By Mark Guarino
No one has added more to the mythologizing of Bob Dylan than Bob Dylan. In interviews, stage performances and a recent best-selling book, Dylan has goaded his obsessive legion with behavior and commentary seemingly designed to keep wondering, and wanting, more.
Two more Dylan products in stores recently help the cause. The first is “The Other Side of the Mirror” (Sony Legacy), a DVD of Dylan’s landmark performances at the Newport Folk Festival between 1963 and 1965. Directed by Murray Lerner, the film follows Dylan’s first transformative phase, in this case from owlish boy wonder to leather-clad rascal.
Even at a brief 83 minutes, the film is effective in showing this, especially when considering it took Martin Scorsese two nights of PBS airtime to do the same. Here, the story is familiar — Dylan, a boy with a strange but deep nasally voice, is trotted out a second coming for the folk revivalists, only to return the third year a man backed by an electric rock band that shocks and awe the crowd and the generation to come.
There are no talking head interviews or offstage banter. Instead, Lerner wisely arranges effective performance clips — sometimes whole, other times abbreviated — as steps showing both Dylan’s development and growing irritation at being categorized as something that felt flat and used.
Both the folk elders and girlfriend Joan Baez treat Dylan like a pet in the first two years. Even at such a young age (she was only 22 in 1963), Baez is weighed with self-importance. “I like kids, it’s just idolatry’s a little weird … I don’t mind if they act like a bunch of monkeys, it’s sweet,” she says at one point after signing autographs.
Her strange fascination with Dylan is understandable. With his dusty voice coming out of a body that looks only adolescent, he could be an alien. There is no more peculiar visual than watching Dylan onstage, surrounded by the academic and grizzled members of the folk revival, choosing to sing of iron ore towns (“North Country Blues”) while looking barely removed from his mother’s loins.
Nevertheless, the performances from this early folk period are riveting. Dylan’s command of songs like “Talkin’ World War III Blues” and “Only A Pawn in Their Game” shows an assurance that remains remarkable and gives perspective to the music’s transformation that was just around the corner.
Everything is a preamble to the film’s ending set, the two songs he performs with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band (minus Butterfield), the Chicago blues band. Just before, Dylan is shown that afternoon in a solo acoustic set, doing what he did the two years previous, but this time with clear impatience. At night, with Al Kooper’s booming organ behind him and the electric interjections of Mike Bloomfield’s guitar, Dylan is clearly more assured. Here is a chance to hear “Maggie’s Farm” and “Like a Rolling Stone” in their infancy by the same band that would commit both to record. “Like a Rolling Stone” sounds rickety than the studio version, but as the song goes on, it grows with certainty. Even though Dylan would spend the next 40-plus years using it to end his shows, the song in this version is fresh and sounds — like the singer — poised for longevity.
Dylan also shows up briefly on the soundtrack to “I’m Not There” (Sony), a two-CD soundtrack to the Todd Haynes art house movie that opens Wednesday. The title song is an archaic gem lost before now in Neil Young’s archives. It caps the 34 Dylan covers on this collection, from Dylan contemporaries (Roger McGuinn, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Willie Nelson, Richie Havens) to modern day faithful (Jeff Tweedy, Eddie Vedder, Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo).
Mostly, the covers deliver Dylan kitsch, particularly Cat Power’s gravel-powered “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” to Karen O’s blues belting version of “Highway 61 Revisited” to Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus who slouches through three separate songs. The worthwhile discoveries come when the Dylan faithful open the songs up to their own stylistic quirks. The results — When Sufjan Stevens transforms “Ring Them Bells” into a children’s music box, John Doe’s gospel uplift of “Pressing On” and The Black Keys who filter “The Wicked Messenger” a wicked blues stomp. The highlight remains “Goin’ To Acapulco” by My Morning Jacket’s Jim James who also performs it onscreen. Cloaked in his signature reverb, James haunts the song more than sings it, his immense vocal sending it upward and away.
Bob Dylan, “The Other Side of the Mirror” and “I’m Not There” soundtrack
- Category: Chicago Daily Herald
By Mark Guarino