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.