Bob Dylan’s 75th birthday on May 24th almost coincides with the 50th anniversary of D.A. Pennebaker’s remarkable film Dont Look Back. To celebrate all this, the Morrison Hotel Gallery (at 116 Prince Street, 2nd Floor, New York), in partnership with Arthouse 18, will offer a Dylan exhibit from the film from May 18th to June 14th. The exhibit will also be at the Gallery inside the Sunset Marquis Hotel in West Hollywood from June 11th through June 26th. All the images displayed in these exhibits are available for purchase.
I still vividly recall seeing the film in September 1967 when it arrived in New York. I didn’t realize it would provide a record of Dylan’s final solo acoustic tour. It was filmed in England from the end of April to May 10, 1965. I was impressed watching Allen Ginsberg in the background of the famous opening with Dylan tossing aside large cards with parts of the lyrics to the accompanying sounds of Subterranean Homesick Blues. The great irony is that the whole song is performed, unlike the relatively brief snippets of songs in the film itself. In that sense it’s a deliberately anti-documentary. It’s in black and white. It’s jumpy. The refusal to use an apostrophe in the film’s first word might be a sly wink at Dylan’s attitude toward grammatical rules or it might be a Joycean attempt to play with language or it might be a mistake. At any rate, Dylan didn’t need to follow Satchel Paige’s dictum. No one was ever going to gain on Bob Dylan.
The film’s virtue was to capture a crucial moment, a pivotal moment, in Dylan’s life. He was under enormous pressure. On July 25th he would be at Newport and ignite a storm because the ghost of electricity would howl in the bones of his guitar. He would soon be marrying Sara, but Joan Baez took herself along on the trip, and he had to find a way to come to distances with her. Everybody wanted a piece of Bob Dylan.
Every time I saw the film, I was attracted and repelled by an overwrought, spoiled, or petty Dylan struggling to balance his responsibilities and his audience and his art. Some (but not all) of the outtakes of the film were released as Bob Dylan 65 Revisited. In that film, we see another side of Bob Dylan, one in which, for example, he talks kindly to British children and teenagers. It was almost like this sweet side was expunged from the original to create a particular image.
I once asked Pennebaker what it was like to work with Dylan, and the director offered an interesting response. “In everybody’s life he was like a shadow. He just sort of went through their lives and out the front door…He just was hardly there.” It’s a telling observation. Dylan’s elusive lyrics emerge from an elusive person, as though he needs to keep the heart of his being completely private. That unsettled self can shock us or lead us to consider the stability that we think we have.
There are little gems in the film, such as seeing Dylan being able to concentrate in the surrounding chaotic circus of his entourage. There’s a fascinating scene in which Dylan, Baez, and Bobby Neuwirth are singing Leon Payne’s remarkable song Lost Highway, a song Hank Williams made famous. Neuwirth has to prompt Dylan about the first verse, which begins with “I’m a rolling stone.” Dylan wrote Like a Rolling Stone at the Roger Smith Hotel in Washington and released the song a few months later on July 20, 1965.
When Dylan fans look back at this film, they will find a lot to see.
Happy 75th to the man we can see but never know.