Last night was the premiere of Martin Scorsese's "No Direction Home" on PBS. A few days ago when I posted about it, I decided, rather smugly, that this was going to be a Scorsese event for me, not a Bob Dylan event. There was nothing I didn't already know about the man. Now that my foot and my mouth have been re-introduced and they are co-existing happily once again, let me say this: there is not much I know about the man.
Part 1 follows Dylan's early years, leading up to 1964-65. This is a look at the musical influences, his transformation from an "average" folk-singer-guitarist to a songwriter who could fingerpick, play harmonica and sing, a transformation that Dylan only half-jokingly attributes to "a deal with the Devil at the crossroads". He knows that many fans enjoy such allusions to blues mythology and he knows how some take it too literally.
Some images, words and sounds that made me sit up during the 2 hour film:
Woody Guthrie in the "hospital" (a mental asylum). Bob (and what would later be known as The Band) exploding into "Ballad of A Thin Man" in England after much heckling and booing; the dark, gloomy, suspended notes of the opening riff already sounding scary and crazy. Dylan referring to himself as a "musical expeditionary" with no past. The girlfriends who gave him shelter from the various storms ("they all brought out the poet in me" he says, and cracks the famous half-smile.) Dylan and Robbie Robertson on stage in England. Dylan and Robertson in the back of a limo, bona fide rock stars already, and Dylan complains "I can't stand the booing" (and at the exactly same time, in America, the Beatles complained that they couldn't stand the cheering). Dave Van Ronk's humility as he talks of young Dylan's sophistication in matters political. Billie Holiday singing "Strange Fruit". The great Studs Terkel interviewing Dylan on radio and asking him if "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" was about atomic rain and Dylan replying, "no, it's just a hard rain" and "I'm not a topical songwriter".
A musical puzzler moment for me: Joan Baez and Dylan at the Newport festival singing close harmonies. How on earth can ANYONE sing harmonies with Dylan? Sung individually, his notes are not exact but when sung in a phrase, they are exactly right. To sing just an octave higher than him is tough because Dylan's phrasing and timing is also very loose. But to sing thirds and sevenths harmonies? God. Joan Baez, while I am not crazy about her songs, must be a musical genius (and Dylan acknowledges it, saying "she was an excellent guitar player".)
Part 2 of the film airs tonight and now I can't wait for it.