Bob Dylan | Bob Dylan

May 24, 2012
By

Robert Allen Zimmerman (b. May 24, 1941)

GEMINI

GEMINI

GEMINI

GEMINI

GEMINI

“Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble,/Ancient footprints are everywhere./You can almost think that you’re seein’ double/On a cold, dark night on the Spanish Stairs.”—”When I Paint My Masterpiece” (1971)

On August 30, 1964, a Sunday, Manhattan lay swathed in the heat of a summer afternoon. In their air-conditioned luxury suite high above the intersection of Park Avenue and 59th Street, the Beatles could hear the faint screams of fans who had gathered reverently on the sidewalks around the Delmonico Hotel, hoping to catch a glimpse of Paul, George, John, or Ringo peering from behind a curtain. Those screams had rung in the Beatles’ ears for seven months as the cresting wave of Beatlemania rose higher and higher with no end yet in sight. In April the top five places in Billboard Magazine’s Top One Hundred chart were Beatles songs. On August 12, the film A Hard Day’s Nighthad opened in more than 500 theaters nationwide, earning more than $1.3 million its first week and making Beatlemania a performance for millions of fans to watch and join vicariously. In late August, the Beatles had five singles on the American charts and were winding up a triumphal coast-to-coast concert tour of the United States. Now, as they rested from their performance at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium the night before, they talked to their guest, Bob Dylan, who had driven down from Woodstock to see them. Without fanfare, Dylan pulled a couple of joints from his pocket, put a match to the twisted end of one, and passed it over. For the first time ever, the Beatles were about to get high.This was, without doubt, one of the most consequential moments in the history of twentieth-century American popular culture. But it was also just five guys getting stoned. It was the birth of a cultural sensibility that would one day colorize Pleasantville, but it was also the first shot fired in the War on Drugs. Within a year, Dylan would release Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, albums that introduced many thousands of American teenagers to his peculiarly mordant version of the psychedelic sensibility and forever altered the ambitions of rock ‘n’ roll. More slowly and more elaborately, and ultimately reaching a far wider audience, the Beatles would follow the path marked out by getting high, an experience Paul McCartney called “really thinking for the first time.” Over the course of the next two years, long before most American teenagers of the ’60s had even heard of, much less taken, psychedelics, millions would find themselves stumbling after the Beatles as they raced from the innocent enthusiasms of Beatles for Saleto Lennon’s murky encouragement to turn off their minds, relax, and float downstream. By 1969, according to a Gallup survey of fifty-seven college campuses, 31 per cent of students said they had smoked pot, and between 10 and 15 per cent had experimented with LSD. That is, at least 10 to 12 million smoked marijuana and between 1 and 2 million dropped acid. (As noted earlier, the ’60s are still with us: In 1997, 49.6 per cent of high school seniors said they had smoked pot, while 13.6 per cent said they had taken acid.) But the long-term cultural consequences of this moment in history cannot be measured simply in terms of such numbers. Rock ‘n’ roll brought psychedelics into popular culture even for the millions of Americans who never knew what marijuana smelled like. For better and for worse, the fusion of rock and psychedelics helped change fashion, art, politics, and social attitudes about everything from sex to schooling.

. . . . From the moment the Beatles smoked pot and started “really thinking for the first time,” they joined Dylan in creating an entirely new kind of popular music—popular music saturated with an intense awareness of itself, of its paradoxical cultural functions, and of the relationship, at once symbolic and intimate, between rock performers and the rock audience. Suddenly, rock would strive to be adequate not just to the angst of teenage romance but to a world composed of blue whales near extinction, police cars overturned by anti-racist anger, sex experts pontificating on breasts and brains, Vietnamese Buddhists and Catholics fighting one another in Saigon, tired American policy-makers driving home from the Pentagon on an August afternoon, DDT settling in clouds over American lawns, policemen on horseback struggling to maintain order against a mob of shrieking starlings, The Naked Society lying next to Candy on a bedside table, the muffled sound of traffic, the thrum of air conditioning pulling power from a distant nuclear plant, and deep down in the heart of Texas President Lyndon Baines Johnson folksily defending his recent decision to send planes over the Gulf of Tonkin with the fateful lie that would cost so many lives: “We let them know that we were prepared to back it up, and we did back it up. We said to them you must leave your neighbors in peace and you mustn’t shoot at American destroyers without expecting a reply.”

Something was happening here . . . but what?

—an excerpt from Tomorrow Never Knows: Rock and Psychedelics in the 1960s by Nick Bromell
 

The film shifts to Newport ’64. Dylan is telling the audience he was a poor kid from a northern Minnesota mining town who ran away form home seventeen times and was brought back home sixteen. This is not quite the truth—he grew up a middle-class city boy—but forget that, for he is “Mr. Tambourine Man,” ready to be let into our dreams: “cast your dancing spell my way,/I promise to go under it.” The crowd roars back in response. Joan Baez introduces Dylan as “George Washington,” father of the nation. The two do a number, Baez imitating Dylan imitating Baez. “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” they half-smile. This is just a song; they are the ones for each other, and for everyone there. Dylan leaves the stage after “Chimes of Freedom,” but the audience will not stop cheering and the next performer needs to go on. He comes back and tell them: “I want to say thank you. I love you.” There it is, the L-word. Saying it, he is allowed to leave the stage. It is Newport ’65 again, back where the film started. In shot-reverse-shot, we see Dylan from the rear looking out at the audience and the audience looking back at him. Cut to Dylan stuck in a car, mobbed by fans, unnerved. Cut to a fan saying that when a singer becomes God, “who needs him anymore?” Cut to Dylan singing “Maggie’s Farm.” The audience boos. Lerner zooms in for a close-up as Dylan performs “Like a Rolling Stone”:

How does it feel

To be without a home

Like a complete unknown

Like a rolling stone?

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose

You’re invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal.

More boos. Dylan goes back to his acoustic guitar and sings “Mr. Tambourine Man,” sweating, angry, tired: “my senses have been stripped.” Something terrible has happened, but Lerner shows us the footage, see what Dylan saw, “take a journey with him.”

Dylan is the model endangered by his audience, who attempt to control his image. He refuses the costly intimacy they offer and communicates his alienation instead. Todd Haynes captures the contradiction in his title, I’m Not There. His at times hallucinogenic film also reenacts documentary footage from Lerner’s Festival! and Pennebaker’s Bob Dylan: Dont Look Back ([sic]; both 1967). Thus, in some sense—some very strained sense—we might say that Haynes’s film is nonfiction: a biopic reality fantasy about a subject never named, though never in doubt. The subject is the first-person “I” speaking in the title, proclaiming the truth of the matter: that he is not there. But that “I,” a linguistic shifter, fills the film with its presence.

I’m Not There is a game of peek-a-boo between the model as celebrity and his audience. Dylan’s voice, unlike his name and person, is present throughout in the soundtrack. It sings the word I with the same disembodied conviction as lyric speakers have throughout the history of poetry and song. But in his case, that unmistakable, raspy, era-defining voice is truly there—or at least a recording of it is, or a recording of a recording. In any case, we are there, in the presence of those images and sounds . . . in our post-2007 seats . . . in the dark. If it is a little hard to know what “being there” means in I’m Not There, this is just the beginning of the conundrum. Dylan emerges as elusive a figure as Warhol: everyone and no one, an escape artist, a model victimized by his images, an audience to the changing times that course through him. There are endless fabrications called “Bob Dylan” (though they never receive that label in the film), and he is unwilling to take credit for them. All he set out to compose, after all, were songs. I’m Not There presents Dylan’s life itself as a protest song, a work of art in flight from the conditions of its reception.

. . . . I’m Not There pushes Dylan’s independence to the limit, presenting every relationship in his life as a literal pose or fiction—husband and father as much as pop star. As a result, we can identify no one behind the images, no model in reality, no one there. It is possible to conclude, as one critic puts it, that Dylan’s “aura of authenticity is the least authentic thing about him.” In this respect he seems like Warhol, though Warhol embraced the state of celebrity that Dylan was fleeing. In Warhol’s proliferating self-reflections, he was “not there,” but the truth of surfaces seems to have been an authenticity that satisfied him.

—an excerpt from The Real Real Thing: The Model in the Mirror of Art by Wendy Steiner

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