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Once Upon a Time Never Comes Again: Bob Dylan, A Masked Man in Search of Redemption?

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There is something elegiac about the film, for many of the people in it are now dead and their film presence that eerie afterlife that technology confers conveys the ephemerality of fame and life. Allen Ginsberg and Sam Shepard are dead, and many of the others are in their twilight years. But to see them young and frisky and bouncing around on stage and off, giving off sexuality and joy in the music and the trip they're on, one can't help be gripped by the passing of time and the contrast between then and now when depression and it's pharmaceutical fixes has so many in its grip. Dylan's craggy, lined face in interviews for the film belies the young man we see perform and laugh, and though he stills performs and is addicted to being on the road so often quite a feat for a 78 year old the juxtapositions of the images underscores the power of Dylan's musical messages. "Once upon a time," Dylan croons these days, "somehow once upon a time/never comes again."

When one puts the then and now into historical and social perspective which is essential since works of art are rooted in time, place, economic and political realities one is jolted further. It's almost as if this Rolling Thunder Revue tour was the last gasp for a dying political and artistic culture that represented some hope for change, however small, while also being a symptom of the encroaching theatricality of American life, what Neal Gabler aptly calls, Life: the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality.

The Triumph of Techno-Entertainment

Trace, if you will, the transformation of the United States from 1975-6 until today. It's as if the theatricality of the tour was announcing the end of straightforward dissent and the ushering in of endless postmodern gamesmanship that is still with us. Masks. Games. Generations disappearing into technological and consumer fantasies where making money, watching television, and entering the system that destroys one's soul became the norm, as the American empire ravaged the world and Baby Boomers found life in their cell phones and on yoga mats, as Herbert Marcuse and his compatriots of the Frankfurt School warned. The culture industry absorbed dissent and spit it back out as entertainment in the service of the maintenance and consolidation of the power of the ruling class. How to transform a depraved society when the culture industry has corrupted so many people at their cores is where we're at now. "The carpet too is moving under you," Dylan intoned in 1965, "It's all over now, Baby Blue."

I looked around the movie theater before the film began and the rows were lit up by old folks staring at their little lit-up rectangular talismans. It was enough to bring me to despair. I was reminded of being in the circus in Madison Square Garden as a child where the kids were swinging sticks with cords attached with lights at the end that lit up the place.

They say the circuses are all closing, but I think not. "It's not dark yet/but it's getting there."

In an exchange between Dylan and Sam Shepard, who was on the tour as some sort of writer, Dylan asks Sam how he writes all those plays, and Sam says he does so by "communing with the dead." The Rolling Thunder Revue is like that, a medium between a time when passion still lived, and today when death, dying, and nostalgia are the norm for so many whose passion has fled into things. Capitalism has conquered consciences with commodities.

Home Before Dark?

Dylan had his fallow period after the late seventies. To his great credit, he found new life, starting in the late 1990s with his Time Out Of Mind album and continuing through his recordings of the great American songbook of love ballads, the terrain of Sinatra and Bennett. Listening to him sing these great songs he did not write, I find his masks have fallen away and that a sad, lonely man emerges. A man filled with regrets and melancholia. An old man lamenting in a movingly raspy voice lost loves and haunted by what was and what might have been. A death-haunted man voicing raw emotion that is palpable. An uncaged man.

So much about Bob Dylan is paradoxical, or is it contradictory? Hypocritical?

Friedrich Nietzsche, another man of many faces, who advised us to "become who you are," once wrote, "There are unconscious actors among them and involuntary actors; the genuine are always rare, especially genuine actors." I don't know if the man behind the name Bob Dylan is a "genuine actor" (genuine being cognate with genius, both suggesting the act of giving birth, creating), for I have never met him. I hope he has met himself. He hints that someone is missing, whether that is the fictional actor or the genuine one, is difficult to discern. Is he becoming who he is, or is he lost out on the road "with no direction home"? He is always on the go, leaving, moving, restless, always seeking a way back home through song, even when, or perhaps because, there are no directions.

The Rolling Thunder Revue is a nostalgic trip. No doubt, audiences of a certain age will experience it as such. Such an aching for home comes with a cost: the acute awareness that you can't go home again. When the nursing and funeral home beckon, however, one can perhaps take a chance on truth by examining one's conscience to ask if and why one may have betrayed one's better youthful self and settled for a life of comforting conformity and resigned acceptance of the "system" one once raged against.

Younger people, if they are patient and watch the entire film, will experience a profound aesthetic shock that may give them hope. To see through the camera's eye the youthful Dylan's face as he gives some of the most passionate performances of his life will thrill them so that a shiver will go down their spines and their hair will stand on end. "And this is what poetry does," writes Roberto Calasso in Literature and the Gods, "it makes us see what otherwise we wouldn't have seen, through a sound that was never heard before." To watch just a handful of these performances makes the film worthwhile.

Become Who You Are?

At one point, today's Dylan says that he has always been "searching for the Holy Grail." I suppose one could interpret that as meaning eternal youth, happiness, redemption, or some sort of immortality. He has surely created a capitalist's corporate empire, though that doesn't seem to satisfy him, as it never has genuine poets. But maybe to become very, very rich and famous has always been his goal, his immortality project, as it is for other tycoons. One can only guess.
I prefer not to. But without question, Dylan has the poet's touch, a hyperbolic sense of the fantastic that draws you into his magical web in the pursuit of deeper truth. In ways, he's like the Latin American magical realist writers who move from fact to dream to the fantastic in a puff of wind.

He is our Emerson. His artistic philosophy has always been about movement in space and time through song. "An artist has got to be careful never to arrive at a place where he thinks he's at somewhere," he's said. "You always have to realize that you are constantly in a state of becoming and as long as you can stay in that realm you'll be alright."

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Educated in the classics, philosophy, literature, theology, and sociology, I am a former professor of sociology. My writing on varied topics has appeared widely over many years. I write as a public intellectual for the general public, not (more...)
 
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