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Jokerman For a Generation

Bob Dylan's Legendary Grin

Alex Fine

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 11/21/2007

Since 1968, Bob Dylan's past has been chasing him like a pack of wild dogs. There's a reason he's pegged his concerts as the "Never Ending Tour": The only way he's been able to stay out in front has been to convince us--and himself--that he's still an active, modern artist, whose career is far from ending. It's hard, though, because the past keeps getting reinforcements.

Just this fall has been bolstered by a three-CD, 51-song greatest-hits box set simply titled Dylan (Columbia/Legacy), the concert DVD The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan Live at the Newport Folk Festival 1963-1965 (Columbia/Legacy), Todd Haynes' quasi-biographical movie I'm Not There, and, finally, by that movie's two-CD, 34-song soundtrack. At the heart of all four projects is that 1962-'68 stretch when Dylan enjoyed the most fertile six years in American songwriting history.

This past September, though, Dylan was onstage at Merriweather Post Pavilion, keeping the dogs at bay. Dressed in a black cowboy suit and a flat-brimmed black cowboy hat, he looked less like the "spokesman for a generation" than a character from a Cormac McCarthy western. He stood behind an electric piano and stabbed out blues chords--he plays little guitar these days--and sang "Ain't Talkin'" from Modern Times. It began as a lament of "walking through this weary world of woe," but before long Dylan added one of his sly, wicked jokes: "I am trying to love my neighbor and do good unto others, but, oh Mother, things ain't going well."

Dylan's humor is the quality that history always overlooks, but it's the trait that has allowed him to slip away every time the dogs of the past seem to have him surrounded. The Merriweather show had its fair share of serious moments, but those were always balanced by irreverent swipes at the frailty of human nature and the absurdities of human society, whether it was the delicious pun of "Everybody must get stoned" in "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35," the promoter who agrees to book World War III in "Highway 61 Revisited," or the confession of a crush on Alicia Keys in "Thunder on the Mountain." As such, the show faithfully reflected his career, which never has stayed in one guise--serious or joking, electric or acoustic, political or personal--for too long.

Because he's willing to take artistic gambles that are genuinely risky, he sometimes flops badly. Yes, he's made some of the best pop albums of the past half-century, but he's also released Saved and Under the Red Sky. Yes, he's written one of the best music memoirs ever published, Chronicles, Volume One, but he's also written the unreadable book Tarantula and the screenplays for two unwatchable movies: his own Renaldo and Clara and Larry Charles' Masked and Anonymous. On the other hand, he's been the subject of three of the best music documentaries ever made: D.A. Pennebaker's 1967 Don't Look Back, Martin Scorsese's 2005 No Direction Home, and Murray Lerner's brand-new The Other Side of the Mirror.

The latest addition to this triumvirate of terrific documentaries is composed almost entirely of Dylan's onstage performances at the Newport Folk Festival during those three years--sometimes with Joan Baez, Mike Bloomfield, or others, but mostly alone. Lerner fashions an astonishing narrative out of these mesmerizing black-and-white clips, all of which have been sitting on the shelf for more than three decades. In 1963, when Dylan first shows up at Newport as Baez's little-known prot%uFFFDg%uFFFD, the 22-year-old singer is so skinny, bony, and boyish that he could pass for 16.

The following year, he's already a media star, and his body has fleshed out so he looks his actual age of 23. His confidence has fleshed out as well, and Baez now appears to be his prot%uFFFDg%uFFFD when they sing "It Ain't Me, Babe" together. After Dylan sings "Chimes of Freedom," the giddy youngster displays his impish humor by doing a soft-shoe dance onstage.

By the following year, Dylan looks like he's 40, a wary, weary man who's already looking for an escape route from the "protest singer" caricature hung around his neck. He tests the crowd's earnestness by playing two of his funniest songs: "All I Really Want to Do" and "If You Gotta Go, Go Now." He then tests their musical broad-mindedness by playing two new songs, "Maggie's Farm" and "Like a Rolling Stone," with members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band--a band, it should be remembered, that was booked for the festival. This is the famous "Dylan goes electric" incident, and it's revealing to see what actually happened--Dylan slit-eyed in a leather jacket and greeted by a mix of excited cheers and angry boos.

Todd Haynes tries to re-create this same scene in I'm Not There, but his facile fantasy of Cate Blanchett as Dylan and the band turning on the Newport crowd with machine guns can't come close to the vivid drama of Lerner's documentary. Haynes' movie is a strange combination of the surreal-metaphor approach of Masked and Anonymous and talking head-and-historic clips approach of No Direction Home. Unfortunately, Haynes captures the self-indulgence of Charles' movie far better than he does the wit and insight of Scorsese's.

The soundtrack for the Haynes movie crams 34 tracks by 32 different artists onto two CDs. Like any tribute album--that's essentially what this is--it's a collection of hits and misses. It has a better batting average than most tribute albums for several reasons. For one, it mostly avoids the expected classics--only nine of the songs can be found on the new Dylan box set. Instead, it packs such unexpected delights as My Morning Jacket's Jim James' high-tenor gospel version of "Goin' to Acapulco," Los Lobos' norte%uFFFDo treatment of "Billy 1," Yo La Tengo's garage-rock bashing of "I Wanna Be Your Lover," and the Hold Steady's early-Springsteen-ish reworking of "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?"

Yet, perhaps the oddest recent Dylan tribute is Ships With Tattooed Sails (Upshot), by a jazz-instrumental trio that calls itself Jewels and Binoculars (after a line in Dylan's "Visions of Johanna"). It's odd to think of Dylan--a wordsmith who often borrowed his melodies from traditional sources--as a composer worthy of jazz instrumentals. But he had excellent taste in the sources he stole from, and he often twisted them into new shapes, delaying the resolution of his chord changes so he could sustain the suspense as he stuffed more words in. When guest guitarist Bill Frisell joins the trio to twist this music into even newer shapes, the effect is often hypnotic.

Over the summer, Rhino Records released The Traveling Wilburys Collection, a two-CD, one-DVD box set of Dylan's 1988-'90 work with George Harrison, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne. Included are all 21 songs from the band's two official albums, four bonus-track rarities, five song videos, and the 25-minute documentary video The True History of the Traveling Wilburys. The Wilbury project was the high point of Lynne's career, but for the others it represented neither their best nor their worst music. It did, however, represent some of their funniest material, from Dylan's burlesque of Bruce Springsteen on "Tweeter and the Monkey Man" to Harrison's dance-craze number, "Wilbury Twist."

And humor should not be underestimated. It can knock you out of old habits as effectively as anger or poetry. It can serve as an antidote to the self-seriousness that threatens every artist. And it can allow an artist to wriggle free of the expectations that the media and audiences try to lay upon him. After all, humor has allowed Dylan to escape the dogs of the past as so few of his contemporaries have.

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