o Direction Home is supposed to be a documentary about Bob Dylan. Advertisements for the film promise “Bob Dylan: Revealed” within a white space shaped like a jigsaw puzzle piece severing a young Dylan’s head from his torso.
The idea is this: Mr. Dylan has long been notorious for avoiding personal questions. He doesn’t want to tell us about his personal life, and when he does he either lies or tries to bore us. Dylan will not give “clear” answers to what his songs “mean” or how he writes them. Of course, most of these interactions are with reporters and critics who have to fill the page regardless of what answers they get. Their explanation has always been that Dylan is cultivating his own mystery, that he is deftly creating a mystique.
This is probably wrong. The reporters and critics created Dylan’s mystique. In No Direction Home, Dylan is presented as what I suspect he always has been, an observer and a responder. Like every other artist. Yet Dylan’s fans and colleagues cultivate the mystique image—they seem to hold mystery as a form of credibility. No Direction Home is really a documentary about those people, and about music that was loved, hated, subjugated, and feared.
Which is exactly what the movie should be. Which is exactly what the first Dylan films—D. A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back and Eat the Document—are. Which is exactly what the beautiful scramble Masked and Anonymous is.
Which is to say that Scorsese’s film doesn’t clear the fog. It bounces light off the fog. It shines a flashlight on some mirrors and refracts a beam on some distant emotional country that belongs to no one. Everyone’s great-great-grandfather and great-great-grandmother came from that country, and whenever a piece of art speaks to us, it is reminding us of some cranny or neighborhood of that old world, which we remember atomically, or in our blood. When a song—by Dylan or anyone—speaks to a large group of people, they are moved not by its message or meaning, but because the song remembers some feature or landmark once known and traveled by an equally large group of people.
“Like a Rolling Stone,” the Dylan song around which No Direction circles, is so powerful because Dylan somehow remembered that emotional country’s Stonehenge or Valley of the Kings, and remembered it almost perfectly. It uncovers Tut’s tomb in six minutes; Dylan stumbled on it (and his interviews corroborate this) like the shepherd boy stumbling on the Dead Sea Scrolls. Okay, so I’m a genius, he seems to say, so my eyes see a spectrum of light yours can’t—don’t celebrate me, don’t elevate me.
Or as his little note from Woody Guthrie said, “I ain’t dead yet.”
If you want to learn about Dylan’s life, there are several fabulously detailed and myth-deflating biographies available. If you want to hear the odd bits that Dylan himself finds relevant within his life, there is his beautiful book Chronicles: Volume I. Reading any of these, you’ll realize something about the man’s life that is barely referenced in the movie: During the years covered by the film (1961–66), Dylan was madly in love with three different women. One of them was rather famous and another was a little famous (the other was Miss Nobody From Nowhere). Most people I’ve met have been in love with at least three people between the ages of twenty and twenty-five. Committed and psychotically in love.
What is apparent in the movie, and in everything good related to Dylan, is his love of American music. Dylan and his editors make it very clear that his reason for hitchhiking to New York was to find Woody Guthrie, the finding being an act of thanks in itself.
Anyone can relate to either of these loves. They are our emotional common ground and understanding with the film’s subject. Beyond all of Dylan’s qualities that, in his words, put him into a “new artistic arena,” his humanity—like anyone’s—was in what and who he couldn’t help but love, and love foolishly and quixotically.
The film also raises the question, at least in my mind: Who among Dylan’s turncoat worshipers—if any—loved his music? Who among them loved music in any way? Did Pete Seeger, the verbose politico—and perhaps the only person who doesn’t believe the story of Pete Seeger trying to sever Dylan’s microphone cord with an axe—love Dylan’s music? Did the Sing Out! crowd ever love folk music, or any music at all?
The movie is filled with interviews and footage of gifted poets and musicians, Johnny Cash and Allen Ginsberg among them, who never questioned Dylan’s love. Even those who had serious, personal reasons to hate Dylan and everything the boy did—Dave Van Ronk and especially Joan Baez—almost cast blame on themselves for doubting him.
No Direction ceases to be true biography within its first half hour. Robert Allen Zimmerman of Hibbing, Minnesota is a footnote—in minutes, he receives less footage than a heroically drunk Johnny Cash. “Bob Dylan” was not born in a hospital but from a 45 RPM country record. The sound of the record, not its subject (a wayward lifestyle), made the boy feel “like a different person,” from a different emotional country. It was a love for something that, logically, should not have existed in a Jewish fourth-grader in the Midwest.
Dylan could have sung in that mint-julep croon he used during his “country phase” between 1969 and 1970; it would have made him more immediately appealing to the folk scene, and might have led to a contract with Baez’s label, Vanguard. But it was a distinct love of folk music that made him sing from his nose, wear ratty clothes, and tell obvious lies about his origins and history—so different from Seeger’s fatherly, essay-like understanding.
Dylan understood that “topical” songs weren’t really about dates, people, and events, but eternal emotions. American roots musicians were often rebels but were rarely political; they would have been baffled by the Marxist-Trotskyite rivalry burning nightly between tweed-clad Gaslight patrons. Even Woody Guthrie understood the boundaries between the real world of the American poor and the over-educated leaders of the Communist Party—of which he was never a member, for his plain refusal to renounce the ideas of God and religion.
Dylan loved American music for its freedom and its love of freedom—freedom in the scariest sense that causes travelers to disappear, that sleeps next to riots and anarchy. This is the only common message or policy to be found, for instance, in such folk music collections as Harry Smith’s infamous Anthology. It is not the safe, rhetorical freedom so dearly loved by speechwriters and pundits. This is the freedom that demands we create ourselves and possibly die in the process, that explodes like Jefferson’s fire bell in the night.
Scorsese defines Dylan’s most dramatic shift as not when he “plugs in,” but when he writes “Chimes of Freedom,” an artistic eon prior.
Through the mad mystic hammering of the wild ripping hail
The sky cracked its poems in naked wonder
That the clinging of the church bells blew far into the breeze
Leaving only bells of lightning and its thunder
Striking for the gentle, striking for the kind
Striking for the guardians and protectors of the mind
An’ the unpawned painter behind beyond his rightful time
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.
This song is not struggling for freedom, but exploding into it.
In this period, Dylan rarely glorifies any one struggle, nor struggle in general. But what the “Judas”-shouting crowd at the Manchester Free Trade Hall seems to love more than music is the glory of an eternal struggle, more stately mansions. Social and intellectual movements rarely just go away when battle is won; they find new battles and create new monsters and heroes to fight them. While fashionable liberalism has accomplished, and will accomplish many great things, it creates and destroys heroes and monsters with alarming speed. There is never a shortage of injustice, but leaders and villains are hard to come by. Watching the Newport Folk Festival “Plugging In” footage, I wonder how many in the crowd were already looking for an excuse to turn Bob into Benedict Arnold.
If it was really the purity of folk music these kids felt was betrayed, why, now that Dylan’s creative decisions are almost universally applauded, will nobody admit to booing him? It was the sound, the sound was bad—it wasn’t the music, it wasn’t him. But sooner or later, it was the music they booed, and Dylan entered the “new arena” thinking himself prepared for traitordom.
So where does love take us? What kinds of relationships do we enter, sure we will risk heartbreak and win? How often do we love a person, lose everything, and run straight to the next lover equally sure? We think we pick our battles, we enter them loving something and determined to defend it and ourselves to the last burning bridge. We lose every time, and then do it again as if completely naïve.
The last forty-five minutes of No Direction Home is the biography of any heartbreak, not just Dylan’s. All of the movie is good; but Scorsese and his choice of interviewed voices seem to grasp this heartbreak together—not the now-clichéd heartbreak of the Sixties dream, but the emotional landmark of a shared youth.
Everyone is now aware that Dylan knew he was through simply flirting with the anger of his audience, that he was going to finally and extravagantly end his career as fearless leader. He had released “Subterranean Homesick Blues” in 1965 and had seen and read the critical response. In England, where his first solo records were only recently released, fans felt whiplashed. But Dylan couldn’t stop writing and performing the music he loved; he couldn’t stop hearing that “thin, wild mercury sound” of Highway 61 Revisited. And he could no longer be what, by that time, even those ignorant of his music wanted him to be. Newport was a planned fiasco. He went on stage to give his godhead a Viking funeral. Prepared, steeled, strong.
It was horrible. It was so very bad. It broke a young man’s heart.
So he prepared to do it again, for certain this time. Viking Funeral Tour 1966, with a band specifically hired to be the loudest, hardest cowboys on Earth, set sail with a gigantic American flag in tow. An American flag, proudly displayed by a newly vilified American musician, at a time when America was best known for burning down huts in Southeast Asia and he was best known as a sell-out and a bastard. And it broke his heart again.
It cuts deeply to watch the tour begin as an assault and end up a retreat. Dylan himself, reborn as Sal Paradise with a guitar, limps away like a shell-shocked, seventeen-year-old Marine Corps volunteer. Edited together, we see the 1966 interviews start out with Dylan somehow turning “I’m just a song and dance man” into his rebel yell; move to him dismissing and abusing reporters; and then to telling his audience, “These aren’t British songs, they’re American songs, okay?” And then he finally admits it, to himself and everyone: this young man wants to go home.
Dylan repeats this story, as we all do—sometimes as an artist, and certainly as a normal person within whatever privacy he has left. Why not extend the documentary? Why not make parts Three and Four, taking us up to Blood on the Tracks, the Rolling Thunder Revue, the gospel concerts? A partial reason is because, as the man himself says, he still hurts real easy; he just doesn’t show it. And blood is really what we’re after here. But also because Dylan seems to realize that, as much as he hated it—as much as it shouldn’t have been—he really did belong to the world for those five years. Maybe, subconsciously, we allow ourselves, for some fraction of our life, to belong to everyone but ourselves; maybe some part of us knows something about art, and human lives as art, and lets us nearly beach ourselves for others’ benefit.
Of course, Dylan is still more famous than the vast majority of living or dead humanity. When he dies, this will all happen to him again—the glorification, the deification, the Shakespearization of Bob Dylan. Lucky for the man himself, he won’t be around to answer questions.