No Direction Home: Bob Dylan

“The artist has got to be careful never really to arrive at a place where he thinks he’s at somewhere. You always have to realize that you’re constantly in a state of becoming, you know? And, uh, as long as you stay in that realm, you’ll be alright.”

-Bob Dylan

All the affluent post-hippie baby boomers chillin’ on their porches on the corner of Northampton and Malibu would have you believe that the greatest segments in the recently aired PBS documentary No Direction Home: Bob Dylan showcase the radical spirit of the ‘60s. Those geriatric counterculture “experts” - their voices shaking with nostalgia that hasn’t been stirred since Woodstock ’94 - would attribute cinematic brilliance to the way Dylan’s live rendition of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” pours harrowingly down on stock footage of Americans reacting to President Kennedy’s assassination. The Big Chill cast clone club might also tell you that the March on Washington footage, complete with Dylan’s performance in front of the reflecting pool intercut with Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, really takes them back - not back in time, but back to a state of mind long abandoned in favor of mortgages, Starbucks lines, lawn mowers, and hair loss/graying anxiety. Before dragging their Prozac and New Yorker subscriptions to bed, the typical geezer might score some green from his daughter’s dealer boyfriend down the block, dust off the old Blonde on Blonde vinyl magic, and get righteously stoned before CEOing the daily insurance scam in the morning.

If the above paragraph is slightly ageist in tone and overrun with sardonic yuppie stereotypes, I suppose it’s because I’m feeling a bit disenfranchised by the baby boomer-monopolized critical establishment response to No Direction Home. At less than half the age of Bob Dylan, I seem to be the only under-30 critic offering her perspective on this documentary, and you know what they used to say about trusting anyone over 30. Even though I’ve got nothing but love for my parents’ generation, let’s face it; from the Freedom Summer to Kent State, the ‘60s have always had a chaotic air of mighty, mystified social conscience that trumps the Great Depression and the Dot-Com revolution every time. You baby boomers have always utilized your age bracket for narcissistic retrospective and opportunistic marketing, but as a proud, card-carrying member of Generation Fuck-the-Alphabet, I’m not going to take that route with No Direction Home. In fact, I see this documentary as much more than just a long, strange trip down beatnik memory lane spliced with celluloid rotting on the Forrest Gump cutting floor.

To my counterculture credibility, I’m not only a big Dylan fan, but I also grew up with idealistic ‘60s history lessons pummeled into my Trivial Pursuit arsenal and came of age humming Motown and British Invasion in my sleep. I even remember wishing I could be 21 in the year 1963 instead of 2001, longing to be immersed in the now-antiquated down-with-Jim-Crow sex, drugs, and rock and roll protest era instead of a helpless TV screen-glued bystander of the replayed, redefined Manhattan skyline. But now, looking back, all I’ve really learned from the ‘60s is that political and legislative accomplishments like the Civil Rights Movement seem like vertical uphill battles in today’s socially, economically, and morally ambiguous world. Things are no longer black, white, and tie-dye psychedelic, and assassination attempts are no longer as common.

A mighty hard rain just a-fell down on New Orleans, but trying to persuade President Bush to convertible down Bourbon Street is as unlikely as getting John and Yoko out of bed for the entire year of 1969, not that any popular musicians today would stoop to political protest for fear of immediate record company disassociation. This culture is not counter unless you can count it. This generation is not mine unless I can buy and sell it, and your generation, dear baby boomers, sold out long before it got old, and now it’s about to retire and bankrupt us all.

You see, yuppies, kids like me, my generation, we grew old and jaded a long time ago, with access to the entire world on the Internet before hitting sweet sixteen and wondering if Osama’s Fan Club will be partying on the deck of Flight 666 tomorrow morning. Dylan once sang that “the times they are a-changin,” but before you lay claim to that song’s context, o wise old ones, please know that it doesn’t take a historian to figure out that the times are always a-changin’ as long as the clock’s still a-tickin’.

Instead of communists we have terrorists and identity thieves. Instead of JFK we have Tom Delay. Misfits like Lennon and Dylan were unofficially declared extinct back when Kurt Cobain pulled the trigger. Face it, we don’t have your idealism or the delusion that we have the power to make a difference - at least I don’t. From the depths of youthful cynicism and a crisis only a loaded conscience can afford, I turn to the timelessness of artistic expression for hope in a world run rampant with hurricanes, disease, corruption, and terrorists. Wait - did I say “hope” somewhere in that last sentence? Leave it to words like “hope” to screw up my act. Sigh…and it was working so well.

Speaking of acts, to get back on track to wherever it is I think I’m going, here’s one for the young people. Here’s one for the timelessness of artistic expression. And here’s one for hope…if there still is such a thing in these a-changin’ times. No Direction Home, the narrative of Bob Dylan’s public life from 1961 to 1966, is not just targeted at the young-at-heart hippie or beatnik demographic. More importantly, it aims to bulls-eye today’s old-soul youth who have way more to say than money to spend. If you don’t believe me, just watch the post-documentary interview with its filmmaker, acclaimed Oscar reject Martin Scorsese.

Had I been playing a drinking game, swigging tequila each time old Marty mentioned “young person” or “young people,” I would be too drunk to write this now, and I certainly wouldn’t be wondering why he mentioned us so often. But here I am, sober, wondering, and if you listen close enough, it’s apparent…

“Ultimately, what I think is interesting for any young person [drink] seeing the film is the development of an artist and the choice that he makes, which is a tougher choice, which is to go on your own and to keep seeing if you can pull anything further out of yourself.”

So listen up, y’all young people [and drink again]: my interpretation of this documentary takes most of its cues from the one who called all the shots. Just as my main man Scorsese puts passionate reason into each one of his films, every Scorsese fan has a passionate reason for loving his films. For me, it’s in the auteur’s connection to his protagonist. Whether subtle or strong, compassionate or violent, DeNiro or DiCaprio, there’s always a bond the audience can feel reverberate onscreen. With Dylan, it’s like a rolling stone.

Similar to his last rock and roll film, the 1978 documentary The Last Waltz, No Direction Home needs no narration, only the music and the words of those who were moved by it. If there is spiritual power in the assembly of a fascinating character study from a goldmine of evocative interviews and rare concert performances, Scorsese and his editing team have found it. Through four hours split up into two nights, (which I will refer to as Nights One and Two, a la The Godfather I and II) the Dylan saga attempts to reveal the mystery behind one of most complex performers and influential poets in American history.

As Night One opens, we’re immediately face-to-face with present-day Bob Dylan. Positioned in off-kilter close-up, his graying brown mane consuming the screen, he speaks honestly, his blue eyes occasionally piercing through the camera right at you. Dylan starts off the show by admitting that he had no ambitions in becoming a performer except to go out and “find this home that I’d left awhile back.” As fast as I can think, “What? No ambitions?!” and without missing a beat, time reverts to 1966. A weary, angry, bone-thin, chain-smoking, fuzzy-haired 25-year-old Dylan and his blues band kick into a rousing version of “Like a Rolling Stone” as though revolting against some unknown enemy. The overflowing inner fury of this performance represents the beginning of the end, a reference point to which the film frequently refers as a testament to Dylan’s remarkable artistic resilience.

After quickly mentioning his small town Minnesota origins, Night One fast-forwards through one Robert Zimmerman’s childhood and hits play when he changes his name upon his arrival on the New York folk music scene in 1961. As young Dylan struggles to score an audience and a recording contract, present-day Dylan acknowledges his literary and musical influences. Beat prose voices like Jack Kerouac, folk scenesters like Dave Von Ronk, and left wing crusaders like Woody Guthrie are all credited in the growth of a performer, songwriter, and what came to be the reluctant voice of a generation.

By the end of Night One, it’s 1963, and Dylan’s fame has climbed to the top of the stage at the Newport Folk Festival. His lyrics, filled with unanswered questions and distrust of the status quo, spread through the college student sect as the bona fide progressive gospel. Anyone listening closely to a song like “Talkin’ World War III Blues” is bound to wonder when the next H-bomb will drop. Suddenly and unintentionally, 22-year-old Bob Dylan has attracted a cult-like following as the leader of the impending youth protest movement. Devoted counterculture fans may have memorized what happens next in Night Two, but young people who don’t already know about Dylan’s mystique are in for a real man vs. society treat, and Scorsese delivers.

While Night One was a naive uprising of success, Night Two is a frustrated struggle, reminding us that even a force like Dylan is susceptible to insecurity when confronted by the relentless media circus. Instead of delving into the personal life of a public figure, Night Two aims to expose the public life of personal figure. Dylan’s best songs stand naked with emotional introspection, but his answers to press conference questions are exercises in defensive mocking disregard (Example – Q: “Do you care about what you’re singing?” Dylan [totally pissed]: “How can I answer that if you’ve got the nerve to ask me?”). As his younger self retreats further and further from his hokey “voice of a generation” label, present-day Dylan maintains that he didn’t want to supply such an unreasonable demand. “They were trying to make me an insider to some kinda trip they were on – I don’t think so,” he says deliberately, looking out at anyone who may have been on that trip.

At its core, Night Two is Dylan’s protest against what he’d become, jam-packed with never-before-seen live performances. His ascent from folk messiah to rebel-trying-to-lose-the-cause plays like a bold self-indictment, especially in the chilling solo “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and a rockin’ “Maggie’s Farm” from his notorious plugged-in appearance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Dylan’s controversial metamorphosis into an electric guitar-slinging bluesman is met with brutal fan rejection that must be seen to be believed. At the height of Operation Boo Bob, when a British audience member calls him “Judas,” you can’t help but wonder who the Jesus is in this scenario. But at the time, in one of the best comebacks ever, Dylan confronts the taunt by calling the heckler a liar, telling his band to “play it fucking loud,” and launching into the same ferocious version of “Like a Rolling Stone” that opened Night One.

It’s easy to forget (and hard to believe) that amid this racket Bob Dylan wrote and released some of his best and most enduring music, but No Direction Home remembers, providing inside looks at Dylan in the studio from producers and session musicians. From 1963 to 1966, the three-year span depicted in Night Two, such masterpiece albums as Another Side of Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home, and Highway 61 Revisited emerged. Even with the public disappointment swirling around him, Bob Dylan’s private songwriting endeavors produced timeless impressions that still impact us today.

Given that the late great Marvin Gaye claims that God wrote the personal yet political 1970 album What’s Going On through him, No Direction Home leaves me wondering: who ran Bob Dylan’s show? How did songs like “Mr. Tambourine Man” come out of this man’s brain and deep into the consciousness of millions of people? Where did it come from? I may be too young to know for sure, but after watching this documentary, I’ve got a hunch it came from a guy about my age who didn’t really have anything figured out at a time when everyone, both young and old, wanted him to have all the answers. From age 20 in 1961 to age 25 in 1966, Dylan’s life only elapsed five years, but during that time he evolved into a legend. By zooming in on this tumultuous period in America’s past, No Direction Home focuses on a young artist who refused to be categorized, limited, and defined by anyone.

In the quiet, simplistic close of his 1964 song “Restless Farewell,” he sings,

So I'll make my stand
And remain as I am
And bid farewell

and not give a damn.

As it follows the restless identity of its subject into the to-be-continued abyss like an open-ended question, No Direction Home challenges what it means to be an artist today as opposed to the ‘60s. In this post-millennium society dominated by fear, profit, and the quest for acceptance, Bob Dylan’s defiant example seems to have all but died among today’s young artists…or has it? There’s always hope for the unknown as long as the times are a-changin’.


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