no direction home

January 18th, 2008

I watched Martin Scorcese’s No Direction Home: Bob Dylan yesterday afternoon. It was one of those days towards the end of a frustrating week that couldn’t end early enough, I needed to get a little time and space somewhere far away for an afternoon.

It’s an incredible film, and one that (fortunately for my needs) takes an entire afternoon. Two discs, after all. And plenty of extra material and special features to be explored afterwards. It’s a brilliant film, and yet totally laid back. There’s no director, it’s just Bob Dylan and his various friends and promoters and associates and musicians and hangers-on telling their stories. Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Joan Baez, Peter Yarrow, Liam Clancy and many, many others just given the space to say their piece. And footage of concerts and press conferences and recording studios and Hibbing, Minnesota in the 1940s and ’50s and the road and photos of everyone and everything all mixed in.

And footage of a certain president in Dallas towards the end of November of 1963 and “It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall”, the music pausing for the gunshots, the film fortunately not showing the bullets hitting.

But there’s one impression that has been lingering in the back of for years now that the film reinforced: Baby boomers really are a bunch of spoilt, selfish, childish little brats, aren’t they? I mean, it’s one thing disliking or even disapproving of an artist’s work, it’s something entirely different to demand that that artist return to his former style or that he fulfill a role you force him into, a role he neither asked nor sought for. The footage of these concerts in which he is being constantly heckled and even abused for daring to play an electric guitar with a backing band is simply incredible. Who the hell did these people think they were? And as the young Bob Dylan pointed out backstage at one of these concerts: The tickets were selling awfully fast considering how much abuse he took. But his calm in the face of this abuse was most impressive. He hardly reacted except to utter one or two very measured sentences. The only bit where we see him snap is when he’s in a car leaving the concert and he yells out the window at people to stop booing. Of course, in the backstage footage, the frustration is obvious, and the footage is edited: we don’t get a fly-on-the-wall view of the whole tour. Still, his calm on stage was most impressive.  But still: Who the hell did these people think they were, trying to force Bob Dylan into one narrow little style and some absurd role? If they didn’t like his artistic direction, all they had to do was stop listening. Nothing at all wrong with them expressing their disapproval, either.

There is an element of genius and even a little something of the prophetic in Bob Dylan’s music and it is far from difficult to see how he achieved his position. But to force this young man into a role of leadership he never asked for when all he was doing was expressing himself is utterly absurd.

And it doesn’t help to improve my impression of that generation of Westerners.

Anyway, it’s a great film. It also confirmed the impression I got from his Chronicles that the only way to understand Bob Dylan is to just listen and not try to understand.

2 Responses to “no direction home”

  1. Matt Schiavenza Says:

    Bravo, Chris, well said. No Direction Home had some amazing moments of emotional honesty, particularly from Allen Ginsberg and Joan Baez- the latter still smarting from Dylan not inviting her on stage in 1967, it seems.

    A couple of additional points: Dylan was booed mainly because after about 1964 he largely gave up writing protest songs, and the folk scene felt that Dylan OWED these songs to them, or to the world, rather than just appreciate what he did come up with. By the mid-1970s, Dylan was still making relevant, interesting music while his peers in the folk movement had been driven to irrelevance (Pete Seeger, etc.) or worse (Phil Ochs).

    And also- I read an article recently saying that Dylan was indeed more powerfully affected by the booing than he let on. The article states that at one point on stage he had to resist sobbing, and that pressing on with what he knew would be unpopular took an extraordinary amount of guts. Keep in mind that behind the facade Dylan was a 24 year old from small-town Minnesota who knew he was taking an enormous risk with his career.

    Just to add, a baby-boom friend of my parents’ went to see Dylan two years ago and came home disappointed. He said, of course, that he can’t really sing anymore (which is true) but that he played all sorts of new material rather than his 60s classics. Which underscores your point about how boomers demand others wallow into their nostalgia instead of trying out new things.

  2. wangbo Says:

    Thank you, Matt. I actually wanted to write a lot more on the subject, but I was pretty tired by the time I got round to it and forgot half of what I was going to say. I think you covered it, though, and added some excellent points.