In celebration of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize win, let’s shift our gaze back to the 60’s. A change has been brewing for years – where song and lyrics give a new meaning to emotion, reflection, and poetry.
by Misha | October 16, 2016
Don’t Look Back and No Direction Home
Both documentaries, Don’t Look Back and No Direction Home, present Bob Dylan as a musician distant from the outside perceptions concocted by his audience, the press, musicologists, academics and critics. Before watching either documentary, I had an idea of Dylan as a reluctant, reclusive, and serious man, playing an act before any kind of person that approached him, but every time unreachable; however, even this was untrue. Watching Don’t Look Back, with the camera following him backstage with friends, I observed a certain liveliness with which he engaged his life on the road and onstage; yet, he never truly mixed himself with what others expected of him. On screen he appeared open, ready to move and create music in a room full of friends. And, although he avoided participating with the Time magazine interviewer, he was willing to answer other interviewers. Even when Dylan dodged and threw back questions, he had this playful manner about him, which I would have thought before to be an annoyed dismissiveness instead. I thought Dylan hated interviews or that he didn’t talk, but even in his banter he engaged with the press. Sometimes, Dylan’s relationship with these “insiders,” as he calls them in No Direction Home, made me think that even his music was an act; however, he says writing those lines are necessary because he needs to sing/say something. Those simple and personal statements from No Direction Home provided another different way of accepting and understanding Dylan. Although he may appear closed in front of cameras and interviewers still, he gives us his music, which leaves him quite open, if not vulnerable. And, though he never gave a direct answer, the reasons he gave in No Direction Home were enough for the songs to pick up where he left off.
When I think of Bob Dylan, I think of “artist” : not only does he play the guitar and harmonica, but he also writes in such an eloquent manner; therefore, I was surprised to see a very young Dylan performing backup to some other important musician. Not only was he behind the limelight, but also, he became known performing material not his own. It’s easy to forget, with a legendary icon as Dylan, that songwriting didn’t immediately lead to fame or recognition. In No Direction Home, the folk musicians, who make an appearance, remind the viewer that “Bobby” appear to be just a kid, but he had something to say and in a unique way voiced it out. In a way, it makes Dylan’s story interesting when I know that he first had to channel Guthrie’s self into his own performance to demonstrate his own musicianship. He attained success because he had the ability and talent to “pass through” Guthrie (imitation) and create Bob Dylan.
Because it is Bob Dylan both films present, I don’t think either can reach the truth of Bob Dylan. The Pennebaker documentary displays a reality-like performance, abruptly changing settings and situation with no apparent narrative; while, the Scorcese film frames a storyline with Dylan’s reflective and retrospective view of his early years. In No Direction Home, Dylan explains that during Don’t Look Back, he forgot the cameras were there, so it could have been an authentic “day in the life” type of film. I think the banter in the interviews skewed the “reality” agenda, since it enshrouded Dylan, rather than displayed his innermost thoughts. I think the Scorcese documentary provided a more rounded account of Dylan’s early years because it provides many perspectives from different mediums. There are folk singers, session musicians, poets, and others offering their experiences with Dylan. The wide range of perspectives and information during Dylan’s New York months appealed greatly to me, as well as his time with Pete Seeger. It was interesting to find out what the other and older folk singers thought of Dylan’s relationship to the folk movement. For instance, a couple of them remember that Dylan was not interested in writing political songs or being a political symbol, though others expected this.
Of Don’t Look Back I liked most the repeated references of Donovan that led up to an actual meeting with him. Donovan has a similar voice has a similar timbre to Dylan and watching them together with a guitar provided a moment for real comparison. Also, it was interesting to see Dylan’s opinion of Donovan’s song. I didn’t like, however, the rapid movement of setting in the film because it was hard to distinguish where or when the filming was taking place.
Whether playing an acoustic or electric guitar, Dylan’s songwriting doesn’t have to give you a message, though it teases the listener with the anticipation of receiving a definite one. The great thing about Bob Dylan’s songs is that they are malleable throughout time, which offer something (however small) to the place or time you find yourself in. For instance, his protest songs gave people who were looking for change in the early sixties a voice to say it out loud; and, still they are relevant after forty years.
The lyrics become poetic because the language heard in the song pairs up so perfectly with the instruments accompanying it. The images are jagged, surreal and paradoxical; therefore, by nature, they let the listener imagine a meaning within it. The words are strange yet concrete enough to suggest interpretation, which makes them poetic. Dylan’s songs lure the listener to form meaning, in other words, to feel something is true. However, it’s not only the words that matter- otherwise, Dylan wouldn’t be a musician. It’s the strange voice that accents certain lyrics at different syllables which express something new. In music history, Dylan gains the title of lyric poet because he can contain so many sets of words together within a song, that neither song nor word gets completely lost. Personally, as an English major, music lover, and hopeful writer, Dylan ranks as the other music artist that truly gives his audience room to think and create meaning out of his own work. In writing songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” Dylan demonstrated that such a popular instrument like the guitar could shape lyrics into poetic sounds, and transform popular songs into a thing like art.