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Here I am, looking for things I might have missed, searching vividly for a theme in the films of Bob Dylan. Where do I start? Who is Bob Dylan? It’s a common theme of everything I’ve analyzed, Bob Dylan is a mysterious, yet interesting man. Many wonder why he’s the way that he is. It all started on D.A. Pennemakers film, “Don’t Look Back”. Well, in short terms, the transformation of Dylan in Don’t Look Back is very apparent. I have caught little details left and right how he began transforming into his electric style. The theme of change in Bob Dylan’s life is an easy catch, but I dug even deeper on my analysis of the introduction to Don’t Look Back where he was supposedly still “folk”.
Let’s say Dylan plays two roles in this film, a serious “Folk” artist expressing his thoughts on nation issues, and the punk guitar slashing Dylan that we will see soon. In the beginning, Dylan is standing on the street. It is the street, where we can see in the end of the pathway of what is soon to become the transformation of who was once a Folk artist. There are stacks of garbage and clothes along the road. This is not the visuals of an intro we would expect from a celebrity. It shows a sort of realism. This is where Dylan stands as a Folk artist, not a Pop idol.
Dylan himself, though, looks anything but “folk.” He is standing there, with poofish hair, wearing a vest, and holding cue cards, the cards used in television productions to tell the actors what to say. As the footage runs, one of Dylan’s songs starts to play on the soundtrack. The song is “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” a song that is thought to express the underground culture that he misses because of his newfound fame. That underground culture is all around him, as he appears to be a part of it. However, where he realistically stands is on the outside of the camera.
As Dylan stands alongside the cards, it soon becomes clear that they also contain the main words and phrases of the song. As the song plays, Dylan playfully displays and discards one cue after another, with the words on each cue appearing more or less in sync with the words as they are sung. In my analysis, he is not actually interpreting his songs for the audience. He is telling us what we are hearing, but in fact, we can hear it for ourselves. As the song says, “You don’t need a weathervane to know which way the wind is blowing.” Dylan’s presence is like a weather vane, and he will state in his responses to reporters later in the film that he has nothing special to share, and in any event, we do not actually need him to explain his meanings. He is playing the role of this random cue card man because it is the role that so many people think of him. I found it funny because he knows he looks ridiculous. He casually throws down one card after the other, barely able to keep up with the music.
Dylan, it turns out, is not the only person in the frame. There are two other people on the left side of the camera in the background. One barely appears on screen and the other nearly disappears several times. The viewer hardly notices either man because the camera is so focused on Dylan and his antics, and the figures appear smaller and slightly out of focus. However, a close look reveals that the main figure standing is Alan Ginsburg, the famous “Beat” poet and one of Dylan’s inspirations. Ginsburg and friend remain standing and talking until Dylan runs out of cue cards and the song ends. Dylan then exits the scene, just past the camera to the left, and the two men enter the center of the picture.
Neither Ginsburg nor friend ever approach the camera, nor even acknowledge it. Dylan, throwing cue cards around doesn’t acknowledge them either. Through research I found that when Dylan reached college in 1959, he fell under the influence of the Beats. In 2004, he said that the distinctive phrasing of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” reflected influences from the Beats and earlier folk music traditions.
At first, I was tempted to conclude that Dylan intended this introduction to Don’t Look Back as a short introduction with no meaning. However, that seems to miss the real point. Dylan exits the screen in the opposite direction from Ginsburg. It seems to be suggesting that while Ginsburg could reflect his past, it is time to move forward. There is a reason the film is named Don’t Look Back. Dylan seems to be suggesting that he is moving away from Folk, and further up ahead there will be change no matter how much people loved his music.
The same year this movie was made, Dylan gave full meaning to this intuition when he appeared at the Newport Jazz and Folk Festival after returning from the UK and shocked his folk audience by using an electric guitar. It began with his version of “Maggie’s Farm,” a song whose lyrics read like a declaration of independence. Many of his former fans turned on him, booing him from their seats. Legendary folk singer Pete Seeger even tried to unplug his amplifier. Dylan laughed at all of it and promised to make it up to the audience. Then he launched into an electric version of another symbolic anthem, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”
In Don’t Look Back, viewers get to see Dylan not just entering the mainstream music world, and to leave his own past behind. Dylan would try to resolve the tension between his Beat roots and inspiration and the pressures of mass conformity by creating his own distinctive, and highly personal, rock-ballad style. Some have said that he betrayed the folk protest tradition of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and blunted the sharp cultural edge of his early songs. However, true to his word in Don’t Look Back, Dylan never saw himself as a spokesman for an entire generation, just one of its more distinctive voices. “I’m just a guitar player, really,” he tells one journalist, without a hint of irony. Or maybe just a man writing his own cue cards, but forgetting, in the end, to read them.
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