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How it feels: Martin Scorsese's Bob Dylan

About the author
Rob Cawston is openDemocracy's production manager. He has written on film, literature, issues of transitional justice and Bob Dylan.

“Lot of water under the bridge, Lot of other stuff too
Don’t get up Gentlemen, I’m only passing through.”

On completion of his so-called comeback album John Wesley Harding in 1967 Bob Dylan instructed his record company Columbia to release it without publicity or fanfare. Recovering from a near-fatal motorbike accident in 1966 and reacting against what he called “the season of hype”, Dylan had deliberately removed himself from a dizzying spotlight in which he had been branded both the betrayer of folk music and the father of a new cultural generation.

Whether Dylan likes it or not – and I am guessing not – the season of hype has returned. The current Dylanfest, culminating in Martin Scorsese’s documentary No Direction Home, has given the many Dylanologists out there another chance to wax lyrical about the man’s obvious talents and his place at the centre of America’s, and the world’s, contemporary cultural history.

In one of the hundreds of articles recently penned on the subject, Tom Waits – that other great ageing gruffalo of American music – states: “Bob Dylan is a planet to be explored”. As a devoted Dylan fan, my explorations of a musical terrain of extraordinary depth and scope have led me into an enduring Bobsession with his songs and lyrics. Picking up the album Highway 61 Revisited at the age of thirteen I was confronted with something new, something I hadn’t heard before and I was hooked.

Also on the Minnesota bard in openDemocracy:

Todd Gitlin, “Rock of sages” (December 2001)

“As Dylan departs the Madison Square Garden stage, only one stop on the ‘never-ending tour’ that has become his public life, he leaves behind a crowd and a city that, like him, are having to manage the muted joys, discoveries and ordeals of a somehow still open future. That this strange, flawed angel of our disorder remains, still awed and knowing, alive to reality, trying (against the odds) to find something new in himself, is small but real consolation as the hard rain continues to fall on Manhattan and the world.”

As Dylan says in No Direction Home about his early musical influences, including the ever-present Woody Guthrie: “It was the sound of it that got to me … the sound of it”. The novelist Haruki Murakami has described Dylan’s voice as “a boy standing at the window watching the rain” and it is this sense of longing and desire combined with an ability to push into the spaces inside and never rest that makes up what Dylan once called his “wild mercury sound”.

It was a sound that was to change radically in his early career. No Direction Home culminates in Dylan’s now infamous performance with his band The Hawks at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall on 17 May 1966. Facing the booing and slow hand-clapping that had become a constant feature of his British tour and then a shout of “Judas!” from high up in the stalls, Dylan reacts with a performance of Like a Rolling Stone filled with rage and defiance. His cry of “How does it feeeeel…?”, as if wringing the words dry, seems directed at all those who wanted him to remain where he was, or rather where he had been – as the “voice of a generation”, a protest singer that could lead a new American generation. Dylan had torn free and was heading where he wanted, into an electrified world of rock.

This moment – referred to with increasing regularity as the true birth of rock music – was the culmination of several years of intense artistic production from an artist still in his early 20s. Working with a Keatsian intensity Dylan produced three groundbreaking albums in rapid succession: Bringing it all Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. As Dylan states in his autobiography Chronicles: Volume One “everything was moving fast – lickety-split”.

Many however saw his new electrified sound as a sign of a growing commercialisation and the selling-out of his folk-music roots. In many ways they were right. Dylan entered high on the singles charts and his popularity boomed on both sides of the Atlantic. For those few years he was the coolest man on the planet, leading the way musically and marching ahead of the 196os generation. As Dylan says: “things that had once been in black and white were now exploding in full, sunny color.”

Strike another match, go start anew

Scorsese’s documentary is at its best when portraying the sharp division between this new direction and the folk traditions from which Dylan had come. It is a division reflected in the two halves – hushed acoustic and blaring electric – of Dylan’s 1966 set and in the increasingly confused relationship with his fans.

In one piece of footage caught by the ever-present filmmaker DA Pennebaker, two young British fans lean into Dylan’s car only to state that “we don’t like you anymore” before asking for his autograph. We see Dylan performing Mr Tambourine Man to a traditional folk crowd who seem to be scouring each line, each word for the meaning or a message. Of course, none is forthcoming among the “skipping reels of rhyme” apart from an apparent abandonment of the previous hope to ring out the chimes of freedom for the selfish desire to “let me forget about today until tomorrow”.

It is the supplication “let me” of this lyric that stands out and makes the subsequent cry of “how does it feel?” all the more confrontational and divisive. The musician was feeling increasingly trapped by the world around him, a pressure symbolised brilliantly by a shot of Dylan stoney-faced in his car as the young faces of the generation he is supposed to be speaking for stare in at him. We see a chirpy announcer introduce him on stage with the words “you know him, he’s yours …” Joan Baez, Dylan’s partner on and off stage during the early 1960s, recalls with frustration how she used to turn up at a civil rights march or whatever and be asked “is Bob coming?”. “He never came!” she laughs.

Most revealing of all is the myriad of press conferences in which Dylan is constantly asked “what is your message? What are you trying to say?” Scorsese’s edit takes us from a jovial Dylan famously answering “136” to the question “how many protest singers are there?”, to an angry Dylan shouting back “what do you want me to say?”, to one who seems to have given up altogether and answers in monosyllables.

As he says in Chronicles: “Reporters would shout questions at me and I would tell them repeatedly that I was not a spokesperson for anything or anybody and that I was only a musician.” We see the constant refusal of people to accept that Dylan had moved on and his own refusal to speak for all those that wanted to listen and follow.

For me, the strength of No Direction Home lies in its ability to reposition Dylan’s lyrics in this new frame of reference. Mr Tambourine Man’s “my weariness amazes me, I’m branded on my feet”, for instance, speaks of the growing pressures surrounding the artist. In Visions of Johanna he seems to parody the booing crowd’s view of himself as a “little boy lost” who “takes him so seriously” and has “sure got a lot of gall / to be so useless and all”. In his Oscar-winning song of 2003, Things have Changed, Dylan seems to sum it all up: “I’m locked in tight. I’m out of range / I used to care, but things have changed”.

Burnt out by the constant touring and the whirlwind of drugs – noticeably absent in Scorsese’s cut – Dylan returned home only to fall from his Triumph 500 one month later in June 1966. Many would not have been surprised if this was the end and he had followed a similar path to James Dean, Hank Williams, or Arthur Rimbaud. But away from a spiralling flood of exaggeration and rumours Dylan was slowly recuperating from shattered vertebrae at home with his young family sheltering from the storm. His mark had been indelibly made and, although he was to produce other great albums – most notably Blood on the Tracks and Time out of Mind – Dylan was never again at the centre of a cultural revolution.

The man within

Perhaps this was the way he had always wanted it. “I had never intended to be on the road of heavy consequences and I didn’t like it”, Dylan writes further in Chronicles. In all of this – the stories, the quotations, the archive footage – you are left with the profound sense that what we are given is one step removed from the real deal. Scorsese’s documentary did a lot of things right, not least in recreating the profound sense of invasion and claustrophobia surrounding Dylan at the height of his fame, but it never quite got under the skin of the man himself. In his most recent interview on the film he always appeared as a man never prepared to let on all he knows, to show his whole hand.

This reticence was frustrating but typical of the artist. In many ways the “real Dylan” has never existed. Tony Curtis once said that fame is an occupation, a separate thing from life. Dylan – or should we say Zimmerman? – has always closely defended his private life and continually sort to remould or even defy his public image. “I couldn’t just lie there, had to take the bull by the horns myself and remodel the image of me, change the perception of it anyway”. He has been doing so ever since.

Dylan is (as Liam Clancy describes him in Scorsese’s film) a “shape-shifter”, continually moving to avoid being pinned down and to deliberately confound the expectations of a label or a group. He has moved through periods of Buddhism, Judaism and evangelical Christianity and even recently endorsed the corporate symbol of imperialist America, Starbucks. It is a far cry from the coffee-houses of Greenwich Village. Things have certainly changed but as Dylan himself sings “he not busy being born is busy dying”.

In Scorsese’s film Dylan describes himself as “a musical expeditionary” and he has covered many styles, from folk to blues to rock to gospel, often with mixed results. Certainly he would not have survived artistically if he had continued to remain a protest singer seeking to always say something about the ever-changing times. Instead it has been the Bobsessives and the Dylanologists who continue to relish the challenge of exploring and unravelling the layers of meaning.

If Dylan is a planet it is one covered in a sea of words and interpretations. The man himself would probably not approve and usher us back down to our seats (“Don’t get up Gentlemen please”). Indeed, Dylan complained of the John Wesley Harding album: “people have made a lot out of it, as if it were some sort of ink blot test or something. It was never intended to be anything else than just a bunch of songs”.

But for many, these songs – more than 500 of them – have become part of the fabric of their lives, and deservedly so. And although the man himself never stays still long enough to pin him down (“I’m only passing through”), Dylan’s legacy is destined to remain long after he has finally found his way home.

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