Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Fri May 25 07:02:31 MDT 2001

[Dylan turns 60 this month which accounts for a spate of books and magazine
articles, including one by David Hajdu, the author of the superlative bio
of Billy Strayhorn that I was posting excerpts of last week.]

Blowin' in His Own Wind


DAVID HAJDU: Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob
Dylan, Mimi Baez-Farina and Richard Farina

HOWARD SOUNES: Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan

Don't Look Back


By most accounts (and over the decades there have been plenty) Dylan early
on cast himself--first in his mind's eye, then, after he'd established the
myths, in fact--as a shadow observer hoboing through life, with his BO and
irresistible charm and coldhearted focus and spew of genius. The chorus for
this troubadour's life has many members. There are women who sing his
praises, care for him, want to protect him. There are ex-acolytes and
musicians and business associates wailing the I-been-abused blues. There
are core loyalists and friends. There are fawners, often drawn from the
same pool as the abused. They all agree, though, that the Bob Dylan they
know is an unbelievably private, ironically inarticulate man with nearly
unshakable drive and talent.

That was already clear in 1965, when D.A. Pennebaker tagged along for
Dylan's last all-acoustic tour of Britain and filmed Don't Look Back.
Released in 1967, the movie caused a stir mostly because it unveiled
another few sides of Dylan. Now it's been reissued on DVD, with the usual
enhanced menu of outtakes (here audio tracks) and commentary (some useful,
some silly). The good news is it looks just as murky as ever. With this
backstage home movie, Pennebaker was inventing our notions of cinéma
vérité: a wash of grimy, grainy images with weirdly impromptu light,
in-the-moment vignettes and scenes.

Pennebaker wasn't interested in converting Dylan into a poster boy for
activism or peace and love or the Francis Child ballad collection; he
grasped the artistic multiplicity that often came out as duplicity. During
the movie, Dylan reveals side after side: the manipulative creep; the
defensive master of the counterlunge; the insular and sometimes
inarticulate star; the smartass provocateur; the hyperintense performer;
the chain-smoking, coffee-drinking, spasmic-twitching composer sitting
endlessly at typewriters and pianos. And yeah, the nice guy pops up too.
It's a portrait of the artist as Zelig.

In Pennebaker's film, this Zelig too has his handler: an owlish, pudgy
Svengali, Albert Grossman, who negotiates about money in a couple of
revealing scenes. Folk veterans tend to see him as a representative of
Moloch: Grossman devised crossover acts like Peter, Paul and Mary and gave
them Dylan tunes to sing. He owned a bigger percentage of Dylan's
publishing income than Dylan did, though the singer didn't know it then;
even people who don't like him agree that Grossman encouraged Dylan to
write and experiment. According to Pennebaker, Dylan came up with the
movie's famous opening: "Subterranean Homesick Blues" plays while Dylan,
wearing a slight sneer, stands on one side of an alley. Allen Ginsberg and
Peter Orlovsky stand off to the other. Dylan holds placards with bits of
lyrics from the tune, dropping each card to the ground when it goes by on
the audio track. It's a neat piece of visual business that bridges Buster
Keaton and MTV.

Pennebaker's movie takes place in the last quarter of David Hajdu's
Positively 4th Street. The author of the well-received Lush Life, a
biography of Duke Ellington collaborator Billy Strayhorn, Hajdu has written
an engrossing page-turner that puts early 1960s Dylan into a pas-de-deuxing
foursome with the Baez sisters, Joan and Mimi, and Richard Fariña. The
narrative's hook is deliciously open-ended. The Baez sisters, performers
themselves, were romantically as well as creatively entwined with Fariña
and Dylan, two ambitious myth-making weirdos who were womanizers, bastards
and, in their different ways, trying to create poetry with a backbeat.
Their ever-changing interpersonal dynamics are the intellectual soap opera
that is the book's bait.

Hajdu plays out the sexual and creative permutations and combinations in
and around this vaguely Shakespearean quartet with narrative panache and
just the right tang of gossip and attitude to get it excerpted in Vanity
Fair. At its best, his fluent style floats information with deceptive
lightness, but he's not lightweight. Hajdu dug through the papers,
including unpublished outtakes of Robert Shelton's No Direction Home: The
Life and Music of Bob Dylan, talked to plenty of witnesses and tapped new
sources; the most notable is Thomas Pynchon, Fariña's Cornell roommate and
best man, whom Hajdu interviewed by fax. All this lets him conjure a
novelistic immediacy. His well-plotted scenes usually ring true and bristle
with evocative detail. He uses his narrative's inherent elasticity to open
perspective and depth of field naturally, then skillfully dollies around
and pans in and out of larger contexts as illuminating backdrop for his two
odd couples. Topics from the history of American vernacular music to
contemporary politics, art and architecture add resonance to the main plot.

Hajdu's story starts with the young Baez sisters seeing Pete Seeger ("a
sociopolitical Johnny Appleseed during the mid-1950s") in concert and
getting their own guitars. It follows Joan to the thriving Cambridge folk
scene, where she became a star with a recording contract. Hajdu builds a
novelistic collage of perspectives: Baez herself, those she'd already left
behind in California, those watching her rise in Boston. This technique
shapes the book's storytelling. We see Fariña, for instance, through Mimi's
eyes as a basically lovable, if hurtful, rogue genius; through Joan's by
turns as accomplice, potential seducer and parasite. We watch Joan's
Cambridge friends fret and fume at young Bobby Dylan's riding her to the
top while Joan loves him blindly, and we meet other Dylan lovers like Suze
Rotolo and Sara Lownds, whom Dylan later married. We wonder why Mimi can't
see how Fariña is using her to get to Joan, since nearly everybody else,
including Joan, does, and we wonder if he'll succeed. And we hear the
chorus of disharmony around the charged moment when Dylan abandoned his
image as folk singer; we note that Joan idealistically spurns Albert
Grossman and a major record label and Bob signs with both.

Full review: http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20010611&s=santoro

Louis Proyect
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