Wednesday, September 28, 2005

NO DIRECTION HOME

I found myself enjoying Martin Scorsese's docu-Dylan the past couple of nights even more than I thought I would.

I loved the concert and studio footage I'd never seen before. I loved seeing Dylan playing piano and singing "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" in a weird slow rhythm backstage somewhere with Johnny Cash. I loved seeing the interview segments with the late Dave Van Ronk. (I blame Van Ronk on my career choice. He was my first interview back in 1980.) I loved seeing Dylan and Joan Baez singing at the 1963 March on Washington. I loved hearing Baez cuss like a pro.

And I found a new respect for Dylan from the footage used of his new interviews. The man seemed thoughtful and sincere -- not the enigmatic joker of his old greet-the-press sessions.

Scorsese included lots of those old mid-60s press conferences shown in tonight's episode. Dylan looked like he was stoned half the time. And, I'm sorry to say, I was not proud of my press brethren, whose questions ranged from the pompous to the inane. One reporter wanted to know how many songwriters wrote protest songs. Dylan, in a face that wasn't even straight, answered, "136." "Exactly 136?" the newsgeek asked. Dylan could have written "Ballad of a Thin Man" about any one of these idiots.

I found myself raging when the film came to the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, when the folkies turned on Dylan for "going electric" with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Some of these dildos still are whining that Dylan betrayed them by "going commercial." Commercial! True, "Like a Rolling Stone" somehow became a major hit. But couldn't any of the Folk Nazis see how truly radical this song was? It twice as long as most pop songs of its day and Dylan's goofy nasal voice weird even for rock 'n' roll back then. And there was all this surreal imagery -- diplomats with Siamese cats, jugglers and clowns, Napoleon in Rags -- and all of it a snide celebration of a rich bitch who gets her comeuppance.

And so the folkies booed, as did their European cousins when Dylan toured with The Band the next year. It's almost as if they knew Dylan was special, but they wanted to keep him in their own little club, away from the great unwashed who aren't as hip and enlightened as them. Away from the crazy rock 'n' roll crowd. Away from grubby junior high kids in Oklahoma like me who would find hidden truths in Dylan's oracle rants (even though I wasn't quite sure who or what the "mystery tramp" was. In the end, the folkie guardians seemed as closed-minded as the conservatives they decried. Maybe they should have heeded one of the early Dylan songs they cherished so much: "You'd better start swimming or you'll sink like a stone ..."

I'm listening to the soundtrack now. I've been playing it for a few weeks now. It doesn't really follow the songs used in the movie, though it's got "Maggie's Farm" from Newport '65. Fortunately Mike Bloomfield's guitar is loud enough to drown out the pig-headed detractors.

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