April 1, 2020

Dylan Is the Key to ‘Masked’ L.A.

“Masked and Anonymous” is a new movie starring Bob Dylan that premiered at Sundance. Director Larry Charles has described his film as an “apocalyptic spaghetti noir western.” No surprise: The reviews were not kind.

Nonetheless, “Masked and Anonymous” is a great title. It seems the perfect phrase to describe Dylan, even as a metaphor for his many personas over the years. At the same time, it is also a great metaphor for the city of Los Angeles and the lives we lead in it.

Until I started thinking about “Masked and Anonymous,” I never realized how intertwined Dylan is with Los Angeles.

When we think of Dylan, the New York folk scene comes to mind: Greenwich Village, where he first played and later lived, and Minnesota, from where he hails, or even “the road” of his never-ending tour.

But the truth is Los Angeles is Dylan’s home. It is where he has lived longer than anywhere else. It is where his ex-wives live, where his children were raised and where several of his children and grandchildren now live. It is where he boxes, where he davens. He is of Los Angeles.

My one encounter with Dylan took place here in Los Angeles several years ago. It was lunch time, and I was waiting to meet a friend on the back porch of the House of Blues. The door opened, and there I stood face to face with Dylan.

It was a hot day, and Dylan was wearing some sort of multicolored suit that looked more like the upholstery on a chair than everyday wear. His skin was pasty, and he had on dark glasses.

I looked at him, and he looked at me. And in the awkward way one does when you can’t have the conversation you always wanted to have, I thanked him for all the pleasure and companionship his music had given me over the years.

He didn’t say anything. Then I held out my hand, and he gave the limp-fish handshake, which was a disappointment — and he was gone.

But that is very much Los Angeles. Random run-ins with the great, the near-great and the ingrate. A town where you decide what you want to wear by how you feel, rather than what the weather is.

Sean Wilentz, the historian in residence at BobDylan.com (he’s also a professor of history at Princeton), feels there are several ways in which Dylan’s work is very expressive of Los Angeles. First of all, Dylan is of the West, and the West and its mythology has always been important to him.

Second is the importance of the movies in his work. Ever since he was a teenager, Dylan has been fascinated by the movies and by movie stars. Now he is very much a part of Hollywood. He’s received a Grammy as well as an Oscar (for best song on “Wonder Boys”) and seemed genuinely pleased to have done so.

More important is that Dylan’s songs are cinematic in their imagery. By way of example, Wilentz cites Dylan’s album, “Desire,” as filled with minimovies, such as “One More Cup of Coffee.” “The movies have played a great role in Dylan’s imaginative life,” Wilentz said.

I’ve lived in Los Angeles for almost a decade now. When I first visited in the late 1970s, I kept asking, “Where’s the city?” When I first drove my mother around the mansions of Beverly Hills, she asked, “Where are all the people?”

When friends would come to visit, it was hard to know where to take them to show them Los Angeles. I used to laugh about how real estate brokers sold homes by telling you who lived there and extolling the air (as in “the air is so much better on the Westside”), but Los Angeles is all about the light, the sun, the air, the people, the movies, the quality of life as it slips through your fingers.

Dylan may well be the poet laureate of our inner lives in this city. For its part, Los Angeles, like Dylan, is masked and anonymous, waiting for each of us to discover it.