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Monday, Dec. 1, 2008

Dylan in Hollywood

Rediscovering a lost gem

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During a recent interview regarding Hollywood Foto-Rhetoric (Simon & Schuster), a book that collects Bob Dylan's early-1960s writings inspired by Barry Feinstein's celebrity photographs, Dylan was asked, "Do you consider these poems?" He answered, "You'd probably have to ask some academician about that." In the introduction for Foto-Rhetoric, the wrong academic was queried.

In the misleading and inaccurate essay prefacing the book, former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins rightly declares that poetry is not the same as song lyrics, but then diverges idiotically by taking lines from the Dylan text and setting them up as though they were lyrics (using a spurious sense of Dylan's song structure as a guide). It only gets worse. Citing "A Whiter Shade of Pale" as the kind of song that can be analyzed, and "Hats Off To Larry" as one that cannot, doesn't help make the intended distinction between literary songwriting and the other kind.

Collins' pseudo-academic exegesis threatens to take away from the brilliant text and add nothing but silliness. Hats off to Collins for a real screw-up, for there should be a visionary, objective essay on Dylan's unique role in the literary world that recently was granted a deserved Pulitzer Prize.

On the other hand, Luc Sante's introduction to the photographs is brilliant, and would have been a sufficient forward to Hollywood Foto-Rhetoric since it deals with both image and word in a book that reflects on a moment when old Hollywood, and the popular culture based on it, was changing. According to Sante, there is a cultural consistency to the Feinstein photographs and the suite of writings by Dylan, both of them recently rediscovered.

From a posed photograph of Marilyn Monroe in her home on the day she died (and a voyeuristic close-up of the bottle of pills on her nightstand taken through her window) to Jerry Mathers and family playing basketball in front of their home (it could eerily have been the set for "Leave It To Beaver"), we have a field of reality exposed. There is something melancholy in freeze-framing the disappearance of venerable old Hollywood. A photo of Gary Cooper's funeral, with Jimmy Stewart stolidly waiting as a pallbearer, signals a changing of the guard in the celebrity world by the mid-'60s. The same process of decay can be seen in shots of Bette Davis, strength drained; Audrey Hepburn's dress mannequin; lonesome snaps on the set of Lolita; Brigitte Bardot in the Hollywood Wax Museum; Marlon Brando being picketed by racists while on a civil rights picket line himself.

Feinstein is noted for the famous photographs of Dylan taken during this period, significantly on his notorious 1966 British tour with members of what was to become The Band. Not one is in this book. Instead, we have the Dylan text written to accompany these specific photographs. Again, in a recent interview, Dylan was asked: "When did Barry approach you about writing the text?" His reply: "I don't think he ever approached me about writing anything. I think it was something that sort of happened spontaneously." Feinstein got the unsolicited manuscript and tucked it into an envelope with the photographs, filed it and forgot about the whole thing until now.

In the end it's the text that makes this book, and that's why it needed a proper introductory comment. Written in the early Dylan style of Woody Guthrie's speech patterns (found in his liner notes for Another Side Of Bob Dylan and The Times They Are A-Changin' and scattered in folk/blues revival magazines), the textual content is absolutely stunning. It has little to do with the Beat poetry erroneously cited as source material in Collins' introduction, and more to do with assuming a character that was a cross between Guthrie and Will Rogers.

If there must be a literary reference, it could be in the William Carlos Williams/Ezra Pound era of Imagist gems, but certainly not in any of the unpolished diamonds within sprawling Beat writings. This is not poetry, nor even prose-poetry, and certainly not song lyric. It is the incredible ear that Dylan had for a Polaroid view of reality and American dialect. It is a genre unlike any other. It is the eye of an artist and the tongue of a rambler.

And it supplements the stark photography of Barry Feinstein with a bleaker, verbal frame that is astounding to find once again.

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