Thursday, September 22, 2005

No Direction Home: Ebert on Dylan

Nice piece here by Roger Ebert about the ambivalence of his feelings about Bob Dylan. This is a part-review of Martin Scorsese’s new four-hour documentary, No Direction Home, but it’s more a personal account of the disenchantment felt by Ebert (and many others of his generation) towards someone they had held up as a spokesperson for their times. Now, he says, he can see Dylan in a different light:

"His songs led the change, but they transcended it. His audience was uneasy with transcendence. They kept trying to draw him back down into categories. He sang and sang, and finally, still a very young man, found himself a hero who was booed..... His music stands and it will survive. Because it embodied our feelings, we wanted him to embody them, too. He had his own feelings. He did not want to embody ours. We found it hard to forgive him for that."



  1. Thanks for the link, lovely write-up. And "Happy Rose Day" and all that jazz;) (assuming you r not going to PVR, so no one will wish you :P)

  2. Nice piece. Now all I need to do is figure out where to source the DVD from...

  3. hi jai, nice link. on a totally unrelated note, nice column on the rediff. keep them coming.

  4. For someone of my age, Dylan's songs are to be enjoyed, devoid of any ideological attachments. His confessions in his book (Chronicles, Vol 1), therefore, do not matter.

    But when Dylan says what he was writing during sixties, did not always reflect his true feelings, people who grew up with his music feel betrayed.

    Few even compare this to the Newport transformation (for me the electric phase is the real stuff). That is a different debate altogether.

  5. Ah, but he was so much older then. He's younger than that now :)

  6. I have all four hours of the new documentary on DVD (first in line at Netflix) to watch this weekend.

    Hey, Jai, thanks very much for mentioning my site in your Business Standard article. I would have email you, but didn't see one. Thanks!

  7. I'm sure this sort of thing places very real limits on a musician's creativity. There are certain expectations from a loyal fan base to stay true to specific themes, genres, etc. Even though the artist may want to explore new sounds and ideas.

    And what of the very real possibility of disenchantment with an ideology that you are closely associated with through your lyrics? Do your admirers forgive the defection and choose to value your musical abilities regardless? Not all musical transformations are for commercial purposes.

  8. Prufrocktwo: :-). Perhaps. It feels like it was in another lifetime, one of toil and blood, where blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud.

  9. thalassa_mikra: Could not agree more. Musical progression is an essential part of a band's/musician's life. And it is not always dictated by commerce. Take the case of Blur's “Think Tank”. Listen to “Parklife” and then “Think Tank”. You will get what I mean.

  10. Or listen to "Please Please Me" and then "Revolver".

    This transformation, too, had a Dylan connection.

  11. Hi Bud, good to see you here. And I so envy you - don’t know when I’ll be able to get my hands on that DVD.
    (The mail ID’s on the Profile page btw.)

    Thalassa: Absolutely right. That applies to so many other major bands as well - the Beatles post-Rubber Soul, U2’s transition from The Joshua Tree to Achtung Baby, the Rolling Stones with Exile From Main Street. It’s fine to say that you prefer one kind of sound to another, but considering the shift a personal betrayal...that's quite another matter.

    Prufrock2, Falstaff: tempted though I am, I won’t get into the quoting game now - it could easily take up the whole week and I’d be posting a new comment every few minutes! And unlike you guys I have Net problems (Lights flicker from the opposite loft/In this room, the heat pipes just cough...oh no, it's started!)

    Whitelight: I think the electric phase is his best work too, and it’s always a bit amusing when people continue to think of him as only a protest/folk-singer. Guess “Blowin in the Wind” and “The Times they are a changin” have cast a very long shadow.

  12. Very true, Jai. According to me ( you will agree too) his masterpiece is Blood On The Tracks (1974). An album full of lament and introspection. He really bleeds.

    Not Exile From Main Street. It's Exile On Main Street. One of those Stones great oxymoronic album titles. Beggars Banquet is another.

  13. Whitelight: actually, my favourite (by far) is Blonde on Blonde. Blood on the Tracks is a great album alright but I’ve never felt as strongly about it at a personal level as many others seem to. Don’t know why that is. I know about the back-story - that it was written during a major crisis (the painful end of Dylan’s marriage) - and some of that does come through..but, Idunno...Though I like most of the songs on it a lot, Simple Twist of Fate is the only one that hits me as hard as the songs on the three great albums from 1965-66.

    Also, a couple of the songs that Dylan eventually left off the album (“Abandoned Love”, for instance) really should’ve been included. And the version of You’re a Big Girl Now on Biograph is better than the one on Blood on the Tracks.

    Thanks for the correction on Exile...

  14. Blond On Blond sounds so amazing on vinyl (I have the double Lp). I prefer Dylan ( and other 60s bands ) on vinyl. The demands of modern life compel me to buy Cds.

    Probably Blood On The Tracks appeals so much because it is intensely personal and universal at the same time.

  15. Jai - when you've read this - take it down - I wrote it a long time ago. Thought you might like it.

    The best thing about Dylan is that you can sing along with him and feel superior. Yeah, he was a good poet, one hell of a talented musician with an instinctive grasp of complicated orchestral abstractions. But he couldn't sing for peanuts, that whiny, nasal, flat voice could barely hold a tune. That incomprehensible high-plains accent butchered his own poetry, mangled and mumbled the words and rendered his lyrics into a guessing game.

    Over the years, I guess hundreds of millions have sung along anyway with Robert Zimmerman from Hibbing, Minnesota. In a thousand campus hostels, every idiot who ever fiddled with a guitar learnt his or her set-piece Dylan. Maybe some of them didn't want to but singing Dylan was the price they paid to keep an audience.

    I stopped listening to Dylan as pure music a long time ago. He turned into background noise, something as familiar as driving a cantankerous old car with funny quirks in the gearing. I knew every trick of phrasing, I knew exactly when the harmonica would kick in just the way I knew the delicate balance of choke and starter. I knew the variations Robertson had done on it, I knew the Dead's bootleg version, I'd heard Tom Petty mugging it along with the Heartbreakers.

    And Dylan has associations running back across the years. There are the stoner anthems that take me disappearing along the foggy ruins of time to when I travelled steerage to Goa, more than 20 years ago. There were the unending arguments with Cool Breeze - my black pal from Detroit who thought that Dylan did whiteman's music but he liked it.

    There was the music that we played scratchily through the nights on the old gramophone as we stayed awake and waited for the hard rain to fall, for my girlfriend's dad to lose his long hard battle with cancer. There was my bitter empathy with the boy who swore that he wouldn't work on Maggie's farm no more as I totted up my week's commission on the typewriters I'd sold.

    I remember driving up the Assam Trunk Road from Guwahati to Tinsukhia and blasting Buckets of Rain over and over again as the windscreen wipers went into overdrive. The lost weekend when a bunch of us got smashed in the grotty old Tiger Cinema bar and watched The Last Waltz three times post-exams. Every time the show ended we just stepped across the road to the Maidan, or down to Nizams and we drifted back again as the third and final bell rang.

    Of course, it was "early" Dylan I listened to as a young adult. Sure I'd heard Dylan as a kid, but I started to relate to his poetry only in the grim gray 1980s. That was when Agnetha was wiggling her butt and most contemporary music was built around the metronomic backbeat of an invariant boring bass.

    By then Dylan was well into his period of religious mania and he was writing complete crap. The first great manic association of talent clustered around him in the 1960s had broken up and dispersed. Half of his early comrades were dead, some were vegetables, still others had gone their own way. It would be a long time before he would again forge a team where the whole made better music than the parts, still longer before he would find his own feet again as a songster.

    But he'd created the early oeuvre, the work that made him great. The first flowering was the great folk ballads of the early 1960s that came straight out of the Woody Guthrie tradition and transcended it. Those lyrics articulated what an entire generation felt was "wrong" with the way the world worked. He spoke for the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones and worse.

    In the mid-1960s he started the transition from acoustic road balladeer with banjo, guitar and harmonica to composing and fronting for tight ensembles that stretched the limit of everything electricity could do. The return journey to the softer influences of country and Southron blues ala Nashville Skyline took him several years as well.

    There were the flirtations with drugs, the statutory brushes with the law and the string of girlfriends, wives and relationships that turned sour. It was all grist to the creative mill throughout this wondrous 15-year odyssey that transformed popular music, even those aspects that Dylan never directly touched. Blonde on Blonde with its Visions of Joanna, and Sad Eyed Lady must be about the best album of love songs ever written or maybe it just felt that way. Like A Rolling Stone - well, who could write a more viciously brilliant allegory and set it to music?

    Nobody who came after Dylan would ignore him; you just couldn't ignore him despite all the obvious flaws. Dylan created the original space for a poet who could sing. Even the rank amateurs often did covers that out-sang the original. It only enhanced his reputation - you realised the depths of the imagery, felt the itches he had so precisely scratched.

    The great frequently built their reputations on the songs Dylan wrote. Leave alone pals like Joan Baez, Robbie Robertson and Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix's big popular breakthrough came with the electrifying variation he did of Watchtower at the Isle of Wight. From Jerry Garcia to Pete Seeger, everyone's tried their hand at Dylan.

    Dylan still can't sing. A disability he's insisted on publicly flaunting for more than forty of the last sixty years as he's leveraged his limitations into a trademark style.

    No other great has performed so often. Dylan still does a concert every three days. Some of them in really weird places, small towns in the prairies, provincial backwaters in Central Europe - somebody once calculated that Dylan did a round trip of the world every year. In his 60th year, in just the last five months, he has played 13 shows in Japan, nine in Australia, 15 in the USA -- with Scandinavia and Western Europe on the agenda for the second half.

    He started putting the music back together in the late 1980s. There were hiccups, the Budokan performance led to a dreadful double album. But slowly the talented started drifting back to the master. Mark Knofler, Neil Young, the Dead, - who else would they ever have taken second billing to?

    Recent albums like World Gone Wrong and Time out of Mind are testimony enough to the fact that he has found a second wind. And looking at his contemporaries, the "Never-ending tour" as it's been billed since 1988 makes sense.

    Mick Jagger performs Start Me Up for the launch of Windows95, Paul McCartney accepts a knighthood, Jim Morrison fertilises a Paris graveyard.

    Dylan travels endlessly. That's where he started from, the tradition of the roadie, the Okie who chronicled the working mans blues. The travel keeps him sane. He can still tell his audience that even the president of the United States sometimes must stand naked. And so, while others sign the endorsement deals, he's out there standing on the gallows with his head in the noose, watching with those wild wolf eyes and just waiting for hell to break loose.

  16. Devangshu: Thanks, great piece. I’ve always thought it says a lot about Dylan, and the kinds of people he has an effect on, that there’s so much great, personal writing available on him. Even when they aren’t saying very positive things about him, the passion shines through.

    Don’t agree about him being a lousy singer - I think he’s the greatest I’ve ever heard - but aren’t you being a little tongue in cheek about that anyway? A little.

    About Blonde on Blonde being the best album of love songs ever: I’ve always preferred it to the rawer, more bleeding-heart-on-sleeve Blood on the Tracks (given that these two albums are probably most often referenced as his best work). Visions of Johanna has one of the great openings of any song ever, and what about the underrated I Want You and Fourth Time Around?