Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Bob Dylan - The Man Who Sold the World

The constellations governing my interests have been aligning into the likeness of Bob Dylan over the past week or so. I was too young to appreciate (or even hear much of) Dylan during the Civil Rights days of the early 1960s, and I was never a big fan during my teens, twenties, or even my thirties; I was pulled in different musical directions in those days. But once I reached my forties, something in me opened to Dylan (probably after I saw DON'T LOOK BACK for the first time) and I began to listen more attentively; he's not an artist to be appreciated passively.

Lately I've been pulled more directly into Dylan's orbit by his wonderful weekly Sirius radio program, THEME TIME RADIO HOUR, which collects songs obscure and familiar from all different eras on a single theme -- be it Coffee, Jail, Women's Names, Halloween, or Tears. Every program is like a court order addressed to the listener to widen their musican horizons, and Dylan's pinched, stylized and often humorous narration provides the perfect accompaniment. So, I've been listening to that, delving deeper into some SACD pressings of various Dylan albums I was wise enough to buy (BLOOD ON THE TRACKS and DESIRE are two favorites because I'm one of those folks who prefer the sound of Scarlet Rivera's violin to Al Kooper's organ), and I also watched THE LAST WALTZ recently. I think the performance of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is magnificent in that film, but I strenuously disagree with NEWSWEEK's assessment that it's "the finest of all rock movies." I'm probably biased, since I've never been a big fan of The Band in terms of their work apart from Dylan, and find Robbie Robertson's thirty-something, world-weary lamentations in the movie about "the road" hilariously self-absorbed and self-important -- you could cut them into a Rutles or Spinal Tap film without doctoring them for comedy in the least. But when Neil Young or Joni Mitchell or Dylan himself step on stage with the former Hawks, the movie assumes its properly mythic dimensions. (THE LAST WALTZ is now available on Blu-ray Disc, incidentally.)

Last night, after reading some Michael Moorcock with BEFORE THE FLOOD spinning in the background, I decided it was time to take this Dylan thing to a head by revisiting Martin Scorsese's NO DIRECTION HOME - BOB DYLAN. (I'm holding off on revisiting DON'T LOOK BACK until the new "1965 Tour Deluxe" edition streets later this month.) I had watched NO DIRECTION HOME upon its initial DVD release in September 2005 and reacted as many other commentators did: it was hard to credit it as a Scorsese film, considering that so much of its footage came from other films, and that Scorsese was clearly not even the person interviewing Dylan. Yet I found that the movie, program, or whatever it is, comes into its own much more with a second viewing, and I could feel Scorsese's guiding hand more palpably in the way all the materials were presented. In fact, as the second half built to its pressure cooker climax, I had the sense that NO DIRECTION HOME was about what celebrity does to you, in the sense that GOODFELLAS is about what cocaine does to you. What happens to Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and Bob Dylan in those two films is very similar: the humble origins, the gravitation to figures of legend, the rise to power and influence, the fractious relationship with a woman attracted to him for his possibilities (in Dylan's case, Joan Baez), the craziness that sets in, and the escape behind drugs and dark glasses as one's life and art fall under greater and greater scrutiny. Even the editing rhythms are similar: easy-going and graceful, and accelerating irrevocably toward a paranoid, brittle jerkiness that suggests a life imploding and crashing in upon itself.

Of course what makes NO DIRECTION HOME essential viewing is not merely the importance of what it says about Dylan and the media, or about Dylan's trasfiguration of folk music into rock music, or about this nation's lost-flock need for shepherding voices, but its laying bare of the process of Dylan's self-manufacture and his relationship with his art. I've seen a lot of Dylan interviews over the years, and he's not always the most reliable narrator, being a wily scamp when the mood strikes him, but here I get the sense from his sound bytes that he's being forthright and sincere (at least most of the time). We see him at his typewriter quite often, we see him assimilating his musical and literary influences and see all of these things resurface in his art, newly filtered through his own evolving sensibilities, and we respect his struggle to maintain the honesty of that relationship as he is bombarded with flashbulbs and absurd questions ("Would you describe yourself as a protest singer?" "Could you please suck your glasses?") and strangers and friends alike who are trying to shoehorn him into their own schemes and agendas -- social, political and personal.

At the most intense of these moments, parallels begin to emerge pertaining to Scorsese's THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. In a sense, Dylan is being tempted throughout this documentary with the possibility of becoming the Messianic figure so desperately wished for in the wake of John F. Kennedy's assassination -- tempted with celebrity, sex, success, money, political clout, indulgence, you name it. All he had to do to achieve this was to walk along the carefully dotted line being painted in front of his own wandering bootheels. As fate or luck would have it, the ace up the sleeve of this Jokerman was that he had never sought or aspired to any of this attention; it came to him, naturally or supernaturally, and this would eventually make all the difference in his refusal to succeed as a symbol of the moment (possibly another assassinated symbol of the moment -- Al Kooper remarks that he left the booing 1965 "electric" tour when he saw Dallas on the list of cities, not wishing to find himself "in the John Connelly position") and the mercurial artist he continues to be all these decades later.

Watching NO DIRECTION HOME again, I could see that Dylan's story really is the great musical saga of our time, much moreso than those of Frank Sinatra, Elvis, or The Beatles. Not only does its longeivity make it so, but its stubborn refusal to be (as he might have said) classified, denied, or crucified. It doesn't matter that Dylan hasn't known the continued commercial success of peers who didn't actively last as long, or that he didn't live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse. Not only did he write great songs, not only did he write great songs that were infinitely adaptable to interpretation by the common man as well as our most extraordinary musical artists, Dylan was and is (to borrow a phrase from David Bowie) The Man Who Sold the World. He could have had it all -- but he has prefered to live his life on his own terms, or those of his muse, always according to his own values. For a figure of his magnitude to use his position to demonstrate how it's possible to succeed even while opting for a more marginal existence and career may be the most precious gift he will leave to his fellow Americans, particularly as this country has gone from being the land of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger to the billboard of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears in 40 short years. In that same period of time, Dylan's body of work continues to rise as one of the unassailable towers of contemporary Western culture. It's there for those of us who know it, want it, and need it -- like so much bread cast upon the waters.

A few sentences ago, I mentioned the remarkable adaptability of Dylan's music, which (as NO DIRECTION HOME shows) has been covered by everyone from George Harrison to Bobby Darin to The Jerry Lewis Singers. The latest example of this phenomenon is forthcoming later this month with the release of DYLANESQUE, an entire CD of Dylan covers by former Roxy Music frontman Bryan Ferry.

I've been able to hear an advance copy of the Ferry album, which doesn't dig very deeply into Dylan's rich trove of back catalogue, sticking mostly to songs already extensively covered by other artists -- indeed, covered by other artists way back in the 1960s. ("Make You Feel My Love" from 1997's TIME OUT OF MIND is one of the few exceptions.) Now in his 60s, Ferry eschews the ebulliently campy approach he brought to his interpretation of "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" on his solo debut album THESE FOOLISH THINGS back in 1973. These new covers are sung in an appealingly dry, vulnerable and reedy voice that offers readier access to the poetical complexities of Dylan's lyrics than the songwriter can usually provide himself, and the musical arrangements (featuring the customarily brilliant guitar stylings of Phil Manzanera), while hardly startling, are keenly felt. If Ferry's own medium-cool persona sometimes stands in the way of his delivering a lyric like "Someone take this badge off of me, I can't wear it anymore," his tribute nevertheless succeeds in its aim to bring us all back home to the man who, once upon a time in America, felt these songs stirring in the ether and wrote them down for the rest of us.

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