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Original Essays

On "Like a Rolling Stone" in Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home

by Greil Marcus
  1. Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads
    $7.50 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "Marcus — cultural critic, master of digression — wisely skirts worship, while remaining full of awe, going for the whole culture by way of a single song." Anna Godbersen, Esquire

    "Marcus's engaging exegesis on the musical and cultural ramifications of Dylan's 1965 six-and-half-minute hit is not just a study of a popular song and a historic era, but an examination of the heroic status of the American visionary artist." Publishers Weekly

  2. Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan
    $6.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "This book is terminal, goes deeply into the subconscious and plows through that period of time like a rake. Greil Marcus has done it again." Bob Dylan
Martin Scorsese's Dylan documentary — a shape-shifting assemblage of 1950s and 1960s film footage, still photos, strange music, and interviews with Dylan and compatriots conducted over the past years by Dylan's manager, Jeff Rosen — never holds still. It allows, say, the Irish folksinger Liam Clancy, telling stories of Dylan in Greenwich Village, to contradict Dylan telling his own stories about the same thing; the film contradicts itself. There is nothing definitive here; within the film there is not a single version of a single song that runs from beginning to end.

You can imagine Rosen driving up to Scorsese's door with a truck and dumping thousands of pounds of books, interview tapes, film reels, loose photographs, a complete collection of Dylan albums along with a few hundred or a few thousand bootlegs, and then leaving, trusting that a fan who also knows how to make a movie, to make you watch — if not lately — could wave his hands and just like that a story would emerge. It does, despite that title, "No Direction Home," from Dylan's greatest hit, "Like a Rolling Stone" — already used as a title for Robert Shelton's 1986 Dylan biography — such a cliché, isolated like that, so "On the Road," so "it's the journey, not the destination," so corny. And yet, opening and closing the film with performances of "Like a Rolling Stone" — from Newcastle at the beginning and Manchester at the end, both from the UK in May 1966, when the song was Dylan's last shot, his cannon blast, in the war he had to fight with his audience just to get his music into the air — is not obvious at all. Not as music, not as story-telling, not as a director's wrap-it-all-up. The song kicks off, and suddenly you don't know where you're going and you don't know where you've been.

You know neither in either case. The performance, as it took shape in the UK that month, with betrayed believers in folk music and in saving the world determined to drive the apostate art for art's sake rock 'n' roller out of their cities and back where he came from, instantly dissolves whatever you bring to it. As the film opens, almost anyone who might bother to watch would have some thematic notion of who Bob Dylan is, some opinion, some axe to grind. No preconception, though, survives exposure to the song as it comes right off the screen. "Like a Rolling Stone" as it was performed then breaks everything down and there's no sense that anything will ever come back together again. Everything is dissolved. You don't know where you are.

So you enter the movie with your ideas suspended and your prejudices disarmed, thrown back, eager to be moved — as in moved from one place to another — as you just were. You've been set up; you're ready for anything. You'll buy whatever line the movie is selling.

But by the end — when the film has taken the viewer from Dylan's childhood to those halcyon days in the spring of 1966, then cutting the story off, cold, with just a title card to indicate that the story went on, Bob Dylan continued to do various things, but it's not the movie's problem so good night — you don't know how you got to "Like a Rolling Stone" starting up on stage one more time. This is the storied moment when, standing up and speaking from deep in the chest so that the entire hall can hear him, a young man calls to Dylan, calls him out, challenges him to a duel: "JUDAS!" he shouts. And Dylan shouts back: "You're a liar!" And then the song begins, as if the band is, like any band in any honky tonk anywhere, pulling out a song to distract the crowd from the fight at the bar, except that one of the bar fighters is leading the song.

Up to this point, Scorsese has, in at least a good imitation of working from a mature perspective with a sense of his responsibilities to history, presented a rational account of how an individual might move from one place — the 1950s, folk music, the insular world of Greenwich Village, the Bomb, the Civil Rights movement, stardom as Voice of a Generation — to another. The other being — nobody knows. New Beatles? New Elvis? No, it doesn't hold. Something altogether new is happening as from the beginning of 1965 Bob Dylan gets up, gets dressed, goes out for a walk, fingers a guitar — and whatever it is, it won't hold either. What is now caught on screen is centrifugal force as a first principle of life and art.

So when, at the end, there is that second dive into "Like a Rolling Stone," all that the film has given you so far disappears like smoke. You are in the realm of the unknown, without words to reduce the event. How did Bob Dylan get from one place to another, even, in England in May 1966, from Newcastle to Manchester — or rather from Manchester to Newcastle, since he played Manchester first, that being a meaningless detail against the perfect finale, that "Judas" moment, that history had already produced? It all seems impossible. You are left with the mystery that it actually happened. spacer

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