Human nature being what it is, it’s inevitable that such revelations about a public figure should be followed by smug, self-righteous outrage, even from those (dare one say, especially from those?) who are different from Naipaul only in that they lack awareness of their own faults. (By the way, here’s one of my favourites among the long line of uneducated comments on the good old Rediff.com messageboard: “We should take away his Noble and throw him out of India!!!”) But what's interesting is the way people have gloated over the supposed contrast between the greatness of Naipaul’s work and his failures as a man, in a private relationship. Accusations of hypocrisy have been bandied about: this writer who so masterfully held the light up to our foibles, how dare he have any human shortcomings himself?
I thought there were small parallels in No Direction Home, a wonderful two-part documentary that covers five of the defining years in Bob Dylan’s career: between 1961, when he came to New York City, a gawky, aspiring folk singer doing covers of musicians he admired and throwing together a few of his own tunes, and 1966, by which time he had taken up the electric guitar, adopted a (possibly ironic) mainstream rock-star persona and in the process alienated many fans of his early work. By the mid-1960s, Dylan had come to represent the counter-culture: some of his early songs had become anthems for the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-war feeling that was spreading across America because of the developments in Vietnam; they gave a voice to disaffected youngsters and captured the zeitgeist of a fascinatingly turbulent period. Given all this, it isn’t hard to understand why there were cries of anguish when he went electric and began playing with a loud back-up band. His folk-music followers claimed that the “real” Dylan, the “pure” Dylan, was the shy troubadour who strummed an acoustic guitar, wrote and sang straightforward lyrics like “Masters of War”, “With God on Our Side” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” – earnest, easy-to-label topical songs. They couldn’t reconcile themselves to the pouting rock star who penned surreal, allusive lyrics about Ezra Pound and T S Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower while calypso singers laughed at them and fishermen threw flowers, and Ma Raney and Beethoven unwrapping a bed roll where tuba players now rehearse around a flagpole.
What No Direction Home makes clear is that by 1966, Dylan was very, very tired of all the attention, the constant scrutiny, the second-guessing of his motives and the fact that people didn’t understand his need to take new artistic directions rather than remain pigeonholed by others’ expectations. My favourite bits of the documentary are his interactions with reporters. At press conferences, over-earnest journalists ask him about the “subtle messages” in his songs. He pays them little heed, looking at them in a glassy-eyed way, occasionally working up just enough interest to mock their questions. (Question: “How many protest singers would you say there are today, who use their music, and use the songs to protest the social state in which we live today?” Answer: “I think there’s about one hundred and thirty-six. Either that or one hundred and forty-two.” Question: “What do you have to say about the recurring motorcycle imagery in your songs?” Answer: “Um, I think we all like motorcycles to some degree.”) They get angry. They insist that he acknowledge the effect his work has had on people, define his own impact and importance as an artist. “What do you want me to say, man?” he whines back. They ask him to explain the significance of the T-shirt he wears in the photograph on the cover of Highway 61 Revisited, and he laughs. They ask him if he thinks of himself as a musician or a lyricist. “I’m a song-and-dance man,” he replies.
Interspersed with all this is footage of distressed fans at his England concerts, claiming that he had “sold out” or “gone commercial”. (The frequent cries of “it’s all roobish” made me wonder if a young Geoffrey Boycott was at Albert Hall in 1966.) Later, there’s a brilliant moment where a reporter asks him, “Would you agree that your earlier songs were much better than the recent work?” and Dylan, after discovering that the reporter is a Frenchman, deadpans, “You’re French? See, that’s probably why you think the earlier songs are better.” (I read this as Dylan’s wry commentary on the tendency to impute convenient motives to everything, e.g. “You went electric because you’ve sold out to the Establishment.")
Over the past four decades, people have analysed Dylan’s lyrics ad infinitum, especially the stream-of-consciousness ones on Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, but Dylan himself has reserved the right not to have to explain his work – an attitude that has often served as a defence mechanism for artists across fields. (I think of Hitchcock confounding his defenders by dismissing Psycho as “a fun picture, made mainly with the objective of earning lots of money around the world”.) Dylan also reserved the right to be selfish and self-absorbed; to not personally take part in the rallies and causes that his songs had become so closely associated with. In the documentary, Joan Baez, nearing 70 and lovely as ever, admits being greatly disappointed – as a friend and fan – by his refusal to show a political conscience. But she also admits that it was foolish to expect anything of him beyond the songs themselves. (Incidentally Baez also recounts Dylan’s amusement when she told him her interpretation of one of his songs: “They’ll be discussing those lyrics for decades,” he replied, “and I don’t even know why I wrote it.”)
No Direction Home is notable for its exploration of the enigmatic relationship between an artist and his audience; how certain people can become symbols for other people’s hopes and dreams, and how thin the line can be between worshiping someone and feeling betrayed by them. (A cry of “Judas!”, one of the strongest denunciations you can find in the Christian world, rang out at a Manchester concert.) This is something that even viewers who aren’t particularly fans of Dylan, or don’t know about his career trajectory, should be able to appreciate. But the film is also very enjoyable for fans of the music of the period, with glimpses of the work of Dylan’s idols and contemporaries, including Hank Williams, John Jacob Niles, Odetta (who appears much too briefly), Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, as well as interviews with Liam Clancy, John Cohen, Dave Van Ronk, and of course Baez (who is introduced in a haunting, blurry black-and-white shot, the camera moving in on her as she performs “Virgin Mary” – here’s the video, taken from the documentary). There are nice anecdotes such as the one where Allen Ginsberg recalls being in a room with Dylan and the Beatles, and marveling at how “these spiritual leaders were so young, so unsure of themselves”, and some superbly quirky scenes like the one where a touring Dylan reads a few random signs outside a shop and then goes berserk twisting the words around to make crazy half-sentences and phrases.
The interludes of Dylan performing are mostly from the Manchester concert, and I enjoyed them greatly too – I’m in the tiny minority that thinks Dylan’s songs are best performed by Dylan himself (exceptions include Lou Reed’s version of “Foot of Pride”, The Clancy Brothers’ “When the Ship Comes In” and Eddie Vedder’s intense, grunge-ish “Masters of War”). And though Blonde on Blonde is my favourite among his albums, I like his acoustic work nearly as much as the three masterpieces of 1965-66. So it was all good.
P.S. Parts of the documentary – especially the bits where an aging Dylan, circa 2000, expresses disinterest in analysis and explanation – reminded me of a passage from Philip Roth’s Exit Ghost. It’s a letter-within-the-book, written by a very bitter old woman, the widow of a long-dead writer whose personal life is being scrutinised by a wannabe biographer:
If I had something like Stalin’s power, I would not squander it on silencing the imaginative writers. I would silence those who write about the imaginative writers. I’d forbid all public discussion of literature in newspapers, magazines and scholarly periodicals. I’d forbid all instruction in literature in every grade school, high school, college and university in the country. I’d outlaw reading groups and internet book chatter, and police the bookstores to make sure that no clerk ever spoke to a customer about a book and that the customers did not dare speak to each other. I’d leave the readers alone with the books, to make of them what they would on their own.P.P.S. Here’s an old, righteous post about Naipaul that I’m very embarrassed about today. (Ah, I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.) And here’s Nilanjana on the Naipaul controversy.