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Lived to tell
Dylan looks back in Scorseseís No Direction Home
BY JON GARELICK
The product

 

Martin Scorseseís No Direction Home film has been on sale as a DVD from Paramount since Tuesday, and it gets an airing (minus all those DVD "extras," of course) in two two-hour parts on WGBH Channel 2 this coming Monday and Tuesday, September 26 and 27, at 9 pm (with repeats on WGBH World Wednesday and Friday beginning at 6). Columbia has released not only a double-CD "companion" set to the film (it diverges from the film with alternate takes of some songs) as part of its Dylan "Bootleg Series" (Volume 7) but also the Starbucks-only Live at the Gaslight 1962 and the half-hour, six-track Live at Carnegie Hall 1963 (available only as promotional giveaway). Simon & Schuster, the publisher of Dylanís memoirs, has issued a print companion to the Scorsese film, The Bob Dylan Scrapbook 1956-66, a lavish 64-page production with a slipcover case, text by Dylan archivist Robert Santelli, gatefold color photographs, and even facsimiles of Dylanís handwritten lyrics. It includes its own audio CD of archival Dylan interviews and interviews from the film. WGBH 89.7 FM, meanwhile, will air the two-hour radio documentary The Emergence of Bob Dylan this Sunday, September 25, at 10 pm.

JG

While the living Bob Dylan continues to tour and make albums, the old Bob Dylan is as good as dead ó that is, immortal. Fans, non-fans, and new recruits can argue about the merits and demerits of the 64-year-old legend who plays shows and wins Grammys, but thereís no arguing over the 24-year-old singer in Martin Scorseseís new No Direction Home, skinny and wired, who answers the now legendary cry of "Judas!" from a Manchester (England) audience with a flat affect, "I donít believe you . . . Youíre a liar," and then turns to his band and instructs, "Play it fucking loud."

Even at four hours, Scorsese takes Dylan only up to the "Judas" performance of "Like a Rolling Stone" on the cusp of the 1966 motorcycle accident that marked the beginning of his eight-year moratorium on touring. The color footage of that 1966 British and European tour is the pivot point to which the film keeps returning ó Glasgow, Newcastle, Manchester, Paris ó before flashing back to a chronological telling of Dylanís story, from Hibbing to New York to "going electric" at Newport and then to present-tense interviews with Dylan and pals from the old days, friends, hangers-on, musicians: Suze Rotolo (Dylanís "first" New York girlfriend), Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Dave Van Ronk, Al Kooper, even the now ancient Columbia A&R lord (and TV pop-orchestra maestro) Mitch Miller.

Fans will want to know "whatís new" in the film, but thatís hard to pinpoint. The 1966 footage is drawn from the never-released documentary Eat the Document, and there are bits and pieces of D.A. Pennebakerís landmark vérité film of the 1965 British tour Donít Look Back and Murray Lernerís Newport documentary Festival. Aside from Dylanís admitting on camera that he wasnít very nice to Joan Baez ("You canít be wise and in love at the same time"), there arenít any major revelations.

But No Direction Home isnít about setting the record straight and revealing new "facts" any more than Chronicles: Volume 1, Dylanís memoir from last year, was about telling "my true story." Aside from great musical performances (and there are plenty of them, with even more on the DVD), youíre watching the film for the storytelling, which amounts to the great mono-myth of modern rock. For anyone whoís ever wondered why all those folkies were upset when Dylan "went electric," hereís the vivid dramatization of the young artist as part of a crucial social movement. This was the era of Cold War paranoia, the McCarthy blacklists, the Cuban missile crisis, the JFK assassination, and, most important, civil rights.

No Direction Home reminds us ó in case we ever forgot ó that Dylanís move to amplified rock wasnít simply about playing fucking loud ó it was about going pop. Just as Donít Look Back gave us the Mother of All Deals in an offstage scene of Dylanís wily manager, Albert Grossman ("Would it be in poor taste to suggest we have a better offer?" he asks), No Direction Home shows us the birth of the authenticity question thatís been with us ever since ó from John Lennonís quitting the Beatles to the Clash ("the only band that matters"), Nirvana, Liz Phair, and any outfit that calls itself punk. The strident English fan who calls the "new" Dylan sheís just seen "a fake neurotic" isnít complaining that heís not writing songs like "A Pawn in Their Game." Sheís more in line with the fan who says he came to see "Bob Dylan, not a pop band." Itís a wholly different reaction from that of Baez, Seeger, and the folk-music impresario Harold Leventhal, who see Dylan as abandoning an important social cause in which he was emerging as a leader. For those English fans, the "authentic" Dylan, the punk, was the one who sang "My Back Pages," or for that matter "Visions of Johanna," alone on stage with a guitar and a harmonica.

"Just because youíre on the side of people who are fighting for something doesnít mean youíre political," the present-day Dylan tells the filmmakers. And the always clear-eyed Dave Van Ronk agrees that Dylan was not someone who met the definition of a "political person" of the early í60s, not someone who was " interested in the true nature of the Soviet Union or any of that crap." Nonetheless, Van Ronk points out that when Dylan got signed to Columbia, it sent shockwaves along MacDougal Street. The folkies were used to schlepping their wares from Vanguard to Folkways; now here was Dylan on the label of Johnny Mathis. The folkies, Van Ronk says, had to face up to how hungry they really were.

No Direction Home is a great American story, where authenticity is just another commodity. John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers tells the story of running into Mary Travers, the lovely blonde centerpiece of Peter, Paul and Mary, the crossover smash-hit folk vocal group Grossman, in part as a vehicle for Dylanís songs. Itís February on MacDougal Street, and when Travers mentions sheís been in Florida, Cohen marvels that she doesnít have more color. She explains that "Albert wants me to be the pale, blonde, indoor type." There you have it ó folk authenticity packaged as pop commodity. Yet has there ever been a folk group more committed to their ideals, sticking through one leftist cause after another through decades?

You could argue that in the second half, the film narrows its focus. So far itís been about history ó now itís about personal fame. Yet as that dean of Dylanologists, Greil Marcus, points out in his new Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads (Public Affairs), the primary Dylan political anthem (and PP&M hit) "Blowiní in the Wind" "sounded as if it were written by the times, not anyone in particular." The second half of the film brings us more and more into the particular Dylan, the Dylan of "Like a Rolling Stone," witty, irritable, beautiful, sparring with press and fans ("You donít need my autograph ó if you needed it Iíd give it to you!"), sitting down at the piano in front of one of those booing audiences, pounding the keyboard and letting rip a hellacious "Ballad of a Thin Man."

So when is personal political? At one point on the tour, thereís a death threat, which everyone backstage laughs off except Dylan. "I donít mind being shot, man, but I donít dig being told about it." Already having anticipated Kurt Cobain as a "fake neurotic," heís now foreshadowing the death of John Lennon. In the present tense, Al Kooper, now irrevocably part of history, of "music that would be forever," recalls looking at the tour itinerary, seeing the name Dallas, and quitting Dylanís band. "They had just killed the president, and I thought, ĎIf they didnít like that guy, what were they gonna think of this guy?"


Issue Date: September 23 - 29, 2005
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