No Direction Home and Dont Look Back


Gen 7 2007, 0:02

No Direction Home and Dont Look Back:
The Search for the Enigmatic Artist Behind the Music

Get sick, get well
Hang around a ink well
Ring bell, hard to tell
If anything is goin' to sell
Try hard, get barred
Get back, write braille
Get jailed, jump bail
Join the army, if you fail
Look out kid
You're gonna get hit
But users, cheaters
Six-time loser
Hang around the theaters
Girl by the whirlpool
Lookin' for a new fool
Don't follow leaders
Watch the parkin' meters

--Bob Dylan, Subterranean Homesick Blues

In his hit single "Subterranean Homesick Blues," the opening song of both his 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home and D.A. Pennebaker's rock documentary Dont Look Back, Bob Dylan mixes a range of different tones and linguistic registers. From the silliness of the lyric "don't wanna be a bum / you better chew gum" to the lightly political "don't follow leaders, / watch your parking meters" to the beautifully poignant line "it don't take a weather man / to know which way the wind blows," Dylan maintains a dead-pan, piercing delivery throughout. The pastiche of different ideas, registers and rhymes is subsumed beneath a monotonal veneer of the famous Dylan drawl. In an interview with KQED in 1965, Dylan expresses a desire sometime to write "a symphony—with different melodies and different words, different ideas—all being the same which roll on top of each other and underneath each other" (Cott 79). "Subterranean Homesick Blues," a song about the dissident youth counterculture, with its intertwining rhymes and mixing of registers, resembles quite strongly his proposed symphonic form. Ultimately, Dylan's beautiful nonsense is difficult to parse; as the listener gets a handle of one image, Dylan deftly switches gears and moves on rather than elaborating. In reference to another Dylan tune, "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," Dylan says, "I'll tell you how I come to write that. Every line in that really is another song. Could be used as a whole song, every single line. I wrote that when I didn't know how many other songs I could write" (Cott 6). Variety of tone and imagery within the song itself is a powerful and in a positive way, disorients the listener.

In Dont Look Back, further complicating the difficult lyric of "Subterranean Homesick Blues," Dylan holds and drops a series of cards with the song's catch phrases. The cards display bits and pieces of the lines, but the parts that he chooses to display on the posters generally have a funny word game to go along with what they mean in the song. He incorrectly spells "success" as "SUCKCESS" as a joke; he changes "parking meters" to "PAWKING METAWS" to reflect his pronunciation of the words; the writing of "MAN WHOLE" on the poster has a completely different meaning than the "manhole" lyric of the song. The last poster was simply the word "WHAT??" as if it underline the fact that quite a lot of what was just said was nonsensical; it takes a second or third time to get all the words he has sung.

Thus, even when a line may or may not be sincere, Dylan''s wordplay with the cards both undercuts the lyrics intention and adds a new level of postmodernist self-referentiality and irony. All the while, Dylan keeps a stoic dead-pan expression as he drops the cards onto the street. The listener is left to ask: where does irony and wit stop and sentiment and message begin? The song is about rejecting authority, about youth drug culture, but is presented along with a playful witty game with the cards. "Subterranean Homesick Blues" is a genius example of self mocking; Dylan, known for his anthems of protest and political activism, here delivers cleverly phrased and politically charged one-liners and catch phrases that ultimate add up to a general state of confusion: "WHAT??" the final card reads. Politics and message are not as valued as the style and wit of its lyrics and its music video presentation.

While his songs often contained political messages and many writers were tempted to call his material topical, Bob Dylan refused to be pigeonholed into the political activist scene. When he and Joan Baez went together on tour in 1964, Baez wanted to attend and support some activist events, but Dylan had no intention of doing these things. In No Direction Home, Baez's comments on Dylan's politics, "I was feeling this political pull very strongly and was thinking what the do of us could do together as far as any kind of movement and so our tour had come to end and Bob said something like 'Hey we ought to do Carnegie Hall' or some big place like that. And I said, 'what are we going to do with it.' That was a pretty cold thing to say But then we talked about it; he just wanted to do his music and I wanted to all this other stuff and he said he didn't want to do all that other stuff. So that's pretty clear." For Dylan, the politics behind his music is less important than the art itself. He just wanted to be a singer and all the baggage that goes along with his celebrity, he didn't want. In "Subterranean Homesick Blues," I think we see some of this come through; while it has a political message with its support of the youth and the underdog, the wordplay and the games with the cards seem to take precedence.

The level of artifice involved in the construction of the "Subterranean Homesick Blues" music video shoot must be noted. Dylan wanted to film the sequence on an alleyway to give it a sense of grit and realism. Yet, the ultimate result feels anything but real. Dylan wanted a sense of community and tradition in the video so he puts the famous beat poet Allen Ginsberg in the back talking to another man. If he had actually been interested in the "real" community, wouldn't it have made sense to pick people on the streets of London, in the vein of the great Italian neorealist films. The revolutionary film movement didn't use the city as a prop; they didn't place foreign figures—like Ginsberg—into this environment, they simply used the people already there as extras. Even many of the lead roles were played by people found on the street. This isn't to disparage Dylan's technique—to call it inferior—but merely to point out its difference. Behind every attempt at truth and real life, there are veils of artifice. Dylan wants us to see this; it merely makes his music more multifaceted and ultimately more interesting.

Like his tightly wound and dense lyrics, Dylan, the artist and icon of the 60s, is a difficult man to interpret. Throughout Dont Look Back the media, generally portrayed as hackneyed and ignorant, probes Dylan, asking, "What is your message?" Dylan, continually responds, "I have no message;" he must, but he doesn't want to reveal it in easy, digestible sound bites. It is up to the listener of his music and the audience of his concerts to discover the message for themselves. In Dont Look Back, the Time magazine journalist Horace Judson—continually "knocked" and insulted by Dylan—asks, "Do you care about what you sing?" Dylan responds incredulously as if he can't understand why he would be asked that; he says, exasperatedly, "how could I answer that if you have the nerve to ask me?" In light of the music video presentation with the cards of "Subterranean Homesick Blues" that undercuts Dylan's political message of youth resistance and subculture, this question is worthwhile. In Dylan's latest material, style takes precedence over content. Where does the act end and the real Dylan and his true sentiments begin?

In a 1964 article for The New Yorker, the music critic Nat Hentroff comments on how alike the performing Bob Dylan persona and the real life Dylan actually are. Observing the two, he can't tell the difference. He asks Dylan if there are "real characters" in his songs. Dylan responds, "There are. That's what makes them so scary. If I haven't been through what I write about, the songs aren't worth anything" (Cott 17). Dylan's characters, thus, according the lyricist himself have a real referent; they comment on what is in our own world and don't just exist for aesthetic pleasure. There is some truth behind Dylan's circular wit and obscure imagery. The allure of finding this referent (to know exactly what he means when he says this or that) is extremely tantalizing for the fan and critic alike. Dylan's enigmatic personality—characterized by his dead-pan wit that blurs sarcasm with gritty realism and his ability to be open to the public while hiding his deepest sentiments—is what has enchanted the public to him, what has made him iconic.

The films Dont Look Back and No Direction Home both serve to get at the real Dylan, not the stage persona, to locate his true essence behind the uncounted veils of linguistic rigor and sharp wit. In the commentary track to his film, Pennebaker says about Dont Look Back, "If I start out making a film about musical performances, it's not going to be about anything else. I want people to think that they are seeing behind the music, that the music isn't why they're there. The music is why he's there and that they're seeing somebody whose responsible for the music." Pennebaker is careful to note that the subject of the film is not Bob Dylan's music, but Bob Dylan himself. However, throughout the film, Dylan remains elusive and not easy to pin down. Pennebaker notes in one of the DVD extras that "it may not be so much about Dylan because Dylan is sort of acting throughout the film. And that's his right. He needs some protection in a sense against the process." Dylan is a performer; if there's an audience he'll perform for it.

In No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese interviews Pennebaker and Dylan about the filming process of Dont Look Back. Pennebaker suggests again that Bob Dylan's public persona is an act, and even the cinéma vérité techniques of Pennebaker couldn't break down Dylan's persona to reveal some sort of deeper essence. Pennebaker offers his view of Dylan in Dont Look Back, "We showed him the first rough cut. What he saw must have made him feel like he was bare bones. That was a big shock to him. But then he saw the second night, he saw that it was total theatre. It didn't matter. He was like an actor and he had suddenly reinvented himself as the actor in this movie and it was OK." Bob Dylan, however, says that he was "at a certain point completely oblivious" to the camera following him for the movie; this seems to imply that he ended up acting naturally. The iconic Dylan seems in a certain sense always to be playing a role.

According to Tim O'Farrell, "It was this cleavage [between the man and his electronic image] that the direct cinema portrait set itself to overcome, breaking down the distinction between the ‘authentic’ and the ‘performing’ self. In Dylan’s case, there was a clear disjunction between the authenticity and integrity associated with the folk or protest tradition, and Dylan’s penchant for performance, his wildly invented person." Dylan's characteristic wit and "penchant for performance" is found everywhere in the film; in Dont Look Back, Dylan is always under observation. His life becomes one large act thus collapsing the personal/private sphere with the public sphere. The "authentic" Dylan is nothing more than Dylan the performer and vice versa.

One telling scene in which separating the performing Dylan from his true feelings is made difficult is when Dylan listens to Donovan perform in the hotel room. Dylan had been admiring (or at least pretending to admire) the UK artist Donovan; throughout the film, we trace Dylan's apparent love affair with Donovan (in headlines, in Dylan's interactions with his friends). In this scene, Dylan finally meets Donovan and Donovan sings him one of his songs, "My Darling Tangerine Eyes". The song is painfully in debt to Dylan's style of singing; it is as if Donovan was trying to do a bad Dylan impersonation, mimicking his nasal, raspy tone.

In the commentary track to the DVD release of Dont Look Back, Pennebaker, a proponent of the cinéma vérité movement (also, referred to as direct cinema), claims over and over again how natural the filming process was for this documentary. He wouldn't come with any preconceived notion about what he was going to shoot, or how he was going to shoot it. In a certain sense, it was Dylan's actions that determined his direction. According to Pennebaker, he would listen to the day's concert and from that, he would decide a theme to shoot. It is in fact the same exact tune as Dylan's Mr. Tambourine Man. In between verses, Dylan chuckles and yells great song man; as Donovan continues the song to its end, Dylan sits, shaking as he listens, in apparent rapture and attention. But does he really like Donovan? We never can actually tell what he thinks. Is he amused that Donovan has stolen his material? Or deep down does he have any deeper sentiment. Surface and depth in Dylan's character are equated; we can reach beneath the surface to uncover Dylan's true feelings. Perhaps, all there is in Dylan's character is a surface. It is the same problem outlined by the "Subterranean Homesick Blues" music video sequence at the film's outset.

Pennebaker describes how the element of chance often governed of the shooting and editing, rather than premeditated decision-making. In the scene where Dylan is being interviewed by the BBC reporter who asks, "Where did you get your start?", Pennebaker claims that he had no idea where he was going to go from there. Pennebaker cuts to some archival footage of Dylan singing to a group of African Americans in Mississippi. "A guy named Ed Shwiller [sp?] was down in Mississippi doing a film on, a civil rights thing. He shot this thing, but couldn't use it. [...] I stuck it up on my shelf and never thought about it. One day I got to that point with that guy saying 'How did it all begin?' I was totally stuck, I had no idea where to go to. I put this thing on, and I never took it out. [...] It always struck me as kind of the way the film took place: fortuitous, a lot of it was just happenstance." According to Dylan scholars, many Dylan's songs were written in a free from matter, kind of resembling the Surrealist movement's automatic writing practices. Dylan would just sit down and write the first thing that came into his head, improvising as he went along. We see Dylan writing at a typewriter in Dont Look Back as Joan Baez sings; he uses the typewriter as an instrument, rhythmically complimenting Baez's song. The lyrics are just as much an improvised act as the harmonica solo for Bob Dylan. Pennebaker's cinéma vérité style of filmmaking parallels this artistic aesthetic characterized by free association and improvisation.

Despite Pennebaker's claims to be in the pure style of cinéma vérité, it is clear there were elaborate constructions in terms of camera framing, narrative form, mise-en-scene and editing. For example, in the scene I have just described, with Baez singing the Dylan-penned Percy's Song and Dylan at his typewriting accompanying her, it feels completely natural; the camera moves hand-held as always in this film. Yet, there is a conscious editing scheme, alternating shots between the close-up of Baez's face and shots of Dylan typing with Baez in background. There must have been either more than one take of this song or Pennebaker used multiple cameras during the same take. Either way, Pennebaker anticipated the editing of this scene when shooting; he had thought out (premeditated, not improvised) the shots he would need to make a coherent narrative of the scene. He wanted to capture Dylan and Baez growing apart; seeing Baez over Dylan's shoulder, his back to her, very well captures this sentiment. Combined with closeup shots of Baez singing this makes for a very powerful scene. It wasn't thrown together, improvised on the fly, but premeditated by the director to serve one of the narrative arches of the film (Dylan and Baez's estrangement). The paradox of utilizing cinematic artificial techniques and the goal achieving cinéma vérité, capturing "real life" is very much like the intricacies of Dylan's music. Although there is a certain level of truth and meaning to what he says (critics of the day said his music was topical), there is also a level of artifice, a play with words and a play with music. The tension between these two modes of expression is present in both the moviemaking process and the music Dylan sings.

Bob Dylan's introverted personality combined with his obsessive need to perform, to play roles, makes him a very difficult person to read and interpret. Ultimately, it is his enigmatic character that has made him the star that he is; he is difficult to pin down, impossible to classify. It is this quality what draws people to him. He allured himself to Pennebaker the same way: "It interested me to watch Dylan. I could sort of see that the things he said were interesting to me and I didn't know why. And that's what got me hooked on making the movie." The question of motive—"why," Pennebaker says—is revealing; Dylan is a mystery and Dont Look Back is a kind of investigation for the motive, the meaning, of Dylan's actions. Ultimately, the movie may not have delved that much deeper into Dylan's psyche than where we began. He remains just as much an enigma at the end as he did at the beginning.

As an attempt to look for motive in Dylan, Pennebaker narrativizes the footage of Dont Look Back; he takes the raw footage and begins to trace themes, such as relationship to the media, the youth movements (represented by the recurring figure of the song The Times They Are A-Changing) and more generally Dylan's relationship to both the public and private spheres. The importance of the medium of film is its permanence, its ability to distill a moment. While Pennebaker has one take—one narrative to offer—, Martin Scorsese, in No Direction Home, was able to reinvent the Dylan story using the footage Pennebaker shot. The process of revisiting and reinvention is extremely important in the case of an enigmatic icon like Dylan, whose complexities are viewed differently by each person. The same source material has different meaning in Pennebaker's and Scorsese's films. The film image has no total owner; there is no one correct take on it.

In the film No Direction Home, Scorsese focalizes his narrative around the famous concert footage at Manchester when Dylan first went electric. The film moves to that point in the chronology. Dylan, in No Direction Home, is a solitary figure ("all alone / with no direction home") whose artistic prowess grows as the film moves forward in chronology. Archival footage gives us a temporal reference point as to where we are in Dylan's progression. The Dont Look Back footage is stuffed into Scorsese's chronology. Scorsese chooses a clip where a fan criticizes Dylan's new electric stuff because this footage fits into the larger narrative of Dylan's artistic growth, his legendary move from acoustic to electric. Scorsese inserts clips from Dont Look Back of Joan Baez looking sad and uses this to fit into the Baez-Dylan love narrative he has been developing throughout the film. The narrative is different, but the footage is the same.

Dylan, the icon, is an elusive object who filmmakers, writers and thinkers have all tried to fit into their own narratives. Some place him with sixties resistance movements; others characterize him as more passive; still others focus on the shift of his musical style (this seems to be the emphasis of Scorsese's neutral take on Dylan). Despite the variety of takes on Dylan there may be, there is only one man. Through film, video, compact disc, mp3 he is multiplied and proliferated. We see him in many contexts; we each generate our own different Dylan narrative.

Pennebaker, D.A. Dont Look Back. 1967.
Scorsese, Martin. No Direction Home. 2005.

Marquesee, Mike. Chimes of Freedom: The Politics of Bob Dylan's Art. New York: New Press, 2003.
Cott, Jonathan, Ed. Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews. New York: Wenner Books, 2006.
O'Farrell, Tim. "No Direction Home: Looking Forward from Don't Look Back." Senses of Cinema. 2005.


  • gnatware

    Thanks, pattismithowns. I just picked up Horses and after listening to it a few times this week, I now wholeheartedly agree with your username.

    Gen 7 2007, 8:20
  • Lexxxi

    is this what you ended up writing for your jazz and film class?

    Gen 15 2007, 19:42
  • gnatware

    Yeah. With that class, anything goes.

    Gen 17 2007, 1:56
  • rockrobster23

    Nicely written. I haven't seen either of these films, but your essay makes me want to see them.

    Mar 14 2008, 17:21
  • gnatware

    Thanks rockrobster23! Since writing this essay, Todd Haynes' movie came out; I think I need to do a re-write!

    Mar 16 2008, 8:20
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