By 1966, everyone knew what was best for Bob Dylan – except, apparently, himself. To the masses, record company executives, the press, his fans, Dylan had transcended the boundaries of mortality. He had become a shaman, a guru, a political and spiritual leader – the much-heralded “voice of his generation.”
And by 1966, the base time for Martin Scorsese’s sweeping new documentary “No Direction Home,” Dylan was pretty fucking tired of the whole thing.
By 1966, as Dylan wrapped up a tour of Europe with his new band, he was 25 years old. He had recorded six albums since his first in 1962 at the tender age of 21. He had cemented his place as one of the great songwriters of the time – his pieces were turned into hits by other artists. He was revered by his contemporaries, the heir apparent to folk legends Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.
Ultimately, it is this Dylan mythology that Scorsese’s two-part documentary, which aired Monday and Tuesday on PBS and is also available for purchase on DVD, hopes to dispel. The first part builds Dylan as the figure we are all familiar with: the protest singer, the political activist.
It is filled with interviews of the crowd Dylan ran with in his early days in Greenwich Village, as the burgeoning bohemians and the folk musicians all collided on MacDougal Street. Although Scorsese only came on board the project in 2001, archivists have been gathering footage and conducting interviews for nearly 10 years. As such, we are treated to commentary from late-greats the likes of Dave Van Ronk and Allen Ginsberg.
Ginsberg speaks of the first time he heard Dylan’s song “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” a cut off his second album, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.” “I heard ‘Hard Rain,’ and wept, cause it seemed that the torch had been passed to another generation from earlier bohemian, beat illumination into self-empowerment,” he said.
The second half destroys this image, this myth, and we see Dylan transition, to the sometimes-violent chagrin of his fans, from firebrand of the folk scene to the frontman of a rock and roll band.
But to Dylan, being a musician was never about being a “folk” musician, or a “topical” or “political” musician. It was not about speaking to the world. Rather, it was about sharing with the world that which spoke to him. Dylan was always placed in some grand historical context, one that, he admits, he rarely understood.
It would be safe to call “No Direction Home,” massive in its scope, clocking in at 207 minutes, the most comprehensive look at Dylan ever taken. It is not the gushing of a fan, it is an objective look at Dylan’s rise to fame and his struggle to deal with a public, in terrifying and uncertain times, constantly trying to pigeonhole him as their voice, as their leader. But Dylan never had any answers.
The man himself, who in his sparse autobiography “Chronicles: Volume 1,” describes trying to deflect fame by pouring a bottle of whiskey over his head and walking into a department store acting “pie-eyed,” agreed to sit down for a 10-hour marathon interview with Scorsese.
Most exciting and most telling about the struggle Dylan faced as he turned away from the “topical” songwriting for which he was made famous, is the unearthing of footage shot by D.A. Pennebaker at a particularly infamous Dylan concert in Manchester, 1966, for his unflattering Dylan documentary “Don’t Look Back.” At the time, Dylan’s shows were diced into two parts: one acoustic set and one electric.
As Dylan takes the stage with his band, tuning up, one irate fan screams: “Judas.” Dylan takes a step back, continuing to tune his guitar, then leans forward into the microphone. “I don’t believe you,” he says. “You’re a liar.” He turns to the band, the group that later became The Band: “Play it fuckin’ loud.” And they tear into “Like a Rolling Stone” like a 747.
For Dylan, who resented the notion of political songwriting, this was his one true protest song.