Monday, November 22, 2010

NO DIRECTION HOME (2005): Short Story of Bob Dylan

I’m familiar with the musical careers of Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke, Little Richard, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Janice Joplin, Hound-dog Taylor, Muddy Waters, Jerry Jeff Walker, Led Zeppelin, Johnny Rotten, Ozzie Osbourne, Ted Nugent, Bruce Springsteen and Kurt Cobain among others, yet I probably would not watch more than a few minutes of a documentary concerning any of them.  I could watch this three-hour documentary on Bob Dylan several times.

Martin Scorsese does a marvelous job of directing No Direction Home simply by not getting in the way of his subject.  Like the cab driver in Taxi Driver or Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, Scorsese lets the personality of his lead character speak without the need of editorializing.  Here, someone else interviews Dylan in 2006 other than Scorsese, and you never have the feeling that Dylan is following any script.  He mumbles his answers, stutters over various catch phrases, and often gives vague responses.  (The footage of the young Dylan being interviewed is also remarkable, though he sometimes seems to be under the influence of something or other.)  I was struck by how humble Dylan comes across in these interviews.  He admits that he doesn’t even know how some of his most popular songs ever were composed, and he claims that he can no longer write music in that fashion.  In this Dylan does himself a disservice because he has written many great songs since 1966 (where the events of this documentary end).  The concert footage, especially the footage from 1965, is extraordinary.  You can hear the heckling of the audience, see Dylan’s response, and then hear the emotion as Dylan played the electric (as opposed to folk) music on stage.  At one point, Dylan is called a Judas and he responds with potent renditions of Like a Rolling Stone and Mr. Jones.
I’ve seen Dylan twice in concert and could only understand the words he was singing when I was already familiar with the lyrics.  He still sings some of the songs that made him famous, but he likes to change the rhythm of the songs up.  When not playing, he hardly ever addresses the audience and his singing voice does not make a great impression on anyone.  I’m also not always sure what the lyrics for many of his songs mean.  He either seems to be trying to confuse the listener by saying something murky, or he’s throwing out some limericks to have some fun.  Dylan is a private man in a public profession.  He’s a Jewish kid who had a religious conversion around 1980 (but we don’t know if turning his life over to Christ had any lasting effect upon him).  He never seems quite satisfied.  When he talks about "no direction home," we’re not sure where home for him is.  He does not seem so proud of Hibbing, Minnesota, where he grew up, but he seems as much a part of there as anywhere else.
Maybe because I’m sometimes an angry writer (or so I’ve been told), I like the angry songs of Dylan including Masters of War, Just Like a Woman, Hurricane and Ain’t Talking (off of the 2006 Modern Times album).  On the other hand, I like the humorous Dylan when he sings the song Highway 61 Revisited or Rainy Day Woman (“Everybody must get stoned!”).  I like the alienated Dylan who sings Like a Rolling Stone, Tangled Up in Blue, or I Believe in You (one of his religious songs off of Slow Train Coming).  And I like the sentimental Dylan when he sings Lay Lady Lay, Forever Young or any number of songs off of the album Modern Times.  To me, Dylan is one of the few musicians that have never stopped growing.  Dylan continues to put out new music and is unafraid to modify the songs that he has already written.
No Direction Home shows the difficulties Dylan had to go through in trying to change his style of songs early in his career.  While many of his admirers felt betrayed that he was no longer singing his early folk songs, other listeners (including Scorsese) enjoyed the three albums that he brought out in 1965 (Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde) even more.  One problem with this documentary in ending it in 1966 is that Dylan played a great deal more quality music than even this.  He continued on to play music in genres including country, Reggae, gospel, blues and bluegrass – all of which is worth listening to.  For consideration of time constraints and for dramatic purposes (Dylan allegedly broke his neck in a motorcycle accident in 1966 that delayed him from releasing another album for over a year), I do understand why Scorsese ended the documentary where he did.  However, this documentary only touches upon Dylan’s career, and I hope that Scorsese can continue on and bring us additional footage of Dylan.
Besides the varied musical sides, Dylan’s changing opinions concerning political matters will strike viewers and maybe make some uncomfortable.  No Direction Home contains interview footage of Joan Baez, Pete Seegar, Dave Van Ronk and even poet Allen Ginsberg.  Baez, in particular, who was extremely close to Dylan, was perplexed by Dylan’s refusal to join her in the civil rights protests during the later 1960s.  Van Ronk (who once performed House of the Rising Sun) called Dylan “apolitical” and unsure of himself.  Dylan, himself, admits not always being sure of what he believed.  Speaking of Pete Seegar, Dylan says: “I didn’t realize he was a Communist.  I didn’t know what a Communist was, and if I did it wouldn’t have mattered to me.”  Probably, Dylan was playing dumb by saying this.  But he continues on by saying: “There’s no black and white, left and right to me anymore.  There’s only up and down and down is very close to the ground.  And I’m trying to go up without thinking about anything as trivial as politics.”  So Dylan, always accused of rabble-rousing by those on the right, was accused of being a sellout by those on the left for not joining in on their various causes.  The problem with his critics on both sides is that they never take Dylan at his word.  Both sides accuse him of being naïve probably because those on the right and left were so certain that they couldn’t be wrong.
If Dylan was not apolitical, he was in any case a political party of his own.  The 1960s would not be the last time that he was accused of selling out.  This accusation was raised again when he became “born again.”  Yet like his politics, Dylan’s religion was also singular.*  If one listens to the lyrics of Slow Train Coming or Saved (the two albums produced during his religious phase), he was still singing about “up and down” (and not “left and right”) and condemning those who ignored others in poverty.  The protest message had not changed as much from his folk music days as most people believed.  And Modern Times shows that a message of relevance is still there.  That so many individuals can only appreciate certain genres of Dylan’s music rather than consider his work as a whole speaks towards their limitations, and not the limitations of Bob Dylan.
That Dylan is being second-guessed by so many people who think that they know better is incredible.  Of all of the musicians interviewed in No Direction Home, Dylan is the singer that has had the strongest influence on our culture.  Pete Seegar and Dave Von Ronk have a cult following and sang a number of decent folk songs.  Joan Baez is better known than these two individuals, but few of her songs will be remembered as being anything more than quaint.  Bob Dylan was probably the single most influential American musician since the 1960s.  Von Ronk said that Dylan tapped into a collective unconsciousness of America.  Modern Times released on August 29, 2006, became a number one album in the United States, which made Dylan the oldest living person to ever be at the top of the charts.  Popularity alone means very little, but the duration of that popularity says very much.  If Dylan had followed the advice of his early admirers, other musicians, or of his critics on the left or right, he probably would not have written the songs that he did.  He instead would have been a joiner, which could just as well mean that he was a hack.
* “I don’t go to church or to a synagogue.  I don’t kneel beside my bed at night.  I don’t think I will.  I have yet to face the terror I read about in all the great literature.  But, since politics, economics and war have failed to make us feel any better as individuals or as a nation, and we look back at long years of disrepair, then maybe the time for religion has come again, and rather too suddenly.”  Quote from Bob Dylan

December 4, 2006
© Robert S. Miller 2006

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