The Re-Packaging of Bob Dylan
The autumn of 2007 saw the marketing of Bob Dylan by Sony/BMG like no previous year. Of course promotion has happened every time Dylan releases anything, but this year smacked of product with a corporate touch. Sometime around the end of the summer, visitors to Dylan’s official website, BobDylan.com were greeted not by the usual home page but by a page proclaiming in huge letters that essentially took up the entire screen, "Dylan 07," which turned out to be a new retrospective set spanning Dylan’s career. Actually the album is simply titled "Dylan," and is available in three formats, a single disc sampler, a 3 CD digipak, and a cloth-bound box set. An I-tunes bonus was a remix by Mark Ronson of the Blonde On Blonde classic, "Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)." All this was accompanied by invitations to fans to send in stories, participate in a video, and add their own slogans to the cards Dylan tosses away in the "Subterranean Homesick Blues" video. At the bottom of the page was a slogan: EVERYTHING EXCEPT COMPROMISE. To long-time Dylan fans, it seemed exactly like compromise.
On various the Dylan internet forums across the Internet, the reaction was generally negative, with threads along the lines of "Who isn’t buying Dylan O7?" Most fans had everything on it several times over and there were no outtakes or new live tracks included. Only a completist would buy this one. This set was obviously intended for those who came aboard for Dylan’s last studio release, Modern Times.
Not lost in all this was the announcement of a new Dylan DVD, chronicling Dylan’s performances at the Newport Folk Festival, from 1963 to 1965. Filmed by Murray Lerner who directed the ’60s Newport documentary, Festival, this was Sony/BMG’s gift to the fans, as it promised full-length versions of songs briefly sampled in Festival as well as many other not only never seen, but never heard but never heard as well legendary 1965 electric set which not only changed the Newport Folk Festival, but music in general. The track list was eventually leaked before the DVD was released, and the usual forums expressed consternation at what wasn’t included.
In addition to this was the impending release of Todd Haynes’ not exactly bio pic, I’m Not There, in which six different actors portray various aspects of Dylan. Dylan had apparently given his blessing to the project by granting Haynes song rights and as it turns out a bit more. Accompanying the film was a two CD soundtrack album, featuring covers of Dylan songs by a wide assortment of artists as well as the first official release of the long bootlegged song "I’m Not There," from the sessions for what eventually became known as The Basement Tapes.
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Just as all these were about to be released, Dylan managed to infuriate his fans (something he has seemingly delighted in doing his entire career) by appearing in an ad for the Cadillac Escalade. Cadillac is the sponsor of his Theme Time Radio Hour on XM, and the theme the week they ad appeared was, Cadillac. However as one perceptive person pointed out in a post to several Dylan forums, the music in the ad is by Smog (aka Bill Callhan) and the images in the ad run contrary to what the ad is saying.
The just as the Cadillac furor was dying down, Dylan records a new version of "A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall" as well as a new video for the International Exposition on Water and Sustainable Development in Zaragoza, Spain. Two days before the Expo video appear, people who subscribe to the official newsletter of Bobdylan.com received an email "from Bob Dylan" offering discounts on a unisex robe, a Zippo lighter, and a "camo military hat."
All of the above only helps to add to Haynes’ multi-person concept and while I had lived through all of Dylan’s various changes, I went to see the film highly skeptical. The various trailers that made their way to Youtube did little to dissuade me.
I’m Not There ended up being a delightful and intriguing surprise. By not doing the film in linear fashion, often bouncing back and forth between time periods, at times in a dizzying manner, and toying with identity and myth as well as and fact and fiction, Haynes has managed to capture Dylan. I am usually a stickler for historical accuracy, but in this case it doesn’t matter that quotes that took place in 1965 are placed in 1966, that Dylan didn’t actually meet Allen Ginsberg in England in 1966 (it happened long before that) or that the character representing Dylan’s manager at the time, Albert Grossman didn’t fight with the character representing Pete Seeger. (In reality he fought with Alan Lomax and it was concerning Lomax’s introduction to the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, not Dylan.) Just like Dylan’s music, it’s the feel that matters and the feel is of being inside a Dylan song for a couple of hours.
Haynes made some brilliant casting decisions including the choice of the young black actor Marcus Carl Franklin to represent the young Dylan named "Woody Guthrie." Watching him I couldn’t help but recall the descriptions of early Dylan by New York Times critic, Robert Shelton, who not only gave Dylan his first big break, by reviewing him when he was an opening act
Not quite as successful is Christian Bale as "Jack Rollins," the folk/protest singer. Bale is too straight forward, and lacks the intensity Dylan generated as well as his humor. The same can be said for Mason Jennings who provides the musical performances during Bale’s early folk segments. Bale does succeed in mimicking Dylan’s restless, nervousness during a TV interview based on Dylan’s 1964 appearance on the Steve Allen show, where Allen dragged on and on with interminable questions treating Dylan as something of a freak in the process.
Sometimes two actors will overlap during the same period of time. Ben Whishaw as Dylan/Arthur Rimbaud and Cate Blanchett as Dylan/Jude Quinn both represent 1965/1966. Heath Ledger as Dylan/Robbie Clark and Richard Gere as Dylan/Billy the Kid cover the late ’60s, early ’70s. Ledger appears playing a Dylan-like character in a film during the ’60s and Bale reappears as the born again Dylan of the late ’70s, early ’80s.
Whishaw is kind of a commentator on the proceedings, and his setting which never changes is based on the legendary televised San Francisco 1965 press conference. The majority of Blanchett’s scenes portray the stoned and amphetamine driven Dylan of ’66 who mostly spoke in absurdities. Bordering exaggeration, she captures both the vocal mannerisms and the marionette aspects of Dylan’s physical movements during that time.
Ledger portrays clean cut the family man Dylan following the 1966 motorcycle accident, who was trying to escape his past and perhaps himself as much as possible. The epitome of this is a fictional scene that could be the Café Espresso in Woodstock sitting with his wife and another couple, where the man has to be based on singer/guitarist and Dylan friend from the Village Folkie days, Happy Traum. In 1968, Dylan did his first post-accident interview in Sing Out! (the folksong magazine) with John Cohen and Traum who was the magazine’s editor at the time. Traum futilely tries to engage Dylan in discussing the war in Vietnam and Dylan is oblique at best, commenting "How do you know I’m not as you say, for the war?" In the movie, this character tries to coax an unsympathetic and evasive Rollins to take a stance and is met with hostile resistance.
The closest Dylan (in real life) ever came to some sort of a stance on the war was his name was listed as being on the board of directors for the benefit concert, Sing-In for Peace at Carnegie Hall in the fall of 1965, meaning he helped fund it. Of course a good case could be made for the war being present in the songs and in one of the more comical scenes in the film, Lyndon Johnson is seen mouthing words to "Tombstone Blues." Nonetheless the war is present in the movie. The character representing Jack Rollins’ wife is continually watching news reports of the war on TV and as Nixon announces the war’s end, she announces the end of the marriage, something that is roughly accurate time-wise and one of Hayne’s surprising insights.
Gere portrays the darker, dream mode Dylan, the creatively lost Dylan, but one who still sees. On one hand he looks too old, too wizened for the part but in his role as the seer, it works. The time frame is murky and confusing. However in the early ’70s, there were a few years where Dylan was barely creating new songs. His appearance in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid signaled the end of that period and a few months later Dylan’s 1974 return to the stage which is not covered in the film was announced.
In this segment Billy/Dylan is at first walking with his dog who runs away, and wanders into the town of Riddle (mentioned earlier by the young Guthrie Dylan) where it Halloween all the time and the characters range from Shakespearian to cowboys to medieval clowns and carnival sideshow freaks. Many of the characters, their names as well as the lines they speak are right out of The Basement Tapes. as well as the much later Rolling Thunder Revue. The town is controlled by a fictional Pat Garrett who wants to put a highway through the middle of the town and "Billy" wearing a plastic mask reminiscent of the one Dylan wears in the opening song of his film Renaldo & Clara is forced to take a stand. However in this particular segment it’s the vision, the made-up, costumed townspeople that’s as important if not more important than the storyline, perhaps signaling that the spark is still there, waiting to be unleashed. Ultimately "Billy" is arrested, breaks free, leaves town, finds his dog who stays behind as he hops a freight train and finds the same guitar case the young Dylan early in the film was carrying.
Somewhere in the middle of this, the born again segment is thrown in which is possibly the one time the film (to me) fails, precisely because it feels like it was thrown in, almost as if Haynes knew he had to work it in, but wasn’t sure how.
Following the born again scenes, is where "Billy" finds the guitar case, but before that the film flashes again to the Blanchett Dylan riding in a limo explaining the myth and mystery of folk music in somewhat absurdist terms, and then as Gere picks up the guitar, suddenly Bob Dylan himself from 1966, in footage from his film, Eat The Document appears playing a wonderfully wild harp solo on "Mr. Tambourine Man" while a crowd of people at the obviously full hall listen on speakers placed outside. A fitting conclusion. Though the post gospel era Dylan is not represented, the lengthy rap on traditional music covers much of what Dylan has done in the last 20 years onstage and on record, he re-explored the traditional music that initially inspired him.
But the scenario does not capture the film. Beautifully filmed, alternating between black and white and color, almost every scene pays homage to a known photo or a (Dylan) film scene as well as referencing a host of other movies and virtually every line (or so it would seem) is from a song, a poem, an interview, or a previous Dylan film. That they’re often mixed up time-wise, or who originally said them for instance, when the character representing Albert Grossman is actually speaking the words of Phil Ochs when he says, "It’s too dangerous for him to go on stage" doesn’t matter. It’s the effect Haynes is aiming for and it adds up in the end.
If the film has a failing it that only the diehard fan is going to recognize the references. I’d be willing to bet as I’m writing this someone somewhere is hard at work on a website that will eventually catalog and annotate the origin of every scene and every line.
At the same time it is why the film works as a convincing portrait because all of Dylan’s work is loaded with references whether musical, literary, cinematic, historic or spiritual. It’s why his work has been analyzed and dissected for four decades and more than likely will be for decades to come.
Not to be forgotten is Haynes’ use of Dylan’s music, often by Dylan himself and far more than the soundtrack album would lead you to believe. Again Haynes goes for mood more than anything else and one of the more revealing things he does is to songs from the past decade to punctuate scenes from 40 years ago, making you think of those songs in a new light. Two songs used in the period they were written are particularly effective, "Ballad of a Thin Man" used in tandem with an obnoxious reporter and "Idiot Wind" in the scene depicting the end of the fictional marriage. Interestingly enough the version of "Idiot Wind" used is the more meditative outtake version from the original sessions for Blood On The Tracks which was eventually released on The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3.
What is also remarkable about Hayne’s achievement is the number of classic songs that are nowhere to be found, for instance "Blowin’ In The Wind."
Dylan of course has attempted to explore the same territory in the much maligned, perhaps over ambitious Renaldo & Clara and to a degree in the more recent Masked And Anonymous. In the former he jokingly cast Ronnie Hawkins as Bob Dylan, while he played Renaldo. My brief impression of that movie was that every male character represented Bob Dylan. In Masked And Anonymous, he portrayed an imprisoned ex-rock singer named Jack Fate, and my impression was that movie was more about what was happening in the background than the actual storyline. Dylan’s never really succeeded onscreen as an actor portraying someone else. At the same time he’s been great at playing the ever changing role of Bob Dylan for well over 40 years, and that most of all is what Haynes captures.
By comparison the impact of Murray Lerner’s The Other Side of the Mirror is tame. But it does provide not only an excellent glimpse of what Dylan was like as a performer at the beginning of his career and chronicles the astounding changes he went through as both performer and song writer in three years. The changes in his physical appearance are obvious as well as he goes from the bumbling comical kid in loose fitting clothes who takes several tries to get a capo on his guitar correctly to the total professional of 1965, in a well cut sports jacket.
Once he starts singing however, the performances are for the most part riveting. In 1963 the standouts are the rarely played "North Country Blues" and "Only A Pawn In Their Game." Dylan came to Newport as one of a bunch of young topical singer-songwriters playing in Greenwich Village and left a star in the folk world. This was the Dylan I first saw a few months later, a week after the Kennedy assassination playing a sparsely attended concert at the Mosque Theater in Newark, New Jersey. Included is the all (folk) star version of "Blowin’ In The Wind" where Dylan is joined by Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary and the Freedom singers. Also included are a couple of duets with Joan Baez, one of which, "With God On Our Side," was included on the Vanguard album of 1963, Newport Broadside. As for the Baez duets (two more are included in the 1964 segment, one a brief reprise of "With God On Our Side," let’s just say that when the reunited a little over a decade later for the Rolling Thunder Revue, they were far more rehearsed and had learned how to sing with each other. Also on the Broadside album was a duet with Pete Seeger on "Playboys and Playgirls" which is not in the film. The cover of the DVD case is a replica of the Jules Halfant design of the cover of Newport Broadside.
By 1964, the protest singer Dylan is nowhere to be found, except for the Baez duet. Instead he sings two new songs, a beautiful "Mr. Tambourine Man" at an afternoon topical songs "workshop" and an astonishing though slightly edited "Chimes of Freedom" at the evening concert. On the latter song, you can see the delight in Dylan’s eyes as he sings. It’s almost as if he can’t believe he wrote the words he’s singing. It was these performances that caused Sing Out! editor Irwin Silber to write his "Open Letter to Bob Dylan" in the issue following the festival that chastised Dylan for singing "inner directed, inner probing songs" instead of protesting. Following "Chimes," the audience to the consternation of emcee Peter Yarrow refuses to leave calling for an encore for at least five minutes. Finally Dylan reappears, jokingly says, "It’s a time thing," and tells the audience he loves them.
The inner probing Dylan is still there in 1965, performing acoustic versions of "All I Really Want To Do," which opens the film (the remainder is mostly chronological) "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" and "If You Gotta Go." By this time Dylan is a seasoned professional, though the friendly interaction with the audience which is in all the previous performances is much in evidence. At the beginning of Dylan’s afternoon segment, Yarrow again tells the audience that following Dylan’s set they have to "split as quickly as possible" because they’re already overtime and holding up the next workshop. If you watch real closely, Dylan says, "Who says?" while he’s putting on his guitar. Unfortunately missing from this segment is the debut of "Tombstone Blues."
The action quickly switches to an electric rehearsal sound check where a shirtless Yarrow’s clueless-ness (and that’s being kind) is all too evident. As they start to play he stops them reprimanding them to not only check but remember their sound levels. Dylan and the members of the Paul Butterfield band plus Al Kooper are jokingly ignoring him as Butterfield sitting on a wall watches in the background.
Then suddenly it’s nighttime and they’re into "Maggie’s Farm" with Bloomfield’s guitar dominating. Dylan is totally confident and assured. At the songs conclusion loud booing is heard. This booing (also heard in the brief film clip used in Martin Scorcese’s No Direction Home is not evident on any of the bootleg recordings of the show. Then skipping "Phantom Engineer" (an early version of "It Takes A Lot To Laugh") they’re into the live debut of "Like A Rolling Stone" which was already a hit on Top 40 radio stations. During the song you can hear an equal mix of booing and cheering and at the song’s somewhat stumbling conclusion, Yarrow again tries to placate the crowd saying, "Bobby thought he only had a certain amount of time." Yarrow clearly does not know what to say, and then says, "Bobby’s coming back, he’s getting his acoustic guitar." Dylan, putting on an acoustic guitar shoots him a look that one would not want to be the receiver of. Dylan seeming unfazed returns for "Mr. Tambourine Man." Unprepared to be doing an acoustic set, he asks the crowd for an E harmonica, and you can hear the thud of several harps being thrown on stage. Dylan then offers his appropriate farewell to Newport, "It’s All Over Now Baby Blue." The Newport Folk Festival continued for a few more years and then was resurrected a couple of decades later. It never really recovered though and for all intents and purposes it was the end of the folk music movement of the ’60s.
As for the albums, the I’m Not There soundtrack is a huge cover album. It’s interesting for the songs it doesn’t have (many of the standard classics are missing) as for the songs it does have. Many of the songs are drastically rearranged, but hell Dylan himself does that every night. Some of the arrangements are interesting for what they add to the song, others fail completely. Some of the songs that are actually in the film such as Tom Verlaine’s "Cold Irons Bound" work in the context of the film, but fall flat on record. Others are just too damned pretty. To sing Dylan, you need to sing with a certain amount of intensity, power and grit. The Band for instance knew how to do it. Too often that intensity is missing.
Occasionally the musicians sound like they’re having fun, as Yo La Tengo clearly are on "I Wanna Be Your Lover." And fun is an important ingredient. As Levon Helm once told me during an interview, "If you ain’t havin’ fun, it ain’t worth a shit." And Dylan clearly likes to have fun both on record and in concert. Again one of the great things about the Newport video of "Chimes of Freedom" is that as serious as the song is, he’s having fun singing it.
The two other songs that really work for me other than Dylan singing "I’m Not There," which is simply one of the greatest things he ever did even if half the words are gibberish he’s making up as he’s going along, are Los Lobos’ excellent version of "Billy 1" from Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and Jim Jones and Calexico’s "Goin’ To Acapulco" from the Basement Tapes. The horn arrangement perfectly adds to the song, and Jones’ soulful vocal makes the song his own.
The box set Dylan is sort of okay if you want to introduce somebody to Dylan’s music. Programmed chronologically (though "It’s All Over Now Baby Blue" is out of place, the album with the most songs included is Freewheelin’. Several important albums have one song and Saved is ignored entirely. The hits and near hits are all included and one could quibble forever about what’s not included. For every song on there, another could easily take it’s place. However there is one serious omission, the song many consider to be the greatest of all, where poetry, mood and tension all add up to one starting narrative, "Visions of Johanna."
PETER STONE BROWN is a musician, songwriter, and writer. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org