Greil Marcus, Bob Dylan And Martin Scorsese

A Review of the Movie

No Direction Home by Martin Scorsese


R.E. Prindle



Scorsese, Martin:  No Direction Home- A Film

Marcus, Greil:


     I’m not the only one that shakes  his head over the rants of Greil Marcus.  The perspective he’s coming from deserves some attention.  Greil Marcus in the disciple, probably the successor. of the decadent leader of the Situationist International, Guy Debord.

     The SI is a crank organization.  Like Hitler they place a lot of emphasis on architecture.  Architecture seems to go with the totalitarian personality.  Unlike Hitler whose goal was a Roman grandiosity to match his Thousand Year Reich, we can’t be sure what SI architecture would be like other than ‘human to make people happy.’  In other words Debord found fault with architecture that the majority were happy with but displeased him.  He seemed to think that he could create some stunning new architecture that might please someone other than himself.  We all know how hard a feat  that is.

     But he ranted and raved actually being influential in the moronic disturbances in France in 1968.  Whatever beauty he proposed we’re still waiting to see.  Greil Marcus still thinks the ability of the SI to transform God, life and beauty is within his grasp.  He runs around America at the public expense trying to drum up the Revolution.  Bob Dylan seems to be the centerpiece  of his plans.  Greil’s reaction to Martin Scorcese’s Dylan movie might then be a little more understandable.

     As film biographies go, and they don’t go very well on average, I thought Scorsese’s effort made the most of not too much.  After all there is really very little earth shattering in the career of Bob Dylan.  Greil thinks Bob brought in something new; at best Bob just brought in something a little different no matter how startling it seemed from the perspective of the times.  From the perspective of this time  one wonders what the fuss was all about.  Nevertheless Scorcese maintained a nice tension of interest.  But not for Greil.

     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.

     So now we’re essentially back to Guy Debord’s SI architecture argument.  Whatever has been created is no good and must be replaced by Debord’s ideas which unfortunately for us we cannot evaluate because Debord gave no examples.  It doesn’t really matter, of course, because if he did their ‘definitive’ beauty and utility would not be, perhaps, so apparent to the rest of us as it was to him.

     So, as Debord’s successor Marcus implies that Scorsese has made a movie as ugly as the architecture that Debord and presumably Marcus despises.  The implication is the Greil would have done much better.

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…could wave his hands and just like that a movie would emerge…

     Well, why not?  I’m not aware of Scorsese’s process but a very fine movie of its type does emerge.  With unerring insight Scorsese seeks out key influences, the most important artists in Dylan’s life, introduces them to the viewer, very likely for the first time, and brings some coherence into the Dylan story.  It’s only a movie though, no substitute for study.

     I do not consider it a fault that Scorsese presents all the high points covered by the four main biographies.  His purpose seems to be to cover the years from Dylan’s high school beginnings to Bob’s nervous breakdown in 1966 which he does.  Although already a long film it is never boring while to cover more ground it would be necessary to condense and eliminate to add anything beyond 1966 making the film unintelligible- something like Greil’s own prose.  Of course, the Situationist International that believes in magic might be able to snap its fingers and make it happen, although I think their blank screen notion might be easier to conceive than something with content.  Besides I don’t believe in magic.

     Greil apparently doesn’t believe in differences of opinion or else he feels that loyalty to his ideal requires everyone to ask what Bob said and confirm it.  Marcusian version of freedom of speech.

     As it is I thought Scorcese very skillfully selected song snippets to bring out the very best of artists like Hank Williams, John Jacob Niles, Makem and the Clancys and others.  His interviews with Dave Van Ronk, Liam Clancy, John Cohen and Suze Rotolo were apt and to the point presenting each as attractively as possible.

     I mean Bob left some bad vibes behind that were not accentuated, nay, even glossed over.

     The key point of the movie was the actual monologue or dialogue carried on with a very careworn looking Dylan.  Time has treated him fairly viciously.  Bob revealed himself as much as a modest man could.  There was very little braggadocio while Bob explained himself in a very natural droll manner.  He was much more charming than first person reports of him would lead you to believe.

     Of course, Greil is fixated on what he considers the revolutionary break with the Folk Tradition with Bob as the Promethean figure bringing electricity to ‘weird old America.’

     Greil apparently believes we viewer have been hoodwinked by Scorsese of malevolent intent as a result.

     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 were.  You’ve been set up; you’re ready for anything.  You’ll buy whatever 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 little 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 it got to “Like A Rolling Stone” starting up on stage one more time.

     By this point Marcus has divorced himself from reality and vanished into the pure rhetoric of his armed prejudices.  He’s no longer talking about the content of Scorsese’s movie.  Greil is contrasting the movie he thinks he would have made, Debordian architecture, with the movie or architecture that actually exists.  An inability to perceive reality that is quite mad in its own way.

     It’s what the Jews call building a fence around Torah.  A mad attempt to prevent reality from disturbing the lovely inner version of not only the way they think things could be but shoud be.  Once again as with Debordian architecture or Marcus’ movie not a vision likely to be shared by many others.  One’s private dreams never would be.

     Greil even disagrees with Scorsese’s title in a rather vehement way:

     …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 cliche, isolated like that, so “On The Road”, so “it’s the journey, not the destination,” so corny.

     LOL.  I suppose so, but it didn’t bother me nor affect my enjoyment of the movie.  The running interview with Dylan unifies the movie while giving us an open window to Bob’s motivations and the working of his mind.  While no song was finished Scorcese has great taste and selected the most moving passages from the songs he showed displaying the remarkable vocal talents of the singers.  I was astonished at the mad approach of John Jacob Niles with its odd setting of his auditors standing over him as he sang.  I melted before Tommy Makem’s rendition of the Butcher Boy. (Don’t know the real title.) while the Clancys were superb.  I’d heard all these artists on record before but the recordings lost all the dynamics of the performances.  Even the old Red Pete Seeger really put his song across live.  The New Lost City Ramblers unfortunately were as stiff as their recordings.

     By this time I suppose most people reading this have seen Scorsese’s movie but for those Dylan fans who haven’t the movie is highly recommended.

     As for Greil I can only cite the words of the old Children’s game:  Greil Marcus, Greil Marcus, come out, come out, from wherever you are.



A Review

Part III

Legends Of Freedom


Greil En Repose


     So Mr. Marcus’ question is:  Why am I nothing when I should be everything?  Sounds like a lot of frustration to me.  If the questioner doesn’t understand the answer then he is in a veritable quandary.  In the first place nobody can be ‘everything.’  Nobody can corner all the money in the world although it doesn’t stop some people from trying, some people who have a more effective plan than Karl Marx or…Johnny Rotten or…Guy Debord or…do I dare say Greil Marcus? 

     One must question in this novel of frustrations, for that is what it is, to what extent is the author talking about himself; he certainly sems to identify with his characters.  He named a subsequent book The Shape Of Things To Come after a title of the man who wrote The Anatomy Of Frustration, H.G. Wells.

     Writing is a dangerous vocation.  I’m terrified by it everytime I put pen to paper.  No matter how careful you are you must expose your real self to a readership that may or may not be all that forgiving.  For myself I have abandoned any hope of concealment and write as my needs dictate.  However once published your fate is in the hands of any readers.  So, I sympathize with Mr. Marcus but wonder if he himself isn’t frustrated by a lack of monetary success that he thinks he deserves.

     Why else would he concentrate on such nonentities as Johnny Rotten, Guy Debord and these non-entities hanging around the Cafe Voltaire.  I have a feeling that Lipstick Traces could have been titled The New Anatomy Of Frustration.

     Why am I nothing when I should be everything?

     Did Guy Debord think he would become everything by plastering grafitti like Ne Travaille Jamais all over Paris?  Ne travaille Jamais?

Guy Debord

     There’s a defeatist slogan if I ever heard one.  Mr. Marcus has worked plenty hard to realize his something.  My god, the effort I have put in trying to make a success as a writer.  Mr. Marcus at least has made it into print for which he has been paid something I should think.  I’ve spent twenty years writing with no recompense and I still am.  The only consolation I have is that the readership of my blogs seems to be growing.  That’s something, no money, but something.

     Ne travaille jamais?  Why does Mr. Marcus want to make a hero out of some yo-yo sitting around a bar cadging drinks from people who do travaille?  Unless Mr. Marcus explains, that is going to remain a mystery to me.

     What is Guy Debord doing as he sits around drinking cadged absinthe, ruining his liver?  Yes, but he’s trying to dream up ‘situations’ in which he can bring the society that won’t recognize his greatness to its knees.  And according to Mr. Marcus he nearly succeeded in the Paris of 1968.  That was the the work of the SI he says.  SI, Situationist International.

     Debord and his SI remind me of nothing so much as the fable of the Ants And The Grasshopper.  You remember that.  The Ants worked hard all summer storing up supplies against the long cold winter that inevitably follows the short pleasant summer while the grasshoppers lived heedlessly off the land fiddling and dancing.

     When the inevitable happened as the inevitable will they who had thought they were everything turned out to be nothing.  They demanded charity, much as Debord and his kind do, when they were refused their response was that they would burn the stores of the Ants and they wouldn’t have anything either.  Mr. Marcus appears to admire this attitude.

     What did Shakespeare say in Hamlet of  ‘the spurns that patient merit takes of the unworthy’?  Are those who will not contribute to be given the same consideration as those who do?  The people who trashed Paris in ’68 thought so.  The Grasshoppers did the only thing they knew how, they burned what les travailleurs had created.

     Mr. Marcus admires that.  Unless I read him wrong he considers that ‘freedom’.  Guy Debord is one of legends of freedom.

     SI.  Situationist International.  International- some guy sitting in a bar in Paris cadging drinks dreaming that he runs an International subversive organization.  Some legend of freedom.  So far Mr. Marcus’ argument is not very convincing.

     During some very very formative years Mr. Marcus and I were subjected to many of the very same influences.  I’d gotten out of the Navy in late ’59 moving into the East Bay of the SF Bay.  Mr Marcus at that time, as I gather, was growing up in Menlo Park on the Peninsula.  I was based in San Leandro-Castro Valley-Hayward.  I worked in Oakland and San Francisco while hanging out as much as I could in Berkeley.  While as I gather Mr. Marcus was fortunate enough to attend UC-Berkeley I was running the gamut of various Junior Colleges beginning with Oakland City finally ending up at Hayward State from which I graduated in ’66.

     I’m willing to bet that Mr. Marcus is familiar with Henry Miller, The Story Of O, Steppenwolf and several other similar titles that were de rigeur in that cockpit of Freedom, the so-called Free Speech Movement from ’64 or slightly earlier on.  Needless to say the apostles of the Frankfurt School, Adorno, Fromm, Reich, Marcuse et al. were running around trying to force that crap on everyone.

     Since we’re talking Legends Of Freedom here that Mr. Marcus identifies, jokingly I hope, p.181:

     They were “enfants perdu” Debord often said, lost children, and so they claimed any father in whose faces they could recognize their own; (cough, cough)  the surrealists, the dadaists, the failed revolutionaries of the first third of the twentieth century, the Communards, the young Karl Marx, Saint-Just, medieval heretics-and all, as Debord and the others began talking in the 1950s, were moribund, forgotten memories and rumors, manque, maudit.  All were, at best, legends- to the LI and SI, part of the legend of freedom.

     Legends of freedom!  Hmm…pardon me while I smile, pardon me further, I’m beginning to shake uncontrollably from laughter.  Karl Marx and the Soviet Union legends of freedom?  Oh yes, indeed, Mr. Marcus.  A trick of perspective perhaps?

     Listen now.  Mr. Marcus hopes that the so-called Free Speech Movement at Berkeley may be included in those great freedom battles.  But I ask Mr. Marcus, Freedom for who?  As it happens Cal-State was a new college with a very small library so we were given library privileges at UC.  So I was actually on campus when a lot of this was going on.  I even tried to join up but was rejected in this great experiment in freedom because I wasn’t…Jewish.  But I would be allowed to carry a sign and throw my body on the barricades…if I wanted to help this legend of freedom along.  Well, I declined, envisioning myself in a more exalted postion as I did, I who should have been everything spurned away with the foot as nothing.

     As I say I graduated in’66 so I spent the summer attending summer school at Berkeley.  By this time the Revolution was over and the revolutionists were in control.  When I came up from Hayward I entered the campus through the famous Sather Gate, perhaps since renamed Legends Of Freedom Gate, I don’t know.  I used to see the ‘fabled’ Allen Ginsberg there trying to sell the Berkeley Barb or whatever.

     Just inside the Gates Of Freedom, I think Dylan sang about some such fantasy, just inside the gates of freedom the Jewish Commissars of the revolution sat.  One was supposed to submit one’s free American manhood to these ‘revolutionary’ slugs if one wished to attend classes unmolested.  I just walked by these slugs because I didn’t know what was going on.  I was told what was going on.  Well, I’m a free American boy, born that way, not going to give it up, you dig?  I don’t submit my manhood to anybody least of all some degenerate looking slug pretending to be Cheka, Gestapo, Che or whatever.  Fuck that… pardon me, none of that for me.

     Now, Berkeley had these huge thousand member or something like that, lecture classes.  The teaching genius who wrote a book or two you’ve never heard of, lectured from a podium about a mile away then we were all divided into groups of about thirty and turned over to teaching assistants who were, you guessed it, vetted by the Commissars.  You know where I stood in that great battle for, what was that word Mr. Marcus?  Freedom?  A legendary one too.

     And you mentioned all these legends of freedom that preceded the so-called Free Speech Movement of Berkeley as representative?

     And did we all dance with one hand waving free with no fences but the sky facing?

      Don’t be disingenuous sir!  None of the people you mention were interested in the least in freedom for anyone but themselves and I’m afraid that might include you.  So was Berkeley a mere created situation that preceded the situation in Paris in ’68?  Were the Commissars active in Paris as they were in Berkeley?  I’ll bet they were.

     Actually I’m beyond the third reading which is quite a tribute to Mr. Marcus.  I’m up to five readings of Legends Of Freedom and I’ll probably be at five for the rest of the situations Mr. Marcus records.  I may do some more detail work when I finish the main outline.

     Next let us turn to the second situation.  The Art Of Yesterday’s Crash.

End Of Part III