In the way he’s accepted his Nobel Prize for literature, by seemingly not acknowledging it for so long that one of the awards committees called him “rude” and “arrogant,” Bob Dylan was being himself. He let the world read into his detachment. Perhaps he didn’t feel like a songwriter deserved a prize historically reserved for writers and poets.
Not at all. A couple of weeks after the announcement of his award, he told a British newspaper that he was delighted and would “absolutely” accept the honor—if he could. Turns out he had “previous commitments,” so he won’t.
But, if you watch No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, directed by Martin Scorsese, you’ll know that the most influential singer-songwriter of our time also is steeped in poetry. In fact, talking to the camera, he recalls his first couple of girlfriends, Glory and Echo. “They brought out the poet in me,” he says.
Oh, yes: Dylan talks. Unlike the other major documentary on him, Don’t Look Back, which is cinema verite, or I’m Not There, in which he’s portrayed by various actors (most famously Cate Blanchett), this one is Dylan himself, full-on. For anyone interested in his story, and stories about him, this is the mother lode.
His trusted manager, Jeff Rosen, kicked it off, gathering interviews with Dylan’s friends and associates from childhood through his years in Greenwich Village. (The film ends in 1966.) Joan Baez, Dave Van Ronk (“the mayor of McDougal Street”), Pete Seeger, Allen Ginsberg, Liam Clancy, Peter Yarrow, Maria Muldaur and others offer vivid recollections; the late writer Paul Nelson recalls Dylan taking dozens of prized albums from his apartment and failing to return them. Dylan admits as much. And, he adds, hanging out at various friends’ places, he devoured books of poetry by Rimbaud, Verlaine, and others.
Talking with Rosen around 2000, Dylan, who was working on his memoirs, Chronicles, Vol. 1, was relaxed and open, recalling how his hometown, Hibbing, Minnesota, was “a rural town on the way to nowhere,” and so boring there was “nothing to rebel against.” In New York, he’s noticed, booked, and signed to Columbia Records. When he goes electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, fans begin to boo him, all the way to England in ‘66. “It’s hard to get into tune when they’re booing,” he tells his band, soon to become The Band. Maybe, he says, he shouldn’t bother getting in tune.
No Direction Home is a heady mix of vintage and well-known footage, impassioned, rebellious performances, especially of his new electric songs; of insightful stories from friends, including Suze Rotolo and Baez, who is glowingly beautiful, good-humored, and, while singing, cannot resist lapsing into her impression of Dylan at his most nasal. In the Qello version, you also get extended interviews with Scorsese, Van Ronk and Clancy. The brilliant Scorsese is especially insightful, describing how Dylan responded to audience members who shouted and booed him by attacking them, with his delivery as well as his songs.
Dylan, of course, is the central voice, explaining his inspirations and, when the spotlight found him, his hesitancy about being branded a protest singer, a leader of a social revolution. “To be on the side of somebody who’s struggling doesn’t mean you’re political,” he reasons. And when he abandoned acoustic folk, it was just, he says, because “I needed to press on and get as far into it as I could.”
What “it” was, he doesn’t say. But he got there, and this brilliant film brings it all back home.
Ben Fong-Torres was a writer and editor at Rolling Stone from 1969 to 1981. He was a DJ on KSAN, has published ten books, writes the Radio Waves column in the Chronicle, and created the online station, Moonalice Radio, where his DJ show runs from 9 to 12, day and night.