Minstrels, The Kingston Trio. Here’s some more: Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, and Peter Paul and Mary (who, I was stunned to realize, are as artificial a construction as New Kids on the Block and Menudo, except they don’t replace members when they get old). Are the first three bad folk singers, since they just sing old songs that don’t protest anything? That’s one of the roots of folk music, singing old songs, and they may be “about” the plight of the miners in West Virginia, the mighty Columbia River, or an old lady who swallowed a fly.
Because Dylan wrote his own stuff, everyone tried to shove him into the mold of Guthrie and Seeger. When he broke away, he was “betraying his roots.” Well, guess what? His “roots” were “How Much is That Doggie in the Window,” trash like that which came over the radio in Hibbing, Minnesota (and Nederland, Texas), in the 1950s, and his influences were Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. Should he have tried to emulate “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Folsom Prison Blues”?
Yeah, he wrote “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and the lyrics of “Only a Pawn in Their Game” actually mentions Medgar Evers. Protest songs, both of them. And he wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which became an anthem in all sorts of counter-culture causes. But he never claimed to be the voice of a generation and was, in fact, just about apolitical. Joan Baez, the best of the talking heads in this film, understands him better than just about anyone else. He was never very interested in the war, in civil rights, in any of it. He was only there for the music. His mission in life was to get the crazy “thought-dreams” out of his head and out there in the ether for the rest of us to ponder, enjoy, and be stunned by. You could write an entire book about “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (and I’m sure somebody actually has), the hidden meanings, the subtext, the Jungian imagery … and it would all be baloney. It means what it means to you … and it means nothing. The first time I heard it, it just washed over me (a few joints didn’t hurt), and I was grinning from one end to the other. If you asked Dylan what it means, he’d say “I don’t know, man.” And that’s why it’s so good. It’s surreal, like “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” but with some bite to it.
To me, Dylan never really got started until Bringing it All Back Home. If I had to make a choice, I’d trade all his previous work for any song on that album. And he just got better from there.
Gee, this is mighty long for a movie review. Since it’s about Dylan, I just had to talk about him, because I’ve gone through four stages with the guy. When I first heard of him, I thought … whaaaa? He can’t sing for shit, I mean his voice is terrible. I know some people, younger than me, who can’t get past that. Then I grew to love his stuff, once I’d actually listened to it. Then he wandered off into byways I wasn’t very interested in. Now, at last, I understand him a lot better, as the voice of my generation, whether he wanted to be or not. Crazy, mixed-up kids … and out there, doing what he wanted.
As for the film, as a film, it is top-notch. Scorsese knits the current material with the historical stuff seamlessly. The old stuff all looks so different now. How could we ever have been that young and naive. Joan Baez, someone I’ve often not cared for very much aside from acknowledging that she has one of the great voices, costars without a lot of screen time. Dylan is incredibly complex and Baez is about as simple and straightforward as someone can get—it’s all about the message to her—and yet she seems wiser about Dylan and his music than anyone else. He treated her like shit, as so many geniuses do, and he can’t explain why and she’s forgiven him, and I think she understands him better than anyone else does.
If the ’60s was the big part of your youth, see this immediately. And if it wasn’t, you need to see it even more, as it goes farther toward explaining what that crazy time was about than any number of ’60s documentaries I’ve seen.