Tuesday, August 30, 2005

On Dylan's Contrary Courting of Fame

Writing in today's New York Times, Jon Pareles calls Bob Dylan rock's ultimate example of a contrarian. The occasion for his reflections is the impending release of a Martin Scorcese-directed documentary dealing with Dylan's early musical development, concluding with the 1966 motorcycle accident that triggered his brief hiatus from music. The film is being accompanied by a soundtrack, which in appropriately contrarian fashion, doesn't present all the same versions of songs featured in the film. Both are called, No Direction Home, taken from that litany of rhymes in the chorus of Like a Rolling Stone.

I was struck by the last paragraph of Pareles' article:
Unlike the vast majority of entertainers, Mr. Dylan wasn't devoted to pleasing an audience. He didn't give them what they wanted: He gave them something better. It would all catch up with him, and quickly, and when the motorcycle accident gave him a reason to withdraw he seized it. But "No Direction Home" stops there. Contrary as Mr. Dylan was, in those brief and remarkable years, negativity pulled him through.
While it could be argued that Dylan in fact did try to please a bigger audience than was available to him in the folk community of the early- and mid-60s by "going electric," it's true that in doing so, he recklessly set aside his "base" audience. In his biography of Dylan, Anthony Scaduto well-documented Dylan's wrestling over whether to go for pop glory or to continue pursuing his own idiosyncratic muse during the period covered by the new film and CD package.

In the end in fact, Dylan may have split the difference. Whether born of genuine frustration or of studied intent, Dylan married his music--with its vague, poetic lyrics and rock, blues, and jazz riffs--to a public persona that attracted attention.

Dylan decided to be hipper than thou. When a Time magazine reporter of this period pressed Dylan on the meaning of his music and the connection he seemed to make with some audiences and the revulsion he encountered in others, he wrote a song about it that included the brutal words, "Because something is happening here/ But you don't know what it is/ Do you, Mister Jones?"

It was during this same period that Dylan famously encountered Donovan, touted by some as the English Dylan. In the film made of their meeting, Dylan is obviously stoned on something, but has sufficient presence of mind to berate, badger, and demean Donovan throughout. He clearly puts the Brit off his guard and in the bargain, perhaps unwittingly shows the world just how competitive and hungry for his own unique brand of popular adulation he really is.

Similarly, there is the incident reported by Paul McCartney of a joint-laden meeting between Dylan and the Beatles that also happened in this time frame. The group played a demo of something from one of their "transition" LPs--Rubber Soul or Revolver. Dylan, with obvious sarcasm, asked, "Oh, you've decided you don't want to be cute any more?"

But, of course, in putting people off their guard, Dylan added an aura of mystery to his music and his persona. People love mystery. That's why the press kept writing about Greta Garbo long after she had quit making films. It's why the reclusive Howard Hughes engendered so much interest. It's why people like romance movies that tell the stories of how two people get together, the screen crackling with sexual tension and the audience wondering how they can ultimately forge a partnership, but are bored with films that tell the stories of happily-married couples who simply love one another and stick it out day after day.

In demeaning popularity, Dylan courted it. And why shouldn't he have courted it? After all, whatever the art form, the artist doesn't create new work with the idea, "I hope that nobody ever hears this, sees this, or experiences this." Art is a form of communication and the artist hopes to communicate with as many people as possible. (Often for the added motive of making money.)

Although Dylan seems never to have realized that he has a lousy voice, I believe that at some level he must have understood early on that he would never have the vocal acumen of artists like the Beatles. So, like Andy Warhol, a not particularly talented visual artist, Dylan decided to develop his own niche. The folkie described by one person in the documentary as a "sponge," took varying parts of Woody Guthrie, Jack Kerouac, Muddy Waters, Elvis Presley, and Rimbaud, mixed them altogether with an in-your-face attitude, and voila, Bob Dylan, the mythic electrified troubadour, emerged.

Pareles' characterization of Dylan's adopted course can be seen as "negativity"; I simply see it as Dylan, with incredible savvy and insight, deciding on a different course to popular acceptance.

Nonetheless, Dylan should not be seen as someone who caved in. His route to popularity and ultimately, iconic status, was neither well-worn or easy. At every point in the period chronicled by Scorcese and the new CD, Dylan took a courageous path. He could easily have ended up being spurned and forgotten as a result of his experiments. But he forged on his different pathway and our music and our lives were enriched for it.

In America, we particularly value popularity. Be it getting the most votes, having the highest-rated TV show, the most friends, or whatever, we see popular acceptance as almost an ultimate good. Even today's American voters want to vote for winners and consign losers to the ash heaps of history in ways previous generations never did. The artist who is able to keep doing interesting things that risk mass rejection, while still living with the desire for popular acceptance, is a rare person. Bob Dylan is one of these.

1 comment:

Meade said...

Very nicely said.