NO DIRECTION HOME
Directed by Martin Scorcese (2005)
The first time I heard the name Bob Dylan was at a party in Los Angeles in 1962. Someone put on a record of some guy with a twangy voice strapped to a harmonica. He was singing songs about death and dying and I wondered why a young folk singer would be singing songs about dying at age twenty. But it really moved. It didn't just sit there. It got up and moved and I remarked to people at the party that I never heard of this guy but it was really going and I didn't know where it was going to take me. He was singing "I'm a Man of Constant Sorrow" and how could a boy of twenty be a man of constant sorrow, but I felt it deep in my being. Martin Scorcese's documentary No Direction Home brought it all back home and allowed me to relive those heady days when the world seemed ready to turn the page on the fifties fallout shelter mentality and embrace a new morning.
No Direction Home follows the career of Bob Dylan from his childhood in Hibbing, Minnesota to his motorcycle accident in 1966, highlighting the most creative years in his life and offering previously unseen footage of Dylan as a young man. It brings to life the promise of that period that belonged to us and Bobby and Joan Baez, and Pete Seeger and Dave van Ronk, and Woody and Cisco and Leadbelly too and it also brings back the sting of its failure. There is great music in the entire film and it is uplifting and wonderful but may be remembered only for its opening act, the act in which Dylan called us to greatness. He challenged us to wake up and look around and we did and for that brief period, our word was law in the universe. Through it all, he articulated our dreams and our sense of loss at the world that was rightly ours but had been temporarily taken away from us and in the jingle jangle morning we came following him.
When we gathered to protest the war in Vietnam, we could hear him telling us about those that "fasten the triggers for the others to fire", those that "set back and watch when the death count gets higher". We marched to call attention to those that would hide in their mansions "as young people's blood flows out of their bodies and is buried in the mud". He asked, "how many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man?" The answer may have been blowin' in the wind but, until then, few had dared to tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it. We knew that the times they were a changin' but we had not seen the direction they were headed in until the civil rights movement exploded and Martin Luther King told us about standing up tall and people dared to talk about peace at a time when our leaders seemed determined to blow us all to smithereens.
During that time when young people began to open themselves up to the possibility of a more meaningful existence, he looked out and saw "ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken, guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children", and he knew that a hard rain was gonna fall and we knew it too but didn't want to believe it. He was the spokesman of a generation. He now says that he never wanted to be the spokesman of a generation, but he was and nothing else seemed to matter. Who cares if Shakespeare wanted to be the soul of the age? He was and that's all that counted. But a hard rain did begin to fall as Dylan had said and claimed John as the first victim, and then Martin, then Bobby and the country began to lose its soul. Dylan followed after that, perhaps a victim of too much, too soon, a young man without a strong sense of self who seized the opportunity to reinvent himself but lost who he was in the process.
Though he gained new converts along the way, he crashed and burned until he finally became a man who would stop at nothing to convince us that it was all a mistake. At first it was the language of rock 'n roll, which at that time meant the language of commercial "success", the language of the top twenty hits, agents and producers and big record sales. And we noticed the hour when his ship came in. We understood but we couldn't relate. We smelled sellout. We felt a sense of loss, though we knew deep down that whatever he touched he would raise to a new level. He did but reached the heights without us. Like A Rolling Stone was a great song, perhaps the greatest rock song that's ever been written, but it wasn't our song. It didn't speak to us. Dylan had been a poet of people who cared, now he reflected a world grown cynical, people who wanted to go it alone, who looked to get in while the getting was good.
He broke new ground and was great at what he did, but if Ghandi had become the greatest university professor India had ever known, we would have looked on in admiration but it would not have been the same Ghandi that inspired us. For me Dylan will always be forever young and when he dies his Country period, his Las Vegas period, his born-again phase, and his other numerous phases will all be forgotten. He will be remembered as a man who challenged the status quo when it was not fashionable to do so, who tried to deny his own greatness but couldn't because we all knew better and when he is buried they will lower him down like a king.