Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Scorsese and Dylan

I don't know how many of you caught Martin Scorsese's film on Bob Dylan that was broadcast on PBS the last couple nights. But if you missed it, you missed something special. What a great film. I was impressed by how coherent and forthcoming the present-day Dylan is in his comments. He seems to be past the point of feeling the need to play games with interviewers.

But I certainly gained a new appreciation for why he felt the need to play those games in the first place. Scorsese's collage of the '66 European tour, where he showed Bob answering the same inane press questions again and again, made me appreciate how truly wearying it must have been to face that interviewing onslaught day after day.

And even though much of the '66 concert footage is readily available in D. A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back, I was thrilled to see and hear those monumental songs again. Others have frequently complained about Bob's offputting howl, but I have to say that I love that howl. Hearing Dylan respond to the boos and catcalls with "Something is happening/And you don't know what it is/Do you, Mr. Jones?" is still the best upraised musical middle finger I've ever heard.

In retrospect, it is easy to understand the bewilderment and hostility of the audience. Aside from the folk scene "betrayal" issues, Dylan's music in '66 was an absolute sonic pummeling -- loud, abrasive, and so densely packed lyrically (even when the audience could hear the lyrics) as to defy instant comprehension. It must have sounded as foreign and alien to his audiences as Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music would sound to the recent escapees of the Mickey Mouse Club at an Ashley Simpson concert. Amazingly, Dylan persevered through it. But Scorsese's film reminded me just how utterly revolutionary Dylan's music was at the time. He busted the doors wide open, and music has never been the same. I thought Scorsese captured that moment just about perfectly.


danthress said...

Andy, it was brilliant juxtaposing his lyrics/performances with the totally clueless interviewers. Yeah, it really showed you how he must have felt.

I have seen, and loved, Don't Look Back, but still learned so much from this film.

Andy Whitman said...

Yep. My respect for the man, always very high, probably increased as a result of watching Scorsese's film. But I probably felt more sadness for him, too. Undoubtedly he's a genius. But we saddle our geniuses with such baggage, and there's a fair amount of evidence in the contemporary interviews that he's been weighed down by the load, in spite of his most valliant attempts to remain above the fray.

In Dylan's case, he truly is a man without a home, and that "No Direction Home" title was completely accurate. Fifteen years ago he embarked on his "Neverending Tour," and that's now the way he lives. Yeah, nobody's going to fence him in, and he retains his fierce independence. At the cost of being a nomad.

Scorsese's film helped me realize for the first time that Dylan really was NOT playing games with the interviewers on those mid-60s tours, all smartass evidence to the contrary. Here was a man unwillingly placed in the center of a maelstrom, being treated like a god, or a Spokesman For A Generation, or what have you, and it seems to me that he responded to it in the most logical and sane way possible -- by refusing to play the game in the first place.

Just how does a sane person answer insane questions? Or deal with an insane situation? And it struck me that Dylan was simply protecting himself, protecting himself from losing his identity and actually being transformed into the very things that other people were foisting onto him.

Probably the most striking interview moment for me came when Joan Baez - in the present - said something about how hurt she was when Dylan didn't want her on stage in England because he meant so much "to us."

It was the "us" that provided that "aha" moment for me. After all these years, she STILL doesn't get it. Dylan doesn't belong to "us." Dylan is a human being. A genius human being, to be sure. But he's a human being. He's not a symbol. And he rejected the whole notion of becoming a symbol.

I always thought Dylan was a bit crazy back then. Now I realize that he was actually intensely sane. It was everybody else (except maybe Maria Muldaur, who seems to have "gotten" what Dylan was about) who was crazy.

The documentary gave me a renewed respect for Bob Dylan as a human being. What an amazing guy, to be able to survive all that and keep himself (relatively) intact.

And yet, I feel bad for him, too. I have no idea what Bob Dylan believes these days, or how he lives. I wouldn't even want to speculate. But I do know that at one time he claimed to be a follower of Christ, and I do know that a nomadic existence puts severe stresses on the Christian life, which is intended to be lived in community, as part of the body of Christ. The life of a touring musician is, of course, an inherently hard one. But to have no home at all? What would that do to one's psyche? What would that do to one's faith?

Several people commented in Scorsese's film that Dylan does whatever the hell he wants to do, and that he always has. I have no doubt that's a source of great strength for him; it might even be a distinguishing mark of genius, of stubbornly holding on to one's beliefs and perceived vision in the face of indifference or hostility. But it can also be alienating. Just ask almost anybody who's ever spent any extended time with him. There are moments in Bob Dylan's life that I'm sure he regrets. How could there not be? He is, after all, first and foremost simply that human being he has struggled so mightily to protect. But he seemingly cannot bring himself to admit those regrets. He stole his friend's record collection. He treated Joan Baez like shit, and he knows it, but he still can't bring himself to admit it. He made up a past life, wholesale, and pawned himself off as a sort of itinerant hobo, a traveling minstreal traveling the land and performing in circuses. And now, ironically, it's pretty much the truth.

I feel bad for him. I used to wish that for just one time I could stand inside his shoes, and just for that one moment I could be him. I don't wish that now. It's not a drag to see him. Far from it. He's an astonishingly gifted artist. But there are many, many flaws. They don't make me want to judge him. They make me want to hug him, tell him that it's okay to admit that he's wrong, that he's sometimes a jerk, that even geniuses have souls and consciences that should sometimes be heeded, and that he should do that not because he's a symbol, but simply because he's a unique human being.

Anonymous said...

I turnned to my brother Joe at one point when Bob was talking, put my hand on his leg, looked him in the eyes and said, "Do you know how much I am in love with this man? Do you?"
He said, "Yes, Megan. Yes."

I fell in love all over again. And I own Don't Look Back. I always thought the interview questions made the interviewers look like asshats. I would answer the same way if it were me.

Eriol said...

Yes, the bio was wonderful. When the the reporters kept going after Dylan, my mom laughed at the inanity of the reporters. She doesn't care anything for Dylan, but admired his sanity.
andy whitman, you mentioned Dylan was sane; everyone around him was insane.
George Harrison has something similar about the Beatles' American invasion. The Beatles were sane, and their fans were insane.

What I particularly enjoyed by new Dylan interviews was when he reflected on his early arrogance about Woody Guthrie and Baez. ("Saw her on TV and thought she might need a singing partner".)

Anonymous said...

What will they think of next? Here I was looking for bar supplies and I end up reading about Scorsese and Dylan. What a change I would never think about that. Wonderful to run into your site Andy Whitman. Gave me a little break from my world. My world is in Las Vegas.