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FROM THE VAULTS: BOB DYLAN- GLADIATOR TROUBADOUR: ‘ON ARENA AND IN THE ARENA’

Much acclamation preceded the 2005 Martin Scorcese produced ‘Arena’ programme. Unfortunately, the eagerly awaited documentary failed to live up to expectations. I had just finished reading volume one of Dylan’s ‘Chronicles’ which dealt with his early period in Greenwich village etcetera when he was surprisingly signed by John Hammond for Columbia Records having failed to attract the interest of any of the ‘folk’ labels such as Folkways. In the book I had the distinct impression of Dylan applying the ‘finishing touches’ to broad brush strokes from the past and was not persuaded that anyone could recall such detail from so far back. Then again maybe his apparent ability to photograph all that happens around him without the aid of a camera is what makes his extraordinary song writing so vivid yet perplexing. In the book he lingered long on a meeting with Bono which led him to making an album with Daniel Lanois, a frustrating time for him. Whether conscious or not, Dylan’s failure to call his wife by name, merely served to alienate the unconverted.


In the film he came across as a slightly less cantankerous but equally impenetrable soul interviewed now compared to then. A friend of mine who is not familiar with his music described him, on the evidence of what she in the film, as ‘not a very nice person’. Another acquaintance who is familiar and does admire Dylan’s music found the documentary languorous and tedious and did not make it past the first instalment.


Scorcese’s film was claustrophobic and repetitive, concentrating heavily on the comparisons to Judas Iscariot by some who were not impressed by his endorsement of a rock as opposed to a folk attitude to his songs. Allegedly Pete Seeger even threatened to take an axe to one of the leads. (The true story behind this may have been that Pete Seeger’s Dad was in the audience and disturbed by the distorted, caterwauling sound coming through his hearing aid). Dylan’s contempt for his audience were illustrated was illustrated by his instruction to his band (The Band) to play it ‘fucking loud’ in response to the cries of ‘Judas’ etc; also, by his refusal to sign an autograph for a fan. One half expected the limousine window to be rolled down on the unsuspecting fan’s hand! He was slightly less dismissive in a scene at the hotel outside Glasgow’s Queen Street station but, again did not seem comfortable entering into any kind of prolonged dialogue.


By not appearing to care about others opinions, Dylan elevates himself above criticism taking on a kind of mystical impenetrability. Perhaps this is his defence mechanism against criticism. Who knows? And if Dylan doesn’t care then why should anyone else? But - just listen to the music! Every time I return to one of his classic early albums, I feel I am discovering something new. Some of the wry lyrics on ‘Bringing It All Back Home’ for example still make me laugh as if I hadn’t heard the punchline a hundred times before. And the melodies - OK some of them are recycled and on the surface seem like clichéd blues, but Dylan carries it all off with such lyricism, and such panache it is hard not to be seduced by his world-weary ways.


The Arena documentary contrasted sharply with one of Scorcese’s greatest achievements, “The Last Waltz”, a retiral celebration for The Band who came out from the shadow of Dylan’s backing band to produce two timeless classic albums, ‘Music From Big Pink’ and its eponymous follow-up, even better in my humble opinion. In this film they demonstrated what gifted and versatile musicians and song smiths they were as Robbie Robertson and co. patiently talked about life, music and everything. Also, their ability to empathise with other musicians was abundantly demonstrated notably in the visceral impact of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Coyote’ and Neil Young’s ‘Helpless’: ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door ‘anyone? What troubles me is that when Dylan joined in it was back to normal somehow, the music sounded fractured, the tension was palpable. OK, Dylan’s live voice is not the best in the world and maybe his strength is as an acoustic performer but even so, one felt that The Band itself suddenly diminished the moment the undeniable presence of Dylan walked on the stage.


One of the friends I quoted earlier went to see Dylan perform recently in one of those soul less, claustrophobic aircraft hangar like auditoria and reported her disappointment that the great man hardly said a word. Maybe he just let his music do the talking. Maybe we should all just leave it at that and judge the man on his words, his music and his spirituality and see him as of this world yet not quite part of this world, a candle whose flame still burns brightly in a different world to the one he was singing about in 1963, but an equally troubled and disturbed one, and I guess that makes Bob Dylan more relevant than ever in AD 2017.


(Written in 2005 and updated in 2017/ 2023).

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