This was the first real cover story I ever got published that I still retain the rights to, so here it is. It's from last Thanksgiving, right when I'm Not There was popping up in theatres. This was originally done for Dish Magazine.
REFASHIONING THE FASHIONED: The Who of Bob Dylan
“And refashioning the fashioned, lest it stiffen into iron, is work of endless vital activity.” –Goethe
Memories are details, smells, flashes of color and instances of time, affixed to a wall. In isolation, these fragments can be lovely, or horrifying, echoes of joy or sadness. But in the accumulation of memory, in the course of living one’s life, with enough time having passed, this wall fills with those details. And when you step back and find that each of those isolated pieces of a life, taken together, tell a richer story than imagined, that’s one of the transcendent mysteries of the human experience. It’s the engine behind Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. It’s the metonymic expression of Seurat and the school of pointillism. And it’s why no other artist’s lyrics are like of those of Bob Dylan, and that remains so coming up on fifty years.
There is increased media attention on Bob Dylan at this point, in the fall of 2007, and it is thanks to a sprawling, strange film epic called I’m Not There. Directed and co-written by Todd Haynes (Safe, Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven), the film does not so much tell the story of Bob Dylan, but tells several stories of “Bob Dylan,” presenting us with six different selves, each of which embody a different phase or facet of Dylan’s storied career as writer, musician, actor, and persona. It’s as experimental as the genre of biopic gets, and it’s a remarkable achievement. Because of it, there is more ink spilled than usual about Dylan, but the truth of the matter is that he is always around, part of national and global discourse. His is a singular mind, and even today’s media affords him some deal of respect.
“That quote that comes toward the end of the film: “It’s like yesterday, today, and tomorrow all in the same room; there’s no telling what can happen.” That came out of this period where he (Dylan) was studying with a painter in the mid-70s- this was before he did Planet Waves and Blood on the Tracks. The painter, who didn’t know Dylan or, if he did, who didn’t care, treated all of his pupils with a harsh equality, and Dylan responded to that. The theory that the teacher was putting out there was that on a canvas, all of these separate realities can coexist, not only narratively and representationally, but standing back from the painting, one might find a different meaning to the piece than when examining it in pieces, and it inspired Dylan to take more liberty with temporal representation and meaning in his lyrics, and also to put together different stories in his songs.” –Todd Haynes, Director of I’m Not There, in a discussion at the 2007 New York Film Festival.
Dylan encompasses countless aspects of the American life. He has been Born-Again Christian and practicing Jew, he has been hermit, and Angry Young Man, and philosopher King, and Ozymandias. But unlike the latter, his dominion is written in words, and we have extant confirmation of these things, through record and print and film. We even have moments and concepts of the Dylan since gone by the wayside of contemporary media culture: whether through suppression (the post-Don’t Look Back film Eat The Document) or mysterious disappearances (Dylan’s magnificent, Godardian four-plus hour opus Renaldo and Clara), or even works, like The Basement Tapes, that have gradually become available but are separate from that which is Official, we can access parts of the story that weren’t always part of the official record. And again, this is why Dylan fascinates.
Haynes’ film is a remarkable achievement- any one human being is too complex to be adequately expressed by what one character can encompass, so the multiple character approach feels right, in theory, for any complex portrait. That Dylan’s lives and ideas can weave all the disparate elements into something cohesive and evocative just makes the film feel even more satisfying. Everyone’s got an opinion of Bob Dylan- this film just uses that approach to making something immediate and visceral.
“What’s fascinating about Dylan is the way he skirted who he “really was” for things that he really wanted to be, and the wannabe kept changing faces, so he wanted to be Woody Guthrie, and he wanted to be not Jewish, and he wanted to be Arthur Rimbaud, and he wanted to be Billy the Kid, so I let him be all of those things. But a lot of the film, and the jokes of the film, are about trading one authenticity or fakery for another.” –Todd Haynes
“People today are still living off the table scraps of the sixties. They are still being passed around.” -Bob Dylan, 1992
He resists such accolades as ‘voice of a generation,’ precisely because those kinds of epithets are limiting, and there is a spatial and temporal freedom to his songs that spill over such arbitrarily-drawn edges. Whose generation are we speaking of in such statements? To try and nail down a timespace of influence for Dylan’s work is to deny that it is an ongoing phenomenon. Tom Robbins was heading along the same lines when he said that “every day is judgment day.”
“I don't call myself a poet, because I don't like the word. I'm a trapeze artist.” -Bob Dylan
There’s a prankish sense of humor at work here; the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack to the film of his own lives doesn’t feature his own recordings, but rather two discs’ worth of other artists taking their turn at Dylan’s work. But it serves as a testament to Dylan’s relevance and authorial voice that this in no way diminishes the value of the collection- if the film can only explore six different facets of this Bob Dylan, then its album spreads its nets further, allowing thirty-three different voices to add their tones to the picture. The sources may be secondary, but they nevertheless allow us new facets to explore.
“The theory of freedom is very much tied into the idea of identity that the film posits Dylan’s life as an argument for- I think his life, and his work, and the pressures that he lived under, kept forcing that identity into question, and I think the ultimate freedom is to be able to reinvent yourself.”
The philosophy of reinvention has served artists well – just ask David Bowie and Madonna, who have mastered the art of making personal evolution into a facet of marketing. This is not meant to diminish either of their achievements, far from it; but they have made that reinvention into something that is shared with the public on a global scale, and Dylan, while no less adept a chameleon and shifter of shapes, has kept his hand close to his chest. It’s in the music that we find where he’s been and where he’s going, and there is something personal and democratizing about that fact.
“A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and gets to bed at night, and in between he does what he wants to do.” -Bob Dylan
“The unique weirdness of Dylan at that time has gotten to be so normal, so canonized, we know those images so well- but he was bizarre. When he would play piano in concert, and you see this in Scorsese’s film, where his hand flies up between every line, and he would jump around the stage like a speed-y marionette, and the way he spoke, his gestures, everything about him from that time, is not evident in Don’t Look Back from a year earlier and would never return again after his motorcycle crash at the end of ’66. It was such a complete immersion in this moment… And that’s something you always want to try as a director, you want to re-excite the shock of Chopin in his moment, the craziness of famous people in their famous moments.” –Todd Haynes
So with I’m Not There unspooling in theatres throughout the country this Thanksgiving weekend, with articles written and exhibits opened in galleries and music played and songs sung in honor of the man, the artist, the enigma, it seems a little easier to catch a breath of relief. As besieged as the American soul has been over the past decade, it seems just a little bit more manageable knowing that we still have Dylan around, vital and vibrant and making music, holding out hope while cutting to the bone.
“I still see the people who were with me from the beginning once in a while, and they know what I'm doing.” Bob Dylan, 1965.