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When He Was on His Own(1)

2005-09-12 00:00

  Martin Scorsese makes a film about Bob Dylan's early freewheelin' years.

  So many singers have imitated him that it's hard to realize how weird Bob Dylan sounded on first hearing——when the gods of show biz must have wondered, Who let him in? A slight figure with voluptuous lips and a hawk's hooded eyes, he hid behind his guitar and his neck-brace harmonica and emitted those torturous barnyard vowel sounds. Yet almost immediately, people got it. The imagery was so rich and cascading, the urgency of his outrage so compelling and contagious that listeners pretty quickly adjusted their long-held definition of what a folk song——or a pop song——was or could be. And if he had to sing that way to write that way, then sing away, Bob.

  Much of his magic was achieved in the years 1961-66, newly illuminated in Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home:  Bob Dylan, the 3-hr. 29-min. documentary that hits DVD racks Sept. 20 and will be shown on PBS a week later. First Dylan reconfigured the folk song into a political statement as personal as it was universal, writing instant anthems like Blowin' in the Wind and The Times They Are A-Changin'. Then he amped up his surreal postromantic ballads and became a rock star.

  Did he understand what he was creating? Of course. "I was in a certain arena artistically that no one else had ever been in before, ever," he tells the documentary's offscreen interviewer. "Although I might have been wrong about that." No, that's about right. The musical exploration went according to his plan. What he hadn't expected was the stardom. He says of his first idol, the folk poet Woody Guthrie, "You could listen to his songs and actually learn how to live." Dylan's fans found the same home truths in his work.

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