Sunday, September 8, 2013

'Like a Rolling Stone' by Bob Dylan

Heckler: Judas! 
Bob Dylan: I don’t believe you. You’re a liar. [Aside to The Band:] Play it fucking loud! 
Manchester Free Trade Hall, 1966 

In 1977, Robbie Robertson and Martin Scorsese were inseparable. 'I had always been a film buff, and [Scorsese] was a music buff', Robertson recalls. 'When I moved in into the house I brought these huge studio speakers into the living room, and on the other side of the house he turned a bedroom into a screening room. The screen was a whole bedroom wall'. The two men lived in a nocturnal world of parties and cocaine binges, editing The Last Waltz as other priorities allowed, which may explain why the film wasn’t ready for release until early 1978.

On 26 November 1976, the day after The Last Waltz concert took place, the Sex Pistols released their debut single, Anarchy In The UK. In January 1978, the group played their last disastrous gig at San Francisco’s Winterland – the same venue that had hosted The Last Waltz just over a year before. Thus the film’s period of gestation coincided precisely with the rise and fall of the first wave of British punk. Robertson and Scorsese, holed up in their air-conditioned Hollywood bachelor pad, and deprived of all sensory input except an endless succession of old films and albums on looped playback, were probably unaware of this, but the Pistols appropriated and inverted the same ‘end-of-an-era’ rhetoric that underpins The Last Waltz for their own purposes when they declared 1976 to be Year Zero in the history of popular music. It suited both camps to forget that Bob Dylan had already invented punk ten years earlier.

Witness the gig of 17 May 1966 at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, during which Dylan was backed by the future members of The Band. Nothing the Pistols ever recorded matches the savagery with which Dylan attacks the complacency of his own constituency that night; nor did Dylan ever again betray the kind of vulnerability that underlies the violence of his response to the – undoubtedly sincere – cry of ‘Judas!’, which leads inevitably into the final song, Like A Rolling Stone. The lyrics, viewed in the retrospective light of that agonised cry, sound like a pre-emptive series of counter-accusations, while the punchline of the chorus is equal parts identification and vilification; which is to say, it’s an attempt to marshal the creative potential of self-disgust, an attempt that’s only possible because it’s unclear to whom the question is addressed or even whether it’s sincere or rhetorical – unlike the unscripted exchange that opens the song, where the battle lines are very clearly drawn.

The Band weren’t The Band in 1966 of course. Not just because Levon Helm had temporarily absconded, unable to bear the heckling on the American leg of the tour, but also because Dylan doesn’t acknowledge their existence as a unit. In the footage included in Scorsese’s 2005 documentary, No Direction Home, Robertson is frequently visible, as inseparable from Dylan in 1966 as he was from Scorsese in 1977, the chosen confidante whose designated role is to echo Dylan’s self-image back at him. But Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson barely seem to exist, at least offstage. In concert it’s a different story, but still, the only voice heard from the stage is Dylan’s. Harmonies are strictly surplus to requirements in 1966, so Danko and Manuel literally have no voice, and Robertson isn’t yet so bold as to dare to mouth the words along.

Ten years after Dylan appeared at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, on 4 June 1976, the Sex Pistols played the same venue – although they only merited the ‘B’ stage, the so-called ‘Lesser Free Trade Hall’ upstairs. It was their first significant gig outside London, and was sparsely attended. They appeared again on 20 July, when word of mouth from the first show brought in a much larger audience, and when they performed Anarchy In The UK in public for the first time.

In 1966, the walkouts, boos and slow handclaps were in part arranged in advance, orchestrated by the commissars of the folk clubs, whose understanding of the significance of ‘their’ music was entirely in thrall to hard-left politics. According to the party line, Dylan had prostituted himself by turning his songs into commodities. In retrospect, the opposite argument seems more convincing: that preconceived audience expectations had fetishised Dylan, who was understandably unwilling to accept this state of affairs. How appropriate then that the most succinct dramatisation of this manufactured conflict took place in a venue called the Free Trade Hall.

In 1976, by contrast, the audience at the two Sex Pistols shows had no shared musical tradition and no idea of what to expect, but their response to a group that openly embraced the entrepreneurial spirit was one of ecstatic (self-)affirmation. Legend has it that everyone in the audience formed a band.

'Play it fucking loud!'

This is the only moment of unmediated communication in the Manchester version of Like A Rolling Stone, the only moment that leaves no room for misunderstanding or contradiction. It’s both an imperative and an affirmation. There’s no object, no subject, and therefore no gender: just a lightning bolt of energy that short-circuits all the normal paths of communication, erasing the distinction between monologue and dialogue; between question and answer.

'How does it feel?'

Sunday, September 1, 2013

'Don't Do It' by The Band

They dove for this song. They grabbed it. They took it as a piece of rhythm, which is what white rock and roll bands have always done with rhythm and blues. They didn’t go for the soul of it – maybe because it wasn’t accessible to them, maybe because it wasn’t interesting to them. There was something in the rhythm that begged for more, that begged for speed, that begged for hardness, for harshness. It seems as if the entire performance is simply a dare: the various people in The Band daring each other to play harder than they’ve ever played before. And what’s most amazing is that they’re battering at each other, they’re throwing challenges at each other. That’s what’s going on in the rhythm. And then at the very end – I guess you could call it a guitar solo – Robbie Robertson simply cuts out on guitar. But he cuts out like somebody gunning a car out of town, as if he’s never going to look back at that place ever again. It’s an absolute escape, and it’s something to hear somebody leap right out of the song, the rest of The Band trying to keep up with him, almost as if to grab his legs as he makes it out the door – and failing. 
Greil Marcus

[The Band’s private studio in Malibu] had once been a high-class bordello. There were still mirrored walls in the bedrooms, and the corridors were lined with crushed-velvet wallpaper.
Barney Hoskyns


It’s not the first audible, enunciated word in the film, since it’s preceded by a babble of production noise that concludes with the phrase ‘Same slate, still running’, reminding us that what we’re seeing is an artefact, whose production is dependent on the cooperation of a group of invisible artisans. But 'Cutthroat' is the first word that’s clearly directed at us, the audience, and the first spoken by a protagonist. An odd opening for a film intended as a monument to the history of a community.

‘Okay Rick. What’s the game?’

The speaker is off-camera, but the voice is clearly recognisable as that of director Martin Scorsese. When this scene was shot, in early 1977, Scorsese had already made a number of cameo appearances in his own films – for example, as a brothel client in 1972’s Boxcar Bertha – but most viewers would know the voice from a scene in the recently-released Taxi Driver, in which Scorsese delivers a monologue in the role of a jealous passenger spying on his wife from the back of Travis Bickle’s cab. Travis watches him via the rear-view mirror, without turning around or responding directly, so it’s a peculiar kind of monologue; that is, it’s a monologue that aspires to be a dialogue – whether with Travis or with the absent woman is unclear – but in any case it fails to hit its target. As such it anticipates the film’s most famous scene, in which Travis repetitively challenges his own dumb, uncomprehending reflection.


Rick Danko, bass player and one of the three vocalists in The Band, answers Scorsese’s current (and seemingly innocuous) question. Danko is standing over a pool table with a racked set of balls.

‘What’s the object of it?’, Scorsese asks, again from off-screen.

‘The object is to keep your balls on the table and knock everybody else’s off’.

Danko breaks. He pots a number of balls with consecutive shots, as other group members watch passively from the edge of the frame. Is anyone else even playing? The dry smack of the impacts bleeds over into the warmer noise of audience applause, introducing the next shot, which is of The Band walking back onstage to perform what will be their final encore in their final concert in their original line-up, a momentous occasion recorded for posterity by Scorsese in this film: The Last Waltz.

The song The Band launch into is Don’t Do It. On this occasion, Danko sings lead, although that’s not always the case. The members of The Band are comfortable with each other in this way. They swap instruments as well as vocals: Danko changes bass for violin; Levon Helm changes drums for bass; Richard Manuel changes keyboards for drums; Garth Hudson changes organ for saxophone. They swap groupies too. On their 1974 tour with Bob Dylan, roadies take Polaroids of the available women at each date: a rotating menu of options.

There are three vocalists in The Band, but guitarist Robbie Robertson – the only group member who only plays one instrument – isn’t one of them. Nonetheless, he appears to sing along enthusiastically to every song in The Last Waltz, although his contributions are inaudible. His silent mouthing is significant, however, because the subtext of the film is Robertson’s claim to ownership over The Band’s legacy and back catalogue as the group’s main credited songwriter. It’s Robertson’s decision to dissolve the community of The Band, which (in his opinion) can’t continue to exist without him – a claim subsequently contested by the other four members, who recommenced touring and recording in the 1980s. So this final onstage show of solidarity masks profound inner tensions, and Robertson’s claim to leadership is based upon the nihilistic premise that the man in charge is the one with the key to initiate the self-destruct sequence.

Don’t Do It.

Again, an odd way to start (in fact, to end) a celebration: with a denial rather than an affirmation, with a deluded plea from a narrator in a pitiable state. But Danko doesn’t sing the words like a defeated, bitter man. He sings like he’s the sexiest motherfucker on earth, and he’s crowing in triumph. Moreover, he skips half the words, as if he’s in a goddamn hurry to get to the end. Probably he is. After all, it’s after two in the morning, and The Band have been playing for hours by this point in the filming of The Last Waltz. But there’s also a sense in which the tone of the performance deliberately nullifies the sense of the words, which speak of enthrallment even as the omissions and the acceleration send a different message: one of barely-veiled contempt for the addressee, who is revealed as the victim of an elaborate joke. She’s not a person. She’s a pretext for men to tell each other stories about what it means to be a man.

This, then, is the ‘official’ reading of the song in the film: In The Band’s world, no man is ever helpless before a woman. In The Band’s world it’s always the woman who says, 'My biggest mistake was loving you too much'. In The Band’s world, male sexuality is empowered by male solidarity.

I don’t live in The Band’s world.