Culture Rover

#75 - The Man From Nowhere

Bob Dylan: Troubadour of De-Industrialization

Lots of grumpy critical responses to No Direction Home, the Martin Scorsese film about Dylan just released on DVD and airing on PBS's American Masters series around the nation (see links below). Most of these critiques arise out of the typical baby boomer nostalgia versus boomer hater generational debates that have been ongoing since the early 1970s.

My experience of the film was quite different. Scorsese's point in sculpting the film from interviews conducted by Dylan's manager Jeff Rosen (so perhaps this is Dylan's point as much as Scorsese's) seems intriguingly twofold. Dylan at once alludes to his roots in a pre-boomer past yet also suggests that he ultimately is a man without a past -- the man from nowhere, with no direction home.

Dylan was shaped, the film claims, by his links to an earlier industrial America: a world of Hibbing, Minnesota, miners and small town life, of tentshows, blackface clowns, and circuses, of scratchy 78s and static-laden radio broadcasts of country music on the ether, a world of Woody Guthrie and unions, tentative stability for some and a whole lot of suffering for most working-class people.

Simultaneously, as the title of the film indicates, Dylan is the man from nowhere, a blank slate, a tabula rosa, baaabe! He's got "no direction home." Which is to say, his home becomes a place of continual motion and movement, the journey of a self-appointed "musical expeditionary" who discovers that that his home is no destination (not even Destination Row), but rather the flickering, pulsating, electrified energy of kinesis itself.

This double move is what makes Dylan the troubadour of de-industrialization. It's why there's more going on in the film (and in the first installment of Dylan's memoir, Chronicles) than just baby boomer nostalgia. Dylan expresses the extraordinary dislocation of de-industrialization, a rupture in social order that made the revolutionary moment of the 1960s possible, but only in profoundly anxious, scary ways.

Dylan links himself to an older world: to the roots and residues of the industrial order circa 1860-1930. He's got the coal dust and iron-ore residues of those Hibbing miners on his soul -- the possibilities and dreams, most of all the order and structure of their world.

But he also expresses in his persona the profound dislocation from that order wrought by the electronic and mass-mediated transformations in American society after World War II. The rhythms of the industrial world increasingly gave way to new tempos. The sounds and flow of work and leisure, the links to still older ways of life, faded in the jet engine howl, the satellite hum, the radar blip and bleep. The steady pulse of pistons gave way to nuclear fission, the threat of nuclear annihilation, and also the many new pleasures, connections, and strange sensations of electronic society. Train whistle to rocket's sonic boom. Grain silo to missile silo. Mono radio chat to televised spectacle and the stereophonic imagination.

Dylan's persona registers these transformations, the losses they entailed, and the possibilities they encompassed. The film's movement between the early adolescent and acoustic folk Dylan and the strange angel-devil in a sharkskin suit from the 1966 electric performances with the Hawks (soon to become the Band) mark the leap that Dylan made into the postmodern self. "There is no I -- there is only a series of mouths," he wrote in an amphetamine blaze on the back of the 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited. This self had no past, no fixed eye (or I for that matter). It was created through the temporary, rapid-fire utterances of mouths, words, language, howls across the frequencies. Not one mouth, but a series of mouths, a self coming into being only through motion and movement, action and pulsation: a Warholian creation of the decentralized circulation of images and sounds through a globalizing, mass-mediated network.

Yet somewhere among the motion are traces, the vaporized past of industrial America that left its burn marks all over Dylan's persona even as he flew off its rickety tracks into something far more wiry and wired: his ephemeral viscerality and snarled motorcycle guitar chords skidding the terrain of the late 20th century. Traces of a "somewhere" continually haunt his "no direction home" but only as ghosts and phantoms, gaslight lamps in the fluorescent glare.

This dialectic between the clank of industrial memory -- tools and grease -- and the purr of de-industrial future -- all aerodynamic and disembodied -- is what makes Dylan such a striking figure, a man out of time for a time out of man.

I think an awareness of that dialectic is the legacy Scorsese and Dylan aim for in No Direction Home. It's what resonates about the film: not so much boomer nostalgia as boomer terror -- a measurement of dislocation between a decaying industrial past and its strange replacement. Bearing the scars of a prior era, the gaping holes of memory, and rejecting them all at the same time; rooted in a lost oldness, which once seemed so rock-bottom real, now on the run toward an unknown future, invisible with no secrets to conceal: Dylan in the 60s is the troubadour of the transition to a post-industrial world.


27 September 2005

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