Bob Dylan, clinical displays of genius and the case for not knowing

Topics Bob Dylan | Piano | Music

Bob Dylan went through his setlist at a show last year as if he had errands to run afterwards, maybe see a man about a dog. He would pause for just seconds, strut a few steps and exchange nods with the backup band to launch another song. It was the music alone that brought time back to its truthful rhythm, making him one with the piano, microphone, and ether. 

All pomp that night was limited to the gold-and-black outfits in which the men were dressed. Dylan said only “Hello” and “Thank you”. Eight thousand pairs of eyes followed him from the darkness in the Nelson Mandela arena, but anyone or no one could have been there and he might have performed in much the same spirit. He could have been 76, he could have been 26. It was at once heartbreaking and rib-tickling.

People are regularly upset by this clinical display of genius. The Minnesota-born singer and songwriter always seems aware of his effect but never inclined to dwell on it. The documentary filmmaker D A Pennebaker, who died early this August, had in 1965 closely filmed fans and press imploring that he reveal more of himself, and the artist not co-operating. 

About his tour at the time, Dylan had told a reporter: “It is going to be very fast. I don’t have anything to say about these things I write.” What can analysis reveal that isn't already certain, like a lump of graphene, in lines such as: “But the poor white man's used in the hands of them all like a tool / He's taught in his school, from the start by the rule, that the laws are with him, to protect his white skin”? 

Pennebaker later noted that Dylan is interesting to watch “because he is constantly creating himself, and then standing back and trying to witness it”. For fans, the desire to “know” him is a discipline — “Dylanology” and not “Dylanmania”. But such “research” often suffers from mythology and dust. There is a humour about this pursuit that Martin Scorsese plays on in his Rolling Thunder Revue, a recent Netflix documentary that covers a concert tour by the same name in 1975-76. 

His previous film on Dylan, No Direction Home (2005), which dealt with his much-decried transition from folk to electric, ended with reports of a motorcycle accident in 1966 that put the singer out of the limelight for eight years. This one picks up from his comeback when Dylan rounded up an ensemble and decided to get on the road, while America celebrated its bicentenary in the shadows of the Watergate scandal. His starry co-musicians all covered their faces in white paint, Dylan wore a flower-studded hat, acting free and loose and wide-eyed on stage. The charmed life of poets and the chaos of a travelling show were in plain view. 

A still from Rolling Thunder Revue

The quality of these shows, inspired by the commedia dell’arte — an Italian style of theatre, part-planned and part-spontaneous — was like nothing else. Scorsese masterfully uses this reference as a vehicle for mischief. A small series of fake stories delivered by people who pretended they were there, including a filmmaker, a congressman, Sharon Stone. The fibs help tie together the music and the churns in American society. It is a fun indictment of how entertainers and politicians supply fables to eager fans. Scorsese makes a case for not seeking to know too much about public figures.

Scorsese's smoke and mirrors act has ruffled feathers for these interventions. The film does include hints, however. It opens with a clip from a Georges Melies silent movie, featuring a magic act where a woman disappears and reappears, followed by the words “Conjuring Rolling Thunder Revue”. Its title also says it is “a Bob Dylan Story” by Scorsese. To be fair, even throughout the real portions of the film, the mood is similarly playful. “What a lovely couple,” Dylan and Baez are told by a member of the audience, to which they shoot back, “Don't make myths. A couple of what?” 

Come for the gimmick, stay for actuality. The visuals, used in the earlier No Direction Home and in the 2019 documentary, were shot at various times by skilful documentarians of musicians: Pennebaker, Murray Lerner, David Myers. The camera stays squarely on the performer, taking in the spiritual aspects of their practice. Dylan spits out “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” as if from under an apoplectic spell, and “Hurricane”, a song as applicable today as it was 43 years ago when he wrote it, is moving too. 

The performers who sparkle more than Dylan all happen to be women. Joan Baez does the best impression of her one-time lover, while Patti Smith tells her trance-like stories. Joni Mitchell asks a male journalist why she isn’t counted in the same breath as Dylan and Leonard Cohen, before playing a brand-new song “Coyote” as if she had performed it all her life. 

Dylan’s phases — folk, protest, electric, Christian, Frank Sinatra covers — are all intriguing. If he is in the league of the greatest American singers and poets, it is for nailing words to the public imagination with his voice and electricity. The rest of him may be unreachable but the music it is possible to touch.

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