Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Dylan (2): The Real 'Saint Bob'

The second part of the epic documentary on Dylan (last night, BBC2) was much better than the first. Indeed, it was both fascinating and moving.
The first thing to say is that even after watching the three and a half hours of this film, Dylan remains an enigma. If even his friend Joan Baez has to admit that she still hasn't figured him out, what chance do the rest of us have?
But after watching the film, Dylan has risen in my estimation and I'm sure I'm not alone in wanting to revisit his music.

I hadn't realised that Dylan had consistently rejected the label of 'protest singer' or indeed any other label. We saw him at a succession of press conferences where he gave an heroic display of chain smoking that made me look like an occasional smoker. At one of these, pressed to describe himself, he said he was "a song and dance man".
Although he sang at the legendary rally at which Martin Luther King 'had a dream', he mostly refused to attend any protests or rallies or to lend his support to any political movements. That didn't stop both the man and his songs being co-opted by any number of political groups. Some of those songs - or sung poetry as they should perhaps be called - are breathtakingly beautiful and all the more effective for not being overtly political.

The controversy over Dylan moving from folk to rock was also fascinating. It certainly showed an unappealing side to those who worshipped at the Church of Folk who suddenly mislaid all those values of peace, love and tolerance. At one concert Pete Seeger had to be restrained from taking an axe to one of Dylan's electric cables. Somewhere I have an old Pete Seeger 'EP' that I bought in 1965. If I ever find it, I shall stamp on it.

Is there any parallel in musical history of an artist being turned on by his fans and being booed and heckled from the moment he walked on stage?
And is there any more inspirational sight than the footage in this film of Dylan refusing to be cowed, calmly sticking to his guns and being true to himself?
At one UK concert a film camera caught Dylan about to sing Like A Rolling Stone in the face of a cacophony of booing. It was the famous occasion when someone shouted 'Judas!' as he walked on stage. Dylan turns to his band and, unheard by the audience, says: "Play it fucking loud!"

Another glorious piece of film shows Dylan dancing around outside a pet shop like a marionette on speed, re-arranging the words on the shop's signboards into an endless number of different combinations and meanings, laughing as the sentences become more surreal, drunk on the mysterious potency of language.
As someone who has compulsively played with words all my life and who, as a child, used to recite the words of a pet shop advertising hoarding as though they were Shakespeare, this took my identification with Dylan to a new level. But it was also the most telling insight into the character of Dylan as someone who interpreted experience through language as much as, or even more so, than music. And like much else in this film, it also showed Dylan's sense of humour which is not apparent from just listening to his music.

In many ways this film was an antidote to the current obsession with fame and the whole absurd circus of celebrity culture. Dylan refused to dance to the media's tunes or to follow musical or political agendas. He did what he wanted to do and what he had to do.
As one of his producers put it, Bob didn't have much choice in the matter: "God didn't put a hand on his shoulder. He gave him a kick up the ass. You only have to look at Bob to see the Holy Spirit."

I wouldn't put it in those religious terms. And if I were a cynic I might say that Dylan's anti-celebrity stance has been his own calculated and very profitable unique selling point.
But in the absence of any supporting evidence for that view, I'm content to rejoice in the fact that 40 years after I was first moved by Dylan's genius, his words and music are still being celebrated and that a new generation will discover that beyond the ephemeral potency of cheap music and lazy lyrics of much pop and rock music, there are rare people whose words and music inspire and enrich an entire lifetime. And none rarer nor greater than Bob Dylan.


At 10:45 AM, Blogger Jane said...

Oh I agree the second episode was much better. As very much a johny come lately to an apperication (sp) of Bob Dylan I had looked forward to the programmes only to be disappointed with the first one.
I had known about the hostility shown to him when he went electic but the level it was pitched at was really quite horrific, I wonder if any of the folkies ever looked back on what they had done in shame?

At 2:39 AM, Anonymous Judas said...

They actually traced the chap who shouted "Judas," and made a radio programme about it recently. He didn't seem to have lost any sleep over it.

I wonder how I would feel if the only noteworthy thing I ever did was shout "Judas," at a living genius.

At 6:19 AM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

jane: you almost typed "when he went eclectic" which would have been very apt.
I'm just glad the disappointing first half didn't stop me watching the second.

judas: if he'd shouted it at the Labour Conference, he'd have been detained under the Terrorism Act.

At 11:39 AM, Blogger Ben said...

Gutted to have missed the film - from the trailers it looked very promising. If you're interested in his reaction to the protest singer label etc, then pick up a copy of his book 'Chronicles: Vol I'. I was amazed by how enraged he says he was by those who appropriated his music and labelled him the leader of the counter-culture - he came very close to shooting at people camping out on his property...

At 3:04 PM, Blogger cello said...

I've been expecting a post from you today, Willie, about the expulsion of that very dangerous-looking pensioner from the Labour Party Conference. Why does the phrase 'Nazi rally' keep popping into my head?

At 4:07 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

ben, yes, I'll certainly put the book on my list. He seemed very calm about it in the interview. His attitude was more wry amusement than anger.

cello: Done.


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