1.25.2006

what i'm watching: bob dylan, martin scorsese

Last night we watched Part I of "No Direction Home," Martin Scorsese's tribute to Bob Dylan. It originally aired as part of the excellent PBS "American Masters" series, and is now out on DVD. (If I recall correctly, wmtc friend G The Library Bitch blogged about it when it was on TV.)

"No Direction Home" isn't a standard biography, as it profiles Dylan's life and career only up to 1966. I'm not sure that people who don't already get Dylan - his influence, his importance, his outsized creativity - would appreciate this movie, although I'd like to know. (I'd love to hear an impression of the film from someone who didn't already love Dylan.)

For me, this movie was extremely intense, a treasure trove of artistic and political heroes. I've always understood Dylan as an heir to Woody Guthrie and Allen Ginsberg. To hear Allen Ginsberg say that when he first heard "Hard Rain", he wept, because he realized the torch had been passed to a new generation - that just gives me chills. Woody Guthrie is a lifelong hero of mine, it's fair to say I grew up idolizing him. Allen Ginsberg was one of the greatest American artists, not to mention a New York City legend and a freedom fighter in the truest sense. This film celebrates the connections between Dylan and the traditions of both Guthrie and Ginsberg.

I've also always marveled at Dylan's ability to absorb so many disparate musical influences and make them his own. The film is full of early footage of those influences - Odetta, Muddy Waters (Muddy at Newport! I must see more!!), Josh White.

"No Direction Home" traces Dylan's early life in Minnesota, where he felt he had been born in the wrong place and time, to his world-changing pilgrimage to find Woody Guthrie, which brought him to the thriving folk music scene in New York City's Greenwich Village. There, he invented a new past for himself, and re-invented his music. The movie gives a really potent portrait of that legendary music scene, and how Dylan changed it.

Interspersed throughout the movie is footage from the famous concert in England, known (incorrectly) as the Royal Albert Hall show, May 17, 1966. There, in the expression of the time, "Dylan goes electric", to a chorus of boos and jeers, where his audience was sure he had "sold out" and "gone pop". His backing band, of course, is The Band. (You can catch little glimpses of the young and beautiful (and Canadian) Robbie Robertson and Rick Danko.)

This is why I'm not sure that someone unfamiliar with Dylan would appreciate this movie. If you don't know what that concert is and what happened there, would these scenes make any sense? Would it maybe give the movie some interesting mystery?

Dylan's artistic energy was so gigantic in those days, that by the time an album would come out, he was way past it. His fans wanted to hear the Dylan on the album they had bought, but he was busy exploring something new. That would be the story of his creative life for decades to come.

And that's one remarkable thing about this movie. It's a very deep, rich portrait of an artist, but it ends at 1966. You hear all these other important artists - Ginsberg, Liam Clancy, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez - extolling Dylan's genius, and it's only 1963. His best work is still far ahead of him.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about "No Direction Home" is seeing Bob Dylan, the man, speak. He's spent decades focusing only on the music, never on himself, thwarting the cultural desire to confuse the person and the music. And here he is, talking, about himself.

It's obvious we're listening to today's Bob Dylan give his version of events then, that we're hearing about those events through the filter of time - but that's fine. It's real because it's his filter, and his memories. We've got Scorsese for historical accuracy, but Dylan can give us his own subjective truth.

20 comments:

Marnie said...

The other day, for some reason, "This Land is Your Land" was running through my head, and I found myself wondering if you were familiar with the version we learned at school. This is what Canadian kids sing:

This land is your land,
This land is my land,
From Bonavista
To Vancouver Island,
From the Arctic Circle,
To the Great Lake waters,
This land was made for you and me.

(Sacrilege? Discuss.)

L-girl said...

Beautiful! I'm glad to know this. I've never heard of it before.

I'm 100% certain that Woody would approve.

Wrye said...

I was very puzzled as to why Americans had their own version of that song, for the longest time.

May I suggest the quirky Canadian film Highway 61, which includes a man who is apparently the devil, saying:

"Lady, you can't cheat at bingo. If you could, I would. But you can't. I'm just lucky.
Lucky to end up in a town full of losers."


My old professor Stephen Scobie also did some interesting critical and poetic work on the subject of Dylan. I'll see if I can run that down.

L-girl said...

I was very puzzled as to why Americans had their own version of that song, for the longest time.

:D

My parents taught it to me practically as a national anthem. I've heard my mother say many times that it should be the US's national anthem.

May I suggest the quirky Canadian film Highway 61

Thanks! I hope Zip.ca has it.

My old professor Stephen Scobie also did some interesting critical and poetic work on the subject of Dylan. I'll see if I can run that down.

I'd love to see it.

L-girl said...

May I suggest the quirky Canadian film Highway 61

Thanks! I hope Zip.ca has it.


They do, and it's now on our list.

lenny said...

I'd recommend you rent Roadkill, MacDonald's previous film, at the same time if possible.

mister anchovy said...

When that Scorcese / Dylan documentary was aired on PBS, I was in Nashville, and we watched it in our hotel room, repeated at midnight. I really enjoy Bob Dylan, and I enjoyed this documentary, but I found I had to remind myself how revisionist it was. For instance, it gave Tony Glover a lot of play, but watching this show, you wouldn't have any idea that folks like Phil Ochs and Jack Elliott were part of the scene.

L-girl said...

I really enjoy Bob Dylan, and I enjoyed this documentary, but I found I had to remind myself how revisionist it was. For instance, it gave Tony Glover a lot of play, but watching this show, you wouldn't have any idea that folks like Phil Ochs and Jack Elliott were part of the scene.

Hi Mister Anchovy! Nice to see you here.

Well, each person who writes history writes it in his own way, and this is one person telling one story.

My view is that the movie wasn't meant to be a definitive portrait of a scene. It's only about that time and place as it relates to Bob Dylan - because it's a story about Bob Dylan. So if Phil Ochs and Jack Elliott don't directly intersect with Dylan's story, they're not going to be in the film. It's outside the scope of the story.

That's not revisionist, it's just a more narrowly defined topic.

L-girl said...

I'd recommend you rent Roadkill, MacDonald's previous film, at the same time if possible.

Thanks, Lenny - I'm on it. :)

David Cho said...

Just finished watching.

Since I am a Dylan beginner who has come to love his music just in recent months, I don't think I qualify as "someone who didn't already love Dylan," but pretty close.

Admittedly, there is a lot of things that I can't relate to and I have noted myself to educate myself about them in the future. For example, I didn't know who Ginsburg was, and the whole Greenwich Village scene and Bohemian culture are as foreign as they can be. Ah but I have always been deeply captivated by Joan Baez, but my goodness, as demure as she looks, the woman has a foul mouth.

Because of my introduction to Dylan was through Pete Seeger, I had viewed Dylan through his eyes and pegged him down as a topical singer speaking for the counter-culture generation of the 60's.

So when I heard songs like Mr Tambourine Man, I looked for protest overtones in the lyrics. I was guilty of what the whole world was guilty of doing to Dylan which he detested.

I got the impression that Seeger still has not come to terms with Dylan's departure from folk. Would you agree with that? I think Joan Baez put it really well. You don't try to figure him out. You just settle with what you can get from him.

I really appreciate that trait about Dylan - asserting himself as his own man and not caring much about what others think. I can relate to that because I too detest getting pegged down as anything (be it Korean, Christian, conservative, etc.).

So Laura, be honest. I know you would have been too young during Dylan's departure from folk music to have understood what was happening, but wouldn't you have booed him too, given your love for Guthrie and your leftist ideology?

Oops. Now I am pigeonholing you. You can smack me when you come to visit. I don't think Noah will try to defend me :).

L-girl said...

David, thanks for your thoughtful comment. Great stuff.

For example, I didn't know who Ginsburg was

He's a great person to find out more about (and a hero of mine). You might start by learning about "Howl".

I have always been deeply captivated by Joan Baez

Excellent choice. :)

but my goodness, as demure as she looks, the woman has a foul mouth.

Ah, David. A "curse word" comes out of a woman's mouth, and she's gone to seed. We're human, you know. We curse just like men do.

I was guilty of what the whole world was guilty of doing to Dylan which he detested.

But it's really cool, too, in that you're experiencing Dylan's journey in your own little microcosm.

I got the impression that Seeger still has not come to terms with Dylan's departure from folk. Would you agree with that?

I got the opposite impression - that now that he sees who Dylan has become, he understands it, but that thinking back, he can easily recall his feelings then.

I really appreciate that trait about Dylan - asserting himself as his own man and not caring much about what others think.

That's probably what I appreciate most about any artist. Which brings me to your last question.

So Laura, be honest. I know you would have been too young during Dylan's departure from folk music to have understood what was happening, but wouldn't you have booed him too, given your love for Guthrie and your leftist ideology?

But my leftist ideology is not part of my deep appreciation of art and music. I love when great art is also political, but I don't like art that is only political but not good art. For example, Neil Young put out a political album last year (or maybe the year before). I agree 100% with its politics, but it's a real piece of crap, musically. I can't listen to it.

The musicians I admire most have always gone their own way, not with commercial or critical pressures, and not with pressure from fans. I haven't always liked the results, but that's beside the point to me.

My idol, Joni Mitchell, is the prime example of this. But any musician I admire can be described that way. (I'm saying "musician I admire" as separate from "the music I love".)

Since I've been old enough to understand anything about Dylan, I've always been fascinated with - and hugely admired - his insistence on following his own musical instincts, his wildly individualistic vision.

PLUS...

I love The Band!! Rick Danko (the bass player) was one of my first crushes. The day The Last Waltz opened in NYC, I cut out of school to go to The City to see it on the big screen. Dylan's work with The Band is among my favourite music of all time.

So I'd like to think that if I had been somehow lucky enough to have witnessed Dylan's transformation, I would have adored every last, loud note.

Oops. Now I am pigeonholing you.

And you were forgetting the side of me that is an art appreciator, rather than the political me.

You can smack me when you come to visit.

Will do. :)

redsock said...

Plus we like really loud abrasive rock (and blues) so it might not have been such a shock. We are not purists of any genre. Dylan plugging in might have seemed like the miracle it really was.

P.S. to Laura: Do not, under any circumstances, try to find a picture of Danko in the last five or so years of his life. You should remember him as he is in The Last Waltz. ... Really. I mean it.

L-girl said...

Plus we like really loud abrasive rock (and blues)

Ah, good point. Indeed, we like that music waaay more than we like the folky stuff.

P.S. to Laura: Do not, under any circumstances, try to find a picture of Danko in the last five or so years of his life. You should remember him as he is in The Last Waltz. ... Really. I mean it.

LOL, I know. The last couple of times we saw him play, he was already way past the point of any crush. Revulsion or pity would be more like it. He fell apart.

But I will take your advice and not search for a picture.

Robbie, on the other hand... whoooby, is it hot in here, or is it me?

David Cho said...

Boy, don't I wish blogger had a better way of allowing commenters to interact with each other...

Another thing about the movie I wanted to mention was that Dylan plays through the boos and abuse heaped on him with just as much passion as he does in front of adoring fans. His rendition of Like a rolling stone in front of the British audience is amazing. He never looks dispirited. Is that always the case?

Besides Ginsburg, didn't you mention another hero of yours? Was it Alan Glove?

Well, Baez used the n-word which irked me. But then, Dylan does too in Hurricane. I wonder if that will become an issue. Not that I want to open a can of worms here.

That's probably what I appreciate most about any artist. Which brings me to your last question.

I appreciate that (asserting one's individuality) about ANYBODY. I appreciate that about you too when it comes to politics. You are not afraid to take Democrats to task, for example, when everything in politics is seen through the us-against-them filter. Not to go off topic here.

For example, Neil Young put out a political album last year (or maybe the year before). I agree 100% with its politics, but it's a real piece of crap, musically. I can't listen to it.

Good point. I feel the same about Christian music. There is some real crap out there. Pure crap. BTW, I have been sampling music from the folk revival genre (Simon and Garfunkel, Baez, Peter Paul and Mary), and there are some really good Christian songs. So much for hippies being godless :).

Can you think of good topical young song writers? I mean, there is no shortage of material.

My idol, Joni Mitchell, is the prime example of this.

She is now on my list to check out.

redsock, now I know where your avatar comes from.

L-girl said...

My idol, Joni Mitchell, is the prime example of this.

She is now on my list to check out.


Oh boy, that's a can of worms in itself. Her music has changed tremendously over the years, more than Dylan's has.

Start with something very early (folky), then listen to Blue, then check out Court and Spark. That will give you some idea of some of her changes, but that still is only up to the 1970s. She's done jazz, pop, all kinds of things. Plus she's a painter, a visual artist, as well.

Anyway, I'd recommend starting with Blue and Court and Spark.

Besides Ginsburg, didn't you mention another hero of yours? Was it Alan Glove?

Who dat? Don't know that one. I have a lot of heroes, but this Mr Glove is not one of them.

Well, Baez used the n-word which irked me. But then, Dylan does too in Hurricane. I wonder if that will become an issue.

But in Hurricane, it's in context, "to the black folk he was just a crazy nigger". It's someone else's thought (plus it rhymes with trigger). Dylan's not calling anyone a nigger! Huge difference.

In what context does Joan Baez use it? For godsakes, she is a civil rights activist.

I appreciate that (asserting one's individuality) about ANYBODY.

Yes, me too.

I appreciate that about you too when it comes to politics. You are not afraid to take Democrats to task, for example, when everything in politics is seen through the us-against-them filter. Not to go off topic here.

I appreciate your appreciation, but please remember how much I hate the Democrats. I am all about us-vs-them. Seriously, I am. And the Democrats and Republicans are both them. (Cue Tommy Douglas on cats and mice...)

Can you think of good topical young song writers?

Yes. Many. Can't do that now, though. Supposed to be working...

redsock, now I know where your avatar comes from.

I love this one! The movie it's from is a famous Dylan cult thing. You should try to see it. (And Redsock, you should keep this one!)

L-girl said...

I feel the same about Christian music. There is some real crap out there.

Some?

Sorry, I couldn't resist. I have never heard Christian music - except for gospel music - that is anything but crap. Crrrap. But I have only heard a tiny sample, and most of it very radio-friendly, which is crap almost by definition.

redsock said...

There is likely not one cell in my body that leans toward religion at this point, but I do like raucous gospel. And many of the blues guys I love went back and forth from blues to gospel (god and the devil) throughout their lives.

Some spiritual songs from raw-voiced bluesman Blind Willie Johnson -- like "God Don't Ever Change" -- are among my favourite music ever.

I was a very young 15/16 when Slow Train Coming came out. And based on what music magazines I read at that time (Rolling Stone, Musician and Stereo Review), when Saved came out and was panned as pure crap, I assumed it was. (If I recall, it wasn't only the lyrics that were hated, it was the music.) I certainly had no urge to listen to religous music. If I had been a little bit older and more of a fan, I assume I would have left Dylan and gone somewhere else -- thinking it was a waste of talent and a drag -- though likely would have come back if I read he was doing "non-God" music again. And, indeed, I quite like his 1983 album Infidels, though there are many fans who do not.

Now, thanks to the wonder of bootleg concert recordings (and good old maturity!), I know that his gospel tours included some of the most passionate shows of his career -- and he wrote some of his greatest songs for those albums.

I just thought of the King of the Hill episode where Bobby gets involved with a Christian youth group. At one point, during a concert, Hank says to the pastor: "Don't you see? You're not making Christianity better, you're just making rock n' roll worse."

...

So is there a difference between spirituals, gospel and Christian music?

L-girl said...

Hey, nice post, Allan.

I love rollicking gospel music, although I don't like the slow, quasi-operatic style of gospel singing, the solist stuff. And of course gospel is a great influence on rock.

I assumed (mistakenly?) that David was talking about the dreaded Christian pop.

"Don't you see? You're not making Christianity better, you're just making rock n' roll worse."

That's worth repeating. :)

redsock said...

And there is the South Park episode in which Cartman forms a Christian rock band (Faith +1).

CARTMAN: Our band should play Christian rock!

KYLE: Christian rock?!

CARTMAN: Think about it! It's the easiest, crappiest music in the world, right? If we just play songs about how much we love Jesus, all the Christians will buy our crap.

"Don't ever leave me, Jesus
I couldn't stand to see you go
My heart would simply snap, my Lord, if you walked on out that door
I promise I'll be good to you, and keep you warm at night
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, why don't we just shut off the lights"

...

ANNOUNCER: K-tal Records presents the most inspirational Christian rock band in the world! Faith + 1, featuring the very best in good, wholesome Christian music.

CARTMAN: Oh Lord you are my Savior! You know I miss you so much when you are gone.

ANNOUNCER: With great inspirational songs like "I Wasn't Born Again Yesterday".

CARTMAN: Yes I may be born again, but I was wasn't born again yesterday. I wanna get down on my knees and start pleasing Jesus! I wanna feel his salvation all over my face!

ANNOUNCER: The CD is filled with instant classics. Who doesn't remember...

CARTMAN: The Body of Christ! Sleek swimmer's body, all muscled up and toned! The Body of Christ! O, Lord Almighty, I wish I could call it my own! You're one time, two times, three times my Savior. Whenever I see Jesus up on that Cross I can't help but think that he looks kinda hot ...

...

MICHAEL COLLINS: Boys, in recognition for over one million records sold, the Christian
Recording Industry is please to present you with this Myrrh album.

CARTMAN: Thank you very uh- wah? Myrrh album?

STAN: I thought albums win either gold or platinum.

MICHAEL COLLINS: No no, in Christian rock, our albums go gold and frankincense and myrrh. Congratulations!

CARTMAN: You mean to tell me I could never get a platinum album with a Christian rock band?

MICHAEL COLLINS: No, but you can go double myrrh.

L-girl said...

Blech. Speaking of crap... Why do you post this on my blog, and why do you post so much of it? Wouldn't a link suffice?

Although I must admit, this is kind of funny:

You're one time, two times, three times my Savior.

But then I hear those disgusting South Park voices in my mind, and it's no longer funny.