Napoleon in Rags, and the Language That He Used
I try my best to be just like I am,
Everybody wants me to be just like them.
They say sing while you slave, but I get bored.
—Bob Dylan, “Maggie’s Farm”
Performing “Mr. Tambourine Man” before an audience in Newcastle, England in the summer of 1966, a young Bob Dylan leans into his mike, head tilted, lips pushed into a petulant pout as he enunciates: “I’m not sleepy and there ain’t no place I’m going… to.” In fact, he looks incredibly sleepy, but it seems deliberate, maybe crafty. I’m trying to put my finger on just what Dylan’s doing when, as usual, my wife nails it. “That,” she says, “is the face of a man singing his own song with contempt.”
The Newcastle show is the centerpiece of Martin Scorsese’s documentary No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, which originally aired as part of PBS’s American Masters series. The film returns to it again and again, between meanderings through Dylan’s rise from Midwestern misfit to Greenwich Village folk-scene hero to nascent rock star. Dylan performed the first half of the show solo, with acoustic guitar and harmonica, to the approbation of the crowd, only to return for the second half in full-on electric mode, backed by what would eventually become The Band and battling a crowd turned suddenly hostile. Dylan yowls and poses with his Stratocaster amid taunts of “Traitor!” and “Judas!” until he sits down at the piano and fires a blistering broadside of “Ballad of a Thin Man” back at the audience: “There’s something happening here but you don’t know what it is, / Do you, Mister Jones?”
If No Direction Home is about anything, it’s about Dylan’s early life among the Mister Joneses of his era, ahead of rock-and-roll’s learning curve and suffering the judgments of the slower kids in his class. It’s not a historical document—Dylan’s early career has been exhaustively covered, not least by Dylan himself in Volume One of his autobiography—but it asks an important question: who owns the artist, him or his audience?
The film opens with Dylan, now the elder statesman with his cheesy Vincent Price moustache, reflecting on his childhood in Hibbing, Minnesota in the ‘50s. Here young Bobby Zimmerman listened to the radio, catching the respectable country standards of the period by day and the less savory blues and race music by night. These were the standard influences for rock-and-roll musicians back in the day, and the country + blues = rock equation is a given for every music fan except Scorsese, who feels the need to explain it to us every time he makes one of these films (see The Last Waltz ). Dylan mentions Webb Pierce, there’s a clip of Pierce singing. He mentions Howlin’ Wolf, there’s some footage of Wolf. You know, just in case we don’t get it.
On his way to New York, Dylan educates himself with On the Road and Woody Guthrie records, and the film paints an exhaustive portrait of the Village folk scene Dylan was about to invade. This includes nice interviews with mainstays like Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Liam Clancy, and especially Dave Van Ronk (half of whose act Dylan rips off, though he exhibits no acrimony, as stealing from each other was par for the course among those making the people’s music). Fine musicians, archivists, and purists all, the folkies recall what a shock it was the first time they heard the scruffy 19-year-old with the poet’s name. No matter his questionable pipes; he delivered his material with such Guthrie-esque force and charisma that no one was immune to it.
Quickly scoring a record contract, Dylan recorded a first album, Bob Dylan (1961). Though it was nothing but folk standards, his raw delivery was such a far cry from the polished sound of chart-topping folk acts like The Weavers and The Kingston Trio that it galvanized the community. Dylan became folk music’s Elvis. Like Elvis, his appeal was wholly iconoclastic. While the folk scene embraced him, it was clear that he was not going to sit still and bask in said embrace, especially when his prodigious talent as a songwriter emerged. Though mostly liberal politically, folk performers were conservative musically, taking their roles as music preservationists and reverent interpreters very seriously. Few were songwriters, and so Dylan’s urgent and literate original material exploded like bombs across their landscape. Mavis Staples recalls how startling it was to hear the young white boy sing “How many roads must a man walk down / Before you call him a man?” and Allen Ginsberg says he wept upon hearing “Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” as the Beat poetry of a new generation.
Heralded as folk’s poster boy, the king of “protest music,” and in more than one publication, “the voice of his generation,” Dylan was pulled in several directions. Though he performed in 1963 at the March on Washington, Dylan rejected the political activism expected of him, avoiding sit-ins and rallies and eschewing personal statements, preferring to let his songs speak for him. In one press conference after another, usually with a mainstream press who viewed him as some youth curiosity, Dylan refused to categorize his music as “political” or himself as the voice of anything. Scorsese’s interviewees are split on this point, many feeling that Dylan let them down by not linking his fame to their causes, and others shrugging, “That’s Bob for you.”
By the time Dylan “went electric” at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, his public persona had become a swirling miasma of others’ expectations. It is remarkable that so few people anticipated his transformation from earnest folkie to the black-clad rocker. By 1964, he had stopped performing other people’s songs entirely. In 1965, he released Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, a pair of straight-ahead rock albums, with the towering Blonde on Blonde in the near future. And while it was undoubtedly uncool to plug in at a folk festival, Dylan’s barbaric yawp had the intended effect, declaring that he would not answer to anyone’s “community.”
At the ‘66 mini-tour of England, where Dylan defended his emancipation from folk against a divided British audience, who heckled and derided him while shoving their autograph books in his face. It turned out to be his last set of performances before a motorcycle accident in upstate New York sidelined him, and it would be another eight years before Dylan hit the road again, for Blood on the Tracks (1975). Scorsese ends the documentary with the accident, itself a point of contention for years among Dylan’s fans. Did he actually wipe out on the bike, or was it a put-on to give Dylan, burned out and disgusted with the public and the press, an excuse to get out? Scorsese asks the question again, without answering it, despite having Dylan right there to ask. Did Dylan refuse to answer, or is Scorsese going all Oliver Stone on us?
One thing Scorsese could have done was go a tad less Scorsese. Much like in The Last Waltz he has an annoying habit of using the musical performances as segues, cutting them off abruptly, sometimes in mid-lyric, to go to an entirely unrelated segment. This is where it’s better to own the DVD a tape made from PBS, because Scorsese offers the full, uninterrupted performance footage as special features on both discs.
And he keeps himself out of the picture, avoiding a repeat of his embarrassing presence in Waltz, the one Rob Reiner parodied so handily in This is Spinal Tap (1984), and allowing his subjects simply to answer (though Dylan does call his questions “stupid” at one point). All this makes No Direction Home a powerful portrait, if not groundbreaking. It gives us a good look at what it was about Dylan and his times that created the living legend, and how Dylan “went electric” in more ways than one.