Monday, March 31, 2008

No Direction Home with Bob Dylan (and Naipaul)

Of all things, I found myself thinking about V S Naipaul while watching the Martin Scorsese-directed rockumentary No Direction Home: Bob Dylan on DVD the other day. It’s been instructive to see the gleeful reactions from media and public after the publication of excerpts from the new Naipaul biography. “Naipaul admits to torturing wife!” screamed reductive headlines, making it seem like an ancient crime demanding immediate and merciless prosecution had come to light. You had to read the reports more closely for the less dramatic picture to emerge: that of a man describing a marriage gone wrong, expressing the guilt he still feels for his part in it, and acknowledging that he was a very bad husband.

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 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.


  1. Nice post. But as a journalist who has sometimes interviewed musicians without knowing what to ask them or even about their music in much detail, I am glad I've never had to deal with such a blatant disregard for the journalistic ilk. I'm glad I quit before I had to do much such ad hoc work.
    I must ask though, in your list of Dylan songs by others, doesn't Dave Matthews' version of All Along the Watchtower figure anywhere?

  2. You were just younger then. That old post wasn't so much righteous as immature, but I wonder if you aren't going a bit overboard in defending Naipaul now. He's a twisted, bitter old man, by all accounts, and by all accounts he was twisted and bitter as a young man. He's also a magisterial writer...

    Interesting thoughts on Dylan, and maybe you're suggesting that some artists deliberately fashion an ironic or trenchant public persona out of contempt for their audience, who cannot possibly be expected to understand the demands made on the artist by the creative process. It's a plausible theory, but at least in Naipaul's case, he seems to be just as irascible in private as in his interviews and public pronouncements and so forth.

    I've always wondered why hypocrisy exercises people so much.

  3. I just wrote a post on my blog on this too. There was a nice article in Business Standard which I had to actually scroll to make sure it was not written by you! It was linked to by the complete review literary saloon blog.

    also, "human shortcomings" is probably a bit euphemistic to describe his behavior and attitudes...

  4. Here’s the man himself on the subject (with a little help from Proust).
    "...a book is the product of a different self from the self we manifest in our habits, in our social life, in our vices. If we would try to understand that particular self, it is by searching our own bosoms, and trying to reconstruct it there, that we may arrive at it."

    Those words of Proust should be with us whenever we are reading the biography of a writer - or the biography of anyone who depends on what can be called inspiration. All the details of the life and the quirks and the friendships can be laid out for us, but the mystery of the writing will remain. No amount of documentation, however fascinating, can take us there. The biography of a writer – or even the autobiography – will always have this incompleteness. (link)
    Not that it stopped him from trashing Proust in his subsequent interviews (tedious, repetitive, self indulgent).

    Have you read Chronicles? It’s a blast.

  5. " a journalist who has sometimes interviewed musicians without knowing what to ask them or even about their music in much detail..."

    RTP: I'm afraid you've lost me there. I have a big problem with "journalism" of this sort (on the books beat, one regularly sees reporters going out to interview writers without having any idea of their work) and I'm glad you had the sense to quit. But in such cases, how can you possibly blame an interviewee for showing blatant disregard for journalists? Even artists who were far more patient than Dylan would lose interest.

    Cheshire Cat: righteous, immature, same difference. Btw, it isn't my intention to "defend" Naipaul so much as point out the nature of some of the reactions.

  6. Alok: I saw the simple-minded BS piece you'd linked to on your blog. I know the lady who wrote it quite well - nice to talk to in many ways, have had some interesting discussions with her, but she's also a little earnest and finger-wagging when it comes to certain topics. (Btw she's convinced that anyone who calls themselves an atheist has to be a pseudo-intellectual poseur!)

    Amol: yes, loved Chronicles. Waiting for Part 2, though knowing Dylan he might decide on a whim not to write (or publish) it.

  7. Jai...I liked the bit about Dylan going crazy over the street signs.
    There is a scene in the recent Todd Haynes film "I'm Not There"
    in which the "Electric" Dylan(Cate Blanchett) ticks off an interviewer saying "Is there even supposed to be a meaning?!"
    I think that scene sums up his growing disillusionment. By the way,no need to be embarrased by the Naipaul are not the first person to think that Naipaul is a grouch ,and rest assured you won't be the last.

  8. naipaul is known bjp inspiration, famous for asking babri to be demolished and action against minorties. who is dylan

  9. haven't seen the documentary, so just curious... hasn't any member of The Band been interviewed in the documentary?

    I once had this interesting conversation with a friend I thought was clued on to his music.
    Me: Have you listened to The Band?
    He: What's the name of the band?
    ME: (I should have shut up but gave it one more try because he claimed he was a Dylan fan) The Band who famously backed up for Dylan when he was injured in that horrible motorcycle accident? OK, they play with him in The Basement Tapes (I Shall be Released)?
    He: No, no have heard many rock bands, they couldn't think of a name kya?
    Me: I gave up... didn't feel like educating him about Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, the late Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and the rest.

    ps: this happened in Delhi!

  10. I'm in the tiny minority that thinks Dylan's songs are best performed by Dylan himself

    Same here. But I quite enjoyed some of the cover versions on the soundtrack album to I'm Not There. Cat Powers's loony rendition of 'Stuck Inside of Mobile ...', Jack Johnson's medley of 'Mama, You've Been on My Mind' and 'A Fraction of Last Thoughts ...' and Sonic Youth's doom-laden cover of the title song are the loveliest, I think.

    Have been trying to write a post on I'm Not There's use of Dylan songs for the last ... well ... month, I guess. I entertained the thought of listing them down as a ragged confluence, but that would be too much of a half-arsed tribute thing.

    Chronicles, I think, might work better as a Volume 1 without a Volume 2. That would be fitting.

    PS: I would mention 'My Back Pages' as Bob's defense against having to be a 'protest singer', but that is a disservice to him.

  11. RTP: I don't think I've heard Matthews' version of "Watchtower".

    AMJ: yes, need to see I'm Not There. Have been meaning to for months.

    Aditya Bidikar: haven't heard the I'm Not There soundtrack either. Lots of catching up to do.

    Anon 2: not surprised at all that it happened in Delhi. No interviews with Band members on the docu, but there's a lot of footage of The Band playing with Dylan at Albert Hall and Manchester Free Trade.

  12. thanks jabberwock -- anon 2 here. as for cover versions, have you all heard eddie vedder's masters of war and levon Helm's when i paint my masterpiece? beautiful!

  13. I love that artistic arrogance that Dylan possesses, often misconstrued as negativity.

    Baez is still wonderful. Went to one of her concerts last year and she still retains most of the power in her voice.

    PS: Saw Psycho yesterday and was blown away. I think it beats Rope slightly as his best film. Will write a post soon on the entire festival now that it's done.

  14. RTP: I'm afraid you've lost me there. I have a big problem with "journalism" of this sort (on the books beat, one regularly sees reporters going out to interview writers without having any idea of their work) and I'm glad you had the sense to quit. But in such cases, how can you possibly blame an interviewee for showing blatant disregard for journalists?.

    I guess that Padma Sachdev interview is still there in the archives.

  15. That was a nice post . i am amused as yesterday only i was reading about the story behind Don McLean's song "American Pie" and learned that Bob Dylan was referred as Jester
    to the like of Elvis /Buddy holy [].
    was there any mention of this in "No Direction Home"

  16. Baez is still wonderful. Went to one of her concerts last year

    ArSENik: you lucky dawg, you. Won't get into Psycho talk here, because that film means too much to me. But I'm always interested in how Hitchcock's seminal films affect viewers who experience them for the first time at a relatively late age, without having read much about them beforehand. My own experience of them has been coloured by so many things - writings, analyses etc.

    Last Anon: ya, the Padma Sachdev post should be there somewhere. As I recall, the post touched on how awkward and out of place I felt going to meet her - even though it wasn't an interview/profile about her - it was part of a larger, research-based story about the Sahitya Akademi, and I didn't ask questions like "What are your books all about?". If I had, I certainly wouldn't have blamed her for showing blatant disregard towards me.

    Flattered to know that you're so obsessed with this blog and with every line I write, though!

  17. Prashant: well, that's really just one interpretation of American Pie's lyrics, but it's an interesting and persuasive one. No such reference on No Direction Home. In fact I don't think Elvis figures at all in the long line of performers shown in the documentary, who made an impact on the young Dylan.

  18. FYI...You can see "I Am Not There" on for free (along w/ any other movie. But I expected more out of it. It was very dissappointing. was more of what Todd Haynes' fantasy of Bob was/Is than anything objective or even factual. Glad I didn't pay the money.

    About No Direction Home: There is a lot that was shaved down in that doc. I'm a huge Dylan fan, But I am of the belief that everyone has a past. And there are many people that Dylan screwed over during his rise/early period. What I don't understand is how everyone can tiptoe around that. In Joan Baez's interview though,She showed an obvious underlying hostility for Bob, and I know most of us (women esp.) don't really blame her. But she asked for alot of what she got because it seems she kept going back for more.

  19. It was more of what Todd Haynes' fantasy of Bob was/Is than anything objective or even factual.

    Kimberley: so what's wrong with that? And what do you mean by "objective" anyway? I haven't seen I'm Not There but from what I hear the whole point of it (starting with the very title) is the impossibility of arriving at any definitive truths about such a vastly analysed public figure. In a sense, the Dylan each of us has in our heads is our own private, subjective "fantasy" Dylan. Haynes was probably just trying to be honest about this.

    Also, I don't agree that No Direction Home tiptoed around the things Dylan did to other people. The film's very focus (which I've tried to bring out in my post) is how artistry and human decency are very often at odds, even incompatible. If it was trying to be a hagiography, it certainly wouldn't have bothered including that bit where Baez (who's always such a sympathetic figure, someone it's difficult not to like) says quite strongly that she felt hurt and let down by Dylan at various times in the 1960s and 1970s. And he doesn't come across as a particularly likable figure during the 1966 footage either.

  20. Kimberley: thanks for the info btw. will look out for it...

  21. I saw Scorsese's "Shina A Light" today. It's unmissable, esp. on the big screen. Where does The Prancing King get al that energy from. I got tired just looking at him all over the stage!

  22. It's a fantastic movie. You should try and get your hands on the recently released biopic, I'm Not There, if you haven't already. His song Desolation Row is one of my most favourite!