The dude with the ‘tude
“If Bob Dylan is a poet, so is Cassius Clay.” So sneered Norman Mailer in 1965, before he realized what the sixties were about, and before he realized that he’d better get his existentialist, Greenwich Village, fifties ass in gear if he expected to turn a buck in a new decade. For the times they were a’changin’, and the dude who was making them change was a scrawny, middle-class Jew from Minnesota named Bob Dylan.
Bob Dylan wasn’t a poet – he was far too lazy for that – but he was a songwriter, and a new kind of songwriter. He was famous at age 23, thanks to Peter, Paul, and Mary’s recording of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and a legend at 25, when Don’t Look Back was filmed. The Beatles were the heart of the sixties – they started the tidal wave of emotion that reshaped the way people lived and felt about their lives – but Dylan was the brain. When hundreds of thousands of middle-class parents asked their kids where they got all that crap, they got back Dylan for their pains.
Don’t Look Back begins brilliantly. “Subterranean Homesick Blues”1 plays on the soundtrack, while a flawlessly deadpan Dylan holds up idiot cards with phrases from the lyrics scrawled on them, so you can get the message. (The most famous message from “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” of course, was “You don’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”). After that, we’re riding on tour with Dylan in England, courtesy of documentary filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker.
It’s the first half of Don’t Look Back that’s most enjoyable, thanks largely to the presence of folk goddess Joan Baez, also 25, at the height of her charms and in splendid voice.2 The shots of Joan and Bob have a wonderful duality. They’re “authentic,” but they’re also stars. They aren’t like you and me. They’re the purest of the pure, but the purer they get, the more money they make. They get paid not to sell out. They eat their cake and have it too. We see them together, bathing in a sea of psychic bliss: everyone beneath them is a loser; everyone above them is a phony. O joys untasted by lesser beings!
There are terrific sequences of impromptu, hotel room music-making. Dylan provides affectionate treatments of two Hank Williams tearjerkers, “Lost Highway” and “I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry,” while Joanie gives us wonderful versions of “Percy’s Song” and “Love Is Just a Four Letter Word” (both Dylan tunes), as well as “Family Reunion” (Hank Williams again).
What’s particularly intriguing about Joan and Bob is their complete identity as performers. If you can play, you’re okay. If not, you’re nobody.
Like life on the road, much of Don’t Look Back is dross. Dylan lacked the Beatles’ gift for witty banter with the press, so we’re stuck with several lengthy sessions of press baiting (“I don’t need Time magazine!”). The interviewers are such assholes that it’s hard to feel sorry for them, but eventually Dylan’s boorishness does the trick. We also get drunken arguments (“Who threw that fucking glass in the street? Who threw it? I’m not going to get fucking blamed for that.”), Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman bullying a bellboy (“Get the hell out here, you goddamn asshole.”), and Grossman kicking ass on the telephone (“Your offer is totally unacceptable.”).
Along for the ride, at least briefly, are pseudo-folk singer Donovan,3) Alan Price,4 and Marianne Faithfull.5 Beatnik poet Allen Ginsberg is billed, but he only appears for about five seconds, in a silent, static shot with Dylan that looks suspiciously posed. Are you sure this is a documentary?
A few bits and pieces of the film have a special flavor – shots of English teenyboppers earnestly straightening their hair so they can look like Joanie for Bob and a bizarre encounter between Dylan and a class-ridden English matron who invites him to stay at her “mansion-house” because her three sons admire him so much.6
The DVD Don’t Look Back is a must for the Dylan fan.7 In addition to the original film, there are five “bonus tracks” – stage performances of “To Ramona,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” and “It Ain’t Me, Babe.” If you want it, there’s also commentary from Pennebaker and tour manager Bob Neuwirth.
Don’t Look Back was Pennebaker’s first big-league documentary. A few years later he did Monterey Pop, the classic sixties rock film that helped launch Janis Joplin. More recently, he’s done films on David Bowie (1983) and Depeche Mode8 (1990), among others, as well as The War Room, a take on the 1992 Clinton campaign (and the recording of the original cast album of Company, trashed in this issue). All are available on DVD or VHS.
Though grizzled, both Dylan and his fans remain active. You can catch up with the fun at expectingrain.com.
- If you don’t know “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” you should either buy the DVD or skip this review entirely. [↩]
- David Hajdu’s article “Bound for Glory,” in the May 2001 issue of Vanity Fair (an excerpt from his forthcoming book Positively Fourth Street), gives an excellent picture of Bob, Joan, and the early sixties folk scene. [↩]
- Donovan scored in the mid- and late sixties with soft-druggie tunes like “Mellow Yellow” and “Sunshine Superman.” He faded from sight around 1970. (Or maybe I did. It’s tough to remember. [↩]
- Organist for the Animals. The Animals, goddamit, the Animals! “House of the Rising Sun”! Okay, forget it. Go watch ‘N Sync. And rot. [↩]
- Mick Jagger’s twenty-eighth girlfriend. She had a big hit in 1965 with the Richards-Jagger tune “As Tears Go By.” [↩]
- I couldn’t quite catch her identity – the wife of a lord mayor or something. She clearly assumes that everyone in the world knows who she is. [↩]
- If you are a Dylan fan, I hope you can come to terms with the charge leveled against Bob by the New Yorker‘s David Remnick (and who would know better?) that Joan left Bob’s tour “heartbroken,” because Bob wouldn’t let her appear on stage with him. Oh, Bob, you schmuck! How could you? [↩]
- French for “we suck,” according to Beavis and Butthead. [↩]