Australian Arts

Bob Dylan

23 October 2021

9:00 AM

23 October 2021

9:00 AM

Only in Australia and perhaps only in Sydney, that cradle of the cons and the jailers, the Rum Corps and the Dismissal, could the pubs open at midnight to signal the end of a lockdown that tested everybody’s sanity. Melbourne, that city that can seem like a mask on the face of Australia, that city of isms and operators, might be built for austerity, but not Emerald City, the harbourside dreamscape that presents Australia’s face even if it sometimes looks like a Dobell painting.

Sydney is set in the new year to get (of all things) a Bob Dylan jukebox musical, Girl from the North Country. It’s named after that signature tune from the first Dylan LP where he wrote all the material himself, Freewheelin’. That’s the ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ one and it’s likely to be the first one people encountered a lifetime ago when they decided to get into Bob Dylan.

It’s also the song that he used to signal his change to a more relaxed and poppier style. Some of us remember exactly where we were, as people do with Kennedy’s assasination and 9/11, when they first heard the dreamy, croony duet Dylan and Johnny Cash made of the late Sixties version of ‘Girl from the North Country’ when they heard it at the start of Nashville Skyline.

It wasn’t the first time Dylan had been accused of undergoing a radical metamorphosis. There had been the shift from his folk/acoustic style to the electric rock that overtook him a few years later and produced such masterpieces of the nascent concept album format as Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisisted, and the double LP album Blonde On Blonde. But that had been an offence against the puritans, a highlighting of colour and accompaniment that offended their objection to icons, it wasn’t a change of essence. And nor was John Wesley Harding with its country style precisions which nevertheless allowed Jimi Hendrix to do his famous cover version of ‘All Along the Watchtower’. Dylan was still the kind of songwriter – in fact the only songwriter on earth – who could begin a song ‘I dreamed I saw Saint Augustine’.

After Nashville Skyline he became a different, lesser figure, despite the arguable return to form brilliance of Blood on the Tracks which some supersmart millennials who have discovered him like a lost classicism think is his best album. You can relish moments like, ‘Relationships have all been bad / Mine have been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud’ – an apt index of horribleness given the streetboy poet who wrote like an angel (let’s say as well as Gerard Manley Hopkins or Walt Whitman) and the very established musician of words who tried to shoot him.


And, of course, there are the manifest glories of ‘Shelter from the Storm’ or ‘Tangled up in Blue’. Would it be fair to say that the Dylan of Blood on the Tracks sounds like the work of a very good singer-songwriter who’s been influenced by Bob Dylan?

None of which is to deny that kind of crippled Caruso quality of all Dylan, a song like ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ is a superlative pop song, with a lovely melody and a beautiful poignancy but it’s minor Dylan.

Still, a Dylan jukebox musical will be some kind of fascination. Girl from the North Country is set in Montana in the 1930s and will include ‘Hurricane’ and ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. It’s by Connor McPherson and hails from London’s Old Vic. The cast will include the versatile Lisa McCune, the Blue Heeler beloved of everybody, who made a fair fist of Nellie Forbush in South Pacific a few years ago, Zara Newman who can do anything, and that old knight of the theatre Peter Carroll who you would be a bit less surprised to see playing Fagin in Oliver! (In The Christian Brother he gave one of the great performances in the history of the Australian stage.)

Dylan was seen at the height of his powers here back in 1966 when his performances were comparable to the Albert Hall ones you can see in Pennebaker’s rough but irreplaceable doco Don’t Look Back.

One testament to the magic and the magisterium of the man is the responses he elicited in Australia. You can still hear people who went to school with him at Melbourne High talk about Adrian Rawlins who was the one person Dylan became close to on that long ago Australian visit.

But he also had a huge influence on Brett Whiteley with his vast bravura painting talent and he is a significant guiding star for one of our greatest late Romantic poets, that songster of the Hawkesburn, Bob Adamson.

Do we associate the films of Ingmar Bergman with the Sixties? Well, hardly in an exclusive way. Old files will reveal that the film critic of the Melbourne Herald – long before Rupert recaptured it for the dynasty – one Roberts Dunstan gave Bergman’s The Virgin Spring the rarely allocated laurel wreath way back in 1960.

Is it odd, though, to associate the great Swedish film director with anything other than cinema? Not really, because he was a stage director who wrote for the stage and used his stage actors in his films and he also made television. There’s also the sense that Bergman’s scripts come out of such a mastery of text-driven dramaturgy that they lend themselves to the stage in an all but automatic way without the coercion involved in, at the top end, Ivo Van Hove’s Obsession with Jude Law, from the early Visconti film Il Postino. Or at a more ordinary level, Australian adaptations of film like Simon Phillips’ version of Hitchock’s North by Northwest or Sam Strong’s version of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity that seemed slightly wrong-headed attempts to emulate the brilliance of the Patrick Barlow/Maria Aitken Thirty Nine Steps (based not on the John Buchan novel but the very loose Hitchcock film adaptation with Robert Donat).

Scenes From A Marriage was actually written for television though Australia’s Joanna Murray-Smith did a stage version of it for Trevor Nunn. Now it’s on TV again (or a free adaptation of it) with Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac and the upshot is as enthralling as it is eviscerating.

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