No Direction Home

on Oct 09 in Flotsum & Jetsam by

There are so many things to admire about Bob Dylan – his ability to tap into the deepest aspects of human experience, his rhythmic and melodic range, which has made his huge catalog diverse, as if written by several different extraordinary songwriters, his persistence, his output, even his voice, which seems to come from a deeper, more genuine place in him than other popular singers, save vocalists like Jeff Buckley and Aretha Franklin. No Direction Home may not be the most entertaining way to spend 3 ½ hours (unless you are diehard Dylan fan or a nostalgic baby boomer), nor does it reveal much more about the man behind the persona he has constructed and maintained for over forty years, but it does show Dylan’s protean nature, his willingness to turn his back on fame and adoration, shape-shifting, and defying his audience to follow.

Throughout this documentary, old folkies wax nostalgic about Dylan, displaying their affection and projections. Liam Clancy, an Irish singer who was part of the early Village scene, drains beer after beer before delivering a sentimentally drenched rendition of “Girl of the North Country.” And the late Dave van Ronk, a charming wonk and extraordinary guitar player slash song interpreter whose career never went anywhere because of a speech impediment and an almost comically gruff voice is funny and sweet and comes across as a great defender of his friend Bobby’s prickliness.

There are some genuine moments too. Joan Baez, who for a short time saw herself as Bob’s nurturing protector and wifely partner, spoke candidly about being dumped by Dylan on one of the early European tours. Folk elder Pete Seeger cops to being so upset by Dylan’s electric performance at Newport Folk Festival that he would have happily cut the cables if he’d only had an ax (what if he had a hammer?). Dylan himself displays a more serious side than usual, as if he was answering some barely remembered, but still highly irritating charge, or trying to set the record straight instead of creating yet another product in the ever-exploding Bob Dylan Merchandising Catalog.

My favorite moment in Part One was the poet Allen Ginsberg talking about his response to first hearing Dylan. Since the mid-fifties, Ginsberg had basked in the public eye as the “voice of a generation,” and in the instant he knew he had been replaced by Dylan, the old poet had the courage to admit he wept. Ginsberg saw himself as a revelatory poet in a direct line that started with poets of the Bible and Rumi, arriving in more modern times in the voices of William Blake and Walt Whitman. Throughout the Sixties and Seventies, the two bards appeared together — Ginsberg in the background of the video of Positively Fourth Street, while Dylan peels off placards with nouns and phrases from the song; and ten years later, Ginsberg chanting onstage as part of the Rolling Thunder Review. The beat generation bard was passing the mantle and blessing the younger poet, which would have been a big deal in American literary culture except that Dylan, just as his career started to really take off, disavowed that lineage over and over again.

It becomes clear by Part Two, that this film is driven in large part by Bob Dylan’s determination to be remembered neither as a protest singer nor as the voice of a generation and many of the interviews focus on the confusion and conflict that arose about this between critics, Dylan’s listeners and him. In his fans’ minds, Dylan rose to fame by giving voice to the counterculture with songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They are a Changing,” “Talkin’ World War III Blues,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” and “With God on our Side” – songs protesting the Vietnam War, racial inequality, nuclear proliferation, and duplicity in religion and in human interactions. For writing these, people felt Dylan had a responsibility to come to marches, to take a leadership role, and he said no. For the past forty years, Dylan has insisted he’s just a song and dance man; eschewing interviews, flattery, most honors and the kind of deification that so commonly now accompanies pop stardom.

In his gauzy memoir, Chronicles, Volume One, Dylan distances himself even further. “I had a primitive way of looking at things and I liked country fair politics,” he says near the end of the book. “My favorite politician was Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, who reminded me of Tom Mix, and there wasn’t any way to explain that to anybody.” Dylan’s right about that. Goldwater was considered by virtually everyone under age thirty and a majority of people in their forties, fifties and sixties, a right wing nut who, while campaigning for president in 1964, advocated using nuclear weapons against enemies of the U.S. “I wasn’t that comfortable with all the psycho polemic babble. It wasn’t my particular feast of food. Even the current news made me nervous. I liked the old news (of the fifties) better.” Yikes.

I often wonder why Dylan doesn’t just say “that was me then, this is me now,” and move on. He could make a convincing case that he is following his muse; that no artist has to maintain a voice or a style of work or a political position for his audience. It’s not in the contract, implicit or otherwise. Yet obstreperousness is part of who Bob Dylan is, even though denying he the spokesman of a generation, or even a protest singer ascribes to much of his work a kind of accidentalism, like being in the right place at the right time. In a weird way, to accept Dylan’s own argument puts some of what he accomplished in question. Again, from Chronicles: “I was a “slight, introverted and asthma stricken child,” he says, and one pictures him calling Martin Scorcese and asking him to put together this film in accordance with a public relations scheme he hatched in his childhood bedroom back in the late-fifties in Hibbings.

The documentary makes clear another reason Dylan pissed off his audience. Sound systems in the days of the Newport Folk Festival and the England tour were only slightly more sophisticated than public address systems made for politicians giving speeches. And Dylan’s accompanists, Paul Butterfield and Robbie Robertson were jagged guitarists, their bands, rough and abrasive. Lest anyone need to be reminded of this, rock music, without EQ, mixed poorly, above a certain decibel level, is, for most people, really painful. The songs may have turned out to be amazing, but they probably sounded terrible.

No Direction Home finishes in 1966, after an exhausted Dylan returns from touring England, where he receives, for the most part, a hostile reception. We learn from screen text that after his motorcycle accident, Dylan will retire from touring for the next eight years. The documentary ends here. Three and half hours isn’t long enough to chronicle even the first ten years of Dylan’s career, and we are left waiting for Scorcese or some other director to pick up the story line and get us from Dylan getting married, having a bunch of kids, getting divorced, recording Blood on the Tracks (a completely apolitical album), his born again period, all the way to Dylan’s appearance in a Victoria’s Secret television ad and the release of the first volume of his memoir last year.

“In art,” Picasso said, “people no longer seek consolation and exaltation, but…what is new, strange, extravagant, scandalous. I myself have satisfied these masters and critics with all the changing oddities, which pass through my head, and the less they understood me, the more they admire me…. Fame means sales, gains, fortune, riches. And today, as you know, I am celebrated. I am rich. But when I am alone with myself, I have not the courage to think of myself as an artist in the great and ancient sense of the term. Giotto, Titan, Rembrandt were great painters. I am only a public entertainer who has understood his times and exploited as best he could the imbecility, the vanity, the cupidity of his contemporaries.”

No Direction Home makes it clear that how he is regarded is what really matters to Bob Dylan now. One suspects this is the reason behind Dylan’s ceaseless touring, recording, merchandising and promoting himself. There is a moment late in Part Two where Dylan today – face deeply creased, wearing makeup, a leather jacket, his hair coiffed and puffed out, as usual, measuring his words carefully – is asked by someone off camera exactly who he is trying to avoid. “People like you,” he sneers.

How much of Dylan’s output and behavior is a response to expectation, like the mischievous boy who is never quite finished rebelling against or disappointing his parents? Who knows? As brilliant a singer and songwriter as he is, he’s made some pretty bad albums and given some famously terrible concerts. For Dylan to be like Picasso – simply an entertainer – Ginsberg would have had to be wrong, which would not have been the first time. Maybe neither Dylan nor Picasso, nor, by extension, any artist is qualified to determine his place in the canon. By the end of the film, I felt Dylan’s powerful ambition is in large part fueled by his irrepressible urge to say to anyone who thinks he’s great, “go fuck yourself.”

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