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How Does It Feel?: Martin Scorsese's four-hour Dylan documentary, 'No Direction Home,' will be broadcast Sept. 26 and 27 on PBS.

The Man Behind the Mask

A new documentary by Martin Scorsese and a flurry of recordings and books cut through the cipher and invite you to finally meet the real Bob Dylan

By Geoffrey Dunn

LATE LAST WEEK, in the aftermath of the deluge and destruction in New Orleans and beyond, I discovered a link to a website with a song on it that struck my curiosity. It was a cut by Bob Dylan of the traditional Creole folk song "The Lakes of Pontchartrain."

As much as I've been a Dylan aficionado over most of the past 40 years, I had never before heard his version of "The Lakes of Pontchartrain," which was recorded live on June 30, 1988, at Jones Beach, N.Y., with G.E. Smith playing backup acoustic guitar. The song has been distributed, like much of the Dylan archive over the past four decades, through an ornate, international bootleg network that once was hand-to-hand but which is now largely facilitated by the Internet.

I was stunned by what I heard. With the haunting opening chords promising a glimpse into what rock critic Greil Marcus has dubbed "the old, weird America," Dylan launched into an indelible and emotional version of the 19th-century ballad that painted a profoundly evocative landscape of the Mississippi Delta, one that invited its audience to engage the dark and rooted psychic undercurrents of the region.

'Twas on one bright March morning
I bid New Orleans adieu.
And I took the train to Jackson town,
my fortune to renew,
I cursed all foreign money,
no credit could I gain,
Which filled my heart with longing for
the lakes of Pontchartrain ...

Dylan's raspy phrasing, with all of his traditional nasal intonations and dramatic emphasis on variant syllables, touched deep into the soul of the song's characters and its setting, defining not only who we are as a people but where we've been.

I spent too much of the evening listening to the song over and over again, well into the late-night darkness, just as I had to dozens of other Dylan songs from my adolescence into middle age. I simply could not let it go. The song, the voice, the lyrics, they were all inside me, providing, in a strange way, a cosmic shelter from the storm, while at the same instant challenging me and feeding an interior anxiety about the world and our fates and our times. At the watershed year of 50, I was still coming of age. It was an epiphany. That is, of course, Dylan's great interpretive gift and his penetrating, if at times erratic, genius: his ability to condense and crystallize so much emotion, so much sagacity, into a single song or performance; it has been what has made him the most fascinating and compelling musician (and, I would argue, artist) of the past half-century.

Not a Complete Unknown

Perhaps no other figure in the history of American arts and letters—and of course, the great ones always transcend those boundaries—has defined the life and times of a generation as has the enigmatic vagabond from Hibbing, Minn., born into the world as Robert Allen Zimmerman on May 24, 1941.

Over the course of a prolific career that now spans more than 40 years, Dylan has forged an unparalleled body of work that includes more than 500 songs, 40 albums, several films, more than 1,500 live performances, a book of poetry, a bestselling memoir, a significant collection of oil paintings, countless awards and, yes, even a Victoria's Secret TV ad. And that doesn't even include the hundreds, if not thousands, of bootleg releases of his performances. His iconoclastic 1965 release, "Like a Rolling Stone," was declared last winter by Rolling Stone "the greatest song of all time"; a dozen others were named to the Top 500 list. More than 2,000 other performers have covered his songs, ranging from the Byrds and Duke Ellington to Jimi Hendrix and Garth Brooks.

Over the last decade, Dylan has staged a remarkable comeback, or revival if you will, with two widely acclaimed albums, Time Out of Mind (1998) and Love and Theft (2001), both of which were the recipients of Grammy awards. Even more recently, he received the Commandeur de L'Ordre des Artes et des Lettres, the highest cultural honor bestowed by the French government. He has been nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature the past four years. And now, as he is rounding the corner toward his 65th birthday next spring (and, yes, one presumes, ready to collect his Social Security benefits), Dylan is about to be canonized by a series of artistic releases in a variety of media that, while largely focusing on his early years, illuminate the triumphs and simple twists of fate that have marked the entirety of his prodigious career.

The centerpiece of this new treasure trove is Martin Scorsese's brilliant four-hour documentary, No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, which will be available commercially on DVD this week and which screens, in two parts, on PBS this coming Monday and Tuesday, Sept. 26 and 27, as part of the American Masters Series, beginning at 9pm each evening. Also being released concurrently with the Scorsese documentary is an astonishing two-CD soundtrack comprising key songs in the film as well as rare and unreleased recordings from 1959 (Dylan's senior year in high school) to 1966 (the year of his infamous motorcycle accident). The double-disc set is being packaged as No Direction Home: The Soundtrack, Volume 7 of Bob Dylan's Bootleg Series, on Columbia/Legacy Records.

Also part of the film packaging is The Bob Dylan Scrapbook: 1956–1966, published by Simon & Schuster, which includes a delightful assortment of images and Dylan memorabilia from the film (reproduced tickets, posters, a page from his Hibbing High School yearbook, original song lyrics, etc.), along with a 45-minute CD of interviews.

All of this comes on the heels of Dylan's own memoirs, Chronicles: Volume One, which rose to The New York Times bestseller list for 19 weeks earlier this year; Greil Marcus' Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads, published this past spring; and Bob Dylan: Live at the Gaslight 1962, which, in a stroke of new millennium marketing, is being sold exclusively at Starbucks.

For Dylanphiles, if not indeed for the stockholders at Columbia Records, Dylan's longtime label, this is an autumn of great bounty.

Vagabond Artist

When I caught wind in documentary-film circles a few years ago that Martin Scorsese had been signed to do a film on Dylan, the news left me more than a little concerned. While I consider Scorsese's early films—Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), The Last Waltz (1978) and Raging Bull (1980)—to rank among the greatest American films ever made, his recent oeuvre, including Gangs of New York (2002) and The Aviator (2004), has been profoundly flawed and uneven. I was also extremely disappointed by his PBS series on The Blues (2003), most specifically by the episode he personally directed, "Feel Like Going Home." To my mind, at least, it captured none of the raw dynamism of the genre.

My concerns, as it turns out, were severely misplaced. No Direction Home—and I say this without reservation—is the best work Scorsese has produced since Casino (1995) and perhaps since Raging Bull a quarter-century ago. It is a nonfiction cinematic tour de force, ranking among the great music documentaries of all time, including Scorsese's own The Last Waltz.

No Direction Home is not a biodoc by any stretch of the imagination. Its primary focus is on the formative and, in many ways, apocalyptic period in Dylan's career, beginning with his adolescent roots in Hibbing, Minn., and his days as a ne'er-do-well college kid in Minneapolis through his legendary journey to the height of folk-music stardom in Greenwich Village and, finally, to the infamous European tour in the spring of 1966, on which Dylan, the once hallowed folk singer, was branded as a "Judas" for his heretical, and unrepentant, conversion to electric rock & roll.

Part of the brilliance of No Direction Home is to be found in its structure and its editing. Scorsese foreshadows Dylan's climatic cultural heresy by interspersing the narrative thread with scenes from his 1966 European tour, which was to be the last time Dylan took to a public stage for eight years.

I suspect that for non-Dylan fans, this discontinuity in chronological presentation might be either disruptive or confusing, but for those with any semblance of a road map to Dylan's career, the varied glimpses of this tour, interspersed as they are throughout the film, serve to remind us where the young Dylan is going and heighten the dramatic mystery of how he got there. It's a damn good story.

That is only part of the film's brilliance. Also made public for the first time are a wide assortment of film clips, audio tapes and photographs from the Dylan Archive, along with rare and revelatory footage shot by Murray Lerner at the 1963, 1964 and 1965 Newport Folk Festivals, and, finally, previously unreleased outtakes from D.A. Pennebaker's seminal 1967 documentary, Don't Look Back. According to the prerelease hype for the film, "Members of Dylan's worldwide community of fans also contributed rarities from their own collections."

The amalgamation makes for a dynamic and fascinating montage of imagery and sound. But what is truly at the heart of this film is a remarkably open and freewheeling interview with Dylan himself—the first of its kind ever conducted—in which he talks openly about his youth and his artistry and the many and varied controversies that have shaped and defined his career.

This is not the Dylan who revealed himself elliptically, even bizarrely, on 60 Minutes last December to correspondent Ed Bradley. (At one point, Bradley said to Dylan, "It's ironic that the way people viewed you was just the polar opposite of the way you viewed yourself," and Dylan's response was an affected, self-satisfied, semiengaged, "Isn't that somethin'.")

This is a more down-home Dylan, less contrived, very present and clear-eyed, seemingly comfortable with himself as never before, though not without the hard edge, the steely blue eyes, the cynical wit. It was as if Dylan walked into a tavern and decided to have a cold one at the bar. It is the only Dylan conversation like this I've ever seen.

What is fascinating—and, for some, perhaps problematic—about this interview is that it was not conducted by Scorsese but by Jeff Rosen, Dylan's longtime associate and the curator of his archives, who is credited as a producer on the documentary. Rosen conducted more than 10 hours of video interviews with Dylan and then another 20 hours of audio interviews before handing them over to Scorsese.

Rosen also handed over dozens of other interviews he conducted during the past 15 years with several '60s cultural icons, including the late Dave Van Ronk and Allen Ginsberg, along with Joan Baez, Maria Muldaur, Pete Seeger and dozens of other lesser names from the era. What emerges, as a result, is not so much a critical exploration of Dylan (although Baez and Van Ronk are not afraid to cast a critical eye) but an intimate and revealing portrait of the vagabond artist as a young man.

Essentially, then, this was a "found film" for Scorsese, who reportedly had no contact with Dylan during the production of the film, and it was the director's task to construct it organically into a cohesive and meaningful whole. He has done a more than admirable job. "I had ambitions to set out like an Odyssey," Dylan says of his early days as a performer, "[of] going home somewhere, and I set out for this home that I felt was somewhere, and I couldn't exactly remember where it was, but I was on my way there."

This revelation opens the section on his youth in Hibbing, a dying mining town, where Dylan's Jewish middle-class father, Abraham Zimmerman, owned an appliance store. "I was born very far from where I was supposed to be," Dylan observes. "I forgot about the Iron Range where I grew up. I forgot about it all. It never even entered my mind."

Scorsese then covers all of the important milestones in Dylan's career—milestones which appear fresh and rediscovered not only because of all the previously unseen photographs and archival footage but because we get to hear Dylan telling the story in his own voice for the first time.

We go from Minnesota to Greenwich Village and his first shows at the Cafe Wha? and Gerdes Folk City and the Gaslight. We hear about all of his early musical influences (and see clips of them in early performances)—Hank Williams, Johnnie Ray, Muddy Waters, Odetta, John Jacob Niles, Cisco Houston and the young Joan Baez, who would later become Dylan's mentor and then lover.

And then, of course, there is Dylan's deification of Woody Guthrie. We see footage of Woody and then of the baby-faced Dylan imitating Woody. Dylan's candor about this relationship is almost disturbing.

"I wasn't seeing Woody Guthrie anymore," Dylan acknowledges. "I kind of went through Woody Guthrie. ...I knew I wasn't going back to Greystone [the hospital in New Jersey where Guthrie was dying from Huntington's Chorea] anymore."

Dylan confesses that he wrote his famous ode, "Song for Woody," because he didn't want it to seem that his relationship was "negligible."

"I really wanted to portray my gratitude," he says. "I felt like I had to write that song."

Newport Apostate

Of great significance in the Dylan canon are his three successive treks to the Newport Folk Festival, beginning in 1963. Dylan's first appearance at Newport, during the final night of which he was brought to the stage by Baez for an unforgettable duet on his "Masters of War," was a triumphant success. At the age of 22, he was dubbed "The Voice of a Generation" and departed the festival as the crowned prince of the burgeoning American folk movement.

By the following year, Dylan's repertoire had branched out from traditional folk music and "topical songs" to his more elegiac and less overtly political "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Gates of Eden."

The next year, the roof fell in at Newport. Dylan, whose early influences also included rockers like Elvis Presley, was experimenting with new idioms, and he took to the stage with an electric guitar and banged out an electrified version of "Maggie's Farm."

Whether it was the fact that he had betrayed his perceived roots, or merely a bad sound system, Dylan was booed by the folk purists at Newport as he took to the stage to play an electric set. Pete Seeger was allegedly so angry that he sought out an ax to cut the band's sound cables.

Newport 1965 would be a turning point in the young artist's career. He would be branded a "sell-out" and crucified by the folkie media. He was only 23.

As Dave Van Ronk reminds us in one of the more insightful interviews in No Direction Home, Dylan, contrary to the mass perception of him, "was not really a political person." Those that were close to him knew this and thought he was actually "hopelessly naive."

Dylan says he simply didn't want to be boxed in. "An artist has got to be careful really to never arrive at a place where he thinks he's somewhere," he intones in the film. "You always have to realize that you're constantly in a state of becoming, you know. As long as you can stay in that realm, well, you're sort of all right."

It's hard to imagine today how much ink and angst Dylan's youthful metamorphosis from a khaki-clad folkie to a black-leather rocker caused the American music scene, but a cause célèbre it was. Dylan was booed and lambasted by his once-admiring fans, and by the time of his celebrated European tour with the Hawks (later to become the Band) the following spring, he had become the enfant terrible of rock & roll.

"In 1966, when we were playing that music," the Band's celebrated guitarist Robbie Robertson recalls, "people were flipping out with anger at that music and hated it."

Dylan is profoundly reflective on this moment in history: "I wasn't gonna cater to the crowd because I knew certain people would like it and certain people didn't like it. I got into the door when nobody was looking, and I was in, and there wasn't anything from then on anyone could ever do about it."

"I've never been the kind of performer that wants to be one of the crowd," Dylan says with subtle emphasis. "I didn't try to endear myself that way."

Perhaps his anthem "My Back Pages" said it best:

Crimson flames tied through my ears
Rollin' high and mighty traps
Pounced with fire on flaming roads
Using ideas as my maps
'We'll meet on edges, soon,' said I
Proud 'neath heated brow.
Ah, but I was so much older then,
I'm younger than that now.

No Direction Home concludes with footage of Dylan's much-celebrated concert on May 17, 1966, at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, England (incorrectly dubbed on many bootleg releases over the past four decades as the Royal Albert Hall).

During the opening riffs to "Like a Rolling Stone," an angry member of the audience—later identified as a young Brit named Keith Butler—screamed out "Judas!" at the American rocker.

Dylan responded to the insult by quietly stating, "I don't believe you," into the microphone, and then, the emotion building, shooting back, "You're a liar," before turning his back to the audience and snarling to his band, "Play it fucking loud!"

Two months later, an emotionally spent Dylan was injured in a motorcycle accident near his home in upstate New York (it's always been a matter of near mythical speculation how badly he was hurt) and went into a self-imposed exile that was to last nearly a decade.

Weird American

If No Direction Home is a cinematic masterpiece, then the accompanying soundtrack of the same title is its musical equal. The double-CD set opens with an absolute stunner, a 1959 recording of Dylan from his senior year in high school, singing an original composition, "When I Got Troubles." Although just a snapshot of a cut, "Troubles" reveals Dylan's early talents for phrasing, and his voice carries a depth and wisdom far beyond his years. He was, indeed, so much older then.

Twenty-six of the 28 songs on the CD have never been released before. Home recordings of "Dink's Song" and "I Was Young When Left Home" are also memorable. Many of the cuts, such as "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Visions of Johanna," are alternate takes from previously released Dylan songs. They are mesmerizing. I have all of the official Bootleg Series CDs, and many more of the unofficial releases, and this, from my perspective, is the cream of the crop.

"Live at the Gaslight" is equally transcendent, though smaller in ambition. Call it a diamond in the rough, a small jewel. Although none of its single tracks carries the weight of the No Direction Home soundtrack, taken as whole it's a lovely compendium to the Dylan revival. I was astonished to hear, for instance, early versions of the then 21-year-old's "Hard Rain" and "Don't Think Twice," and raw covers of "Rocks and Gravel" and "Handsome Molly."

Go into Starbucks and order a macchiato and play them all fucking loud.

As for your fall reading list, I enjoyed Greil Marcus' Invisible Republic, his engaging rumination on Dylan's Basement Tapes, recorded in Woodstock in 1967 with the Band during his self-imposed hiatus (the book is now called The Old Weird America). I found it far more illuminating than his more recent riff, Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads, which gets lost in cultural minutiae and overreaching historical comparisons. But for the Dylan die-hards, it's still a must.

By far, however, the best read of the bunch is Dylan's first volume of his memoirs, Chronicles, which is being issued in paperback form this month by Simon & Schuster. Hop-scotching all over his career, and clearly reconstructing large chunks of it to suit his fancies, Dylan nonetheless provides an inner window to his creative impulses.

Perhaps the most fascinating revelation in Chronicles is the story from 1987, when Dylan is in Marin County, rehearsing with the Grateful Dead, feeling lost and, well, with no direction home:

"Walking past the door of a tiny bar, I looked in and saw that the musicians were playing at the opposite end of the room. It was raining and there were few people inside. . .. Something was calling to me to come in and I entered, walked along the long, narrow bar to where the jazz cats were playing in the back on a raised platform in front of a brick wall. I got within four feet of the stage and just stood there against the bar, ordered a gin and tonic and faced the singer. An older man, he wore a mohair suit, flat cap with a little brim and shiny necktie. [He] reminded me of Billy Eckstine. He wasn't very forceful, but he didn't have to be; he was relaxed, but he sang with natural power. Suddenly and without warning, it was like the guy had an open window to my soul. It was like he was saying, 'You should do it this way.' All of a sudden, I understood something faster than I ever did before."

That moment, according to Dylan, provided a personal epiphany and led to the revitalization of his career.

Spirit of the Times

I first heard Bob Dylan in 1966 on the radio while riding down Highway 1 near the once-rural community of Soquel, south of Santa Cruz, just inland from the California coast.

My mom, whose first language was Italian and who favored the music of Caruso and Tony Bennett, was at the wheel. The song was "Just Like a Woman," from Dylan's Blonde on Blonde album. I was 11.

It's a moment I'll never forget. His was a voice full of an emotional resonance I had never encountered before and have encountered few times since. He was, and remains, unique and relentlessly courageous in his artistic vision, and I, like so many others of his fans across the nation and across the world, knew it the instant I heard it. It changed my life.

The following year I won a ragged copy of Blonde on Blonde hustling pool at the old Town Hall Billiards in downtown Santa Cruz. The only song on the two-volume set that played was the side-long "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," Dylan's homage to his ex-wife Sara.

If I played that song once in my life, I played it a thousand times. Dylan's voice and his passion and his complex, poetic lyrics profoundly touched something deep inside my youthful soul. It was a moment of self-discovery that would repeat itself over and over again as I encountered his music.

Dylan, nearly a full generation older than I, provided the soundtrack to my life and to the lives of many members of the post–World War II generation and beyond. Dylan himself, of course, has long expressed disdain for the title "Voice of a Generation," first bestowed upon him by the late San Francisco Chronicle critic Ralph J. Gleason.

As Dylan noted in Chronicles: "I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation that I was supposed to be the voice of ... I really was never any more than what I was: a folk musician who gazed into the gray mist with tear-blinded eyes and made up songs that floated in a luminous haze."

So be it. But as Dave Van Ronk observes in No Direction Home, Dylan somehow managed at a very early age to tap into the Jungian concept of the "collective unconscious ... an American unconscious."

Even Dylan now acknowledges that he was able to conjure up "the general essence of the spirit of the times," as he phrases it in No Direction Home. "I thought I needed to press on and get as far into is as I could."

The recent celebrations of his life and times reveal that he pressed very far, indeed.


Geoffrey Dunn is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and journalist. His most recent film, 'Calypso Dreams,' was named Best Caribbean Documentary at the Jamerican Film Festival.


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From the September 21-27, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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