The first time I saw Bob Dylan in concert was in the fall of 1978 when I was 17-years-old. I remember being really surprised that he did the whole first set solo – just him, his guitar, and his harmonica. He did a mixture of old favourites and more obscure tunes from his early albums, The Times They Are A Changing and Freewheeling Bob Dylan including “Masters Of War”, “Hard Rain”, and “Blowing In The Wind”. In the second set he brought out his band that he was touring with at the time, and they rocked the house with stuff from his then current release, Street Legal, and various electric hits from his past.
After the immediate euphoria of being able to say I’d seen Dylan in concert had passed, I began to experience something akin to disappointment with what I had seen. It wasn’t that he was bad or anything; he had performed letter perfect renditions of his material so they sounded almost exactly the way they did on his records and his band was hot. Yet the feeling of being let down persisted. More then a decade later I saw him for the second time, and this was a completely different show. He did a lot of his old material again, but this time he did versions of them that were nothing like his original recordings.
After the concert I heard people around me, including some I had come with, complaining about how they barely recognized songs and he didn’t sound like he used to. It had been a difficult concert, with Dylan and his band in attack mode, mounting assaults on each number like they needed to be battered into submission. However, unlike the previous concert, which had left me feeling strangely empty, this time I found the music stayed with me and I found myself thinking about individual songs in a way that I hadn’t before.
I was reminded of all this after first watching I’m Not There, the fictionalized account of Dylan’s career from 1963 – 1966, and then again after watching Martin Scorsese’s 2005 documentary about the same period, No Direction Home. I have to admit that having watched Todd Haynes’ fictionalized account before the documentary probably affected my perception of Scorsese’s work, as I spent a lot of time exclaiming over how much both Cate Blanchette and Christian Bale had been able to capture the physical characteristics of Dylan from the respective periods they portrayed, and how accurately Haynes had recreated situations and moments that showed up in the documentary.
Scorsese follows Dylan from his beginnings in small town Minnesota down to New York City and his emergence as the star of the burgeoning folk music scene of the time. Through interviews with various people who were there, film footage, and still photographs, he does a great job of establishing both the era and the atmosphere of the times. Greenwich Village in New York City was in the midst of an explosion of artistic expression, of which folk music was only one component. Poets, visual artists, novelists, playwrights, and musicians were all crammed together into one area creating a hothouse affect that encouraged artistic growth.
Into this environment came the young man from Minnesota weaving a tale of traveling across America and learning songs from people all over the country. The reality was slightly different, as he had snuck into a friend’s house and helped himself to some 250 recordings of traditional folk and blues songs dating back to the 1930s. Dylan was blessed with the ability that allowed him to learn a song after only hearing it once or twice. Anything he couldn’t find in his friend’s collection he’d learn by going into the listening booths that record stores had in those days for customers to preview records.
Probably the most important person to Dylan’s career in the early stages was Joan Baez. The interviews with her were quite wonderful. They were candid and full of humour. She is smart enough to know that Dylan never meant to hurt her when he changed the direction of his career, away from the topical protest songs she was singing, to do what he needed to do. At the time of course she was hurt, but now she can laugh at herself and respects him for his integrity. Dylan, in his comments, admits he handled the situation badly, and is genuinely grateful to Joan for being so understanding.
It’s moments like this that make No Direction Home special as they show a side of Dylan that is rarely seen. For instance, when he recalls how devastated he was upon hearing how upset Pete Seeger was with the poor sound quality at the infamous Newport Folk Festival that he supposedly threatened to take an axe to the mike cables, you could still hear the hurt in his voice. (I know somebody who was at that concert, and he told me that if you were sitting more then three rows back from the stage all you could hear was feed back and white noise).
One of the best of the latter interviews in the movie is with keyboard player Al Kooper. He plays the organ on “Like A Rolling Stone”. Not only does he supply some interesting information about recording both Bringing It All Back Home Again and Highway 61 Revisited, Dylan’s first two electric albums, he also gives insight into just how scary the situation was at the time with the way people were reacting to Dylan’s change of musical direction.
Half jokingly he says he opted out of the tour of Great Britain because he “didn’t want to be John Connelly to Dylan’s John F. Kennedy” (in reference to the American senator who was in the car when Kennedy was assassinated). Dylan himself says he’ll always admire the Band for sticking with him on that tour, not only because of the abuse they suffered, but also because of the grueling schedule.
Unfortunately, Scorsese didn’t seem to know when to stop, and the movie starts to drag near the end and belabours the point that Dylan’s fans were upset with the music on that tour. How many times did he think we needed to hear people saying basically the same thing over and over again before we’d get the point? Repeatedly showing concert footage of people booing at the end of songs from various venues around Great Britain and the U.S. became an exercise in tedium by the end.
So intent was he about making the point that people were upset, he almost lost the more important message of Dylan’s frustration with people’s expectations. He had never asked to be nominated as the “voice of a generation” or whatever other tags people wanted to hang on him, and he didn’t want to be playing the same thing over and over again. With the world changing around him, Dylan would have been dishonest as a creative person not to change with it. He was no longer interested in doing what he had already done.
It’s unfortunate that Scorsese allowed this to happen because No Direction Home started off excellently and contained a lot of interesting information about Dylan’s early career. Somehow, though, he gradually started to lose direction and didn’t seem able to find a way to bring the movie home to any satisfying conclusion.
The two-disc set includes bonus features of concert footage from the time period covered, as well as footage of other people singing Dylan songs. While some of the early footage from television shows is interesting enough, the live concert footage from England only proves out Dylan’s comment that the halls he played in weren’t meant for people singing rock and roll, and the sound ranges from bad to pretty awful.
Looking back on the two concerts I saw in light of No Direction Home, I understand my own feelings a little better. In the first concert Dylan gave people what they expected, doing things the way he’d always done them, but that ended up making the songs feel like museum pieces with no life. Twelve years later he did many of the same songs, but with brand new interpretations that made them alive and exciting. He failed to live up to most people’s expectations and the complaints began again. When e. e. cummings wrote, “Every artist’s strictly illimitable country is himself and the artist who plays that country false has committed suicide” he didn’t have Bob Dylan in mind, but Bob Dylan has done his best to avoid artistic suicide his whole career, whether the fans like it or not.