Tonight I watched the second and final installment of the Martin
No Direction Home, about Bob Dylan's musical career through 1966. It
was a truly moving film, an assemblage of archival footage that helped
me finally understand what happened to this musician.
In the span of about one year ending in May 1966, Dylan released
three of the most important albums in the history of
Then he had a motorcycle accident and ceased giving concerts for
eight years, twice as long as he'd been on the national stage in the
first place. This development has always been treated as something of a
mystery, including in a Dylan biography I once read.
But watching the Scorsese film, Bob Dylan's withdrawal is no mystery
A folk music hero in his acoustic days, Bob Dylan in 1966 is cursed,
booed and heckled by audience after audience for his electric
performances. He is called "Judas," "traitor," and worse. We see Dylan
sullen, drinking, his speech beginning to slur, his gaze fixed low. The
press hounds him with aggressive, inane questions.
In scene after scene, Bob Dylan cowers behind his sunglasses and
issues short, feeble retorts that, in the context of a different documentary,
once seemed snide, but now look devastatingly sad. I see, on the
screen, an assemblage of haggard backup singers. "Where is Dylan?" I
wonder. And then the oldest and most haggard of the lot steps forward
and begins to sing, and I realize it is him. Dylan tells one European
interviewer, "I just want to go home.".
Watching No Direction Home, I felt for the first time in my life like
I truly understood how the news media can take the flesh off an honest
The roughest part of the movie for any honest viewer is when you
realize that you could be a Dylan heckler yourself. We have all been to
a concert and wished the performer would get through playing his strange
new tracks, already, and move on to the crowd pleasers, the old hits,
our favorites. Likewise, we have all put another human, famous or not,
up on a pedestal, as a totem, a higher power, and imbued in his or her image
qualities and expectations more properly assigned a mother or father.
People inevitably disappoint us when we treat them this way. If we
are not particularly careful, we can hurt them too.
For some long months in 1965 and 1966, Bob Dylan was a big
disappointment. He was the biggest idol of the biggest generation ever
assembled on the planet, a hero poet to millions, imbued with
responsibilities better suited to mothers and fathers. Even middle aged
poet Allen Ginsberg saw him as a kind of savior, the essential
countercultural disciple, and wept with joy at his early songs.
And when Dylan disappointed, as people treated as icons inevitably
do, he was hurt as no one had been hurt before. Imagine the
unprecedented scale of that rejection, the depth of the fall from
equally unprecedented heights, amplified by a news media as amped up on
electricity as Bob's new band, spread around a world getting smaller and
more dangerous by the day, repeated incessantly within a swelling cohort
inside a mechanizing world.
It took forty years for the audience that madly embraced, idolized
and finally rejected Bob Dylan to accept his music in all its glorious
diversity, and he has responded. His last two albums, plus a
on the Wonder Boys soundtrack, are landmark achievements. They join
other great music Bob Dylan made after 1966. Year after year, following only
his own heart, Dylan put out albums, experimented, worked -- forsaken or
not. For this more than anything I will always admire him.
What happened to Bob Dylan in 1966 is important. So here tonight, I
am a newspaper reporter admitting that, yes, we do have a problem
arising from the media, including the news.
And the problem is not that speech is too free, too pornographic, too
inane, too hard or too soft.
It is that we are all too human, and all too childlike, still, forty
years after Bob Dylan was booed at Newport, to stop from hurting others
terribly with it, and to stop from hurting ourselves. To keep from
puffing up our politicians as heroes one year and tearing them down as
dogs the next. To quit worshipping ass and tits on one chromosome and
cars and houses on the other. To admit baristas and customer service
operators do not have the power to nourish or abandon us.
We live in a world of our own hysterical creation. Sometimes we act
as though we lack, as Raymond Chandler put it, "any more moral sense
than a cat." Sometimes we are like, as Dylan once wrote, "this candle
I have been as both in my life, and I suspect you have too. I am not
sure where we go from here, but I do know this:
We did not deserve Bob Dylan in 1966, and we do not quite deserve him