No Direction Home
By Peter Doherty
Dylan. Small Town Dreamer, Folk Singer, Spokesman for a Generation, Stylistic Traitor, Electric Troubadour, World Weary Superstar. Tags that could be attached at various stages during Martin Scorsese’s fantastic, recently premiered Bob-Doc “No Direction Home”. Using archival clips of both Dylan & his environment Scorsese added visual references to the myriad guests & ,in possibly his most candid recorded interviews, Bob himself. Dylan’s tales of being raised in small town Hibbing, North Dakota were interspersed with black & white images of 50’s images of the town & voiceover’s that now sound surreal in their quaintness. Tales of record theft & embellishing his own past seemed to be the 1st steps on his path to the legend that became Bob Dylan. Friends from Hibbing school days appeared to tell how Dylan stole rare blues & country sides, which Dylan himself admitted where “Rarer than Hen’s teeth”.
With Dylan’s move to New York & his assumption of being the new Woody Guthrie the picture was padded out further by Scorsese’s use of major figures in Bob’s development. Members of the CBS Management & production teams talked about his early recording career & the almost wholesale disappearance of his 1st self-titled album. Dave Van Ronk, widely held as Dylan’s role model & guide when he broke in the New York folk scene, added touches of humour & didn’t bear grudges for Dylan’s blatant pilfering of his take on House of the Rising Sun. The depth that Scorsese was willing to go into was shown by his interviewing of Suze Rotolo, Dylan’s 1st muse & the girl on the front cover of his breakthrough “Freewheelin’” album. This period also included one of the highlights of the film, the interview with Liam Clancy. As well as being a humorous interviewee I spent my time when Clancy was speaking enthralled by what level the pint glass in front of him was filled to. Clancy remains a close friend of Dylan, with the “Bobfest” 30th Anniversary post-gig party being held in Liam’s NYC bar.
For me this period included the 1st of my 2 disappointments in the film. Although there was fulsome talk of Woody Guthrie’s influence on Dylan’s early persona & career & Peter Seeger spoke to flesh out talk of Woody it was sad that no-one from the Guthrie family spoke as Dylan was a visitor to the family home when he first arrived on the East Coast and the Guthrie take on Bob & his later path would have added to an already enthralling programme.
Perhaps the greatest area of the film, especially when viewed from over 30 years later, was the reaction both in the US & in Europe to Dylan’s “going electric”. The sanctimonious Folkie’s seem ever more surreal with passage of time, although Pete Seeger did try to re-write history claiming he understood why Dylan left the path of pure folkism. The fact, as pointed out in the film, that Seeger tried to sever Dylan & his bands electric cables with an axe, although he claimed it was to save his geriatric father’s hearing, showed the level of hatred the move inspired. Film of Dylan & what would become The Band was extraordinary, although as with Guthrie, it was disappointing that neither Robbie Robertson or Garth Hudson where interviewed especially as Robertson has had a long standing friendship with Scorsese, even releasing for the 1st time the soundtrack for Raging Bull recently. The views of the musicians would certainly have added to the sense of siege that Dylan felt as his demeanour on the old clips & explanations, now, showed, although Al Kooper was a useful interviewee. As the film, in its second stage, drew to a close Dylan showed how much the antagonism of the press & the catcalls of his old fans had driven him further into his shell. Clips from the UK & France showed him drained & in no mood for explaining his musical change. The famous San Francisco “Are you a folk singer no I’m Song & Dance man” clip showed that Bob had all but given up on trying to speak to his audience. Irish fans clamouring for an autograph & for him to return to folk came across as believing they owned Dylan so with hindsight his post-motorcycle accident reclusiveness seems more understandable than ever.
With the release of Highway 61 the film drew to a close & the future post-accident was highlighted. That Dylan went on to re-invent himself as the country artist of “Nashville Skyline” or the mature, love-lost thinker of “Blood on the Tracks” could fill films themselves. As for Scorsese he deserves a huge show of gratitude for such a remarkable work. The ability to get Dylan to speak so candidly about an extraordinary time in his life & the development of his “Spokesman” label, which he has carried with him for 40 years, shows how at ease the Director managed to get his star to be. A fine supporting cast also deserve appreciation as a number of them had reason to view Dylan with distaste, from his record stealing in Hibbing to his horrific jettisoning of ex-love Joan Baez, all still spoke with warmth about Bob. I for one will be filling in No Direction Home on my Xmas list, although I’ll fast forward through Joan’s shrill singing.
By the way for more Bobism I would recommend “Down the Highway:The Life of Bob Dylan” by Howard Sounes which fleshes out the Dylan life story, right up to his present “Never Ending Tour”.
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