The Cinch Review

Bob Dylan sings “Blind Willie McTell” in tribute to Martin Scorsese (video)

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At the 17th Annual Critics’ Choice Movie Awards, this very night. Clip embedded below. It is, in my view at least, a masterful performance by the 70 year-old song and dance man, and a nice representation—with good production values—of how he is at his best on the live stage these days.

You can go to a Bob Dylan concert, and he performs just as well as he did right there, but due to the vagaries of arenas and other venues and the general annoyance of the rock concert experience, you basically miss it. (Yeah, I’m speaking from my own jaded experience.) So it’s nice to see it and hear it. Bob Dylan is something else; not what he used to be, for sure, but literally something else.

Anyway, like me you might be wondering how Bob Dylan performing “Blind Willie McTell” (a song that he wrote around 1983 but which wasn’t officially released until the 1991 Bootleg Series collection) constitutes a tribute to Martin Scorsese. I guess the tribute part is just in Bob Dylan showing up. And, when they do the glitzy tribute for me in Hollywood a few decades hence, I’ll be quite happy with Bob merely showing up. He can do “Ninety Miles An Hour Down a Dead-End Street” for all I care (and actually that might be fairly appropriate).

With the camera switching at times to take in people in the audience like Steven Spielberg and Brad Pitt, what comes across to this viewer is just the power and strangeness of this guy, Bob Dylan, standing there at his age, having left in the dust all that has gone before, and putting across this intense tune to the glamorous and regal assembly.

Well, God is in His heaven
And we all want what’s his
But power and greed and corruptible seed
Seem to be all that there is
I’m gazing out the window
Of the St. James Hotel
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

There are many of his songs which he could have performed and the effect would have been similar. His songs grab human nature by the throat and throw it in your lap.

Martin Scorsese did the relatively recent “American Masters” thing on Dylan, of-course, and that’s quite a film, although Scorsese was mainly just an editor of a vast amount of material that was given to him. He did a nice job. But the more visceral link between Scorsese and Dylan in my mind is “The Last Waltz.” Every time I see that film—documenting the last concert by The Band—I am taken again with its compelling, epic quality. I don’t know that there’s been a better film made dealing with popular music, ever. I own it on DVD, but I don’t watch it over and over again, or watch particular clips. I just don’t like to use the TV that way. However, I’ve seen it in full perhaps five or six times in my life. It counts every time I see it. The first time would have been when I was a teenager, seeing it on television, maybe six or seven years after it came out. It shook me up. I recall that it was the first time I really saw Van Morrison, and came to some conception of who or what he was. His performance of “Caravan” totally blew me away, and I knew right then that I would have to somehow, some way, hear everything that he had ever done; I knew that nothing this man could ever have done could possibly be negligible or worthless. And that was so, and remains so.

Bob Dylan’s overarching presence in the film is fascinating. At the time I first saw it, I was experiencing the early excitement of having just gotten into Dylan. I was listening to Infidels and Shot of Love. It may be a matter of perception, but, in a way, I don’t think it is: Bob Dylan is somehow in the background of the whole film, the person everyone is waiting on to arrive, even though I don’t think he’s ever mentioned (or hardly). And arrive he does, in the end, with a bang, with “Baby Let Me Follow You Down” and the enormous, elegiacal “Forever Young.”

Martin Scorsese has done a lot of great work, obviously. But even if he’d only done “The Last Waltz,” he’d be deserving of recognition. It is nice that Dylan gave him some tonight, in his particular way.

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