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DVD Review: No Direction Home – The Dylan Interview

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It’s great to see Bob Dylan at any time, really, with the exception perhaps of the Ed Bradley interview, which to me anyway, was painful and so brief that it seemed almost not worthwhile. It was Dylan pulling his usual press routine. But to see him in the Scorsese interview is to see a strikingly candid Dylan, telling his story as if for the first time ever. Yes it may be well be the apt time for a Dylan retrospective but as Dylan might say, “It’s not dark yet…”

Dylan has plenty more to say and certainly much more to write, we pray. Here is Dylan by turns frank, offering up his past, his present, and even at times contrite about his past. Perhaps one of the most interesting things, or that I found interesting was the language that Dylan uses throughout the interview, noting that the record player he saw when he was growing up had “mystical overtones” and that Johnny Ray had a “strange incantation in his voice” a certain “voodoo” he says.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not at all insinuating that Dylan has gone new age, only that the man who is the myth, (like it or not) has a side that clearly believes in a certain fate – the record player drawing him in, the strange incantations and the like, and the fact that he always knew he would be someone – or some the story goes.

This Dylan feels, is as real as Dylan gets. It’s the most real I have ever seen him in one sitting and likely the longest as well (a two sided disc). He trusts Scorsese, trusts his judgment and equally important if not more, he trusts his manager who is the interviewer here.

It’s clear that there are several things that Dylan wants to get across that are important to him: how he escaped Hibbing; how he is self taught and very proud of this and his reverence and a respect for Woody Guthrie – a fact that would have him almost wanting to be him so much so that in early promotional photographs Dylan strikes a pose just like one of Woody’s early poses: his cap just barely hanging on, cockily sideways, the cigarette dangling from the lip, the just open pout of the mouth and the titled angle of the head as if the whole thing would fall apart in a second and perhaps it did, but the camera snapped and hey – The two shots are remarkably similar.

But Dylan did keep his promise to see his hero. Not only did he head for “New York Town” as he calls it to visit Woody, who was by then in a sanitarium of sorts (where, Dylan says, he didn’t belong with those other people, and is likely right). But Dylan accomplished part one of his goal – to meet and greet Woody and time would take care of the rest. Anyone who you respect as much as Dylan respected Guthrie you are bound inevitably to emulate to some extent, though in Dylan’s case it is more than this.

He adopts an Oakie accent, changes his name from Robert Zimmerman to Bob Dylan (the origins of which people love to debate, though Dylan insists “Dylan” just came to him one day – a name associated with nothing and I would tend to believe that. What reason now to lie?). No doubt though, overall, Dylan spun for himself a myth:

Dylan had essentially raised himself as his parents were negligible characters, if mentioned at all; he traveled around the country on freight trains which is how he got to New York and adopted or affected an Oakie accent that had nothing to do with Hibbing, Minnesota, which was “three blocks in one direction and three blocks in the other.” But if caught in that lie, then another one quickly took its place, and that was that he was first in Hibbing, but then was shipped out to the Southwest to live with his aunts, I believe he says, for “a while.”

Which parts are real and which parts are made of whole cloth become blurry, perhaps even to Dylan. The myth is larger than the man and now, beyond his control as others feed into it and read into it what they want.

All of this was happening in the hip center of Greenwich Village when Café Wha was one of the swirling centers where poets and musicians gathered. Dylan played many places and had no stable place to live and so relied on the kindness of strangers. According to most, and Ginsberg notes, “you couldn’t turn your back on Dylan. He has a way of captivating people…The way he adopted a kind of theatre about him.” With that, you could really go anywhere.

And Dylan is mutable and capable of great mimicry, a sign of true genius according to some: meet the Dylan of the Woody era, dressed in: Plaid shirts made of flannel or cotton; His plain suede jacket; Clean-cropped hair; Singing train travelin’ songs with his Oakie accent and learning guitar picking over the course of several months, according to those who knew him at the time.

I was recently thumbing through a book which was a complete analysis of every song from Dylan’s early years and as I read it, I could see that much of it was true: that “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” could easily be about Suze and that “Visions of Johanna” could well be about Joan Baez and that whole deal (that’s another long story and another article for another day). In short, you wanted to see that in it, then you would. But that was just it – who could get at the real Bob and get him to say what the song or songs were or are about.

Everybody says “Mr. Tambourine Man” is about drugs, yet according to many it isn’t about drugs at all. Dylan once claimed that his songs weren’t about anything or associated with any movement (the peace movement, the Leftist movement, and so on.) and that he never asked to be the poet, or rather, The Poet of any generation. Read any book you like and they may be authoritative and the songs are about something to be sure, but as Dylan says in the Scorsese interview, the meaning changes with the times.

In short, you can, if you are looking, interpret anything by any artist however you like and lay your template neatly over it; the thing to remember is that this doesn’t necessarily make it the truth. The truth, in this case anyway, is so often debatable, and certainly, there are enough folk out there who do debate it, and only one person who really knows the truth and that’s Dylan himself, which is why the Scorsese interview is so interesting. It brings a fresh Dylan who is more forthcoming than he has been in any other interview and especially when contrasted to the 60 Minutes fiasco that only highlighted just how tightlipped Dylan can be when he wants to be and how open when he chooses.

Here, we have the honor of the open Dylan, but again, he is with people that he trusts. Note though that according to what is known about this documentary, Scorsese never actually met Dylan and Martin Scorsese never met Bob Dylan. Columbia Records and Bob Dylan’s management gave Martin Scorsese access to their vaults; something no documentary filmmaker has ever been given by Dylan. (Source: Amazon.com)

The now-legendary stories of Dylan’s early beginnings are interesting – the early days at Café Wha and the legendary record thievery or as Dylan called himself and the act of “borrowing” his friends records, a “musical expeditionary.”

No matter what, Dylan always maintained his cool and he learned a great deal from those “borrowed” records and a lot of this is where he honed and developed his own sound, taking in the environment and everything that was around him. No, the blank and flat Midwest – three blocks in each direction in Hibbing – offered nothing for a traveler like Dylan and the person he believed or knew he would become; he had already left Hibbing at least in spirit long before he actually left, and when he did, he set off to meet his hero and to pursue his own dream.

Whether or not Dylan really had that confidence may or may not have been pure theatre, but regardless, it was enough of a put-on that it became who he was and is. Pretend long enough and you become what you pretend to be, but that’s not fair: Dylan may well be, and it would certainly seem, is or became the authentic thing. Whatever it was he did or is doing, he is absolutely real and present in the moment. He may change, but he means what he says or sings at that time.

About Joan Baez he says, she was “staggering” and “some place at the back of my mind.” Of course, the “king and queen of folk” as some called them would inevitably cross paths and then some – it seemed almost inevitable and it’s no secret to say that to a large extent initially, Dylan would ride on Baez’s coattails for a while to gain his own measure of success. That is not to say that there wasn’t much, much more to that relationship. Surely there was and the two had much to talk about and much in common and fell in love.

As the Don’t Look Back documentary shows, we see a Dylan typing and working on his music while Baez plays her guitar on the couch, seeming desperate to get his attention but to no avail. More, on the tour, Baez had expected to be asked onto the stage just as she had done for Dylan so many times. Yet no such invitation was forthcoming. As Dylan now says in this interview, “You can’t be wise and in love at the same time.”

But soon Dylan became more than Baez’s equal and become the huge star that according to Baez, she always knew he would be and while she invited Dylan on stage many times, he may have sometimes returned the favor, but never shared the stage as often. Dylan wanted the spotlight squarely on him and made and makes no bones about it. He set out to be a success and so he did and why not?

Part II

By part two, we’re into the peg-legged Dylan, seen goofing off for the camera in London, England and opening a concert to a loud and questioning audience who want to know where “their” Dylan went. For his part, Dylan seems to care less, chastising the crowd, “It’s not British music, it’s American music.” he tells a disenthralled crowd who want to know, What happened to Woody (Guthrie)… They want their old (read: safer, seemingly knowable) Dylan. They can’t go along with Dylan as he changes and remains as mutable as he really was from day one.

What that and so many other crowds have or had failed to understand was that Dylan had not changed in the sense that who he was hadn’t changed. As Baez notes, he never came to a sit-in or a lie-in and although Baez did, she was always asked “Is Bob coming?” For the record, he never did come and never would, she notes, wanting to say, to briefly paraphrase, Don’t you get it, you moron…. That sums it up. Dylan could not be pigeonholed and every movement, especially more leftist movements wanted to claim Dylan as their own and Dylan for his part, may have sailed on the coattails for a while, but never made any commitment to not change or to turn his back on his naturally mercurial nature.

Printed on the wall and in a shop window are the words;
Animals or birds bought or sold on commission:
We will collect clip bath and return your dog;
KNI 7727.
Cigarettes and tobacco

It’s amazing how Dylan can and could take the simplest of things, a simple sign on a wall and in a shop window and turn it into what could be nonsense or poetry, depending on who is doing the reading or the looking but whatever the matter, Dylan’s cleverness, his too-clever-by-halfness cannot be denied. The opening of Part 2 of the Scorsese interview shows a rarely happy and goofy Dylan, goofing off for his own amusement to be sure and just caught by the camera… From the sign he spins, and quickly…

I want a dog that’s going to collect and clean my bath
return my cigarette and give tobacco to my animals
and give my birds a commission.

I want, I’m lookin’ for somebody to sell my dog
collect my clip, buy my animal and straighten out my bird.

I’m lookin for a place that can baaathe my bird
buy my dog, collect my clip, sell me cigarettes and commission my bath.

I’m lookin for a place that’s gonna sell my dog, burn my bird and sell me for a cigarette
bird my buy collect my will and bathe my commission

I’m lookin for a place that’s gonna animal my soul, mit my return, bathe my foot and collect my dog, commission me, sell my animal to the bird to clip and buy my bath and return me back to the cigarettes.

Dylan is clear about his influences and who he liked, talking about Martin Luther King and how he was “close that day.” Dylan identified himself with those who were protesting what was happening all around them and although he may have denied being a protest singer in the past and intended it this time as a sarcastic comment, he nonetheless hit the nail on the head.

How can anyone listen to “A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall” without hearing protest in every word and it doesn’t take much to interpret the song and though as Dylan says and has maintained, the song isn’t about nuclear rain or atomic fall-out, it’s just “a hard rain” — that something was about to come down and it would be hard and tough.

Dylan says, “I was never a topical songwriter to begin with and that never really applied to me” – so when he says protest songs, perhaps she means he is protesting the labels put on him. He is nobody’s “leftwing servant” according to Ginsberg and wouldn’t’ “give the same thing over and over again” says Suze Rotolo. But Dylan always did and still does identify himself as an outsider he says – and he was and is. And this is why he refuses all labels. One thing he does say in an early interview is this, “All my songs are protest songs… that’s all I do is protest” which can be interpreted any number of ways, even as protesting against being labeled or codified or put into some genre in which he feels uncomfortable. In this regard, Dylan is slippery and will fall right out of your grasp just when you think you can define him or assign a genre and why not? It certainly keeps him interesting and is his absolute right; too long have too many tried to claim Dylan as their own, it’s hardly surprising he grew weary of being the “people’s Dylan” and not his own Dylan.

He may have come to New York, he may have brought his own special brand of music and sound and all of this he did do, but Dylan never promised us anything and certainly never swore to any one group or side regardless of what people may have wanted or how they wished to pigeonhole him. Is it understandable that he would be categorized for certain songs – sure. They fit a certain bill and spirit of the time and picked up the spirit of protest, of folk, of peace, but Dylan had and has every right to change, morph and doubtless he doesn’t need my or your anyone else’s permission to so. Like anyone, Dylan has a life that has a pattern and a rhythm all its own.

“You are constantly in a state of becoming and as long as you can stay in that realm, then you’ll be alright,” he says in the interview. We got in the door “when no-one was looking” and from then on “there was nothing anyone could do about it” he tells us almost wickedly as if he had gotten away with something. He’s playful, funny, charming this Dylan.

In one clip on the Steve Allen shoe, Steve Allen reads from press-clippings to an embarrassed Dylan about his “genius.” Dylan, for all of his hard work, had succeeded. His mythmaking had worked. He had at last become the idol he always knew he would be and had created the reverence he so seemed to want, as one commentator says, and everybody wanted to sleep with Bobby, get high with Bobby or whatever. He was like a magnet, he says.

Did Dylan recognize his enormous power? That’s a tough question to answer. It seems doubtful that he could not have noticed or known and perhaps part of his shyness, his reticence that was to come in later years and that seemed to start in the sixties (if not before), was his own fame and surprise, although for someone who predicted his own fame, it seems odd that he would then be so reticent about it.

One could write so much more about the Scorsese interview and footage. To be sure, don’t just settle for having seen it once. Buy the discs from Amazon and buy the soundtrack that accompanies it because both are well worthwhile. If Eat The Document and Don’t Look Back show us the Dylan of the mid-sixties, the Scorsese interview shows us the Dylan of the then and now and puts the whole picture into perspective, not only with Dylan himself as the interviewee (coherent, present, interested and engaged and refreshing), but with others from Dylan’s past filling in the missing pieces.

Watch again and see how much there is to see.

sadi ranson-polizzotti

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About Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    I plan to actually read this at home… just wanted to stop in and say I have been wondering when you’d be checking in to discuss the latest Dylan releases. Looking forward to this.

  • Eric Olsen

    thanks Sadi, impressive and thought-provoking. If your nature is to be changeable but you remain “in the moment” as you put it, then fans nad critics have little choice but to follow along on the ride. Sure, you can like “this Dylan” better than “that Dylan,” but you can’t say one is more “true” than the other.

    Thanks!

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    i loved this documentary, so much so that i bought it. now if i can only get the danged stepkid who swiped it to bring it back.

    this article is headed to the printer, and then home for weekend reading.

  • http://www.tantmieux.squarespace.com sade

    i’m glad you liked this Eric, and all i look forward to your thoughts. it’s a bit much to read online, granted, and i almost ran it in two parts since the footage is in two parts but decided against — sorry for the length. And i agree with you Eric, you can’t say This or That dylan or one is more true because they are ALL Dylan, just as all of us are multi-faceted and if we are allowed, so to speak, they so is he… and that’s just it. Small wonder he was often so frustrated with the press etc and those who tried to pigeonhole him or still do…

    Anyway – i’m off for the wkend. Apologies if i don’t respond to any comments after this afternoon… i’ll be back online sunday…

    i’m glad you liked this and look forward to hearing what you think Mark and DJ… :)

    cheers,

    s.

  • http://www.tantmieux.squarespace.com sade

    oh, also, sorry i haven’t been around – the death of a friend rather threw me and i’ve been busy w/ my own book, but now i should have more time. thanks all – next up is Chronicles, which i should have reviewed sometime next week…

  • Eric Olsen

    have a good one, Sadi!

    Have you ever met Dylan? I was in the same room once, but that’s it

  • http://www.tantmieux.squarespace.com sadi ranson-polizzotti

    cheers! ;)

  • http://www.wmattmeyer.com Matt

    The interview perhaps seemed so candid and frank because it was conducted by Dylan’s long-time friend and manager Jeff Rosen – not Scorcese. Scorcese was brought in after everything was collected and he put all the pieces together.

  • http://www.tantmieux.squarespace.com sadi ranson-polizzotti

    hi, and thanks for the comment – i actually put that in there (his manager, if you check it) and i know / khnew it was Rosen, but thanks for the tip anyway. i know Scorcese put the thing together but yes, Dylan was relaxed because it was Jeff Rosen….. i did my homework, but it still never hurts to reiterate for anyone who maybe didn’t know…

    thanks, and be well,

    sadi