Saturday, October 15, 2005

See That My Grave is Kept Clean

I spent the evening watching Martin Scorsese's Bob Dylan biopic, "No Direction Home." Though I've been aware of Dylan for all of my adult life, I haven't spent much time on him for a couple reasons. First, I think of him primarily as a poet, or at least as a poet first and a musician second.

That's how it seemed to me (and I'm not a poetry guy), probably for my second reason: I have what amounts to an obsession, really, with precision and deliberation in music. My tastes have always been magnetized toward music as a premeditated act of intellectual toil (e.g. Bach, again) rather than as a spontaneous outpouring of humanity (jazz). It's not that I thought of this latter approach as illegitimate or second-rate; but there is something in harmony, and in the deliberate working out of musical ideas, which grabbed me in a way that was beneath analysis or explanation. I have a zillion examples of this tendency of mine, but I fear we may slide on down the slope and never be heard from again. So.

Whatever else you might say about him, Dylan is not known for machine-like accuracy, for extraordinary musical precision. In many of his songs--without my having ever grasped the lyrical content (which is arguably my problem)--whatever he's doing, it ain't singing. He sounds like a kind of human theremin, with pitches (that is, "pitches") determined by infliction of pain. And with my little musical OCD that's an immediate disqualification. Angst-filled, polytonal melismatic poetry. To my ear it's like listening to the dentist's drill.

But it seems I'm the loser in the bargain, since he has amounted to something, historically, a bit like a key genetic mutation which brings some newfound functionality to an organism. And more fundamentally so than, say, the Stones, of whom I was reminded at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. (I confess I have not spent 30 total seconds thinking about the Rolling Stones in the past 20 years.) These two entities are not directly comparable, I know, but there is a sense of Dylan helping to light the torch that the Stones helped carry all these years. In my Johnny Come Lately way, I kinda missed the whole thing.

So the film, No Direction Home, is something of a revelation to me. When you point it out to me, I can see in the interviews and song segments that Dylan--the phenomenon of him--is something white-hot, greatness itself. But without the imprimatur of these luminaries--Allen Ginsberg, Pete Seeger, Scorsese himself--would I have recognized it? I guess already answered that.

In the end, that's what I'm left with. It's mesmerizing to see Bob Dylan blazing--burning--his way through life, leaving a traceable, scorched path behind him, the burned edges of which help to illuminate an age. The path seemed careening at first, but now looking back it seems a remarkably straight line, and it is life itself that is curved and careening. By contrast (not to invite a comparison between Bob Dylan and any facet of my humble self), I feel like I'm reacting my way along and I will look back at the end of it all hoping the pattern of reactions comprises something other than a mere random path. Maybe the straight paths are reserved for geniuses and artists only; it is then for the rest of us to follow in the furrows they have cut for us, lit by their reflected glow.

Yeah, or maybe he was just a zoned-out pothead who didn't give a fuck.

Anyway, the film: highly recommended!

This week's classic movie: Some Like It Hot.


Thomas said...

Please, please, please never watch Masked and Anonymous.

wunelle said...

I'd never heard of that, either. So I went to IMDB to look it up. I wonder if I might not tolerate his acting better than I do his singing. But then I could just watch videos with the sound off!

Lizzie said...

I've noticed that with Bob Dylan, I prefer covers of his songs by other artists to his originals. Stevie Wonder does an amazing version of Blowin in the Wind and I love both Susan Tedesci's and Eric Clapton's covers of Don't Think Twice. I suppose that's what happens when genius song-writing combines with a voice like "a dentist's drill" in the same person.

wunelle said...

Speaking of dentist's drills, have you ever heard Geddy Lee from Rush? As a drummer, I ought to worship the band because of Neil Peart, the Canadian phenom (voted best rock drummer by Modern Drummer magazine for a decade or better); but I'm even less able to tolerate Geddy Lee's voice. He's like the drill and the pain. (Or like Joseph Fiennes says in Shakespeare In Love, "Like a sickness and its cure together" but without the cure part.)

As for Dylan, I sometimes run across a song of his which catches me in just the right mood (like Monty Python--you have to be just tired enough...) and the lyric can be transporting. I must look up covers, as you suggest, since I might better appreciate Dylan this way.

Lizzie said...

"Like a sickness and its cure together but without the cure part"

Genius! I'm writing that one down. Seems like it could come in real handy real often.

Ditto on Monty Python. I always felt so uncool for not laughing my head off every time I saw it, but sometimes I'd watch and think "this is just not that funny." Never equated the times I did find it funny with being tired but now that you mention it, that may be it.

Joshua said...

As a poet, I resent you calling Dylan one.

Other than that, I agree with alost everything you said, again (I feel like I am on the wrong side of a Platonic Dialogue: "You are so wise Plato-Wunelle, I never thought of it THAT way Platonelle")

As a Jazz Guy (notice the caps) you would think I could tolerate the guy, as his skat like response to life seems to fit my style. However, I think your last line hits it right on the head: this guy was just a pot head in a pot-heads universe, and he is now famous for it (I added the mean part)


wunelle said...

I noticed the being tired / like Monty Python correlation, actually, when watching the Naked Gun movies. If I were well-rested, I just found them stupid. But if a little tired, I would get into laughing fits and would have to pause the tape. But I've known many a person--I'm married to one of them--who get Monty Python not at all.

As "not a poetry guy," I'm careful not to actually CALL Dylan a poet! I wouldn't know a poet if one bit me in the iamb. I feel more secure with my claim that "it ain't singin'." OK, it SURE ain't composin'!

Sorry about your Vikes, Joshua. My parents were in town for the weekend from Brainerd and watched the game here. I don't know shit about football, but it looked pathetic even to ME (not that I can gloat with the Packers ONE for FOUR).

BrianAlt said...

Having missed this movie on PBS, I'm really looking forward to seeing it. I think it's interesting that it focuses on his earliest years because I think that really is when the best music was produced. I agree, he shouldn't be called a poet, but he certainly is a lyricist. Aside, who was that female songwriter that put out a book of poems that were gramatically incorrect? Anyway, I think the genius of Dylan is (was?) his ability to convey his point oh so well, much in the way of your bastardize Shakespeare quote.