Sep 11, 2007
I continue to be fascinated - haunted, even - by Martin Scorsese's 2005 film about Bob Dylan, No Direction Home. I'd seen large pieces of it before, but saw the whole movie for the first time just a few nights ago.
Dylan's performance of "With God On Our Side" at the Newport Folk Festival with Joan Baez in the summer of 1963 is the high point of the movie. His voice never sounded better - Joan Baez's voice has always sounded great. She takes him by the hand out on stage, and the two waifs open up with what is probably the most powerful anti-war song ever written - we all go to war irrationally thinking and claiming God's on our side. This is exactly what Mike Huckabee said in defense of staying the course in Iraq, when Ron Paul spoke out in last week's debate about the war being wrong, strategically, as well as unconstitutional. Dylan's lyrics are, sadly, as searingly relevant today as in 1963.
But by 1964, Dylan was singing another kind of song at the
Newport Festival - "Mr. Tambourine Man". This was the pivotal
transitional song. The lyrics are sublime, but they never
had much relevance to any current event. The Newport
crowd applauded, willing to give Dylan the benefit of the
doubt. He was, after all, still acoustic, and still
But Dylan was singing "Like A Rolling Stone" in 1965 in Newport, with electric backing. In just two years, he had morphed from the most powerful, splendid, social critic ever known in folk song to a caustic, psychedelic commentator on the human condition. Someone who even, for the first time, it seemed, may even have been sarcastic and condescending to his audience. For all of that, he got booed...
I've always loved both of Dylan's phases. But given the state of the world today, I miss the Dylan who sang up there with Joan Baez, and still wonder at the transformation. The assassination of JFK, Dylan's wanting some of the fame enjoyed by the Beatles, just needing to move on to other things - these were no doubt important factors. But, somehow, insufficient, either singly or in concert, to explain just what happened to Dylan....