BY TONY ABRAHAM I used to want to be Bob Dylan. In fact, I used to think I could channel him. It seemed to make sense at the time. We have the same middle name. His last name in Hebrew is my last name. So I tried to write songs like him; romantic, imagistic epics like “Visions of Johanna” and hilarious surrealistic ramblings like “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream.” I played the shit out of Blonde on Blonde and Bringing It All Back Home. I read as much Beat literature as I could, kept myself awake at night just to see what my sleep deprived mind could spit out, and even got myself an ol’ fashioned cigarette addiction.
Then I saw No Direction Home.
I couldn’t help but feel somewhat sorry for him — his eyes ringed in darkness, amphetamines racing through his bloodstream, a cigarette literally vibrating between his lips — the burden of generational spokesman status tearing at his soul, making him feel like a fraud, a false messiah. The year was 1966, only five lightning-fast years after Robert Zimmerman moved to New York City from Minnesota, changed his name to Bob Dylan, and immersed himself in the Greenwich Village folk scene. The press conference clips let’s you appreciate the way he maintained his wit even as he appeared to be losing his mind, twisting words and toying with the questions posed to him. He never misses a beat, no even when he’s feeling himself up every five minutes for a match.
Directed in classic Scorsese style, No Direction Home follows Dylan chronologically from his rural midwestern beginnings to the center of the pop universe, while clips of his monumental 1966 tour are delicately woven into the seams of his story. Notorious for his combative intolerance for the press, it’s strange to watch the craggy and enigmatic modern day Dylan answer Scorsese’s questions with a sincerity he couldn’t or wouldn’t muster back in the mid-60s when his fame and his creative powers were at their zenith. Still, even when he is being honest and direct his answers sound like enigmas wrapped in riddles — and it becomes apparent that even he doesn’t know where those songs came from or what they are supposed to mean or why he can’t write like that anymore. His memory is shaky and inconsistent. His dry sense of humor, which has become rough with age, makes it difficult to tell when he’s being brutally honest and when he’s just being an asshole. The only thing we can be sure of from the interviews with Dylan and his contemporaries is that Joan Baez is pretty damn annoying.
Scorsese leans on Dylan’s friends from back then to provide perspective and context. Suze Rotolo, his ex-lover and former muse best-known for walking arm and arm with Dylan down the snowy streets of the Greenwhich Village on the cover of Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan grants a very rare interview. Allen Ginsberg mentions how his first time listening to Dylan made him weep. There are clips of Bob hanging out in his limo with Robbie Robertson of The Band, which endured endless booing and derision (described by one irate fan as an “incredibly corny group”) from enraged folkies unable to forgive the sin of going electric. In another scene plays a piano backstage and sings a little ditty, accompanied by one of his idols and close friends, country legend Johnny Cash. We see the party animal come out in Bob during footage of a hotel room party with the likes of British folkie Donovan and that damn Joan Baez.
Don’t get me wrong, I still idolize Dylan. He is a man who, excluding his early emulation of Woody Guthrie, was always striving to be true to himself. He was always progressing, always moving forward, always evolving, always on the verge of becoming someone else. (Oh, you liked the blues-driven psychedelic poetry of Blonde on Blonde? Well here’s John Wesley Harding, featuring a three piece band and a strange new singing voice. But don’t get too used to it – next is Nashville Skyline, a country record flaunting pedal steel guitars and a country-crooning Dylan.) But this documentary was a very sobering experience for me — I didn’t want to be him anymore, which, I think if there is any single message Dylan would want you to take away from his music, it’s this: don’t be me, be you. So, these days I don’t follow leaders, I watch a pawkin meters.