New Movies Inside His Head: Notes on Recent Dylan Arcana

The creepiest on-screen clone army of 2003 wasn’t The Matrix‘s league of Agent Smiths at all, but Masked and Anonymous‘s cast of Bob Dylans. He was everybody, everywhere. Or, rather, everybody was him: John Goodman’s unsavory manager Uncle Sweetheart, Jeff Bridge’s cynically idealistic journalist Tom Friend, Luke Wilson’s angelic hanger-on Bobby Cupid, and even Dylan’s own washed-up singer, Jack Fate. People hated Masked and Anonymous when it was released theatrically last summer. And they were right to. Like Dylan’s previous failed movie, 1978’s reviled Renaldo and Clara, Masked and Anonymous is an exercise in egomania.

Those who might bring the DVD home this month — along with this season’s other offerings for Dylanologists, A Simple Twist of Fate, rock critic Andy Gill and sessionman Kevin Odegard’s account of the making of Blood on the Tracks, and Live 1964 a double-disc of a solo Halloween gig at New York’s Philharmonic Hall — might realize that Dylan’s egomania is not a fault. Because while it might make for a terrible movie, it makes for a great Bob Dylan album.

Typical dialogue like “you can’t build a house with just one tool” sounds awkwardly wooden coming from Giovanni Ribisi’s disillusioned freedom fighter but, imagining it with a swaggering bluesy backbeat, and it might as well be an excised triplet from “Highway 61 Revisited”: “‘You can’t build a house with just one tool’/ Said the counter-revolutionary grabbing his gun/ He got off the Greyhound and he was done/ Dead in a shoot-out down on Highway 61.” The actors in Masked and Anonymous fail for precisely the same reason that countless earnest musical interpreters have: no matter how intelligent and sympathetic, they haven’t lived inside the words the way Dylan has. Love Dylan or hate him, one can’t deny that whatever it is that he does, he’s been doing it for 40 years.

In fact, he probably first got the idea that he could be something grander than a singer somewhere around the time of the Philharmonic Hall show. The year before, he’d tried his hand at stage acting in Britain and failed. The year after, he’d begin work on his impenetrably Joycean “novel,” Tarantula (not published until 1971). Listening to the crystalline stereo mix of Live 1964, it’s not hard to see how the 23-year-old folkie wunderkind got all uppity.

Across the two sets, Dylan uncorks the sweet romances and mannered comedies of the recently issued Another Side of Bob Dylan, and — more enticingly — unveils a number of selections from the still unreleased Bringing It All Back Home before a live audience for the first time. Imagine what it must have been like to hear those lines burst out like fireworks: “Upon four-legged forest clouds/ The cowboy angel rides” (“Gates of Eden”), “Disillusioned words like bullets bark/ As human gods aim for their mark” (“It’s Alright Ma [I’m Only Bleeding].”)

Each line is a diamond, and reflected in each diamond is a movie. One can hear them hang in the depthful air of the mix — “thought-dreams”, as Dylan calls them in “It’s Alright Ma” — and disintegrate amidst the sudden vacuums of applause that makes apparent just how attentively the post-Beat/pre-hippie hepcats are listening to the charming Mr. Zimmerman. (And charming he is, as he spars playfully with a decisively supportive crowd.) It is music well worth hearing.

But as awesome as the songs are, they rarely approach out-and-out stories, with beginnings, middles, and ends. They’re not supposed to, though. They are songs. But they are songs that pull from their moorings, intentionally pushing at the boundaries of popular songwriting circa 1964, threatening to merge into three dimensions.

They didn’t (and don’t).

Dylan toured himself into the ground, twisted himself up in a 1966 motorcycle wreck, and retired from the public life for eight years. He returned to the stage in January 1974 for a tour backed by The Band, soon deemed unsatisfying by Dylan. By September — nearly 10 years after his performance at Philharmonic Hall — Dylan began Blood on the Tracks, his cathartic report from the midst of a disintegrating marriage, and a concerted effort to tell stories with his lyrics (ambitions that would lead to the filming of Renaldo and Clara the next year). The album, perhaps more than anything Dylan released before or since, was a success, from both commercial and artistic perspectives — and, notably, perhaps the first time since going electric in 1965 that he didn’t piss off or confuse the bulk of his audience. Blood on the Tracks was just right.

“A lot of people tell me they enjoy that album,” Dylan remarked to an interviewer in 1975. “It’s hard for me to relate to that, I mean, people enjoying that kind of pain.” “Enjoy,” though, might be the wrong word to describe fans’ relationships with the nakedly emotional music of Blood on the Tracks, consistently cited as one of the most intimate albums in the rock canon. With its warm production (the acoustic instruments veritably melt into one another in the mix) and impersonal pronouns (lots of undefined “he”s and “she”s, the better to project one’s own dramas on Dylan’s canvases), it’s easy to see why people cling to the album.

What, then, is the value of a book like Andy Gill and Kevin Odegard’s A Simple Twist of Fate? Does knowing, for example, that Dylan scrapped a set of sessions for the album or that the songs are about his ultimately doomed relationship with his wife have any relevance to the way we, as listeners, appreciate his music? Ultimately, no. The measure of Blood on the Tracks is that it stands objectively, without context. The irony (as with many rock albums) is that, the more freestanding, the more we yearn to know how it was constructed.

If one accepts that this is a valid way to penetrate a work, then Gill and Odegard’s book is fine by any standards. Against all odds, they create a meaningful picture of a wonderful record’s creation and reception. Except where necessary, they avoid gossip, and talk in very real terms about the music’s achievement. The fact that Odegard himself played on the album never gets in the way (unlike, say, drummer Mickey Jones’ mostly irrelevant World Tour 1966: The Home Movies DVD). Arrangements and production are dissected, and the lyrics are broached intelligently.

The latter, in this case, are stories, and compelling ones at that. Like Masked and Anonymous, they are monumentally egomaniacal, but they are so by necessity. Though “Tangled Up in Blue”, which leads off the first side, is nominally linear, it jumps from past to present and back with an intuitive abandon. And the song is stronger for it. But it is always Dylan singing it, always his perspective. Though it is cinematic, it could never be mistaken for a screenplay. In a way, that is exactly what Dylan forgot in co-writing Masked and Anonymous (under the pennames Sergei Petrov and Rene Fontaine) with director Larry Charles.

Or perhaps he remembered it.

Masked and Anonymous is a significant achievement. At 63 years old, Dylan is surely well ensconced in the final segment of his life in music. It also might be his last hurrah. (“I’m painting the town,” he sings on 2001’s death-obsessed “Love and Theft”, “I’m making my last go-round.”) Each of Dylan’s auteurish (and failed) forays into film (1966’s obscure documentary Eat the Document and 1978’s Renaldo and Clara) followed creative peaks (1966’s Blonde on Blonde and 1975’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour) and preceded serious career ruptures and personal retreats (his 1966-1974 retirement, and his 1979 conversion to Christianity).

If the pattern holds true, then Masked and Anonymous may possibly represent Dylan’s final creative spike, and Dylan seems all too aware of that possibility. It would explain why he sees himself everywhere in Masked and Anonymous‘s wartorn landscape, and hears himself coming out of every radio: sung in Japanese, sung by a group of greaser punks from Long Island, sung by a 75-year-old gospel outfit. Masked and Anonymous is a summation of everything Dylan has ever seen in an America in perpetual disarray, and he lives in its every breath, from fire and brimstone preachers to political insurgents to once revered generational spokesmen.

One of the best things one can say for any career artist’s later work is that it provides a frame for everything that has come before. Masked and Anonymous does this: a reconciliation of everybody Dylan has been, showing that all of these personas can easily fit in the same world. “It’s Halloween,” Dylan giggles on Live 1964. “I’ve got my Bob Dylan mask on.” The crowd laughs with him. Not our Bobby, he’s the genuine article, one can practically hear them think. Within months, Dylan would be shedding personas. At least, that’s the standard image. Turns out he was just storing them for later use.

There will likely be much hullabaloo made about how topical Dylan’s legendary protest songs still are. Indeed, Live 1964 opens with “The Times They Are A-Changin'” and includes the banned-from-Ed-Sullivan “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues.” But that’s not what makes Live 1964 remarkable, or even relevant. As great as those songs are, they sound plumb dated to modern ears. What makes Live 1964 special is the fact that Dylan can sing earnest love songs like “To Ramona” side-by-side with surreal epics like “Gates of Eden,” and make them equally idiosyncratic and perfect. They’re weird songs.

And, ultimately, Masked and Anonymous is weird movie. He was the same guy all along. Songs like Blood on the Tracks‘ “Simple Twist of Fate” jump from scene to scene with abandon, leaving the listener to contemplate what might come between verses. The listener jumps right along with it, mostly because of the unconscious power of the music. With Masked and Anonymous — as a film, a necessarily active viewing experience — the leaps and their abstractions aren’t quite so easy, but they’re there and just as valuable as they were 40 years ago.

So Bob Dylan is again reviled. Perhaps “reviled” is not the right word. More people would have to care for Dylan to be reviled in 2004. He is, more or less, ignored. Though the circumstances of Jack Fate’s wash-up go neatly undiscussed, it’s not hard to imagine the Cassandra-like Fate turning in a willfully sullen B-movie distillation of his own career. Masked and Anonymous is a self-fulfilling prophecy for all involved: Dylan (doomed to obscurity, silence and, ultimately, death), his detractors (“he made another crappy movie, the pretentious creep”), and his fans (“he did what he had to do, and he did it well”). In a way, Bob Dylan did what he hasn’t done since 1964 and again for a brief moment 10 years later: he pleased them all.