I’ll confess—I don’t like Bob Dylan. I’ve never liked his voice, nor his sense of humor, nor have I particularly liked his songs. He’s always seems brutally disinterested in the feelings of anyone else. The last few days, I’ve been watching the Martin Scorsese documentary, No Direction Home, and tried to disarm my bad feelings of this guy with a deeper understanding of his psyche. Maybe it sounds obnoxious and prideful, but I don’t like not liking somebody. I feel that if I just knew a person, comprehended them, that my mind would fall into line, and I’d develop—what’s that word we hate so much?—compassion.
So I watched Scorsese’s 2005 story of Bob Dylan’s first 25 years. He was born Robert Zimmerman, you probably know, in Northern Minnesota, not far from Lake Superior. It was coal country, and a small town environment without much to do. Only once does he mention his father in the movie; he never mentions his mother. Later in his career, he made much ado of the fact that he “grew up in Gallup New Mexico,” which was a blatant lie, as if he were trying to distance himself from his pedestrian, middle-class lifestyle. During high school, Dylan played guitar or piano in local bands, for a while with 50s teen idol Bobby Vee. During those years, he would often introduce himself as Bobby Vee himself, in an attempt to—I don’t know what—gain popularity by proxy? To get laid? To impress people?
From there, he went for a year to University of Minnesota, where he admits “I never attended classes. I was enrolled. But I don’t remember going to class. I would play music all night, and sleep all day.” Eventually, he found his way to New York City’s Greenwich Village, which had a flourishing arts and music scene. He never lacked work. He met (or at least claimed he met) Woodie Guthrie, who was at Greystone Hospital, an asylum.
Those who knew him during the era claim he was a kind of musical sponge, seeming to pick up genres, even instrumental styles, very quickly. He often imitated others; sometimes sang with an Irish accent; sometimes with a Southern US twang. He would do whatever it took to sell the song. Later, when he was enough of a name to sell records, his producers and label managers say he would bullshit anybody with any kind of line, to make himself stand out from the crowd: “I learned this song from an Indian chief up in Ontario.” His self-promotion was unabashed.
As I watched, the opening line of Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” kept running through my head: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.” Was this Dylan guy sane? He had no center: he admitted no parents, no past, except the one he invented for convenience’s sake. If nothing else, he was ballsy. Maybe that’s a working definition of madness: someone with enough of a mental condition that they’ll go after what they want, no matter the cost. If you throw enough mad people at the institution, one or two are bound to get through. We call those mad people geniuses. Just a thought.
His treatment of folk singer Joan Baez was opportunistic and, as soon as she’d outlived her usefulness—she was quite popular—he very pointedly and publicly ignored her, until she was left no choice but to leave him, so he would continue his tour alone. She mentions seeing him, many times, turn his back on an audience for a song or two, or stop playing, even during a duet. This I found most unconscionable since a performance, like it or not, is a kind of social contract with minimal expectations. The audience has an expectation—I’d go so far as to say a right—to see the show they paid for.
The record producers interviewed during the show seemed to take the attitude that, “sure he bullshitted everyone, but look at all the money he made us.” As if that justifies such a behavior. I suppose it takes a sort of madness to attain fame, even more to attain money. The Scorsese’s film is aptly named; coming from a line in Dylan’s hit “Like a Rolling Stone.” But, I wonder if he had no direction home, because Dylan himself removed home from the equation. To become someone, he seemed to think he had first to become nobody, and everybody.
Everyone who worked with him admits his genius. Sometimes it seems that genius is not enough to make up for lack of talent, especially when bolstered with conceit, and public rudeness. It is made obvious, in the second half of the film, that Dylan was completely unprepared for the effects “going electric” would have on him. Once the golden child, it became commonplace for 1/3 of the audience to boo him. The film ends with an interview clip with Dylan, who is clearly stoned, but is rocking uncontrollably in a chair, cigarette in hand saying “I don’t know where home is, but I just want to go home.” He goes on stage, quips to the band that he wishes he could replace himself with another Dylan and that he “shouldn’t be playing tonight.” He opens the stage door and is greeted by an attendee shouting “Judas!” as he plugs in his guitar.
You can’t help feel from him. Even a guy like myself, who went into the film to find more reasons to hate the singer. If that was my initial demands, I left the film satisfied. Yet a came away from the film with something else, for once: compassion. Nobody deserves to be treated the way he was, and for something simultaneously so nonessential and so important as music.