Bob Dylan is everywhere this week, as PBS broadcasts a new documentary by Martin Scorsese entitled No Direction Home. The soundtrack CD hit the stores a few weeks back, and once again, 40 years after he moved from folk star to rock icon, Dylan is the talk of the music world.
I got into music too late to experience Dylan during his most explosive period. During the 1970s, he was just another maker of hits--"Knockin' on Heaven's Door," "Hurricane," "Mozambique," "Gotta Serve Somebody"--and all I knew of him beyond that was what I read, or heard from more serious fans. One guy I knew, who worshipped Dylan when we were in high school, finally got to see him when we were in college--in a letter, he told me that he felt like he was going to see God. He also said that tickets to see God wouldn't have sold out as fast.
In the 80s, Dylan moved chameleon-like from born-again Christian to farm-relief spokesman (a remark he made from the stage at Live Aid in 1985 led to the Farm Aid concerts, which have continued for 20 years), and released a string of critically flogged albums. But in this period, he was also one of the first artists to benefit from a box-set rerelease of earlier material (Biograph, which came out on vinyl in 1985 before CDs were commonplace), which reminded people of the force he had been.
In the 90s and the new millennium, Dylan has remained controversial, but not always for his music. For example, he made some weird career moves--a cameo on the sitcom Dharma and Greg, a Victoria's Secret commercial--but his critical stock has risen with a couple of acclaimed albums, Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft. Now comes the Scorsese biography, authorized by Dylan. A review in Salon suggests it's Dylan's attempt to shape his legacy as his career winds down. Yet it's strange to think that Dylan might believe his legacy needs shaping. It's hard to find anyone who wouldn't put him on the same level with the likes of Elvis and the Beatles in terms of his influence on other musicians, and on the culture.
Take for example the book Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads, written by uber-critic Greil Marcus, about the creation and impact of Dylan's most famous song. Salon's reviewer refers to Marcus and Paul Williams, who comment in the PBS film, as "heavy breathing critics," and Marcus' book is heavy breathing in the extreme. It's not that "Like a Rolling Stone" isn't a monumental, and monumentally important, record. It is. But much as he did with Elvis Presley--claiming that this unlettered Mississippi kid consciously set out to change the course of Western civilization and calculated his every move to that end--Marcus assigns intent and meaning to "Like a Rolling Stone" that no work of art can support. But as a work of scholarship and erudition, the book's an interesting read nevertheless--and it features a fascinating take-by-take analysis of the sessions that produced "Like a Rolling Stone." We often think that songs are written whole, rehearsed whole, and then recorded when they're good enough. "Like a Rolling Stone" took shape in the studio, frequently broke down, magically came together one time--the only time it was ever played through start to finish--was attempted a few more times, and then set aside. Such a process doesn't lend itself to conscious decisions about the purpose of art--but in the case of "Like a Rolling Stone," it was the times Dylan played it afterward (famous early instances are documented in the Scorsese biography) and the way people heard it that made it a monument.
As they say on TV, check your local listings for time and channel.