Monday, September 26, 2005

Dylan, the Ventriloquist

If you don't know already, Martin Scorsese's new documentary on Bob Dylan, titled No Direction Home, comes to PBS's American Masters series this week in two parts airing tonight and tomorrow. Being a huge fan of both Dylan and Scorsese, I've been waiting for this for a long time. What's unusual is that the documentary, in addition to being screened to packed audiences at various clubs and movie theaters, has already been released on DVD. This means that I've already had a couple of chances to see it and that if you haven't seen it already, I'm available to tell you why you should.

The film charts the beginning of Dylan's career, from his childhood in Minnesota to the 1966 motorcycle crash that briefly but decisively sidelined him at the height of his fame. Scorsese, who in addition to his feature films also had a hand in the Woodstock documentary, The Band's The Last Waltz, and PBS's recent series of documentaries on the blues, uses a light but expert hand, blending old footage and photos with interviews with Dylan and his contemporaries.

Part 1 does a particularly good job at establishing the musical context of Dylan's early career, from the country, folk, blues, and rock records that he listened to as a child and young teen to the NYC folk and arts scene he landed in while still a teenager. It ends with Dylan having written his first (and revolutionary) batch of original "protest" songs, hailed by the press, publishing on Columbia, in love with Joan Baez, and seemingly ready to take the mantle as the musical and political voice of his generation.

Part 2 begins with Dylan taking a decisive turn away from that path at an event I had heard of but knew little about: his acceptance speech for an award he was given by the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, where he surprised and blasted the tony and older but progressive crowd on behalf of the virtues of youth, artistic freedom, and moving up and away from the world of politics. It's the first in a series of moves whereby Dylan pushed back against both his popular image and the terms of his own success. From 1964 to 1966, he develops an increasingly abstract, contrary and difficult public persona while likewise fusing more abstract and symbol-driven lyrics with raucous electric guitar-driven rock and roll. Fans of his earlier music and the frustrated press turn on him, feeling musically and politically betrayed, and become likewise confrontational, culminating in his infamous 1966 European tour. By the end of the second part of No Direction Home, Dylan is clearly exhausted: "I just want to go home," he pleads, a subtle play on the title and Dylan's own intent on self-creation. "I felt like I had no history, no past at all," he says in Part 1, explaining changing his name to Dylan from Zimmerman. For six years, Dylan deals in ruses, misdirections and outright lies, and very nearly becomes an entirely self-invented creature. Then he crashes.

A common way of explaining Dylan's turn from topical songwriting -- a central topic of No Direction Home -- uses the language of Romantic self-expression to contrast Dylan's personal and poetic songs from his earlier political work. On this story, Dylan refuses to serve the political and artistic demands placed on him by others to pursue his own artistic vision. This documentary nicely avoids that schema. For one thing, while some of Dylan's later songwriting is obviously personal (for example, at least some of the songs on Desire and Blood on the Tracks), his songs from the mid-60s aren't. There's nothing personal, in any straightforward way, in "Mr. Tambourine Man" or "Maggie's Farm," "Ballad of a Thin Man" or "Desolation Row."

Instead, what you see is Dylan trying on different masks -- personal, musical -- in a kind of evasion or evacuation of personality, of the sort that T.S. Eliot describes in "Tradition and the Individual Talent." He invents personae, narrative and lyrical subjects, tells abstract stories that go nowhere, kiss-offs like "Positively Fourth Street" or "Like A Rolling Stone," and generally engages in a lot of play. His press conferences are nearly as fun (and frustrating) to watch as his concert performances, because Dylan is always interrogating the terms of the questions asked him rather than give an expected answer. "Who said that?" is a favorite counter-question; "What do you think?" is another, or "How can I answer that if you've got the nerve to ask me?" Other times he empties or plays up the absurdity of categories: "All my songs are protest songs." "I consider myself a song-and-dance man."

A friend of mine asked me the other day what Dylan's predominant discursive mode was (you see the kind of friends I have) and I answered "ventriloquism." It's a bit of a toss-off answer but I think it's revealing. One of the things that Dylan understood about the folk tradition is that it has nothing to do with sincere self-expression and everything to do with making up stories speaking through someone else's voice, what Greil Marcus called "the weird old America": whether it's a down-on-his-luck moonshiner, a girl ruined by a New Orleans house, or a hobo dreaming of a big rock candy mountain. It's fascinating to watch Dylan refuse one kind of ventriloquism -- letting himself be the medium for a generation, a political program, or any other impersonal force -- and savor the fun and a little of the dread of becoming, as Allen Ginsberg put it, "a column of air."

1 comment:

Ron Franscell said...

From Ron Franscell's ...

This is the city, Beaumont, Texas. I work here. I carry a chewed-up pencil, a ratty notebook and my fingers are stained with bubble-jet ink. I'm a newspaperman.

(Here's where you, the reader, sing, "Dum-de-dum-dum.")

It was 3:56 p.m. on Tuesday. It was muggy. I was working the morgue -- that's newspaper talk for the room where we keep all our old clippings.

It's not much of a life, unless you don't mind missing an Astros game because the hotshot phone rings. Unless you like working Saturdays, Sundays and holidays at a job that doesn't pay overtime. Oh, the pay's adequate -- if you count pennies you can put your kid through summer camp, but you better plan on seeing Florida on your television set. And the coffee, well, it ain't Starbucks, lady.

Anyway, I was scanning the minutes of a 1955 Rotary meeting when something caught my eye.

It was a 50-year-old story about a dummy getting a haircut. A ventriloquist's dummy. The front-page headline blared: "George, Bible-Quoting Dummy in Pastor's Family, Has Terrible Secret."

Something told me -- perhaps years on the beat where you'll have few facts and a lot of hunches, and you'll run down leads that dead-end on you -- that a dummy's hair doesn't grow. Call it a hunch.

I decided to investigate.

Just the facts: At the time, George was the cohort of one the Rev. Ben Cash of Calvary Baptist Church in Nome, Texas. The 29-year-old preacher had taught himself ventriloquism while driving to college classes every morning at Lamar Tech in the 1950s. Seems he jiggled his rear-view mirror so he could watch whether his lips moved when he spoke. (Note to Gannon: Slap this perp with a traffic ticket.)

The Rev. Cash coaxed George to quote Scripture in Sunday School and camp meetings. He tested his routines on his 4- and 8-year-old children. Once, he even performed on a local kids TV show in Beaumont. He was a big hit with kids.

But George was tired of being the sidekick. Made of cheap cloth and plastic, he wore toddler cast-offs. He only could speak when spoken for. He also was bald, with painted-on hair. Something had to give.

Back in 1955, the Enterprise story offered a clue -- or maybe just a stupid observation: "George sincerely hopes he'll be able to live down his 'sissy' reputation."

That day, the Rev. Cash took his cohort to the big city, Beaumont. Bad things happen in big cities, especially to dummies. With the help of hair stylist Eula Mae Holden, Fertitta's Shoe Service and a place called the Doll Hospital, George was given a whole new identity. He got new moving eyeballs, some strings to move his arms and legs, a tuxedo and new shoes. He also got a girl's curly red wig, which was promptly shorn into a swell cut. At least that answered how a dummy could grow hair.

That's the last we've heard of George.

I began to wonder: Where's George?

4:35 p.m. I knew my only chance to find George was to find the Rev. Ben Cash. How hard could it be to find a 79-year-old Baptist preacher in Texas? They're everywhere. I made a few calls.

In this game, you walk your beat and try to pick up the pieces. Do you have real adventure in your soul? Oh, it's a thrill a minute when some housewife thinks you're a telemarketer and hangs up all six times you call.

Turns out, the Rev. Cash is retired in Port Aransas. He grew up in Normangee, and after a couple military enlistments, he attended college and preached at churches in Silsbee, Nome, Spurger and other Texas towns. Now confined to a wheelchair by a series of strokes, he left the pulpit in 2000.

But George didn't run away.

The Rev. Cash gave George away. That's his story. He doesn't remember to whom he gave George or when, but it was another preacher, he's sure of that. And he taught him a few ventriloquism tricks, too.

"So you don't know where George might be today?" I asked.

"No, sir," the preacher responded. "Got no idea."

Likely story.

The Rev. Cash got a new dummy. He still owns that British model, one with a real wooden head, he named Cary. Why? He wanted to entertain as "Cash & Cary." (Note to Gannon: Are bad puns a felony?)

8:29 p.m. A dead-end in the hunt for George. Maybe he was tossed on the scrap-heap of ventriloquism with all the other woodenheads who never realized their Howdy-Doody dreams. Maybe he got mugged by some pill-head woodpecker high on crape myrtle. Maybe he just got tired of being strung out.

That's how it is out here.

After a few years on the beat, you have the ability, the experience and maybe the desire to be an editor. If you like to fly by the seat of your pants, this is where you belong. For every story that's written by somebody else, you've got 3 million ways to do it better. And most of the time, you'll have few facts and a lot of hunches. You'll work some days that last a week, but some days are more like two days. You'll send a reporter back to the street until you're sure she's talked to everybody in the state of Texas.

George, aka The Dummy, remains missing, even after four hours of non-stop Googling.

Where's George? I won't sleep until I find him.

Or until later tonight.

(Anybody seen my pencil?)