Sunday, September 11, 2005

Bringing it all back

One of the best 'reviews' of Dylan's career that I've read.


AS NATURE turns to reveal its autumnal hues, and the chill in the wind forces shoulders to hunch themselves against the elements, we find ourselves in what can only be described as Bob Dylan season, a momentously high-profile flurry of activity that finds rock'n'roll's most enigmatic songwriter on an unprecedented mission to explain himself to us.

This month his publishers are putting out The Bob Dylan Scrapbook 1956-66, based on his personal archive and including a reproduction from his high school yearbook, facsimiles of handwritten lyrics and even his platform pass from when he sat a few feet away from Martin Luther King as he made his 'I have a dream' speech in Washington in 1963. Not only that, but a three-week season of films honouring Dylan is under way at the National Film Theatre in London, and next week a month-long exhibition of rare photographs opens at London's Proud Gallery. The man himself embarks on a new British tour in November.

All that's needed to crown the celebration is the Nobel Prize for Literature - and don't rule that out. This year's winner is due to be announced in October, and the bookmaker's have him down among the favourites to be the recipient.

Last year, Dylan published Chronicles Volume 1, the first instalment of the autobiography he had promised he would never write. On Tuesday, it will be reissued on paperback. To promote the book, he gave his first television interview in 20 years. Now comes No Direction Home, a two-part, four-hour documentary about his early life, made by Martin Scorsese with Dylan's full co-operation. It is accompanied by a double CD of rarities from his vaults, including his earliest and never previously heard recording, made in 1959 when he was still in school.

Dylan's songs may be famous for their searing honesty, but the man has been telling lies about himself all his life. You can call it self-mythologising or protecting his privacy, if you like. But throughout his long career, Dylan has deliberately laid a trail of half-truth, obfuscation and pure fiction that has fostered a highly marketable sense of mystery and intrigue around the man and his body of work.

At various times he has told us that he ran away from school to join a carnival, was descended from Sioux Indians, was an orphan and had been a hobo. In fact, at the time of all these stories, he had been growing up quietly with his Jewish parents in a small mining town in Minnesota. He lied about his name, denying that it was taken from Dylan Thomas but came from his mother, when her family name was actually Stone.

The deceptions continued into his later career. Some were major untruths, others simply mischievous inexactitudes. When he released a retrospective of his recorded work in the early 1990s, he included a photo of his driving licence in the liner notes but impishly altered his date of birth, turning himself with the stroke of a forger's pen from a Gemini to a Taurus. Perhaps he just did it to confuse the professional Dylan nutters who read his stars in an attempt to discern the secrets of his life.

For most of his career, his rare interviews have been exercises in verbal jousting, characterised by vague and often surreal answers. If that failed to throw them off his scent, he'd resort to mumbling. When asked what his songs were about, he once answered: "Some are about four minutes. Some are about five. And some, believe or not, are about 11 or 12.''

Then there was his preposterous claim that Blood On The Tracks, one of his greatest albums and a raw and emotional collection of songs about his divorce from his first wife, was not autobiographical at all but based on a collection of short stories by Chekhov. Right, Bob. Pull the other one.

"These so-called connoisseurs of Bob Dylan music, I don't feel they know a thing or have any inkling of who I am or what I am about,'' he declared four years ago on the occasion of his 60th birthday. And he made it clear that he intended to keep it that way, adding, "My life is private and personal and completely filled up." Churchill said of Stalin's Russia that it was a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Dylan has spent years happily adding several more layers of conundrum and confusion to the equation.

Yet it is clear that something has dramatically changed. He hasn't made a new record since 2001's Love And Theft. So why has Dylan - a man so secretive that the world didn't even know he had married again in the 1980s until more than a decade later, by which time he was once more divorced - decided finally to set the record straight?

First, it would not be unreasonable to question to what extent he really is coming clean. Given his track record, are the book and the film not further episodes in his endless self-mythologising?

Perhaps. But we do genuinely learn much about Dylan and his art from No Direction Home. If the story is familiar, never before have we felt ourselves inside it, as we do here. Via an extended interview that runs in snippets throughout the film, Scorsese in effect uses Dylan as the narrator of his own life story - and he's not only a uniquely insightful observer but a surprisingly candid one, too. On the subject of his many lies, he admits that as a young man he felt like someone who didn't have a past - so he made one up. There's a similar honesty to the interviews with those who know him in the 1950s and 1960s, from old Minnesota friends (including one who accuses Dylan of stealing his record collection) to early lovers such as Suze Rotolo and Joan Baez.

The previously unseen footage is equally revelatory. Scorsese ends the film in the summer of 1966, with Dylan at the conclusion of his monumental, drug-fuelled world tour during which audiences booed his electric set and, on one infamous occasion, shouted "Judas!" at him. Haggard, frayed and cadaverously pale with his eyes sunk somewhere deep in the back of his skull, in the final scene he looks like someone who is about to die. Incapable of rational speech, he whines: "I just wanna go home."

When he got back to Woodstock shortly afterwards, he had the motorcycle crash that enabled him to get off the merry-go-round that was killing him. In retrospect, we can see that the crash probably saved his life.

So why did Dylan allow the film to be made? Presumably, for the same reason he wrote Chronicles and has sanctioned the publication of Scrapbook. Now in his sixties, he has come to reflect upon his place in history and, like many struck by the realisation that a time is coming when they're no longer going to be around, felt the need to get his version of his life and times on the record for posterity - and to do so on his own terms. For the brilliance of the film, like Chronicles, is that although we get an endlessly fascinating portrait of Dylan in which so much is revealed, at the same time the mystery, essential to an appreciation of any great art, is retained.

Should Dylan now cap his long career by lifting the Nobel Prize for literature, surely few could begrudge him the honour. Born Robert Zimmerman in Hibbing, Minnesota, in May 1941, like Shakespeare growing up in the dull Elizabethan backwater of Stratford-upon-Avon, there was nothing in his background or upbringing to suggest the mark he would go on to leave on the world. In No Direction Home, he describes his life-long journey as a songwriter and musician as "trying to get home". The phrase helped to inspire the film's title (lifted from the lyrics of 'Like A Rolling Stone') and what Dylan thinks of as home is a subject for endless speculation. Yet for all the ups-and-downs and inconsistencies of his career, there has been an underlying integrity that can be seen as constituting an uninterrupted search and a continuing odyssey.

When he arrived as a would-be folk singer in New York in early 1961, he unashamedly copied Woody Guthrie while he sought his own voice. Yet one of the most fascinating aspects of No Direction Home is its depiction of how swiftly he found that voice and how fast Dylan was travelling in the 1960s. Within a year he was the one being copied. He was a product of his times, shaped and moulded by the civil rights struggle and cold war fears of nuclear holocaust.

But he then articulated those times via some of the most potent and coruscating protest songs ever written that made him - in a phrase he hated - the voice of his generation. Some of them were written with the precision of news reports. Others, such as 'Blowin' In The Wind', 'The Times They Are A-Changin', 'Masters Of War' and 'A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall', had a universal quality that made them anthems not just of their time but for all time.

Within a couple of years he had left protest behind for the broader poetic vision of songs such as 'Mr Tambourine Man', influencing the Beatles among others to begin writing lyrics more meaningful than the Tin Pan Alley banalities of 'She Loves You'.

When Dylan himself decided to make the transition from folk hero to electric messiah, he found himself at the centre of a storm of protest. Yet by marrying lyrics that name-checked Ezra Pound and TS Eliot as well as Ma Rainey and Beethoven to a rock'n'roll backbeat, he revolutionised popular music.

In just 16 months between 1965-66, he released arguably the greatest trilogy of rock albums ever made, in Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde. They included such classic songs as 'Subterranean Homesick Blues', 'It's All Over Now Baby Blue', 'Desolation Row', 'Ballad Of A Thin Man', 'Visions Of Johanna' and 'Like A Rolling Stone'.

Then came the inevitable burn-out. He retired from the road for eight years, released a country album and then a deliberately terrible record (Self Portrait) in an effort to shed his image as the leader of the counter-culture. There followed a born-again period, a mid-life crisis in the 1980s in which he lost the plot and then his reinvention via the Never Ending Tour, in the course of which he has played some 1,700 shows since 1989, averaging more than 100 per year - even in 1997 when he was hospitalised with a potentially fatal disease and quipped that he thought he was going to meet Elvis. That same year he released one of the best albums of his career in Time Out Of Mind, the most profound response to mortality and the ageing process that rock music has yet mustered.

His influence on modern culture remains all-pervasive. When asked how he had been influenced by Dylan, Pete Townshend replied that it was like asking how he had been affected by being born. Dylan's songs changed the world and there is not a songwriter on the planet who has not been influenced by him. Even those who may claim they've never listened to a Dylan record will find they were inspired or affected by others who fell under his dancing spell.

And although the story may be approaching its concluding chapters, it is still far from over. The Beatles played their last concert in 1966 and Elvis is long gone. The Rolling Stones are touring again, but are essentially a nostalgia act, coasting on past glories. Dylan is still up there doing it night after night on his 'never ending tour', reinventing the songs that changed the world and minting them anew before our very eyes."

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