Showing posts with label Bob Dylan. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Bob Dylan. Show all posts

Monday, July 01, 2019

Bob Dylan’s Eyes

The films by or about Bob Dylan are every bit as strange, unique, intimate & evasive, as he is and Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Review: A Bob Dylan Story, streaming now on Netflix, is no exception, blending documentary footage Dylan had taken during the famous 1974-6 tour with more than a few fictional add-ons from the likes of Sharon Stone, Kipper Kid Martin von Haselberg, and studio exec (just not that studio nor that exec) Jim Gianapolus. But as somebody who has been listening to, close-reading and watching the troubadour of Hibbing for at least 57 years, the real stars of this paradocumentary are Bob Dylan’s eyes. They are luminous, blue and often (in the faux Noh white paint that turns up pretty much everywhere on Dylan, violinist Scarlet Rivera, and even for a bit Joan Baez, during the tour) green.[i] Most importantly, they are searching, making contact, commenting on the action we see and the inner workings behind the mask that are not given to us during the two-hour, twenty minutes of the film.

In 1974, Bob Dylan had largely been off the road for the previous eight years following a motorcycle accident before returning to do a series of stadium and arena-sized shows with The Band, the legendary backup quintet once known as Ronnie Hawkins’ Hawks. During the interim, Dylan and the Band  had  been down in the basement making some glorious music, the group had become nearly as famous as their front man, and the stadium shows reflected this with alternating sets. It was a format that had become standard in the post-Woodstock era, one that lives on today all over the globe, from Coachella to K-Pop[ii]. But it is also the form that drove the Beatles into retirement from live performance in 1967 and its fundamental inhumanness is its basic truth. Rolling Thunder Review repeatedly returns to the fact that the smaller venues Dylan chose for the three-year traveling carnival he had created to succeed the gigs with the band ensured that it would never succeed financially.

But touring is an essential economic truth in the music business, where record companies were sucking up vast portions of any performer’s earnings long before the rise of the net and the cloud put control of the product into serious doubt. After a five-year touring career in the early 1960s and a six-month return before screaming masses of adoring ants, Dylan was searching for something different. Rolling Thunder was the result.

With the stadium shows, Dylan had begun rolling out his new strategy of reworking some of his standards, often quite dramatically, and the Rolling Thunder performances show Dylan’s passion for these new versions of what had already become familiar classics as well as more recent fare from the records released during the eight years away from touring. But what is really most notable are Dylan’s facial expressions, his directness with the audience, eyes rolling when Baez transposes a phrase, eyebrows arching, registering emotion. It’s not just that Dylan is having fun, although how often  have you seen him acknowledge that, but that he’s communicating and collaborating with his expressions in ways I had not seen during his folk and earlier rock periods and never in the course of his Never-Ending Tour that has gone on now for over 31 years.[iii] Like, say, Miles Davis (a performer whom at times reminds me of Dylan in his obsessional focus on the piece at hand), who seldom if ever interacted with audiences, Dylan often feels onstage is if he were alone with his band. Not so in these performances.

Which is what gives these shows & this film an intensity Dylan seldom approaches elsewhere.

Rolling Thunder was also Dylan’s attempt to create an alternative to the isolating realities of fame and travel that can bedevil musicians. Anyone who has seen Chuck Berry or Bo Diddley arriving for a concert with some backup band he has never met, let alone with whom he has practiced, or heard the exhaustion in the voice of a solo artist like Eric Andersen (who has a bit role in this film), or who can count the number of musicians who have died on the road, will sympathize. Dylan’s idea was to put together a small community of first-rate artists and take them all along for the ride. While the film returns repeatedly to the figure of the carnival, it’s really the pilgrimages of, say, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales that echo most loudly here. The film’s second billing goes to Allen Ginsberg, labeled in the credits as (Dylan’s phrase) the Oracle of Delphi, who begins the tour as a central obsession for Dylan (“absolutely not a father figure” Bob insists as Ginsberg leads him to the grave of Jack Kerouac, footage everyone has seen before but given new poignancy by the context offered here ) but concludes it sharing roadie duties with Peter Orlovsky. Others in the mix include Patti Smith, Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Roger McGuinn and Joni Mitchell. Oddly missing from the interviews are most of the musicians who back Dylan up, particularly Bobby Neuwirth, Dylan’s close friend who served as the functional producer of much that ensued musically on the tour and who proves a reasonable successor to the great lead guitarists Dylan has had going back to the late Mike Bloomfield.

If the tour was, as everyone insists – from Gianapolus as producer to the jowly Dylan of just last year – a failure, it wasn’t financially[iv] so much as socially. The dynamics of the road are relentless – Baez, Dylan’s ex-lover from the sixties quits the tour & her absence as a grounding is noticeable[v]. What does it mean to have a roving commune in a world so hungry for roots? You can run away to join the circus, but the circus itself turns out to be a very circumscribed home. The commune movement, from Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters forward, was as much a seventies’ phenomenon as a holdover from the sixties, and as the sometimes incoherent pacing of appearances from Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford & Jimmy Carter[vi], reflects, the failure of the revolution of ’68 left everyone not already bunkered down in the counterculture without many alternatives. The power imbalance between Dylan and everyone else is something nobody can get past – even Baez, here as elsewhere a snarky skeptic unafraid of being incorrect, concedes to it. Bob is Bob, but unlike Charlie, he doesn’t want a harem to kill for him, or – a la Baker-roshi – to ensconce him in wealth and pussy. Dylan profoundly distrusts power, but his followers are like iron filings to his magnetic presence. It’s the Gordian knot he will never cut.

Much, too much in fact, is made of the question of masks as Dylan’s only plausible defense to this conundrum, and when you hear Hurricane Carter’s snappy, upbeat chatter about how Dylan is still searching regardless of his claim to have already found some inner peace, you remember that Rolling Thunder was Dylan’s last stop before the Bible[vii]. In one sense, this is where Scorsese – Dylan’s friend since at least The Last Waltz – fails as a filmmaker. A director with some critical distance might have looked with a more jaundiced eye at the wall Dylan hits at the end of this tour, aesthetically, spiritually, intellectually. Good intentions will only get you so far. There’s a reason even Ringling Bros. gave it up in 2017, and why so many other performers have retreated to Nashville, Branson or Vegas, why the Blue Man Group or Cirque de Soleil don’t do the road. At 78, Dylan still performs at 100-plus venues per year, compared with the Stones who do 30 once every five years, and McCartney something comparable to that. Dylan is driven, albeit not by fame, fortune nor glory – his fumbling of the Nobel Prize should tell us that. In a sense, he’s like the secret cylons in Battlestar Gallactica, who know who they are by the song they can’t get out of their head, written as it was by Bob Dylan.

[i] It probably says hazel on his driver’s ID.

[ii] Incommensurable, I know.

[iii] The credit roll lists every show from 1974 through 2018 and we are talking thousands.

[iv] Billionaire Sir Paul McCartney and maybe the Gershwins must be the only other people to come close to Dylan in revenue from covers of their music.

[v] Their discussion of their marriages, Dylan to the “woman I love” in Sara (not always present on the tour and not visible here), Baez to Stanford anti-war activist David Harris (“the man I thought I loved”), is a level of intimacy nowhere available elsewhere in any film of Dylan I’ve ever seen.

[vi] How many of today’s audiences will recognize a dazed Lynnette “Squeaky” Fromme being arrested after her attempt to shoot Ford at the Sacramento state capitol, or even know that Ford was the target of two assassination attempts in one month? If Scorsese had been making a film about the period, rather than the tour, he’d have noted the arrest of Patty Hearst and her SLA compatriots that same month, prompting one of the network news broadcasts to project its coverage over the background of the Beach Boys’ California Girls.

[vii] Where is T-Bone Burnett whose presence on the tour is sometimes credited with Dylan’s religious conversion? Or David Bromberg? Didn’t he get together with his wife, artist and Santeria practitioner Nancy Josephson, on the tour? So many great musicians Scorsese could have talked to and did not. Indeed, there would seem to be a documentary waiting to be made of Scarlet Rivera’s presence throughout. Having been “discovered” by Dylan walking down the street in New York – an event as improbable as Trungpa’s famous cab ride with Ginsberg – everyone seems terrified of her.  Next to Dylan, Ginsberg & maybe Baez, she’s the most visible person here, still making use of the musical career that apparently fell from the sky.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Here’s Your Throat Back,
Thanks for the Loan”

Steven Ring on Dylan’s Voices

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Thursday, January 03, 2008

You start to realize that Todd Haynes has nailed it, produced something close to a miracle, a reasonably big budget motion picture with A-list players that is as intelligent as its audience, even before you’re through the opening titles to I’m Not There. Very close to the last thing I did in 2007 was finally get together with a number of friends, have a big old Cajun meal at Carmines & head over to the Bryn Mawr Film Institute where the so-called Dylan biopic is finally playing, albeit only at 1:30 in the afternoon & 9:45 at night. Tho the Bryn Mawr, in spite of its collegiate name, tends to skew to boomers, we saw it in a large theater with a sparse crowd – had everyone else see this film downtown? Or is it that the absence of a 7:00 o’clock show (which it got only for the opening weekend at the BMFI) is the kiss of death for a crowd that now likes to be tucked in bed before Jay Leno comes out to play. Still, this was a great, thrilling movie experience, one of the best American motion pictures I’ve ever seen. Period.

It’s not any single shot that convinces you of this at first – tho some of them are stunners, especially the pans of lines at what appear to be homeless shelters or food missions – is that Moondog waiting in line? – as it is the constant shuffle between shots, now in black & white, now in color, this image grainy, that one clear as contemporary cinema can manufacture. Everything you’ve ever heard about six different actors portraying Dylan, not one of them actually named either Dylan or Zimmerman, pales against the realization that this film is not six sequential vignettes, but rather going to be a continual shuffle of all six, from beginning to end, that its fundamental commitment is to keep you off balance from train ride to train ride. That is a brilliant challenge to take on, probably the most difficult thing any director can attempt. The film that follows is not perfect, but it is damn near close enough to keep all its major promises.

I had found myself finally approaching this film with some trepidation – how many times have I heard great things about a film only to be let down by the actual experience itself, which turned out not to be nearly as terrific as the film I’d imagined beforehand? I was almost certain that having heard so many of my friends – and especially my poet friends – rave on about I’m Not There, that I was in for another round of that experience. To my surprise, it was quite the opposite. I’d long ago stopped believing that American cinema could make a film like this – this was a level of complexity only possible in the longpoem – so when I actually began to realize just what Haynes was doing, I had a hard time sitting still in my seat. The last time I was this excited in a theater was probably the opening night for Antonioni’s Blow-Up or Godard’s Weekend, both of which came out 40 years ago. Those films at the time struck me – as does I’m Not There – as miracles, moments when the collaborative process that is a movie has come together to produce something extraordinary.

The secret to I’m Not There is simple – everyone knows the story, even down to the bullshit fictions of a childhood that Dylan put out early in his career, so there is no need here to tell it again (indeed, the weakest moments in the film are the few instances where Haynes does feel the need to recreate an historic moment, as such, whether it’s debacle of the civil rights award speech, Dylan the born-again preacher, the reaction to Maggie’s Farm at Newport, which Haynes at least has the sense to satirize – right down to Pete Seeger with the ax – or the fact that Dylan was always credited by the Beatles as being the first one to turn them onto drugs). Instead, I’m Not There most often references, alludes, plays with the details. Thus a twelve-year-old African American who calls himself Woody Guthrie finds himself riding boxcars with hoboes & tells them he’s been writing songs for Carl Perkins & playing backup for Bobby Vee (which in fact Dylan briefly did, Vee’s band being the one post-doo-wop Tin Pan Alley act to come out of the same Midwest North Country as little Bobby Z). It’s a point, like having Guthrie’s motto – This Machine Kills Fascists – scrawled on his guitar case, that makes sense only to a knowing audience (or, much later, Cate Blanchett as the Mighty Jude Quinn, alluding in passing to Brian Jones “and his groovy cover band”).

If you don’t know Bob Dylan, if you don’t know the details of the lore surrounding him, I’m Not There is apt to seem entirely opaque – why is a tarantula crawling across the screen? Why does Blanchett ride a motorbike off screen followed by the sound of a crash & a single (now suddenly in color) image of bike & body covered in the woods? Why do Quinn & Arthur Rimbaud & Jack Rollins seem so completely uncomfortable in their own skins when questioned & prodded by the media? What’s going on here with this paunchy, scraggly, middle-aged Billy the Kid, portrayed by, of all people, former “Sexiest Man in the World” (and one-time Paoli resident) Richard Gere? Most of the reviews – even extremely positive ones like that of Roger Ebert – have seemed at a loss with this sequence in Riddle, Missouri, a town that doesn’t show up on the maps of either Google or Juan de la Cosa. Readers of Chronicles: Volume One, however, will recognize it as what I think of as the San Rafael sequence from Dylan’s autobiography, where Dylan, burned out & bored, reduced to being an opening act for the Grateful Dead, has an epiphaney in the Marin County town about a new way of thinking through & enunciating his repertoire that will lead him not just to the rebirth of his music, with the albums Time Out of Mind (Platinum), Love & Theft (Gold), and Modern Times (Platinum), the latter making the one-time boy genius of folk the oldest performer ever to have an album debut at the top of the charts, but also return him as one of the hottest performing tickets in the music industry, even as Carpal Tunnel Syndrome has forced him off guitar apparently for good. Richard Gere getting back on the train – from which little boy Woody Guthrie was hurled into the river years before – is the most allegorical moment I’ve seen in ages in a major film. Finding his old guitar under the empty sacks & floorboards of the boxcar, complete with the ol’ motto covered by dust, all but ties a giant red ribbon on it. Gere’s own aimlessness up to that moment isn’t a problem of the film – it’s the theme, as such, followed by a closing sequence of Dylan himself doing an impossibly long sequence on harmonica.¹

Besides the story that everybody already knows, the other elements that hold this fabulous collage together are (1) Haynes’ sense of rhythm, which he only loses once or twice as scenes carry on too long (cf. the aforementioned Beatles’ appearance in the midst of the too-long run-up to the revelation of a BBC producer – made to look & sound exactly like George Plimpton – as Mr. Jones).; and (2) Cate Blanchett’s ballsy spot-on performance. Because the six Dylan surrogates and their tales are shuffled throughout, Blanchett’s on screen continually from beginning to end. If there ever was any question that she’s the best actor of our generation, this should put it to rest. There isn’t any role for which she wouldn’t be the right performer – she could do Barack Obama, Tony Soprano or Jabba the Hut if she had to, and she’d make a great Tinkerbell. Here you will be shocked to recognize afterwards just how many times her performance made you realize (a) oh yeah, Dylan’s a woman, (b) this really isn’t a guy in this role and, conversely, just how much of the time you were completely oblivious to the question of gender altogether. It’s never really the point Haynes is making, tho he clearly wants us to consider the degree to which Dylan benefits from being in touch with his feminine side (which is why the material confronting Dylan’s unreconstructed sexism – “I love women. Really I do. I think everyone should have one.” – is so important).

Haynes’ strategy makes great sense in trying to tell the story of someone for whom the contradictions are what matter most. I’ve noted before that my favorite part of any motion picture is almost always that period at the beginning where the viewer is being pummeled by details that have not yet gelled into a coherent & increasingly narrow narrative that resolves finally into a chase scene. Haynes has made a motion picture that strives to be entirely composed of opening moments. It’s amazing just how much of this he’s able to do. As the credits began rolling, I said out loud “I could see that again tomorrow.” When the time comes, I’m Not There clearly is a film to buy, rather than just rent.


¹ One of the small surprises of the film is just how much of the singing is Dylan himself, not the recordings of the “sound track” double CD, even tho that turns out to be the best collection of Dylan covers ever assembled.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Singing “
North Country Blues,” 1963 (photo by Dave Gahr)

I see where A.O. Scott of The New York Times has listed Murray Lerner’s documentary of Bob Dylan’s performances at the Newport Folk Festival between 1963 & ’65, The Other Side of the Mirror, as one of his critic’s picks for the week, and given it a brief review here. I’ve had the DVD sitting atop my TV set since summer, when I bought it the instant it became available at the ever entrepreneurial website. I’ve been planning to see I’m Not There, but the only location in Philadelphia where it’s playing is downtown, which means, given Philly traffic, leaving the house no later than 5:00 PM for a 7:10 showing. Given that Krishna works until six, that’s just not going to happen, so, pining for a broader release, I finally popped the DVD into the machine and watched it. When it was done, I immediately watched it again. Then the next night, because Krishna hadn’t seen either the 1965 portion or the Murray Lerner interview also on the DVD, I watched those sections again. It is, in fact, a great documentary, very much for the same reasons that Scott mentions. Lerner simply has put together all of Dylan’s public performances from the three years together, well-filmed and acoustically well-recorded, with very little that is extraneous to this – a brief interview with Joan Baez, Baez imitating Dylan imitating her, Johnny Cash singing “Don’t Think Twice,” a couple of comments from teenage festival goers & a brief (less than a minute) scene of Dylan half-trapped in a van by window-pounding young women. Everything else in the 83-minute film is Dylan singing.

The funny thing is, he’s as changeable here as I suspect he is with six different folks portraying him in the Todd Haynes film. That may be overstating it, but only a little. What it’s really like is that feeling you have when you see some friends maybe once a year and their kids are teenagers – one year they’re kids, the next long and gawky and infinitely awkward & the year after that they seem to be complete adults who tower over their parents. Dylan in The Other Side of the Mirror is only a little older, really, going from the age of 22 in 1963 to 24 in 1965. In the process, he’s not only transformed, but the whole of American pop and folk have as well, dragged along in the wake of his effortless density as a songwriter.

In 1963, Dylan is nervous, humble, earnest, seemingly hyperconscious of the experience & expertise, not to mention talent, surrounding him as he sings “North Country Blues” while Judy Collins, Doc Watson & Clarence Ashley listen intently, merely the most famous of the large crowd attending an afternoon workshop on which they too were probably on the bill. Dylan at this point has already written “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Masters of War,” “Girl from the North Country,” and the other early masterworks that would have assured his reputation as a songwriter had he never written another word. Only the first of these is in the film, Dylan closing a concert by leading Baez, Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul & Mary and The Freedom Singers in a group version (he’s at the mike, everyone else behind in a chorus, the hierarchy is unmistakable). It’s less than three weeks before Dylan will be singing the same song at a giant rally in Washington, DC, after which Martin Luther King, Jr. will deliver his “I Have a Dream,” speech. Is Dylan in way over his head? Absolutely. But his commitment to his music and to his impeccable enunciation of lyrics – something at which he’s never been equaled – are sufficient to get him through.

By 1964, Dylan is complete a star & conscious of it. The opening scene for that year is of Dylan at the topical song workshop singing – for the first time before a large audience – “Mr. Tambourine Man,” newly penned. You can see Pete Seeger sitting silently, looking down, frowning, trying somehow to fathom what is “topical” about the “jingle-jangle morning” in which “I’ll come following you.” According to Lerner in his interview, Newport had never seen a workshop with an audience this large – maybe 5,000, a quarter of what they got for the “large” evening concerts in those heady days before Woodstock.

Lerner is incredibly fortunate in that Dylan sang two songs at more than one festival, first “With God on Our Side” in 1963 and 64 – twice in 1963, both times with Joan Baez, the first at the workshop – a version that is widely known and deservedly famous for its appearance on one of the Newport anthology albums that appeared in the 1960s – then in her performance on one of the evening shows. The second is “Tambourine Man,” which Dylan sings only at the workshop in 1964, but reprises in the 1965 concert after he was persuaded to return to the stage and do a couple of acoustic numbers (the other is “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” Dylan’s farewell to Newport) after the raucous crowd reaction to the intense & brilliant – but decidedly paradigm shattering – performance of “Maggie’s Farm” and “Like a Rolling Stone” (another song completely unfamiliar to the crowd, tho it had just been released as a single) with electric versions accompanied by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.

Considering its content, it may seem curious that the key element differentiating the performances of “With God on Our Side” is Dylan’s relationship to Baez. At the workshop in 1963, they’re giggly young lovers, she’s the superstar and he’s very much her project – as he was Pete Seeger’s, the two determined to let the world know how good Dylan is and make him famous (be careful what you wish for). At the 1963 evening concert, tho, Dylan & Baez are all business and it’s very straightforward – and it's not as good a performance, frankly, because of this. In 1964, Dylan & Baez have evolved into good friends – you can see his affection in his grin as he looks at her while they sing, really an extraordinary moment given Dylan’s “head down, focus on the song” performance mode that he’s made the hallmark now of a long career.

With “Tambourine Man” in 1964, it’s very much the serious get-through-the-song Dylan onstage at the workshop. (He was, in fact, still carrying the lyrics around in his pocket, as I learned when he sat next to me at a party during that festival and I asked what he was writing – he pulled a thermal photocopy of “Tambourine Man” out of his coat pocket to show me.) In 1965, after very distinct choruses of booing to his electric set, he was coaxed back onstage by Peter Yarrow and had to ask the audience for somebody to throw him an E harmonica – there’s a clatter as dozens hit the stage – and Dylan then gives what I can only describe as the most intimate performance of that song I’ve ever heard.

The politics of the Newport festival do show up from time to time, the sense that the workshops – if not the trains – have to run on time. Putting Dylan toward the middle of the evening concert in 1964 – he’s followed by Odetta & Dave Von Ronk (neither visible or audible in the documentary) – may have been attempt to keep Dylan from thinking himself too big a star, but the gesture backfires as the audience goes on & on demanding an en core until Dylan himself comes back on stage to say that the other performers have to have their time too. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t show Dylan’s return to the stage during his friend Van Ronk’s set, during which Dylan literally crawled on all fours about the back of the stage to gales of audience laughter that Von Ronk at first couldn’t figure out and didn’t seem to fit with his song.

By 1965, nobody makes any attempt to thwart the gods of audience adulation. Dylan’s workshop appearance has a vast audience and his evening concert closes the festival (as it had in 1963). The ’65 concert is legendary as the moment that folk let rock & roll through the door. In addition to the evening concert, two songs electric, then after he’s talked back onstage, two acoustic, the film also shows Dylan’s afternoon sound check with the Butterfield Blues Band (sans Paul Butterfield, who is visible in a single shot, watching from a distance). Dylan of course used Mike Bloomfield, the best rock guitarist ever not named Hendrix, on the recordings of Highway 61 Revisited, as well as Al Kooper who replaces Bloomfield organist Barry Goldberg for the evening concert (and whose sloppy playing to some degree overwhelms “Like a Rolling Stone”).

Given its controversy at the time, it’s ironic that this live version of “Maggie’s Farm” is the best arrangement & recording that song has ever had. For one thing, the Butterfield Band had a cohesiveness as a unit that The Band (nee The Hawks) never valued. Whereas Dylan’s own arrangements during the entire period up to the enforced hiatus due to the motorcycle accident the following July are effective, if sometimes ethereal, the hard-driving blues sound of the Butterfield Band has often struck me as an opportunity not taken by Dylan, and “Maggie’s Farm” is my evidence for that. It is the high point of this very great documentary not just historically, but musically as well. The one song that matches it for pure intensity is the acoustic "Chimes of Freedom" closing his performance in 1964.

The final element that holds all of this together, curiously, is Peter Yarrow, he of Paul & Mary, who serves as the emcee for all but one of the events Lerner has captured of Dylan. It is Yarrow who says, of the 22-year-old Dylan in 1963, that he has “his pulse on his generation.” It is Yarrow who has to cope with tens of thousands unhappy customers as Dylan completes his 1964 evening concert so that Odetta & Dave Van Ronk don’t get left out. It is Yarrow who beseeches Dylan to come back and do a couple of acoustic numbers in 1965, telling the audience to be patient, “Bobby has to find an acoustic guitar.” It is Yarrow who scolds Dylan & the Butterfield Band that they have to have their settings “down cold” because they won’t have a chance to fix it during the concert. He’s a funny presence, very much the figure of Before as Dylan passes through folk music – more so in this documentary than Pete Seeger, who’s only visible for the finale of “Blowin’ in the Wind” in 1963 and the topical song workshop in ’64. Yarrow’s binding presence is, like Dylan’s repetition of “With God on Our Side” & “Mr. Tambourine Man,” another instance of Murray Lerner’s incredible luck putting together this almost perfect presentation of Dylan’s career as a folk musician. This is one of those works where everything turned out just right.