DYLAN, DAVE VAN RONK AND INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

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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. ImageFrom 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.

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(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.

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14 thoughts on “DYLAN, DAVE VAN RONK AND INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

  1. Thanks for this Rod, My greatest concert ever was floor seats at MLG for the Rolling Thunder Review. An acoustic set from Dylan followed by Dylan and the band. My friend John and I sharing a bottle of Johnny Walker Red and a pocket full of joints. Bliss!

  2. Of every single person who saw The Rolling Thunder Review, I am deeply envious….was that the Toronto concert his mother attended?
    tho I did see Dylan with The Band in 1974, in Seattle….we were close to the front!

  3. My old friend, Dave White, and I saw the Dylan show on Feb 19, 1966 at the Aud in Ottawa. We took two student nurses who we had met a couple of days previous. We never saw them again. I always lamented “wasting” such an important event on them until my wife observed recently that somewhere there are two women telling the same story.

  4. Your wife is pretty funny…..:)

    • Some months after, there was a great piece by Jules Siegel in the Saturday Evening Post where Dylan says “Ottawa is the worse hole in the universe and anybody who doesn’t agree can get out of the car right now”. We loved it and continue to quote this to each other forty-seven years later, kind of an inside joke. The truth is that the Aud was a hole but hearing Dylan ask me “how does it feeeeeel…?” is deep within me still.

  5. PK–

    Didn’t Dylan once kick Phil Ochs outta the car for being nothing more than a ‘journalist’?…

    Not bad company for Ottawa, I reckon.

    Regardless, thanks for pointing us towards the piece by Terri Thal Mr. M.

  6. I met Dave Van Rock by accident. He was playing in some Toronto dive, but not in Yorkville, and I had a record of his, and wanted to hear THAT music. Of course he did not oblige, and played whatever he wanted to. My wife-at-the-time took considerable offence to his lack of pandering, and she said so. He stopped in mid-show, and suggested what she might do with her opinion. She replied, it actually turned into a conversation about music, and one’s relationship with the audience. An evening of strong drink and strong cigarettes, and a charming man.

    Saw the Band with Dylan at Maple Leaf Gardens through a strong blue haze…

  7. Dylan and Ochs had a troubled relationship….Ochs was jealous of Dylan’s fame, and Dylan considered Phil Ochs a bit of a loser for sticking with his politics and getting drunk too much…

    that’s a great Van Ronk anecdote, George….his version of “Green, Green, Rocky Road” is to die for…besides folk, he also dabbled in hot jazz and, of course, the blues….

    • I was also a huge Phil Ochs fan but only saw him once, in 1965 when Mariposa was at Innis Lake. Also in the line-up: Joni Anderson, Son House and “Johnny” Hammond. I remember sitting on the grass during a songwriter workshop when Phil sang “Changes”, in the company of Joni and Ian & Sylvia, he had only just written it, as I recall. But the big moment for me, in my 19th year, was sitting in a downpour at the main stage while he sang “I’m Not Marching Anymore” and “Mississippi Find Yourself Another Country To Be Part Of” through a bull horn after the power failed. My kids tell me that I am stuck in the sixties. How could I not be?
      Paul Kyba

  8. You don’t want to know what Joni Mitchell had to say this year about Dylan. Laid him to waste. She ought to have asked;How does it feel though.

    • I did know about Joni Mitchell’s comments, re Dylan…a bit over-the-top, but Joni’s got quite cranky in recent years…..still, Dylan has never denied “borrowing”…he soaks everything up like a sponge, always has…..then re-shapes, brilliantly….

  9. great stuff….yes, Ochs is said to have written “Changes” while staying in Toronto, a place where he had a lot of friends…i saw Joni at the New Gate of Cleve in Yorkville….we went to hear Phil Ochs, but he was having trouble with his voice, and did only a short set…..then introduced, as a special guest, Joni Mitchell, who said she’d just married and her husband was from Detroit..i’d never heard of her, but she had a lot of fans in the audience and i really remember her song “Circle Game”, since everyone seemed to know the chorus and sang along…i remember also, she was beautiful, and classic folk singer: long straight blonde hair, one piece mini dress and a big guitar..such fun

  10. I was told at the time that those days would last forever…

    • I thought someone then already sang about Times a changin, and his Bob Dylan Dream pictured a scene of nostalgia that pointed out how time slips through your fingers if you hang onto it… That’s why Dylan is still relevant, he pines for the old but he makes it into something new even surpassing what’s called modern in its day, and yes, for tht you have to borrow and steal and then turn it into your own art… Joni is expressing her personal feelings, and doing it pretty well if you like her sophisticated meanderings and too pretty birdlike singing (me not always), Dylan is into the vast dreamterritory that Jung hinted at with his hypothesis of the shared subconcious that has its roots in the archetypical reality we all experience, and funny thing, he would probably call this remark intelectual rubbish, and I like him for that, just as I admire his real singing, a thing you could hear too when listening to the old blues men and women.

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