November 15, 2008
When photographer Barry Feinstein dug out some of his old photographs
of Sixties Hollywood, he found a manuscript tucked next to them.
These were the forgotten poems a friend had written to accompany his
pictures some 40 years earlier. That friend was Bob Dylan. Here we
publish the spiky, melancholic and often funny poems for the first time
Writer and critic Luc Sante examines the relationship between Bob
Dylan and photographer Barry Feinstein, and explores the lost book
that brings their work together
In 1966, beginning in February, Bob Dylan played 43 concert dates in
locations ranging from Kentucky to Australia to Paris. The best known
part of the tour, on which he was backed by the Hawks, was the
European leg, particularly the May 17 show at the Free Trade Hall in
Manchester, recordings of which were long erroneously identified as
the "Royal Albert Hall" show. That same month he released Blonde on
Blonde. He faced a further 64 scheduled concerts that year, but on
July 29 he suffered a motorcycle accident in Woodstock, New York,
which sidelined him for a considerable time. Although the initial
rumours had it that Dylan was seriously injured, possibly in
life-threatening ways, it has since been said that the crash may have
actually saved his life, since he was dangerously overworked and exhausted.
Barry Feinstein photographed the 1966 European tour, resulting in
indelible images: Dylan playing with children in the streets of
Liverpool, strutting onstage in Paris in his houndstooth "rabbit
suit" with a giant American flag behind him, wearing dark glasses in
the back of a limousine whose windows are filled with the squashed
faces of fans peering in. Earlier Feinstein had taken the dramatic
angry-young-man portrait for the cover of The Times They Are
A-Changin'. He had also done a good deal of magazine work, been still
photographer on a number of movies, and the following year would be a
cameraman for Monterey Pop.
Sometime in 1964 Dylan wrote a suite of 23 poems inspired by
Feinstein's photographs of Hollywood, a spectacular collection taken
over the course of the early Sixties. Although the photographs were
made for a variety of assignments and in a number of different
contexts, they have a remarkable consistency and a clearly
identifiable theme: the passing of old Hollywood. The studio system
and all that went with it, the industry that had created the movies
as we knew them from the Twenties onwards, had reached its terminus
at last. It was a subject that clearly resonated with Dylan. He was a
major part of the wave of change that was in the process of
overthrowing the old guard, but then again, as he wrote in Chronicles
about 1941, the year of his birth, "If you were born around this time
or were living and alive, you could feel the old world go and the new
one beginning. It was like putting the clock back to when BC became
AD. Everybody born around my time was a part of both."
And obviously Dylan carried Hollywood within him, maybe even more so
than the average citizen of his generation. He undoubtedly learnt how
to pose from them – he was a movie star long before he ever made a
movie. He feels like Jayne Mansfield and Humphrey Bogart (as well as
Sleepy John Estes and Murph the Surf) in the notes to Bringing It All
Back Home. And Jean Harlow memorialised by Louella Parsons lies just
under his hand on the cover. And in the 1958 film of Cat on a Hot Tin
Roof, Paul Newman says, "You don't know what love is. To you it's
just a four-letter word." And in Don Siegel's movie The Lineup (also
1958), a character says, "When you live outside the law you have to
eliminate dishonesty." In the European tour pictures of 1966 you can
sense Dylan and Feinstein conspiring to make an epic silver-screen
performance – if in stills, and only partly premeditated.
So it's hardly surprising that Dylan knew very well what to make of
pictures of Gary Cooper's funeral, and Marilyn Monroe's house the day
of her death, and Marlon Brando being counterpicketed by racists
while he marched on behalf of equal housing – as well as of pictures
of casting agents and wardrobe department shelves and
homes-of-the-stars map pedlars and the unemployment bureau and the
Hal Roach Studios slated for demolition. He could inhabit the
landscape from one end to the other.
And indeed the poems are not descriptive, but come from within the
photographs, as if the pictures themselves were speaking. Now and
then there are echoes of Dylan's songs: "touch me mama/ it's all
right/ it doesn't matter/ it's been too well proven/ that even I,
myself/ am not really here." Or "on lease/ get piece/ sucked in/ on a
habit/ gotta have it/ promised by/ the prostitute/ destroyed ruins/
tilt the day" – which could be sung to the tune of Subterranean
Homesick Blues. Overall, though, the voice sounds closest to that of
"11 Outlined Epitaphs" (the notes to The Times They Are A-Changin')
and "Some other kinds of songs…" (the notes to Another Side of Bob
Dylan). Here as there the lines are skinny, the rhythms abrupt, the
language sparse and telegraphic and abbreviated, the situations
jarring and dreamlike, the comebacks frequent and snappy. There are
laments, complaints, musings, skits (a hilarious screen test, for
one), parables (converting those wardrobe department shelves into a
repository of human lives), nightmare scenarios (the lurching
paranoid fantasy that begins "after crashin the sportscar / into the
chandelier" and sounds like a hellish rewrite of "Bob Dylan's 115th
Dream"), and plenty of dry tombstone epigraphs.
The one graphically autobiographical item is the last. Apparently
inspired by photographs of William Wyler's Oscar for Ben Hur (1959),
Dylan considers what happened on December 13, 1963, when he was given
the Tom Paine Award by the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee. On
the dais without a prepared speech, he had failed to attend the
protocol of the liberal worthies in the room, particularly offending
them by saying, "… I have to be honest, I just got to be, as I got to
admit that the man who shot President Kennedy, Lee Oswald, I don't
know exactly where – what he thought he was doing, but I got to admit
honestly that I, too – I saw some of myself in him." He was booed;
some of those present broke off with Dylan.
It makes sense that Hollywood Foto-Rhetoric is not just the
collaboration of two great artists, but also the overlay of two
crashing trains: the collapsing feudal system of old Hollywood and
Dylan's eventual disillusionment with the world of celebrity. This is
not to say that the outlook is sour. Quite to the contrary, Dylan can
see the humour and fancy involved as well as the death and dread. But
he can appreciate Hollywood from the inside by now, seeing it as a
system that requires an elaborate mandarin code of behaviour in
exchange for a reward that, like Stephen Crane's ball of gold in the
sky, looks a lot more like clay when viewed up close. Perhaps writing
these poems was for Dylan an early step in the long and arduous
process of making his peace with fame and realising that he could not
ever stop being Bob Dylan.
yes mama i'm an actor
the difference being my contradiction
do not really wish t be remembered
for my smile
nor for my costume
but in complete reversal
as i look around
that i will be
'It's the difference between the words on paper and the song. The
song disappears into the air, the paper stays' Bob Dylan
Poet and academic Billy Collins analyses Dylan's verse
Whenever the question comes up – and it does nearly every term – of
whether or not rock lyrics qualify as poetry, I offer my students a
simple but heartless test. Ask all the musicians to please leave the
stage and take their instruments with them – yes, that goes for the
backup singers in the tight satin dresses, and the drummer – and then
have the lead singer stand alone by the microphone and read the
lyrics from that piece of paper he is holding in his hand. What you
will hear can leave only one impression: the lyrics in almost every
case are not poetry, they are lyrics. Some are good lyrics (A Whiter
Shade of Pale), others not so good (Hats Off to Larry), but certainly
lines like "Come on, baby, light my fire," repeated many times, do
not, and were never meant to, hold up on their own. Of course, then
it's time to mention the few exceptions, and the top spot on that
short list is perennially reserved for Bob Dylan.
Hollywood Foto-Rhetoric is an unusual book: a series of Dylan's poems
written in the mid-Sixties in response to images of Hollywood life by
photographer Barry Feinstein. The poems are the first of his to
appear in print since the more rambling but often hilarious Tarantula
(1971), and they provide an uncommon look at literary Dylan. The
poems should sound familiar because of the ways in which they
resemble his lyrics. His distinctive singing voice may even seem
missing, but we gain the look of the printed words marked by Dylan's
quirky abbreviations as well as the shape of the poems, usually as
skinny as a teetering column of poker chips stacked on the page in
tightly sawed-off lines.
Also recognisable are Dylan's cadence, his verbal energy, and his
slangy, at times insinuating tone. The themes, too, are cousins to
those of his sometimes withering lyrics ("you're nothin but your
mask/ you are actin all the time/ even when you're playin you"). And
the poems are marked by unexpected bursts of surrealism, lines that
seem pulled out of a hat rather than simply written down.
Dylan knows when to coast and when to accelerate. He will run with
some standard blues lines, then tighten the poem with an arresting
image that takes us down the rabbit hole into another dimension where
"the doorway wears long pants". Some of the poems respond directly to
the Hollywood of the black-and-white photographs with which they are
partnered. One re-enacts a casting director's inquisition of an
actress by the name of "conny rainbow"; and the Oscars themselves ("i
couldnt tell if it was me/ or this thing/ i was holding") do not
escape Dylan's satiric attention.
The work signals the appearance of a poetic Dylan on the page not
previously witnessed, and the poems have the distinction of being
resurrected from the cultural turmoil of the mid-Sixties and thus
salvaged from the obliteration of time. Not that they were ever truly
"lost" in the way that mittens are lost; rather, they were just set
aside until the photographer came across an envelope one day, opened
it up, then picked up the phone and called Bob Dylan with a good idea
for a book. And a good idea for a book it was.
Billy Collins was America's Poet Laureate, 2001-2003
Dylan on Dylan
How did you first meet Barry?
Barry and I met in my manager's office. Barry was either courting or
was already married to Mary Travers from Peter, Paul & Mary. I knew
Mary, too, and she might have introduced him to me at an earlier
date, but I don't remember.
Did you like Barry's photography?
Yeah. I liked Barry's photos a lot. They reminded me of Robert Frank's photos.
In what way?
Just in their stark atmosphere. Obviously the subject matter. I liked
the angles Barry used in the pictures… the shadows and light, that
sort of thing.
When did Barry approach you about writing the text?
I don't think he ever approached me about writing anything. I think
it was something that sort of happened spontaneously.
Do you consider these poems?
You'd probably have to ask some academician about that.
But what about you?
But what about me? Well I would have to refer to the academicians
too. If they are poems, or if they are not poems… does it really
matter? And who would it matter to?
Do you remember writing the text? Actually, no.
What do you think of them looking back after all these years?
First of all I don't think what I had written would have been written
without seeing the photographs… and secondly… well I don't know if
there is a secondly.
from the outside
every finger wiggles
the doorway wears long pants
in love and selection
but be careful, baby
of covered window affection
an don't forget
t bring cigarettes
for you might
just likely find
that one outside
leads farther out
an one inside
just leads t another
death silenced her pool
the day she died
her little toy dogs
but left no trace
t dare not ask your sculpturer's name
with glance back hooked, time's hinges halt
as curiosity's doom inks beauty's claim
that sad-eyed he shall turn t salt
how do you think i'd be?
i don't know miss, uh…uh what did you say your name
uh yes miss rainbow. well i dont know
perhaps you could stop shakin your hand
yes that's good miss rainbow
but do you think you could take it
off your nose an remove your hat an coat please.
surely how's this?
Very good miss rainbow
very good indeed
but what i think i had in mind
was a little younger type
an also a little more Ann Frankish
Very Very good miss rainbow
you sure have talent
now let me see….
age shall guide thee
for a dollar down
youth shall lead thee
to a dollar up
darkness wears no face
clicks its heels
dance around in the light
comes back t the shadows
untrained but feels
what it's taught
not t remember
all at same unrestrained
slow motion speed
memorizes t forget
i didnt notice her
husband keepin track of me
for i was much too involved
(her with the hand
about t grab her throat)
anyway it was when
he threw a rabbit punch
t my poor glassy chin
that i responded
"why'd you do that?"
"you looked like you werent takin her seriously."
"dont tell me you take her seriously?"
"you wanna nother punch?"
"did she really create the world in six days?"
"no one can talk about my wife like that."
"i think you aughta divorce her."
"you little know it all punk. she's my wife. she's beautiful."
"i'm afraid you're gonna have t punch me again."
"this time I'm gonna punch you thru the wall…then you
might learn some respect…"
knowing when i'm not wanted
i climbed out from behind the wall
an walked t the door
he still was starin at me
an she was still about t grab her throat
nothin had changed
"strange people at
your parties" i said
t the host
the host sat crosslegged
on a mantle
looked down at me
there were some
lights between us
she didnt say a word
after crashin the sportscar
into the chandelier
i ran out t the phone booth
made a call t my wife. she wasnt home.
i panicked. i called up my best friend
but the line was busy
then i went t a party but couldnt find a chair
somebody wiped their feet on me
so i decided t leave
i felt awful. my mouth was puckered.
arms were stickin thru my neck
my stomach was stuffed an bloated
dogs licked my face
people stared at me an said
"what's wrong with you?"
passin two successful friends of mine
i stopped t talk.
they knew i was feelin bad
an gave me some pills
i went home an began writin
a suicide note
it was then that i saw
that crowd comin down
i really have nothing
boy meets girl
cokes t coax
sit there an sip
something in common
of nothing's wrong
we'll work it out
smooth as a gull
happy ever after
wait above the set
an lolita reads
in her favorite church
jaundiced coloured girls
pop out of nowhere
cant eat your roses
get 'm out of here
i dig food
cant swallow the smell
of your flowers, lady
want turkey buns
history gets the hungries
an even the witches
sometimes have t eat
so please pardon me
an dont think i'm prejudiced
if i pour your drink
all the way down
your hairlip gown
there's nothing t be
it's just that
there's enough people
with the fangs
burnt into their backs
Extracted from Hollywood Foto-Rhetoric, to be published by Simon &
Schuster UK on November 17 at £14.99