You want stupid? I’ll give you stupid.
So it’s 1965, and I have been besotted by Bob Dylan for most of the past year. He’s to appear at Massey Hall, backed by a Yonge St. rock band known as Levon and the Hawks, who would later morph into some group called The Band. This is during Dylan’s historic tour after he’d “gone electric” at that July’s Newport Folk Festival, his bold, uncharted and incredibly controversial move that changed everything in music. The first half of the concert was to be acoustic, the second would include Levon Helm and the boys — all destined for the lovely, intimate concert space of Massey Hall. Click here for a remarkable interview with Dylan the next day.
But did I go? Ohhhhhh, no. Mr. High-and-Mighty Me was boycotting Dylan for “selling out”, for giving into crass commercialism by strapping on an electric guitar and abandoning his powerful protest songs. I still can’t believe what an idiot I was. Rarely a month goes by that I don’t think of and regret anew my stubborn, brain-dead decision.Adding to my idiocy was the fact I hadn’t even listened to the “new” Dylan.
That didn’t happen until 1966, when I had a summer job washing dishes at a UBC dining hall. A fellow dish-washer, tired of my ranting about Dylan, kindly offered to actually play Bringing It All Back Home for me. Off we went to his rented room. The evening was unforgettable. From the first thrilling notes and words of crazy, raucous Subterranean Homesick Blues, to the last lingering tones of It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue, I was stunned. I had no idea. A year too late, but amid the company of so many others, the album totally transformed my musical life. I rushed out to buy it, then the even more ‘electric’ Highway 61 Revisited with, in Dylan’s memorable phrase, its “wild mercury sound”. I played them over and over, analyzing the lyrics to death with fellow ‘Dylan freaks’. The Shakespeare of our age has been part of my life ever since.
Yet Bob had to start somewhere, and, as we all know, he boarded his rocket to fame as a young, scruffy folk singer. Which brings me to Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest in the ongoing, prodigious output of Joel and Ethan Coen. The movie tackles the early 60’s folk scene in Greenwich Village. As with most films by the Coen brothers, it’s very well done, on the surface. They do a good job capturing the look and feel of that long lost but pivotal era, just before folk singers hit it big, particularly those who wrote their own songs. Even better if they penned protest ballads. A few months after the movie seems to end, Dylan tossed off Blowin’ in the Wind, and the music business was never the same.
There are also some pretty fair depictions of those floating around the pre-Dylan folk scene at the time. The rumpled old manager “Mel” is modelled on Moe Asch of Folkway Records, and the caricature of Albert Grossman, who tells Llewyn Davis there’s “no money” in his music, is dead on. Grossman famously went on to manage both Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary. The friendly “army guy” is based on Tom Paxton. He was in the army for a year or two, before emerging as one of the best of the new breed of folk singers. I must have played his album Ramblin’ Boy a hundred times. There are some beautiful songs, and I have never tire of it. There’s even a newspaper song. (“Daily News, daily blues. Pick up a copy any time you choose. Seven little pennies in the newsboy’s hand, and you ride right along to Never Never Land.”)
Sadly, however, like so many movies by the talented brothers, Inside Llewyn Davis lacks a heart. Davis, brilliantly played by Oscar Isaac, is mostly a jaded mediocrity with little star quality, who manages to disguise whatever love he may once have had for folk music. The Coens seem more intent on re-creating a time in America, only to mock it with sardonic detachment. Yet their movie is set on the cusp of one of the most fascinating times in American musical history. Why feature a guy on the fringes, with few redeeming features, other than concern for a wayward cat?
Plus, I hate the fact that reviewers persist in saying that Llewyn Davis is based on Village folk singer Dave Van Ronk. It’s not. There are a few tidbits taken from his entertaining autobiography, but Van Ronk was never a scuffling dead beat like Davis. He was big, at least in folk music circles. At one time, Dylan said his only ambition was to be as “big” as Dave Van Ronk. Here’s a fascinating take on the movie by Terri Thal, Van Ronk’s wife at the time.
(I love this old photo of Dylan, girlfriend Suze Rotolo — on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan — and Dave Van Ronk.)
My view will be much in the minority, since the Coen brothers are such great film tacticians, seemingly incapable of making a bad movie. They, themselves, have expressed the hope that Inside Llewyn Davis will inspire others to discover the great folk music of the past. They have might have done better driving others to the sounds of those good old vinyl discs by making a movie that was less sour and more heartfelt.
Yet I do thank the brothers for returning this aging folkie, at least, back to the music he loved so much as a callow, know-it-all youth. The last few days have been full of mellow nostalgia.