OH YEAH, NOW I REMEMBER WHAT I WAS MAD ABOUT (Bob Dylan, the Coen Brothers and Why I Still Need Rock and Roll: Session #11)

Inside Llewyn Davis–Coen Brothers, 2013


One reason I keep listening to music–even really familiar music–is that it keeps paving the road to understanding (not to mention truth, beauty, peace, love and harmony, besides which, people who can dance can dance to it and make me smile).

When I saw this in the theater I considered writing a long, semi-angry piece on its shortcomings (while acknowledging it had some of the Coen Brothers’ usual strengths). Time and circumstance intervened and I basically abandoned the idea.

But, this being Bob Dylan week at my house and all, I found a moment from his eponymous first album that crystalized why I thought the movie failed.

I already knew (and, had I managed to finish that original piece, would certainly have emphasized), that this (see below!) was faster, funnier, more melodic and, you know, TRUER (not to mention autobiographical, though I hasten to add that is not always the same thing as “true,” since autobiography can lie its shiny white posterior off as fast as anything else in this god-almighty-world) than any single element of Inside Llewyn Davis, forget the whole mish-mashed thing.

But “Creeque Alley” was told looking back, from the standpoint of what turned out to be not-very-stable fame and fortune which did not yet know quite how very-unstable it was going to be.

Meaning it maybe had an unfair advantage over a fictional film that was set in the days just before the Greenwich Village folk scene became a big, freaking deal.

Catching up with Dylan’s first this week, though, I was taken back to the heart of the moment–the very point in time which the Coens were trying to recapture (albeit for purposes that remained obscure both while I was watching the film and, later, wondering what I might have missed).

And, this time, it was the man whose ascendance would be part and parcel with all the reasons why anyone would want to make a film about that moment fifty years later, who brought the point home.

By being–you guessed it–faster, funnier, (at least a bit) more melodic, and, you know, TRUER (not to mention autobiographical in ways that almost certainly amounted to Robert Zimmerman lying his shiny white posterior off).

The point is, you can listen to either one of these records for the five hundredth time and still have no doubt the people who wrote and sang those words had lived lives worth making movies about–and that they were the tip of a communal iceberg.

I left Inside Llewyn Davis wondering if the early sixties’ folk scene had even happened at all–let alone how the world I had just seen depicted (if it really did exist) could have ever amounted to anything anyone might care about.

I probably took the smug nature of the film’s failures a little more personally than usual because those failures were, for me, a tad personal. I didn’t feel defensive about what the film mocked, because none of the things (or people) it mocked came anywhere near representing anything (or anyone) remotely realistic.

But I did care about what it ignored–which was the music itself.

I mean, they didn’t get any of it right. Some of it was pretty, some of it was “authentic,” some of it was “poetic,” some of it was obviously meant to be parodic. But the stuff that worked didn’t work the way commercial folk music worked and the stuff that failed (which was almost all of it) didn’t fail in the ways commercial folk did either.

If I took all this a little too hard, it was perhaps because commercial folk music–the music of big city Leftists–was my first musical love. It was my first musical love because it found its way to my conservative Christian world by virtue of the very good hearts so many of the folkies wore so proudly on their sleeves–conscientious hearts which seemed very much in tune with the world I knew.

And if that didn’t give me enough of a stake, there was the added fact that encountering the music that grew out of that scene–the folk rock of the Byrds specifically–was the first great leap to freedom I ever found in art (and, not at all incidentally, fully at one with the leap I had long since found in faith).

In other words, if somebody was going to make a movie about Greenwich Village in the early sixties, I wanted it to be skillful, sure (which Inside Llewyn Davis certainly is), but I also wanted it to be, you know…


By which I very specifically do not mean merely “factual.”

What I really wanted was for it to maybe, just maybe, catch the spirit–in what is very likely to be the most high profile film ever made about this “scene”–of at least one of the thousand or so great records that (directly and indirectly) went forth from it and changed the world just a little bit for the better.

Like this, maybe:


And this–the thing that would have been worth doing, if you were going to make a film about that particular time and place which could not have been set in any other time or place because it honored what was unique about its subject matter–is something Inside Llewyn Davis, sadly, did not even attempt.

Fortunately, we do still have all those records. So maybe I’ll just keep listening.

7 thoughts on “OH YEAH, NOW I REMEMBER WHAT I WAS MAD ABOUT (Bob Dylan, the Coen Brothers and Why I Still Need Rock and Roll: Session #11)

  1. I will lower my expectations of the movie in the hope of not being disappointed. Your song choices are lovely. Dylan’s salute to Woody Guthrie rings true. Chimes of
    Freedom took my breath away with its timeliness, then and now. Here’s to changing “the world a little bit for the better.”

  2. It’s by no means a bad film…I just found it a little hollow and very much a missed opportunity. I mean, I doubt we are going to get another big budget film about the early sixties’ folk scene any time soon!

  3. NJ

    Well, you know I like responding to your pieces, but I tend to like to know about what you are talking about. Here meaning INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS. Much as I usually enjoy Coen brothers’ movies, when my wife and I sat back to watch it on DVD, we had rough going from the start and wound up taking it off within the first 30 minutes or so. Aside from nothing happening and our dislike of the protagonist, it didn’t put out any good good good vibrations or excitations. It didn’t feel right. (On the other hand, we loved A MIGHTY WIND.)

    As for the Byrds: “Mr. Tambourine Man” was the record that first made me realize (at the tender age of 13) that there was potential for rock and roll as an “intelligent” medium. And wouldn’t it have been nice if the extraordinary “Chimes Of Freedom” had been the follow-up single? Mein Gott, but hearing that / sharing that / (some even grokking that) (although it wouldn’t have been me as I may have been post-adolescent but I was still pre-grokking) on AM radio coming out of car speakers while driving to the beach and on hand-held transistor radios (remember them?) at the beach might have ushered in the Age of Aquarius a summer or two sooner . . .


    PS: Dominic Priore spends a considerable amount of time discussing the impact of this song when the Byrds played it on stage at Ciro’s in his book RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP. Must read if you haven’t already.

  4. I tend to have mixed feelings about the Coens but I guess I like them well enough as I’ve seen quite a few of their movies. True Grit was the first one I liked well enough to watch more than once….Inside Llewyn Davis was the first I thoroughly disliked, for all the reasons you mention and more. I can think of lots of good reasons to make a serious film about the early sixties folk scene but apparently none of those reasons occurred to them and the satire element wasn’t nearly sharp enough to work on its own (not to mention that A Mighty Wind, which I haven’t seen but have heard lots of good things about, probably did it better).

    Funny enough, the Byrds had basically the same effect on me that they had on you…only later. Bought their Greatest Hits for $3.49 in the bargain bin the week I graduated high school in 1978. Had heard of them but never heard their actual music….One play and I knew I was in this for the long haul!

    I’ll definitely add your book recommendation (just received Outlaw Blues btw so hope to be reading/reviewing it in the next couple of weeks)…Always fascinated by L.A. in the sixties!…also strongly recommend John Kaye’s Dead Circus if you haven’t read it. Set in the same time and place and opens with the night the Bobby Fuller Four became the house band at Ciro’s.

  5. DJ

    I like enough of the Coens catalog to have HUGELY disappointed by LLEWYN DAVIS.

    A MIGHTY WIND is a labor of love and it’s a love for the type of commercial folk/pop that folkies love to loathe. Everyone is bloody fabulous but my decades long crush on Parker Posey makes her my favorite.

    Paul Williams’s review of THE BYRDS GREATEST HITS (it is in OUTLAW BLUES) is legendary. It should be required reading for all the nitwits who put together Greatest Albums of All Time articles and exclude compilations.


    PS: One night in 1970, I was a temporary roadie for the Byrds (McGuinn, White, Parsons, and Battin). After getting their gear on stage, I spent the entirety of the first band’s set (Santana, believe it or not) hanging out backstage in conversation with McGuinn! Great time. Smart guy. Nice guy. Gotta write about it some time . . .

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