Thursday, September 29, 2005

Dylan Shapechanger: No Direction Home

The PBS two-part special this week on Bob Dylan by Martin Scorsese is a must-see even if you don't know or care much about Dylan. It's really a fascinating study of an artist who steps into a place where very powerful changes and creativity are pulsing through a culture, an era, and coincidentally right through a man.

It's as if he stepped out onto a stage built by a universal spirit -- I'd call it God -- and becomes the conduit for a rush of intelligence. He steps into a beam of light that is beyond bright. The film by Scorsese is about an artist becoming a medium for the flow of information. And Scorsese really gets the upside and the downside of it.

The interview footage of every idiotic journalist asking Dylan over and over again why he's so popular, what his message is, why he's at the center of the protest and civil rights movement, what's it feel like ... and his frustration with the questions and his habitual response, "I don't know, what do you think?" tells it all. Dylan didn't have time to think about such abstractions, he was just DOING it.

The perfect insane moment is when a photojournalist asks him to "suck on your glasses" for a posed photo. The attempt to make Dylan look cool, pensive and poetic by sucking on the end of his glasses falls flat and he counters perfectly with, "YOU suck on my glasses," handing him the now famous black sunglasses. The cool, pensive, poetic Dylan didn't need to suck on his glasses to appear cool. He was fundamentally cool because he was living in this blinding light of creativity.

At one point, they interview another musician who was there at the beginning, Liam Clancy of the Clancy Brothers (I love them btw) and he talks about the notion of a "shapechanger" -- an Irish legend about a person who morphs from one being to another before your eyes. He says this is what Dylan was like. I think he was strangely spot on and the description is perfect. On stage, Dylan transforms himself into a "medium man", a projection device for the words, feelings, contradictions, cries of a generation, his voice whining and howling like a born-again with the spirit moving through him. And like many great performers, he also has that androgenous quality where he can embody the most manly raw masculine sexuality at once with a shy suggestion of girlish sweetness -- think Johnny Depp, David Bowie, Angelina Jolie.

One connection I had not made until I saw this program was how similar Dylan's word play and rhyming was with contemporary hip hop and rap singers. Anyone doing rap now needs to see this two-part study in Dylan's "rhythm and poetry" chops and study how Dylan gorged on a steady diet of gospel, r&b, country, folk and mixed it all up to create his own unique style.

Scorsese is describing creative power at its most tumultuous. This is the power artists feel and why many don't necessarily want or need conventional power. This power is so searing, so electrifying, if you've felt it even a little bit, you don't need no fancy car, a crown on your head, a pile of money. Instead you are feeling real power -- the power of the universe rattling through you, a power that is way beyond all material things.