“The conscience of our generation,” who “has his finger on the pulse of his generation” and who “changed the way we [again, our generation] think”–These are the phrases that I heard over and again during the four hours of Martin Scorsese’s Bob Dylan documentary on the PBS American Masters series. (Scorsese is so skillful a movie maker he could probably make even me look like an “American Master”!)
It’s interesting that Dylan came from Minnesota, the same state as Scott Fitzgerald and his creation Jay Gatsby. Dylan (born Zimmerman) is nothing if not Gatsbyesque. Like Gatsby, Dylan believed he had been born in a strange land (the rural town of Hibbing) and was thus compelled to spend his life trying to find his way home and, like Gatsby, Dylan’s “home” was New York City where “anything can happen…even Gatsby.” As James Gatz, the poor farm boy, recreated himself as Jay Gatsby, the aristocrat, Bob Zimmerman, the middle class Jewish son of a small businessman, recreated himself as a wandering minstrel/poet like Woody Guthrie.
After watching Scorsese’s film, I thought of Nick Carraway’s comment on Gatsby as having “turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams.” Similarly, Dylan emerges from this apotheosis all right, but the foul dust that still floats in his wake is another matter.
That foul dust was on display in the narcissistic, self-righteous ramblings of Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Peter Yarrow, Alan Ginsberg and other ruins of the 1960’s. They convey the idea that the 60’s was greater than fifth century Athens or the Italian Renaissance or Shakespeare’s London, and all because the smartest, most sensitive, most caring and engaged (as opposed to the most spoiled and pampered) generation in the history of the world was alive and “young.” Dylan, for the most part, doesn’t go along with all that, if what he says in the interview that he did for the film is to be believed.
So, what this film and most of the self-congratulatory comments about it reveal is that the 60’s are not dead and that the true believers back then are still true believers today. And if you think about it, you can hear the voices of Seeger, Baez and Ginsberg in the voices of Maureen Dowd (who seems to know about nothing but pop culture), Paul Krugman, Frank Rich, and all the others in the media and in show biz whose only direction home is back to the 1960’s: Vietnam, Watergate, and the self-righteousness of their youth.