A dose of music
'Cause it's good for you: the music of your youth.
Music is an expression of the generation that creates it. The fierce power of a song is connective, and if that song is a song from your youth, the power can feel palpable and even transforming. As Graham Nash observes in Echo in the Canyon, "Beautiful music gets inside you." In fact, as researchers have discovered, familiar and beloved music can even stir and awaken memory in people with dementia.
With that in mind, it's hard not to feel you are doing something good for yourself just by seeking out and listening to the music of your youth. It has been a phenomenal summer for doing just that, with documentaries on Bob Dylan (Martin Scorsese's Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story), the "California Sound" that came out of Laurel Canyon in the mid-60s (Andrew Slater's Echo in the Canyon), and Cameron Crowe's fond but clear-eyed bio pic of the now frail-but-determined David Crosby (A.J. Eaton's Remember My Name). All three films were released to selected theaters this summer and are now available through - or on the way to - more widely accessible outlets.
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story. To tell the story of this remarkable concert tour, Scorsese intersplices original, behind-the-scenes and concert footage with old and new interviews. He also conjures a few tricks, so beware! (Google “Stefan van Dorp” and see what pops up.) Keep in mind: Dylan and Scorsese are thick as thieves, and you can be sure any sleight-of-hand in this sorta-documentary had the full-hearted approval and participation of both men.
In the summer of 1975, Dylan – whose star could not have been burning any brighter – wanted to try something different: to perform in smaller venues and – quite generously – he was willing to share both his coattails and his stage. “How come he’s coming here? How come he picked such a small place?” asks a teenage boy, clearly baffled to find his small town on Dylan’s itinerary. That quality of “smallness” was part of the point – and also the charm – of the original Revue, a series of tour de force performances by Dylan and those he invited to come long.
And whatever was going on in Bob Dylan’s head that year, he must have needed company, badly: Allen Ginsburg, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Ronnie Hawkins, Ronee Blakely, Bob Neuwirth, Sam Shepherd, Joni Mitchell, Roger McGuinn, T-Bone Burnett, Mick Ronson and others all joined his musical caravan. It may even be that Jack Kerouac's spirit came along for this musical road trip: included in the documentary is footage of Dylan and Ginsburg in a Lowell, Massachusetts cemetery, on a two-fan pilgrimage to Kerouac's grave.
Part of what makes Scorsese’s film interesting are the glimpses it provides of a bygone America, some of it viewed through the side window of the tour bus, which Dylan drives himself. “Boy, sure hope we get to Boston on time,” he says to no one in particular, as he pulls into traffic. There is a generation-shaping context to be acknowledged, too. When the Revue got rolling, America had been out of Vietnam for about two-and-a-half years, Nixon had been out of office for a little more than one year, and the government was preparing for the nation’s 200th birthday. Scorsese sets the scene with Bicentennial-related film clips, including souvenir hucksters in downtown Manhattan and clips of parades and small town boosterism. He throws in a clip of Nixon, too, probably because it's irresistible and because, well, it's hard to think of that era without him.
Both Dylan and Joan Baez were interviewed (separately) for this documentary, and it’s fun to see the two of them now. Baez, it must be said, looks fantastic: she may be aging better than anyone I’ve ever seen. If "Revue" has a shortfall, it is that Scorsese is not a particularly good interviewer – but then, Dylan is famously averse to being interviewed, so what we get is probably exactly what he wanted to say, and not one word more. (Actually, in a noisy world, Dylan's reticence is one of the things I have always liked best about him.) Still, he sounds reasonably himself when declaring, “Life isn’t about finding yourself or finding anything. Life is about creating yourself and creating things.”
Looking at film of Dylan from 43 years ago and now, I could not help but think how beautiful he was, and what an interesting man he remains. “Revue” left me with a renewed appreciation of his artistry. Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story is now on Netflix.
Echo in the Canyon. When I moved to Los Angeles years ago, my first civic activity was helping to sow alfalfa seeds in Laurel Canyon, which was then recovering from a wildfire. Though still finding my way around L.A., I already knew and associated Laurel Canyon with music. Echo in the Canyon begins with the opening chords of the Byrds' "Turn, Turn, Turn" and focuses on the Byrds and other bands (the Mamas and the Papas, Buffalo Springfield, and the Beach Boys) that lived and mingled there in the mid-60s. We hear stories about musicians and singers dropping by each others' houses to play music for, and with, each other -- sharing, influencing and creating what would eventually become known as the "California Sound". It a signally important moment in the development of a generation's music and you don't have to be a musicologist to appreciate it. As Jackson Browne points out, "With the Byrds, the real accomplishment is the melding of folk music and rock and roll."
The film is hosted by Jakob Dylan, who has inherited his father's blue eyes and sparing facial expression. That economy of emotional display gives his smile the weight of an award and, as it turns out, he's a sympathetic interviewer and guide - an easy presence on the screen. Dylan talks with producer Lou Adler and an extraordinary range of artists, including Jackson Browne, Brian Wilson, Graham Nash, Stephen Stills, Roger McGuinn, John Sebastian, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, David Crosby, and Tom Petty. In fact, "Echo" is the last recorded interview with Tom Petty, and the film is dedicated to him. Echo in the Canyon is now available to rent or buy on AppleTV, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Video.
Remember My Name. David Crosby, who turned 78 in August, is still writing, recording and performing, but the more remarkable thing -- this year or for any of the last 30+ years -- is that he is alive at all. Credit for this probably goes to his marriage of 32 years (to Jan Dance, who we see but from whom it would have been interesting to hear more). A founding member of three super groups -- the Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash (later Crosby, Still, Nash & Young) -- he is also a former heroin addict who spent time in prison on drugs and weapons charges.
Medically, today, Crosby can be likened to a hand grenade with the pin pulled: a diabetic with hepatitis C, he has racked up a liver transplant and has eight stents in his heart. Beyond the physical toll, he has a history of laying waste to friendships. Asked about Crosby's expulsion from the Byrds, Roger McGuinn says the Crosby he knew then was "insufferable": McGuinn is either a very polite and measured man, or the distance of years has helped to diminish the events that culminated in that split. In contrast, Graham Nash appears to still struggle, declaring that Crosby "tore the heart out of CSN and CSNY in the course of a few months.” Crosby himself doesn't dispute any of it. "Big ego, no brains," he says of his younger self. Still, when Cameron Crowe asks Crosby, "What happened to your friends?", the question makes you cringe. Crosby, however, hardly blinks. “All of the main guys that I made music with won’t even talk to me,” he says matter-of-factly. “There was boundaries I crossed that you haven’t thought of. I hurt a lot of girls. I hurt a lot of people."
So, how is it he now manages to come off as endearing? Remember My Name is currently in theaters. I'll update its post-theater availability shortly.