Friday, November 09, 2007

Three sides of Dylan (hold the myth please...)

In an otherwise shitty interview with 60 Minutes, Bob Dylan did tell them something revealing. When asked about his 60's hits, he says "I don't know how I got to write those songs. Those early songs were almost magically written... It's a different kind of a penetrating magic. And, you know, I did it. I did it at one time."

And so it goes with a living legend who's long left behind his most-famous persona(s). As such, Murray Lerner's Bob Dylan: The Other Side of the Mirror - Live at Newport Folk Festival 1963-1965 is a fascinating portrait of the artist as a young man and the many changes he went through in a head-spinning three years. Lerner had already chronicled Newport during the same time span in 1967's Festival, which included several other performers (though history makes it seem that Dylan was the only one around then). Some of the Mirror material originally appeared there as well as in Martin Scorsese's recent No Direction Home. So which Bob Dylan do we see in Mirror?

Version 1963: Shy reserved, on stage with a group of peers and elders and influences, he looks both boyish and like an old soul at the same time. Seated, he's reserved and yet somehow compelling in a daytime "workshop" of topical songs, occasionally with supporter/girlfriend Joan Baez chiming in, singing "Talkin' World War III Blues," "Who Killed Davey Moore?" and "Only A Pawn In Their Game. " Even then, it was obvious that something important was going on here as relatively large crowds gather to hear him. For the later, large evening show, he performs "Blowin' In The Wind" with The Freedom Singers, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary. And so the myth was taking root...

Version 1964: On his feet now for the bigger evening show, he's much more relaxed and much more willing to please- smiling and throwing himself into the songs. He's much more a showman now. When he leaves, he crowd roars for him and he comes back briefly to thank them, laughing and full of cheer. Does a sweet duet with Joan Baez on "It Ain't Me Babe" where they playfully josh with each other.

By now, his star was rising, not just with his own music but with versions of his songs becoming hits for other artists. Even here, we see Johnny Cash do a version of "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right."

Of course, fame changes things for artists as we see next year but Dylan himself was also going through his own changes in how he approached and played his own music. It wasn't just that he was cozying up to amplifiers and rediscovering the rock music he loved in his younger days but he was also moving away from protest music and crafting incredibly surreal, poetic songs now as evidenced by "Mr. Tambourine Man," which he plays here. Interesting that the crowd doesn't chide him for his songwriting change (indeed Pete Seeger's seen at the side of the stage tapping his feet along to the song after announcing Dylan) so much as his electrification later on. The only topical song seen here is "With God On Our Side."

Version 1965: One of the most (in)famous rock shows ever, especially since a lot of the crowd didn't know it was going to be a rock show. By this time, Dylan was anointed as "the voice of a generation," which of course he didn't want to be.

At Newport, he's dead serious now and there's now a notable distance between himself and the audience. This time, there's no collaborations with other artists, just a back-up band behind him. There's a sloppy version of "Maggie's Farm" that's steamrolled by guitarist Michael Bloomfield's acidic guitar and then a stronger, calmer version of "Like A Rolling Stone." In between, it sounds like a mix of cheers and boos. "It Takes A Lot to Laugh, It Takes A Train to Cry" (the third/last song that he did with his band for the show) isn't seen/heard here. The band leaves and Dylan comes back for a two song acoustic set: convincing versions of "Mr. Tambourine Man" (much more tense than the 1964 version) and "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," which the crowd appreciates more.

By then, the shy kid and the happy entertainer are long gone in the space of 1-2 years as Dylan was trying on a new mask and would have plenty more to try on later. Maybe one of the reasons that part of his audience was so pissed when he plugged in was that he was changing his artistic persona so quickly that they couldn't keep up. Of course, he didn't end it there and for anyone wiling to go along for the ride, he usually kept things mighty interesting...


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