Doonesbury, circa 1985:
Mark Slackmeyer: "It's three o'clock in the morning, and do you know where the children of the sixties are? Do you care? Dr. Dan Asher does, and as the baby boom's Boswell, he's back to give us the latest on everyone's favorite generation!"[...]
Doctor Dan: "You see, Mark, a truly cohesive generation only comes along once or twice a century. That's why the boomers will be tracked for the rest of their lives. This generation is like a great comet, blazing through the firmament, carrying with it a dream as boundless as the universe itself!"
MS: "Whew... How will we know when it's over?"
DD: "'Esquire' will run a piece on the hot new funeral homes."
... and Bob Dylan will be turned into a Broadway musical.
That musical, "The Times They Are A Changin'," choreographed by Twyla Tharp who successfully turned out the oeuvre of Billy Joel onto the Great White Way, closed this week after just 28 performances and 35 previews. Unlike her Billy Joelography, the adaptation of Dylan to the conceits of modern dance -- conceits including a circus, a man dressed as a dog, and cardboard guitars -- just didn't work.
But was it a failure for Dylan? Since his teens he has followed in the footsteps of Woody Guthrie. But in the post-mortems of the Arts section, I have yet to see that connection made -- because, you know, Woody once did the music for a modern dance piece, too, and had some trouble.
In the early 1940s, Woody Guthrie got together with Sophie Maslow, one of Martha Graham's top dancers who was putting together a show built around American folk music:
She explained what she'd been doing and suggested it might be fun to perform the songs together. Woody said he didn't see why not, and they spent a disastrous afternoon trying it out: Woody sang as he always did, with long, unexpected pauses which destroyed Sophie's timing and ruined the precise movements she'd developed from the records. After several false starts, she finally asked him, "Why do you have to stop all the time? Why can't you just sing it like you do on the record? Dancers can't work like that. They have to do it exactly the same way every time."
"Well," he said, "if I want to take a breath between verses, I play a few extra chords. And if I forget the lines and want to remember them, I play a few extra chords. And if I want to get up and leave town, I get up and leave town," and that was that.
(From Joe Klein's 1980 biography "Woody Guthrie: A Life," which is terrific no matter what you think of its author.)
Sophie persevered and, with another of Martha Graham's dancers named Marjorie Mazia, got Woody to come back and perform on a new version of the show they were working on called Folksay. Woody still couldn't confine himself to the measures and consistency you need for dance:
Woody was having trouble with his pauses again. He was supposed to sing "The Dodger," a Lee Hays song that Sophie had lifted from the Sodbuster Ballads album, and he just couldn't get it right, even when he was trying to get it right. "I can't sing like Lee Hays," he'd complain. "I haven't got asthma." But he had trouble on other songs as well, even familiar ones like "I Ride an Old Paint." He simply wasn't used to singing with the precision required for modern dance, and despite his best efforts he'd often send the dancers bumping into each other.
I love that image. You take the high-culture ideals of modern dance and try to stoop, high-mindedly of course, to incorporate into them the unpredictability, the aimlessness of the American migrant worker's life, the American street musician or labor organizer, and what do you get? The dancers smacking into one another. Ker-pow. Well, you wanted it raw and unadorned, didn't you?
Although Folksay, I believe, in the end met a better critical reception than Tharp's production has, I suspect the problem was the same. Dance is predictable, careful, precise. Guthrie, Dylan, folk, roots, is a little ugly, a little sharp here and flat there and faster and slower and different every time. A lot of it isn't played by a band, because there's no coordination. It's the migrant worker riding a train, it's the gypsy by the traveling-fire. It's not a circus, and it's not dogs or pirates. It ain't Cirque du Soleil.
It's good to try, though. Marjorie and Woody managed to bridge those worlds, in their own way, and with a lot of tumult and pain, and quite a bit of beauty and happiness, for many years. The fit between a Jewish girl from Brighton Beach and a dust-bowl Okie is probably no better than that between Broadway and Dylan, but sometimes these things work.
Dylan's attempt to embrace modern dance (he initiated the project) -- as well as, perhaps, its failure -- brings him farther down the path that Woody walked. If one watches, the act of Bob Dylan building his own legend is apparent: in the last few years, we've seen Dylan write his autobiography (Woody's was called "Bound for Glory"), host his own excellent radio show ("Theme Time Radio Hour" -- Woody got his start out in southern California hosting a similar radio variety show, playing a few songs and telling jokes and stories in between), and even be enshrined in a museum (ok, I don't know if Woody ever did that in his time). All that's left is for him to start doodling cartoons for a communist workers' newsletter.
If I were to compose the musical of Dylan's songs, that's the story I would go with -- not a circus show but a road trip, with a kid setting out to find his hero somewhere between the Grand Canyon and the mental hospital:
I'll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest,
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty,[...]
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten,
Where black is the color, where none is the number,
And I'll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it,
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it,
Then I'll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin',
But I'll know my song well before I start singin'.
and I'd make sure to have the dancers smack into each other from time to time.