Dusting 'Em Off
Revisiting an album, a film, or an event on its anniversary

Don’t Look Back: Seeing the Real Bob Dylan at Last?

on May 28, 2017, 12:00pm

Dusting ‘Em Off is a rotating, free-form feature that revisits a classic album, film, or moment in pop-culture history. This week, Editorial Director Matt Melis disobediently revisits D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary Dont Look Back 50 years later.

“You seem to be relating to a handful of cronies behind the scenes now – rather than the rest of us out front. Now that’s all okay – if that’s the way you want it. But then you’re a different Bob Dylan from the one we knew. The old one never wasted our precious time…” –Irwin Silber, Sing Out! Nov. 1964.

These scathing words from Sing Out! editor Irwin Silber came on the heels of Bob Dylan’s second 1964 release, Another Side of Bob Dylan. In January of that year, Dylan’s The Times They Are a-Changin’ had earned him praise in folk circles and strengthened the fervor, among some, to anoint the songwriter the voice of his generation. But Another Side, recorded and released in the summer of ’64, revealed an artist who refused to be pinned down so neatly. Gone were the gritty protest anthems that depicted the plight of the poor, minorities, and other marginalized peoples, replaced instead by songs that turned inward to matters of the heart, adopted humor, and viewed the world through a more surrealist bent.

Many purists would never forgive this perceived affront, just as more still would abandon Dylan’s corner after his electric set at 1965’s Newport Folk Festival. While it’s true that pockets of his original audience clearly felt betrayed by their brightest son’s decision to shelve the high calling of protest anthems for the frivolity of pop songs and pervert a venerated tradition with electric current, there’s something far more personal present in the criticism of Silber. The phrase “the one we knew” stands out. Whether through the language and sentiments of the songs themselves, a perceived set of shared principles, or perhaps by actually standing alongside the songwriter at a protest or concert, Silber and those in his camp assumed they knew the real Bob Dylan. All these years later, that’s a claim that very few would make regarding one of pop culture’s most enigmatic figures.

Who’s the real Bob Dylan?

That’s a question the public have been trying to answer since the young folkie first mysteriously appeared on the Greenwich Village scene in the early ‘60s, channeling songs chock-full of characters and wisdom from a bygone era. Even today, fans scour Dylan’s increasingly few interviews for scraps to flesh out the scraggly man behind those songs. In his lone exclusive in support of this year’s three-disc covers LP, Triplicate, Dylan divulged such juicy tidbits as he listens to Amy Winehouse and, when on the tour bus, binges episodes of I Love Lucy. Admittedly, not much to go on. In a social media era in which we expect to be welcomed to peek into a celebrity’s life – artificial as the vista may be – Dylan surrenders precious little in the rare glimpses we get of him. That’s hardly surprising. We forget, perhaps, that Dylan was one of the first celebrities people felt entitled to not only know more about but to actually meet — proper time and place be damned. After all, the aging troubadour was once a young father who had “disciples” camping on his front lawn and tiptoeing across the roof of his Woodstock home while his family slept inside. Society has just never been able to bring itself to see Dylan as he claims to view himself: as a songwriter – no more, no less.

In 1965, Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, asked American filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker to tag along with his handheld and capture a two-week stretch of concerts in England, culminating in back-to-back performances at London’s famous Royal Albert Hall. The resulting film, Dont Look Back (intentionally absent the apostrophe), now sits preserved by the Library of Congress and remains groundbreaking in several respects in addition to its insights regarding Dylan. The documentary, which captures several performances of songs in full or part, serves as an early example of the concert film. Pennebaker’s famous footage of Dylan shuffling through cue cards of the lyrics to “Subterranean Homesick Blues” in an alleyway with Allen Ginsberg and Bob Neuwirth in the background acts as arguably the first modern music video, 16 years prior to the launch of MTV. And Pennebaker’s fly-on-the-wall (often more like fly-on-the-shoulder) take on observational cinema — perched in hotel rooms, stalking through corridors, and ducking into tight dressing rooms with subjects — heightens the sense that audiences are getting a glimpse of the real Bob Dylan without an intermediary or the agenda and bias that accompany many documentaries.

In the last scene of the documentary, Dylan and his entourage escape a throbbing Royal Albert Hall crowd into a limousine, where Grossman mentions that British papers have started calling the singer an “anarchist.” A bemused Dylan then turns and jokingly says, “Give the anarchist a cigarette.” It’s a light, if bewildering, moment for Dylan and his companions, but it also gets at the crux of much of the film — the gap between Dylan’s self-perception and the public’s vision of him, which attempts to fill the unknowable cracks with broad, encompassing labels like anarchist. Throughout the film, Pennebaker catches countless moments that show young and old, fans and media alike taking stabs at who they think the real Bob Dylan might be: interviewers fruitlessly try to peel back layers to discover his “message,” one critic likens Dylan to a preacher and his performance to a sermon, and British youth unanimously side with Dylan the harmonica-sirening messenger over the groovy rock and roll cat. Nobody, save for Dylan’s cohorts, gets to see the humanizing moments Pennebaker captures through his camera, so words like pop star, singer, or songwriter all fall woefully short as descriptors.

If the English fans Dylan encounters in Dont Look Back could only see Pennebaker’s dailies, no doubt their perception would be altered. Instead of an “anarchist,” they’d see a warm, goofball type gaining a grasp on his fame while upending society through the menacing act of quietly killing time between concerts and various commitments. Yes, for all the whirlwind surrounding Dylan’s visit across the pond, the aggravating respondent he makes as he plays coy with interviewers trying to tap into the mystery behind his rise to stardom, and one confrontation over a glass being thrown intro the street from a balcony (somewhere, Keith Moon is yawning), most of the documentary finds Pennebaker observing a lazy hotel room or an anxious pre-show dressing room. Dylan laughs about the fickle press with Alan Price (then-recently of The Animals), types while Joan Baez strums guitar and sings and others sprawl out on couches, swaps songs with Scottish singer Donovan, and nervously soaks his harmonica or plunks a piano before taking the stage. These actions may not be on the itineraries of most budding revolutionaries, but they do capture Dylan at both his most candid and contemplative — intimate glimpses that rarely, if ever, feel like acts for the camera.

But as fascinating as it is to peek in and eavesdrop on what appears to be an authentic Bob Dylan, Dont Look Back captures something that’s perhaps even more indicative of the songwriter’s nature: Dylan in transition. Throughout his visit to England in ’65, he was still playing strictly acoustic sets of old material mixed with non-electric numbers from his recently released Bringing It All Back Home, and it’s dreadfully clear he’s already moved beyond it all, weary of having to act like someone he was rather than the artist he now is. He still belts out a song like “The Times They Are a-Changin'”, but gone are the boyish haircut, workmanlike denim, and down-home twang, replaced by the wild, unkempt hair of Blonde on Blonde, a flowing leather jacket, and a beat poetry vernacular that he surely didn’t pick up in Hibbing, Minnesota. That’s an electric guitar, not a harp, that Dylan gawks at in a shop window, and only a couple months later he would face the boos at Newport alongside Mike Bloomfield on guitar and Al Kooper on organ for an abbreviated three-song electric set that drew a line in the proverbial sand. Dont Look Back may have a single subject in Dylan, but in a very real sense, the film depicts one artist busy being born while another is busy dying.

In one light, but telling, moment, Dylan asks a teenage fan if she likes it when he plays with a full band. She rather bluntly tells him no, a bit embarrassed by her own frankness, but sincere just the same. That simple exchange may actually go a long way toward explaining what fans and critics like Irwin Silber must have felt like during Dylan’s mercurial ’60s. Just when they felt like they finally knew him, he was already someone else. Even if Pennebaker’s film captures an authentic Bob Dylan, that artist was long gone by the film’s release in 1967, following Dylan’s ’66 motorcycle crash, withdrawal from touring, and the upcoming acoustic parables of John Wesley Harding. Pennebaker took his documentary’s title from a famous saying by baseball great Satchel Paige: “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” Bob Dylan has rarely ever looked back over the course of his more than 50 years in the public eye. If he ever does, it’s pretty clear what he’d see: us, trying to keep up, desperately.

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