Don’t follow leaders: Dylan has long disliked the media’s “fancy labels”. Photo: Rex
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Why Bob Dylan can never shake off his fans

By the mid-1980s, Dylan had long been playing down the notion that he was the “voice of a generation”. Such strategies failed in the long run. 

In 1986, Bob Dylan sat in his trailer, his face worn and his nose running. It was early evening, just bright enough to inspire the singer to pick up a pen and start a scratchy portrait of his latest media adversary – a BBC interviewer called Christopher Sykes. “I’m not going to say anything you’re gonna get any revelations about,” he warned, his attention divided between doodle and interlocutor. Sykes, undeterred, asked Dylan about his fans’ conviction that he had all the answers – that he was “some kind of shaman”. A withering glance. “Shaman? I don’t know,” Dylan replied. “I don’t like that scene.”

By the mid-1980s, Dylan had long been playing down the notion that he was the “voice of a generation”; as early as 1965, he was exhausted by the “fancy labels” the media would place on him. “They got all these preconceived ideas about me,” he moaned. His often desperate attempts to shed that burden ranged from expressing identification with Lee Harvey Oswald while accepting a civil liberties award, weeks after JFK’s assassination, to releasing a deliberately patchy album “to get people off my back”. “The reason [1970’s Self Portrait] was put out [was] so people would . . . stop buying my records,” he later confessed.

Such strategies failed in the long run. “Don’t follow leaders,” he snarled in one lyric. “Trust yourself,” he exhorted in another. But as David Kinney confirms in his new book, The Dylanologists, the singer’s biggest fans are only too willing to be led. Collectors would search out relics, from school yearbooks featuring the young Robert Zimmerman to Baby Bobby’s high chair; the “Dylan pilgrim” Bill Pagel bought his childhood home in Duluth. A woman who masqueraded as Dylan’s sister led an itinerant life, following her idol on tour, and one day vanished, seemingly the victim of a serial killer operating in California.

Dylan has been unkind to his most loyal fans – having concert queues reversed, for instance, so that those who have waited longest get in after the stragglers. In his 2004 autobiography Chronicles, he dismissed his old audience as “past its prime”. But he, too, has always been a fan – of Woody Guthrie, of Elvis, of contemporaries such as John Lennon (whom he eulogised in the 2012 song “Roll On John”).

This month, Dylan released his version of a 1945 Sinatra tune, “Full Moon and Empty Arms” – a swoon of a recording that is unabashed about its indebtedness to Frank, to the extent that he even struggles to get his pitching right at the same tricky note (“The moon is there . . .”) that confounded Sinatra. It’s a beautiful performance that has had Bobcats in a flutter, speculating about a possible album that may or may not be due this August. And it will have them thinking: “He’s one of us!” For, as every Blonde on Blonde-quoting waistcoat-wearer in shades knows, emulation is the surest sign of fandom.

Yo Zushi's new album "It Never Entered My Mind" is released in July by Eidola Records. The single "Bye Bye Blackbird" is available now

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Peak Ukip

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era