Friday, September 30, 2005

 

Richard Manuel & Bob Dylan

 

Some thoughts on seeing No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese’s masterful biography of Bob Dylan, earlier this week.

Working only with archival footage – the intimate interview with Dylan himself had been conducted by Dylan’s manager prior to the decision to get Scorsese involved – the director managed to avoid what might be the greatest trap in an endeavor of this kind: reifying (if not deifying) its subject, or any particular version of the subject. During the period covered by Home, we see Dylan move through four distinct phases as a musician:

  1. A performer of other people’s music – this is Dylan the folkie, the one we find on his first Columbia album.
  2. The composer of his own topical tunes – this was the breakthrough work that got him identified with the topical song movement & the likes of Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, and others who writing songs about the events of the 1960s – the absence of these other writers is one of the noteworthy absences from the film, as is that of Ramblin' Jack Elliot, perhaps a more important influence than either Woody Guthrie or Dave Van Ronk.
  3. The composer of more poetic acoustic tunes – there is a wonderful scene of Dylan performing “Tambourine Man” at the “Topical Song” workshop at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964 as Pete Seeger sits behind him scowling, intently trying to fathom out this new more elliptical discourse.¹ This is the Dylan who is captured on Another Side, an album that was careful to telegraph that this was a Dylan you had not heard previously. In fact, tho, the Dylan of the eponymous first Columbia record was hardly the same as the one of Freewheelin’.
  4. Dylan in his first electric phase, the one that lasted through three solid albums (Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited & Blonde on Blonde), making it the longest period of consistency in his career, even to this day.

Reading Chronicles & other bios of Dylan, it’s apparent that there was another Dylan even before these four, the rockabilly teenager who played (miserably by all accounts) piano for Bobby Vee under the name of Elston Gunn. Scorsese elides over this period so quickly that I don’t think you can get a sense of it distinctly in Home, focusing more on Dylan’s own later appropriation of Bobby Vee’s name for awhile before Mr. Zimmerman headed off to New York City.

Θ Φ Θ

One year before the debacle over Dylan’s electric performance at Newport in 1965, the one after party I got to attend at the festival in 1964 – I’d been invited by Buffy Sainte-Marie – found performers like Sainte-Marie, Noel Stookey (Paul from Peter, Paul & Marie), John Sebastian, Dylan & others jamming songs from what was then the first Rolling Stones album. Indeed, that was where I first heard of the Rolling Stones.

The dichotomy between folk & rock was indeed fairly hard in those years, tho the emotional force against the music had much to do with the corporate control of mind-numbing music. While Dylan’s entry into rock opened up the music’s lyric potential, the British invasion – not just the Beatles & Stones, but also the Animals & John Mayhall, who took Chicago Blues rather than the Tin Pan Alley of Gary Lewis & the Playboys² and their ilk, as their point of reference – was already breaking up the tight-knit control a half dozen labels had on the pop charts. Indeed, within two years of Dylan’s going electric, I saw one concert at Winterland in San Francisco in which the opening act was Pink Floyd (who had just released their first album), the second act was The Doors (who had just released Strange Days, their second album), and the headliner was Donovan. The so-called San Francisco Sound of the 1960s – the Dead, the Airplane, Big Brother & the Holding Company – really was the influx of folk musicians into rock.

It was ironic that Columbia Records signed Dylan – and fortunate for him that John Hammond basically let him do what he wanted to do – when he’d already been rejected by Folkways and Vanguard, the two major folk labels of the period. Tho Columbia is now part of Sony, Dylan has stayed with the same label for 44 years. Bruce Springsteen is another John Hammond project who has stayed with the label his entire career. (Hammond’s own son, John Jr., a fine roots blues musician, originally signed with Vanguard.)

Θ Φ Θ

 

Hearing Dylan going electric at Newport in 1965 reminds me, more than anything else, of what a great blues band Paul Butterfield had. Between his death & Michael Bloomfield’s o.d., it left precious little as a record of its achievement. The loudest concert I ever heard was a Butterfield performance in the old U.C. gymnasium in ’65 or ’66. The recordings of Dylan on his world tour to the U.K. in 1966 with the Hawks (soon to morph into The Band), with Mickey Jones sitting in for Levon Helm at drums (Helm having been appalled at the booing Dylan was getting & wanting no part of that – he returned to the group during its long “hiatus” at Big Pink after Dylan’s accident) are nowhere nearly as cohesive instrumentally.

Some of the clips show Dylan wearing his herring bone suit when touring with the Band. I remember seeing him in that suit at a show at the Berkeley Community Theater in, I believe, early 1966, thinking that it was the type of clothing I’d only seen before on older blues musicians. To my eye, it still looks much quirkier than the polka-dotted blousy shirt he’s wearing in the photo above.

Θ Φ Θ

 

One of the more interesting moments in the film is Allen Ginsberg choking up as he recounts his experience of first hearing “Hard Rain,” played for him at a party in Bolinas by Charlie Plymell. “I wept,” Ginsberg says, clearly recognizing the reflection of his own influence in Dylan’s lyrics, “The torch had been passed.” I remember my own experience, first hearing that song. Lacking Ginsberg panoptic reading (he was 37 in 1963, I was 17), I can clearly recall the hair on the back of my neck standing up: I had never heard anything like that before anywhere. It was an announcement that the world was going to be different very very soon – in spite of its apocalyptic message, the song gave me an unshakeable optimism that I would return to often over the next couple of years.

Ginsberg’s presence on the film makes great sense, not simply because he knew Dylan. Nor is he the only writer in the film – James Baldwin shows up twice, we hear a snatch of Kerouac & in a shot of heads at the Cedar Bar you can make out Frank O’Hara as he blurs past, unannounced & unquoted. Dylan may or may not be a poet, depending on your definitions – in my book, the answer is not, but frankly I don’t think it’s an important question – but his aesthetic, in virtually all its phases, is distinctly New American. And if Dylan’s own sense of logic in his songs is never that far removed from Ginsberg & the Beats (hear, say, the echo of Ray Bremser in “Positively Fourth Street”), the writer he is most like (I’ve said this before, but Home underscores the point) actually is Kirby Olson’s Doubting Thomist, Gregory Corso. Compared with Ginsberg or Kerouac, Dylan is almost shockingly uneducated – he’s not kidding when he says that he didn’t go to classes at the University of Minnesota – and yet he’s brilliant & an absolute sponge of data, an autodidact whose program of study, if one can find it anywhere, is a peculiar combination of cultural studies – sans theory³ – and the Bible. These twin sources have been constant throughout almost all of his different periods & personae.

Θ Φ Θ

 

In the film, his oldest acquaintances call Dylan a “receiver” (what a Spicerian term that is!) and a “shape shifter” & to the degree that Scorsese has to settle on a Dylan to use as his focal point, the one he gives us is Dylan the chameleon, the artist who is always at a remove from his own public identity, an actor who is forever “on,” leaving betrayed friends who thought they knew which one was the “real” Dylan everywhere in his wake – virtually all of whom have decided to forgive him. At some level, that’s not genius, but a personality disorder, a kind of narcissism perhaps, but one that seems utterly disinterested in his own Self. Certainly that’s consistent with the artist who “don’t look back,” who has lived his adult life with an invented name & who has come up with a new Dylan roughly every three years now since 1960. At the same time, the line that will stay with me from this film perhaps longer than any other is a wistful Joan Baez, who seems still able to get in touch with some kind of love for the man, saying that she has no idea what he’s thinking, “I know only what he’s given us.”

 

 

¹ Tho I was at the ’64 festival, I missed that session, going instead to listen to the jug band of Sleepy John Estes, Yank Rachel & Hammie Nixon perform at a blues workshop. To this day, that is still the best acoustic blues show I’ve ever attended, so I can hardly say that I regret my decision. When I finally met Dylan at an after-party at the Viking Hotel later in the week & asked him what he was working on, he pulled a typescript of “Tambourine Man” from his coat pocket. I was already starting to read Allen Ginsberg & Michael McClure & the rather vaporous surrealism of its text didn’t strike me half as strange as it seems to have hit the older Popular Front folkies already in their 40s.

² On Lewis’ records, most of the roles played by “studio musicians” turned out to be Leon Russell.

³ He has the anti-intellectual’s distrust of theory in all forms.





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