Bobology, Fall 2005
Considered as a prequel to Bob Dylan’s allegorical auto-biopic Masked and Anonymous, the principle fault of Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home — aired last month on PBS — might be that the director never fully explains how his golden god Dylan transformed into the fallen pop drifter Jack Fate we met in the former picture. But that’s okay, because Scorsese literally never explains who Bob Dylan was before that, either.
When the film starts, Fate — now going by the name "Bob Dylan," if we are to believe the credits — claims he "had ambitions to find an odyssey" and "what [he] encountered along the way was how [he] envisioned it all." We see him as his younger self, stoned out of his gourd, and singing a song called "Like A Rolling Stone," which abruptly dissolves mid-song to the tundra-like winter landscape of Minnesota’s Iron Range. Then Fate/Dylan is back, talking about how "you can do a lot of things to make time stand still but, of course, no one could do that." The Stanley Brothers sing the ghostly "Drifting Too Far From The Shore," and then Fate/Dylan explains how he discovered music.
Shit, yeah, he’s a compelling character. But it’s funny, really, because if this was a documentary and not a prequel (let’s just say, okay?), one would expect a mention of when and where this Fate/Dylan fellow was born, maybe the names of his parents or siblings, a bit about his childhood, or something. Later, when our hero changes his last name to ‘Dylan,’ we are left to wonder what it might’ve been before. But that’s okay, because Scorsese doesn’t normally makes documentaries, and — if he did — he’d surely mention that our hero’s name was Bobby Zimmerman. Throughout the film, Scorsese frequently makes leaps such as these, but they’re usually in service of the story.
And what a grand story it is! It’s like something out of John Dos Passos’ sweeping U.S.A. trilogy (or one of alchemist/folk scholar Harry Smith’s compacted song descriptions): kid rolls into Gotham from the Midwest, gets himself wrapped up in important business (the Story of the Age, as it were), meets fair maidens and grotesque weirdoes, and freaks the fuck out (getting it all down on tape in the bargain). What Scorsese has done with No Direction Home, in essence, is to assemble a fully functional statement of the official Dylan myth.
Just as if you are a certain age, you grew up watching the ascent of Bob Dylan, if you are a certain other age, you grew up hearing about the ascent of Bob Dylan, about how he protested the Man and about how he went electric and, lo, how the world was changed. The story is inevitably lashed to the Sixties, and drilled into our heads as the beginning of the United States as a culturally modern, self-aware society. And, since then, they’ve loomed — over every rock musician, over every left-wing political movement, over every discussion of social mores — like a parent you can never please or live up to.
Except that you can, especially if can find a local manifestation and ask him (or her or them or it) if the world really is a better place than it was in the Sixties, if they improved it, if they succeeded. Sure, the Civil Rights movement was a success in many concrete ways, but it didn’t erase racism by any stretch (just ask Kanye West). Women got, um, "liberated." (Not bad.) A bunch of acid freaks invented the personal computer and the internet (though that’s done as much for industry and big business as it has for The People). But is the world a fundamentally better place? More peaceful? More universally prosperous? No, probably not. Shit’s fucked up, maybe even more than it was then. And, still, the Sixties looms like something for us to be thankful for.
What No Direction Home conveys, in that half-a-second of blinding Iron Range snow, is Bob Zimmerman’s clean slate. It was a clean slate not because nobody had come before him, but because — even in playing traditional music — he had the power not to care. In an electronic society with increasingly shorter news cycles (and, more significantly, a term to describe them), with (essentially) a centrally searchable media database, it’s a clean slate that’s no longer available, at least with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica. (Does somebody have to even music to qualify for the title of "new Dylan"? Discuss.)
Dylan isn’t the spokesman for his generation at all, least of all a generation that lords over culture as it does. No, by fashioning this particular narrative out of the materials given to him, it’s Martin Scorsese (even if he is using Dylan as his medium). But Scorsese does a great job shaping an emotional arc within the official Dylan myth, of articulating how the madness rose from the adulation. Used to the grumpy Dylan of D.A. Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back (shot in the spring of 1965), I was shocked to see how enthusiastic Dylan was, gleeful and literally kicking, practically being dragged from the stage at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival. Like the skilled filmmaker he is, Scorsese masterfully orchestrates his depiction of Dylan’s rise.
It’s worth remembering, though, how many previous versions of the official Dylan story have been complete bullshit. By any traditional standards of documentary filmmaking, No Direction Home is probably a failure. There is literally no mention of Dylan’s obviously draining drug abuse at the end of the period documented (heroin and coke and speed, according to Clinton Heylin’s comprehensive Behind the Shades). That doesn’t really need to be explained, though, given how knackered Dylan looks for a 26 year old in the treasure trove of material shot on his 1966 tour of Europe. There is no mention of Dylan’s new wife, Sara Lowndes (married in the fall of 1965). There’s little discussion of the influence of manager Albert Grossman (frustrating, given how magnetic the bearish impresario is during his spotlight scenes in Dont Look Back).
Even if it’s far from definitive (and less revelatory than last year’s Chronicles, it is an invaluable contribution to the ever-increasing amount of material on the singer. When someone gets it in his head to put together an unlicensed, mash-up documentary of Dylan’s career, much material might be lifted whole from No Direction Home.
There are a million ways to tell the story of Bob Dylan, and Scorsese has told one of them. It’s not the one that tells how Dylan transformed Anakin-to-Vader style into the downtrodden Jack Fate. Nor, more literally, is it the one that tells the part of Dylan’s story that seems far more interesting and human: what happened to him after the ’60s. I want to know about the Dylan who made New Morning (an album that, while less epic, feels far less dated than Highway 61 Revisited), the one who went through Blood on the Tracks (and tried to make Renaldo and Clara), who became a Christian (Jesus, somebody ask him about that!), about the devastating Time Out of Mind. I want to know about my Dylan, the one who is still alive and making important music, the one who released the apocalyptically perfect ‘Love and Theft’ on September 11th, 2001, the one who wrote ‘High Water (For Charley Patton)’ with lyrics that seem to foresee the flooding of the South and the creepy arrival of Intelligent Design.
"The ship’s wise men will remind you once again that the whole wide world is watching," Dylan sang on "When the Ship Comes In." They’re not anymore, but that doesn’t make Dylan’s recent music any less brilliant (nor less right). Is it possible to be a Dylan fan and not be overwhelmed by the entwined myths of Dylan and the ’60s? Yes. Just listen to New Morning again, reread Chronicles (now back on the bestseller list thanks to Scorsese), rewatch Masked and Anonymous, and remember that there’s still a dude named Bob Dylan out there somewhere.