Monday, October 27, 2008

Dylan part two: how some of us (at least) move on

The second part of Scorsese's film on Bob Dylan (No Direction Home) screened here on Saturday, giving further revelation into the man some called the greatest songwriter of the 20th century.

Those who know his music from later periods tend not to understand the fuss over him, or disparage him purely for his singing.

The accolades usually come from those who experienced his early career in the 1960s, when his lyrics were by turns fiercely literary, obscure and kalaidoscopic. That is pretty much the period Scorsese depicts, when his star was brightening.

In fact, the whole project was apparently instigated by Dylan's manager, who located Scorsese to give it a professional standard. Dylan had no specific interest in it, although he gave interviews that were distilled into insights scattered through the film.

Those latter-day comments never seemed to speak directly to an event, but were more general, and very meaningful for that. They contrasted quite strongly with some clips of early press conferences, where the questions were almost universally inane. His responses clearly reflected that: flippant and lacking insight - not Dylan's fault.

Dylan has been several different people. Joan Baez noted that when they were performing together in the early days, she needed to approach him based on what sort of mood he was in at the time, generally either dark or up and jokey.

Then, by the time I first experienced his music in the 70s, he came across as sullen and uninterested in the public responses to his fame. Hardly surprising in itself, but several factors through the sixties could have contributed to this. Doubtless there are plenty of biographers who have made their own tracings of his changes. They may point to the vociferously negative reactions to his 'going electric', or his motorcycle accident, but I would imagine a central theme would be his journey as an artist. He never regained the lyrical peak of his early energetic youth, but he was demonstrably inclined to move forward artistically, exploring new milieus, all the while affected by the burden of his early meteoric fame. He has expressed distaste for the trappings of fame (naturally), but more, he was constantly confronted by the expectations of others. He wasn't really publicly political (Baez knew he'd never attend political events/protests as she did); he didn't really want to be the spokesman for a generation; he even purported to do dud albums in the early 70s specifically to rid himself of public expectations. Truly a chased man.

Yes, his early work was his best (albeit 1975's Blood On The Tracks still garners special mention). But the spark of youth can't last forever, and he had to travel new roads. The story is not new: many artists peak early; many never regain the heights, but still they have to explore. For instance, do we really want another Ok Computer? Many people would say Yes!, but Radiohead have simply moved on, similarly haunted (and harrowed) by their earlier success.

The story is fascinating; so is the period explored in the film - both the life and the times of Dylan. The film is replete with oblique insights; and again, his fiery performance of Like A Rolling Stone was a joy, one of those moments when all pistons were firing.

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