Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Bob Dylan - in the eye of the hurricane.

Original Post - Friday, April 07, 2006

Bob Dylan - No Direction Home

Scorcese's Dylan doc proved as fascinating as expected. The music (Not just Bobs') was given enough space to breathe and not just quickly chopped in and out and there were many voices and much archive to tell the story in a clear and engaging way. Scorsese didn't actually shoot any material for this. The interviews had  been conducted by Dylan manager Jeff Rosen five years ago. They included a long interview with Dylan and interviews with many of the denizens of Greenwich Village in the early sixties. (Liam Clancy, Joan Baez, Al Kooper, His job was to find a narrative structure and he has succeeded admirably, starting and finishing with the famous concert in The Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1966 where Dylan was called Judas when he plugged in his electric guitar. There is a wealth out material culled from the outtakes of 'D A Pennebaker's magnificent 'Don't Look Back' and the rarely seen sequel 'Eat the document· Murray Lerners'  footage of the Newport Folk Festivals of 1962, '63 & '64 , tv clips and other odds and ends.

Liam Clancy explains that New York and more specifically the Village felt at the time like somewhere that had been struck by lightning. And you could almost smell the burning ozone and see its blue tinge in some of the footage. In some frames Dylan seems 'archival' and contained (eg: politely singing his early songs in front of naff painted tv sets). But then there is a moment that could be tomorrow and you get some sense of the electricity that was pouring from him.

Dylan comes through as a kind of artful dodger. Joan Baez calls him a ragamuffin and says that he would have brought out the mothering instinct in a woman who had thought the instinct dead. An acquaintance in Minnesota who finds his collection of rare records has been lightened by Bob calls around with a bowling pin to teach him a lesson (after following down a large number of addresses that Bob had moved through). However he ends up half engaging in conversation with Bob who keeps his cool and doesn't panic. And Dylan today just tells us that the records were as rare as hens teeth. He needed them more than their owner. And it is from Minnesota that one of the more interesting perspectives came. Bob leaves as an average singer but returns a few months with his powers exceptionally augmented. Tales of devils and crossroads are told and Bob does nothing to deny them. Indeed I started to wonder when viewing some of the footage.

Birthplace  Hibbing comes across as little more than a place to leave and certainly doesn't seem to be any kind of 'Home'. Bob tells us that there was nothing there for him, that he felt that he didn't belong. The voices on the radio felt more like home. Carnies and  blackface minstrels in  tent shows come across as being a key influence. Tommy Makem calls him a shape changer and at times I could see all sorts of charcters seemingly inhabiting Dylan from Woody Guthrie with a clenched fist to Woody Allen with a wisecrack; from Little Richard in whiteface to JFK with a handshake - sometimes earnest, sometimes sneering, sometimes lost.    The carnies voice resurfaces again and again - COME HERE AND SEE !!! A HARD RAIN'S GONNA FALL!!! - from behind one of the many masks. He claims to Joan Baez not to know where the songs come from or what they mean and laughs at the idea of serious young men pouring over them in the future trying to deduce their true meaning. At the same time he talks of having found a voice that he had never heard anywhere else before. When he tells a po faced questioner at a press conference that he is 'just a song and dance man' I feel we hover near the truth. Dylan, however clearly sees the role of the song and dance man as being important and not than the absurd claims that he be 'the voice of his generation'. This is why the clips of other 'voices' is so important in this documentary. Billie Holliday, Hank Williams, Muddy Waters and others were the signposts on the road home.

At times it is almost painful to watch some people sense of being betrayed by Dylans move back to Rock 'n' Roll (after all he started out playing rock 'n' roll in Hibbing and the headmaster drew the curtain on him because he was playing too raucously.) We hear that Albert Grossman could manipulate others but that Dylan was beyond that - even weirder than Grossman (but not in a bad way). He certainly seems to have been an operator but from what we see he doesn't seem to have left too much bad feeling after him and even those who may have felt hurt or abandoned or ripped off at the time seem to have forgiven him. Joan Baez simply states that the folk singers owed him for the songs he had written. And hell Johnny Cash gave him his guitar - and old country tradition and great honour  we are told, as if we needed to be told.

The confrontation with the audience, the media and fellow folk singers becomes more and more central as 'No Direction Home' moves towards its conclusion.  The controversy caused by his embrace of electricity is clearly brought to life by the voices of fans outside his half acoustic half electric tour of Britain. He is accused of prostituting himself by some very serious looking young men.  However when one says that this is BOB DYLAN and not a pop group (pah!) a dissenter pipes up that there aren't too many pop groups like that. However the choruses of boos clearly have a huge effect on Dylan and his backing band. We follow them through the crowds into the limo and hear them complain about how hard it is to be in tune over the noise. Dylan refers to the band as knights errant for following him out into the maelstroms of hate. Al Kooper (imagine The Big Lebowski played by Tim Robbins) describes how he decided to jump ship when he heard they were going to Dallas. If they did what they did to JFK he thought, what would they do to Bob. But there is a new audience too. We see a young Irish girl begging for an autograph. He refuses, saying that he'd give it to her if she needed it. And 'Like a Rolling Stone' is topping the charts. Robbie Robertson and Dylan wonder in the back of the limo how come the folk purists can buy up the tickets so quickly.

Many seem really to view him as the Judas of that famed heckle, made all the more difficult to take as he was also their messiah. After his retort 'Liar. I don't believe you.' Bob turns and tells The Band to 'Play it Fucking loud'. He is clearly following his own edict that the artist needs to be in a constant state of becoming and not just stay in the same creative space. And that is how it ends, with 'Like a Rolling Stone' hurled out into the darkness and some intertitles telling us that Bob Dylan had a motorcycle crash and didn't perform live for another eight years. And Bob Dylan remains as enigmatic as ever - the wealth of material here and in 'Chronicles' simply highlighting the mystery. And the wealth of  material glimpsed just makes me yearn for more to be made available - my personal favourite was the clip of  Bob and Johnny Cash singing 'I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry'. Someone please tell me there's a complete version available somewhere.

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