Sunday, October 02, 2005


Bob Dylan in Playboy
Originally uploaded by Joey Harrison.
All right, so my life is pretty uneventful. I'm still trapped in Scorcese's "No Direction Home." I sat on my couch and tuned in as a Dylan fan, but when I stood up and switched off the (mostly) ignominious instrument known as the TV, I found myself satisfied on many levels.

See, what the documentary really presented was a stunning story of personal transformation. How a seemingly ordinary guy without much of a singing voice from an outpost where "it was too cold to be bad" became a poet and a superstar.

The changes he went through after he arrived in Greenwich Village in the early sixties were compared to bluesman Robert Johnson's famous pact with the devil at the crossroads. Where did this music come from? his old friends wondered. How had the former Robert Zimmerman, who was no better, no different than a hundred other strumming hopefuls morphed into Bob Dylan?

Amazingly enough, Scorsese and Dylan provided some pretty good answers to that question. He listened to Woody Guthrie for one thing. No listened is the wrong word. He studied, imbibed, inhaled and absorbed Guthrie. Did he steal a friend's record collection in order to do so? Well, yes. But never has a theft been more justified.

"Listening to those records, you could learn how to live," Dylan said. (Or something like that.) And he did. Because what he taught himself in those years wasn't just about the guitar. It wasn't just about songwriting. It was about living. And that of course, was what made him someone so many not only wanted, but needed to hear.

And he studied the performers he admired. Liam Clancy said he hung around so much that sometimes you wanted to swat him like a fly. (Or something like that.)

"I studied the performers I wanted to be like, and they all had one thing in common. It was something in the eyes. Something that said, 'I know something you don't know,'" Dylan said. (Or something like that.)

If you look at photographs from that era, you will see the same expression in Dylan's eyes. It grows stronger with each successive year.

One more thing that struck me, and then I'll be done with this topic, I promise. Someone mentioned that Dylan's great freedom was that he was acting all the time. Thus, he could do anything he wanted to do.

I mulled that over for a while. Acting? Did that mean he was a fake? But then I decided, no. In some senses, we're all acting. We act the part that society and our families and our genes teach us. And frequently, it constricts rather than frees. Dylan, on the other hand, not only chose his name, he chose the part he would play. And in the process freed us all a little bit.


a river said...

This is a wonderful take on both Bob Dylan and the Scorsese documentary.

I haven't watched the whole thing yet, but what I saw of it (including the bits at 2:00 a.m. last night as I drifted in and out of sleep) struck me much the same way.

The way Dylan "ingested" Guthrie, the way he made him his own before he remade himself into Bob Dylan really stood out in the documentary.

I think there is an important lesson there for all artists -- as there is in what one of the people said (maybe Peter Yarrow?) about caring about the work first, before worrying about making it...

Patry Francis said...

maria: you are so right: caring about the work first, and also having the strength to stand up for it even when others don't believe in what you're doing.

Anonymous said...

I missed the documentary, didn't know about it even, so I'm pissed. Don't-want-to-talk-about-it-pouty kind of pissed. );

Rubydot said...

Radio National a few weeks ago was playing a recording of a very old interview with Dylan. I love his music but I'd never really understood the whole "urban poet" hysteria that surrounded him until I heard him in conversation - he is hypnotic, charismatic, funny, wise and sexy.

Patry Francis said...

melly: I'm sure it will be on again, and that will also be availabe on DVD. Well worth watching for any artist.

rubydot: Yes, that's the amazing thing. He's still sexy, still young in some enigmatic way.

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