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|Written by Frederick Hidell|
|Wednesday, 30 April 2008 19:00|
When Bob Dylan stepped on stage at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 wearing an electric guitar slung over an ominous black leather jacket, and backed for the first time by a full rock ‘n’ roll band, what transpired was one of the most legendary concerts in pop music history. Dylan and his band were all but chased off, after only two songs, by an angry audience lobbing boos and cat calls towards the stage, as though attempting to send the band's startling audio assault back at them. Those in the audience felt shocked, betrayed and disgusted. Their icon, their hero, the leader of their entire folk movement had gone electric. What those young people in the crowd could never understand at the time was that electronic and digital technology would allow the performance, along with the entire Dylan cannon, to be rediscovered again and again for the next forty years.
In the book Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads, author Greil Marcus suggests that, like hearing of the death of JFK, most people remember exactly where and when they were when they first heard Bob Dylan’s voice. But for me, it was not the sound of his voice shinning through stereo speakers that enlightened my world; it was his digital image appearing on my computer screen, delivering a performance that indescribably captured my imagination.
For most of my life Dylan existed as little more than an abstract blur in the periphery of my pop culture vision. He functioned as the half learned hypothesized answer to a number of awkward questions. Bob Dylan... he's the guy who wrote that Guns N Roses song, isn't he? And didn't Kris Novoselik (or was it Kurt?) do an impression of him in some Nirvana tour documentary (maybe Live! Sold Out!, maybe The Year Punk Broke)? Wasn't the 60's leftist radical group, The Weatherman, named after a line in one of his songs? Wasn't there, maybe, a mention of him at some point in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers (1994)? In fact, wasn't there a Dylan song on the soundtrack somewhere? (It is hard to remember, my fourteen year old self would always just fast forward the cassette to Nine Inch Nail's "Burn"). Speaking of cinema, I was, at the very least, certain that Dylan performed via satellite at the Academy Awards one year, when his composition for the incredible film Wonder Boys was nominated for best song, but I had no memory of the performance (though this speaks more to my history of heavy drinking at Oscar parties than it does to the quality of his performance). Yes, Dylan existed in my mind as an abstract figure: I knew he was out there, I had heard him sing, but I had no particular interest in him.
I did, however, have an interest in filmmaker Todd Haynes. His 2002 film, Far From Heaven, was released while I was in film school, to the utter delight of my professors. In addition to Douglas Sirk's original, All That Heaven Allows (1955), and Rainer Werner Fassbinder's startling remake, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), film professors everywhere could now add Haynes’ family melodrama redux to this fascinating auteur cycle. Haynes is the perfect film school icon, a queer art house director making big budget mainstream movies with Hollywood stars. As such, when I picked up the November 2007 issue of Rolling Stone, I was thrilled to see that it included an interview with Haynes about his new film, I'm Not There, an experimental biopic about the many lives of Bob Dylan (for more on I’m Not There, see April Yorke’s article from the Awakenings issue). Throughout the interview, Haynes discussed his fascination with various stages of Dylan's career, his interaction with the media, as well as his music. The issue also contained a review of the film that raved about Cate Blanchett's performance and gave the film three and a half stars out of four.
I was definitely going to have to see the film, and in anticipation, those questions started blipping through my mind regarding just who Bob Dylan was and what role he has played in defining the popular consciousness over the last forty years. I had a lot of questions and very few answers, so I did what any of us would do faced with the same situation: I visited Wikipedia.
Launched in January 2001, Wikipedia is an open content encyclopaedia project operated by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation. In its mere six years of existence, Wikipedia has revolutionized research for an entire generation. Type "Bob Dylan" into its search field, and you'll be greeted with a 13,000 word collaboratively created entry covering the bulk of Dylan's career. While providing only an overview, there was still too much information to absorb. His career was broken up into phases: "Going Electric", "After the Crash", "Born Again," but what did these words mean? There was too much there, too much to comprehend on a first read. It was clear that Dylan was a fascinating individual, a cultural chameleon who has shed his skin and been born anew repeatedly for almost half a century. If I was going to get an understanding of just who the man is and was, I was going to have to go to the source. I was going to have to listen to his music.
Even a few years ago, that would have meant a trip to the local music store, but today, if there is a single I want to hear, or better yet, an artist whom I would like to watch perform live, I visit YouTube. Created by three former PayPal employees in 2005, YouTube is a video sharing website where users can upload, share and view video clips. It is also Music Lover’s Heaven. Again, typing "Bob Dylan" into the search field provided me with a plethora of hits, and I dove in head first.
While there may not have been a single memorable moment when I first heard Dylan's voice, it was most certainly a transcendental event the first time I viewed THIS video of Dylan performing "Like a Rolling Stone" in 1966. The performance was nothing like what I expected. This wasn't some moustached, mumbling old man in a cowboy hat. It was a feral youth, an explosion of hair and wild eyed passion, not mumbling or crooning, but practically screaming this song that I had heard a hundred times yet never heard at all until that moment.
Then there was THIS manic white-face performance, from almost ten years later, with Dylan and his Rolling Thunder Review band tearing up the stage 70s style, looking like the results of Deep Purple’s tour bus smashing into a roadside carnival. And there was THIS heartbreaking television appearance from twelve years before that, with Dylan, looking clean cut and young, strumming his acoustic guitar with tentative and delicate strokes, even as his voice sends the song into the stratosphere of eternity.
I spent hours watching clips. Dylan was mesmerizing, enchanting, but also confusing, incongruous. How exactly did that man from the “Girl from North Country” clip become the raging seventies rocker shouting out the words to “Isis” in the other clip? I bought Dylan, a brand new best of album released just this year, but it was the same problem. The album shot through the decades too quickly, Dylan’s style moving in leaps and bounds from one song to the next, without any sense of teleological flow. If I wanted to truly know Dylan, to understand his work to such an extent that this incredible artist’s four decade long journey of change would actually make sense to me, I was going to have to listen to all of his albums and read the Wikipedia page for each album along with them.
Between studio albums, live albums, and movie soundtracks, Dylan has over 50 records. In the past, it would have taken months of trips to various record stores, waiting for specials orders and hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to acquire this collection, but thanks to BitTorrent, I had the entire Dylan cannon over night. Designed by Bram Cohen, in 2001, BitTorrent is a peer-to-peer file sharing communications protocol, which allows large amounts of data to be quickly distributed because each recipient supplies pieces of the data to the newer recipients, reducing the burden of any single individual.
Thanks to BitTorrent, I was able to listen to each and every one of Dylan’s albums in chronological order, while Wikipedia provided me with the desired background information, and YouTube supplied me with live performances of the songs. This in turn launched an obsession that now includes purchases of several of my favourite Dylan CDs, documentaries such Don’t Look Back, Eat the Document and No Direction Home, books such as Greil Marcus’ Like A Rolling Stone: Dylan at the Crossroads and Chronicles, Vol. 1, Dylan’s autobiography, as well as tickets to three different Dylan concerts in the coming months. Without Wikipedia, YouTube, and most of all, BitTorrent, none of these purchases would ever have been made, and my obsession might never have been launched.
Dylan is the most extraordinary artist I have ever encountered. His lyrics are now etched into my heart, his songs into my soul, but if I had encountered that Rolling Stone article even a few years earlier, Dylan would likely mean nothing to me today.
In 1965, to the thousands of folk music fans listening to Dylan belt out “Maggie’s Farm” at the Newport Folk Festival, electricity was the enemy. It had stolen their hero and delivered him to the popular masses. Today, electrically powered digital technology continues to deliver Dylan’s music to the masses like never before. This Dylan fan, for one, wouldn’t have it any other way.
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© 2008 Frederick Hidell; licensee (Cult)ure Magazine.