September 28, 2005
You go your way, and I'll go mine
Although I was an early Dylan fan, I never knew much about his life. He was purposely enigmatic, and it was his lyrics and performance that interested me, not what was behind the façade of celebrity. So I probably learned as much as anyone who watched No Direction Home, the superb PBS documentary on early Dylan (it airs again tonight at 7:30 on WENH, Channel 11).
It did not surprise me that as a young man Dylan was a liar and a bit of a thief. He lied about where he’d come from, an effort to pad his résumé, a great American tradition. He stole his friends’ records to drill Woody Guthrie’s songs and persona into his brain.
There is an amazing transition in Dylan’s career that remains just as mysterious to me after the film as it was before. This is when Dylan goes from gulping and aping the work of Guthrie, Lead Belly and others and suddenly becomes a song writer who performs his own work almost exclusively. And what songs! Yes, they have roots in the folk tradition, but they are like nothing that existed before them. They are at once raw and polished. There are so many of them, and they are so long and so complex and come so fast, that it is wonder Dylan could remember the lyrics, much less perform them with such feeling.
And while these songs fit – even defined – the moment, they have also stood the test of time. Sure, we boomers can all break out in a Beatles tune, but Dylan’s lyrics are something else again. Forty years later (ouch!), they remain alluring, mysterious and challenging. They call us back, they call us forward.
This is a blog, not a review, so I’ll add just one other point: I saw the film over two nights. The first part I found mesmerizing. The making of the artist, the evocation of the Village in the early 1960s, the interviews with Dave Van Ronk, another old favorite of mine, and others from that period – all great stuff. There were hints of the second part throughout the first, namely the British performance with the Band in which the electronic Dylan was booed and scorned.
I found the second part hard to watch – almost a chore. It wasn’t the music. I liked the electric Dylan as much as I liked the folk Dylan, although the sound quality of the electric performances was flat. But the division of the film into two parts reflected the sharp divide in the experience of the 1960s. For young people, there was a spirit of discovery in the early 1960s, a hopeful break with the past. The optimism and resolve soon crumbled. Things fell apart. Assassination, the draft, the war, drugs, racial strife and violence all moved front and center.
Dylan moved on, too, determined to follow his talent where it took him, not wanting to explain himself, make grand statements or join any movements. His contact with the world became surreal – fans groping at the windows of his limos, cynical reporters asking stupid questions. It was an ugly time for him and the start of an ugly time for the country.
Posted by Mike Pride at September 28, 2005 09:10 AM
I too was facinated with the Dylan documentary. I was never a "fan" but I was amazed at how much of his clever lyrics were inbedded in my brain.
Unlike many topical musicians, Dylan admitted that he did not offer solutions. In that regard, I saw Dylan as somewhat of a reporter, expressing what he observed and leaving it at that. Of course, that approach frustrated many activitist.
Posted by: fullert at October 5, 2005 09:09 AM