Bob Dylan: The Cinema of Song

Before movies ever existed, before the nightly news invaded your living room on a nightly basis to take you for a spin around the world in a neat twenty or so minute package, troubadours were the multi-purpose entertainment packages of the day. They carried with them, in the form of a song, the history of the people they encountered and, if the current audience was lucky, who Mrs. Gundig in thatch hut 4-B was seen smooching on. These tales, even the histories, could be spiced up by the troubadour  in a moment of desperation because he was losing the audience or, more likely, he was a liar. Thus, the modern screenwriter was born.

Filtering down through the annals of time, the troubadour’s role has changed. Books, TV, radio and movies dictated the change. They shot the entertainment right to us. If we didn’t like it, we didn’t have to wait a month for the next jackass on a jackass to ride our way. We could just change the channel.  Humans have amazing powers to adapt and reinvent themselves and, as we came into the 20th century, the troubadour did just that.

This is were Bob Dylan comes in. Well, sort of.

Woody Guthrie, the father of modern troubadours, and Dylan’s idol, for a little while at least, traveled the US gathering disciples, teaching them about the tragedies and injustices still going on in their country. Guthrie’s songs told the  story of the life he witnessed during his travels. At his zenith, the depression was sucking the life and hope out of this country and its people. Dust storms were engulfing his home state of Oklahoma and the division between the have and have-nots was as large as it had ever been. Welcome to hell on earth.

Fast forward a bit to post World War II America. No longer was there really a need to fight to survive.  The Draconian injustices that ruled the U.S. since its inception were slowly being laid to waste and the country’s collective conscious could focus on the more abstract. The baby boomers, the children of the post war boom, were growing up. The first generation of the modern America. But change doesn’t quickly. The slowest people to change are the ones in charge and, in the 1950s, the ones in charge were reluctant to move the country forward. In spite of the crayons historians were using to color brightly the 1950s, the seeds that came to bare in the 1960s were planted in the 50s.

For Bob Dylan, those undercurrents would manifest themselves in the surreal circus that would become his most famous trio of albums Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde.

I know what you’re thinking. This is a movie site. Why are you talking about music? The thing about film, novels, and songs are, that when done right, they are virtually interchangeable. A good novel can conjure imagery as easy as a movie when done right. A movie can create a rhythm and movement that compels you to create, to dance, and a song can tell a story with the intricate strokes of a novel. It is all storytelling. The only difference is the compression of time.

The cinematic masterpiece, Desolation Row, off Dylan’s 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited, is a prime example of that. It is a song, albeit a ten minute one but, if you were so inclined, you could literally make it into a movie. The characters are alive and vibrant, probably more so than most movies. Desolation Row was a place, it had dissonant characters, who were as much at odds with themselves as they were with the society around them. The album was full of those characters.  Just Like Tom Thumb Blues‘ narrator encounters a circus of corrupt officials, sickness and prostitutes with agendas. He is on vacation but it is the vacation from hell.

For Dylan’s 1966 album Blonde on Blonde, the perils of love would come into focus. Visions of Johanna tells the st0ry of loving an abstract woman. She is not necessarily a figment of the writer’s imagination. More like, she has become so elusive that he has began to question whether or not she is real.  Dylan is crafting a story of the frustrations of love, a common thread in the cinematic world, and blowing it all to hell. Listening to Dylan perform the song live, you experience the narrator’s frustrations, of which we all have experienced in one form or another. When the person you want the most becomes emotionally elusive, the world becomes a surreal circus of the grotesque that plays like a Fellini film. Everything, like in the song, mocks you cruelly and there is nothing the narrator can do. Johanna still, and probably forever, will haunt him.

Blonde on Blonde changes themes from Highway 61 Revisited.  It is more about relationships. Where Dylan thrives is he doesn’t paint them in black and white strokes because, if you were to detach yourself and honestly look at yours, when is it ever? In 4th Time Around, a lovers spat takes turns alternating between the surreal and the truth, while somehow managing to be comical. The narrator gives his girl a stick of gum but later asks her to spit it out when he cannot understand her, or maybe just to annoy her.

For the first of Dylan’s electric albums, Bringing It All Back Home saw Dylan very much still in the grips of the society he was living in. The sixties still mattered to the cinema he was creating. Subterranean Homesick Blues  was the story of the average man trying to get by. Granted, he was probably into some things that were probably not on the up and up but he was probably swept up in the culture around him more than he was a bad guy. It was an urban drama, 1960s style. Hollywood was making those movies. Then there is the epic tale of America in the 1960s. In Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream, travelers “discover” the US and proclaim it to be theirs. Only to find out there is a very esoteric society already in place that, through its peculiarities, has become a little off-kilter. The narrator is the only one who manages to escape and warns the  approaching Christopher Columbus to turn back. A parable that asks, if Christopher Columbus knew what America was to become, would he still have bothered to discover it?

Storytelling can take a number of guises, forms, and lengths. A story does not have to fit into a book, projected on the screen or contained in a book to be valid. A screenwriter can find inspiration in a song as easy as in a book or another movie. If you let it, art will propel itself.