Monday, February 12, 2007

"EAT THE DOCUMENT": THE DYLAN MYTHOLOGY



It's not something I talk about a lot on this blog, but I'm a huge Bob Dylan fan. No matter how diverse your musical tastes are, there is always one artist who just sums up what music is all about for you, whose albums you would take with you if the proverbial "deserted island" scenario ever arose. Dylan is that artist for me.

I can still remember the first time I ever heard a Bob Dylan song--I was in study hall during the last week of classes my freshman year of high school. My teacher was enlightened enough to know that studying was the last thing on our minds, with one of the last "free summers" of our lives (until retirement) ahead of us. So instead we had some snacks & everyone got to play a few songs on the stereo in the back of the room. My classmate Chris put on "The Times They Are a'Changin'" and it just blew me away. What was this? That craggy singing voice, the poetic lyrics--I imagined some weathered old Appalachian-type, drooping mouth & deep-lined face. Then I saw the album cover: a baby-faced, curly haired Jewish kid in blue-collar clothes. He looked like he could be anyone. He almost looked like me.

That night I went to the local record shop (the now defunt Island Records on North Ave) and picked up "Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits Vol. 1". I fell in love with every song, listening to the album over and over again. I then went through Dylan's full discography, from Guthrie wanna-be to commie-folk poster boy to amphetamine rocker to country bumpkin to christian fundamentalist to....well, he's been quite the chameleon.

After studying nearly every one of Dylan's eras, I always gravitate toward the 1965-1966 period. This could be because it is arguably the period when Dylan released his best work ("Bringing It All Back Home", "Highway 61 Revisited", "Blonde on Blonde"), or because it is the best documented era of Dylan's life on film. The 1965 tour was well documented by D.A. Pennebaker's legendary documentary "Don't Look Back", following Dylan at a highly transitional period in his career, right before his frenzy-inducing electric performance at the Newport Folk Festival when even everyone's favorite hippie, Pete Seegar, turned into an axe-wielding maniac.

But my true favorite is Pennebaker & Dylan's lesser-known follow-up to "Don't Look Back", an experimental documentary called "Eat The Document". Filmed by Pennebaker & edited by Dylan, the film was meant to be shown on television, but was never aired due to its Burroughs "Cut-Ups" style editing. Dylan was exploring many mediums at this time (he was writing has first novel, "Tarantula" during the editing period) and "Eat The Document" is a great precursor for understanding later Dylan films like "Renaldo and Clara" and "Masked and Anonymous", which explore the power of tangential narrative & creating alternative stories that twist the interpretation of "reality".

Not only is "Eat The Document" a brilliant cinematic experiment, it also features footage of some of Dylan's most dynamic live performances ever--his 1966 European tour. Fueled by exploding artistic energy & amphetamine addiction, Dylan brought to the stage new songs ("Tell Me Momma") and radically reinvented older songs ("Baby, Let Me Follow You Down", "She Acts Like We Never Have Met") doused with gasoline and lit on fire. And on top of it all, violently hostile folk fans (in a show of supreme hypocracy) shouting death threats at their former marionette puppet who would no longer let them hold the strings.

Sadly, this wonderful film has never received a proper release. After years of "copy-of-a-copy-of-a-copy" VHS bootlegs being passed around or sold on Ebay, the p2p movement has finally resulted in some halfway decent (at least watchable) versions of the film to be made available to the masses. While much better than what we previously had, the footage is still grainy, washed-out and artifacted by .AVI encoding. Not to mention the sound quality, which is a far cry from the wonderful "Royal Albert Hall" Bootleg Series Vol. 4 CD release a few years back.

Many fans got their hopes up for an official DVD release of "Eat The Document" when Martin Scorsese's wonderful Dylan doc "No Direction Home" was released with pristine, remastered outtake footage included in the film. But it's been well over a year since the film was shown on PBS and released on DVD, and still no word of "Eat The Document" being made available any time soon.

And it doesn't surprise me--"Eat The Document" doesn't fit in to Dylan's recent plans for "legacy building". The once elusive (almost hermit-like) artist has suddenly come out of his shell following the Grammy award for Best Album he received for his comeback epic, "Time Out of Mind". As if attempting to make amends for decades of heavy drinking, spiritual confusion & downright bad albums (or to simply try & erase history), Dylan has become downright social, hosting an XM Radio show, appearing in Victoria's Secret & Apple commercials, staring in a major motion picture, and even releasing the first volume of his memoirs ("Chronicles Vol. 1", written in a simple, salt-of-the-earth style that is far from the usual cryptic Dylan poetry & light years from the amphetamine-fueled free verse of his previous literary offering, "Tarantula").

While Dylan still has the desire to be the mysterious genius (and plays up this persona well), his desires to be the elusive symbolist poet he was best known as are long gone. He seems to be doing everything he can do to distance himself from the drug-fueled '66 period (and, in my theory, any indication that it was where he peaked and then "jumped the shark" on his Triumph before landing face first on the pavement in Woodstock, NY). Take for example his recent boycott of the Edie Sedgwick biopic "Factory Girl", where Dylan is portrayed by the horribly miscast Hayden Christensen. It is long been rumored (which a certain amount of evidence) that Dylan and Sedgwick were romantically involved, and that Dylan's efforts to distance her from the Warhol factory (which he perceived as a bad influence) and subsequent ditching of Edie when he got sick of her & married his first wife led indirectly to Sedgwick's downfall into heavy drug use & eventual fatal overdose. Dylan has gone so far as to have his personal legal staff to issue a cease and desist, along with threats of lawsuits for defamation of character if the film is ever released. According to recent advertising campaigns, it doesn't seem to be stopping the filmmakers, and the film we be released in the spring.

Unfortunately, Dylan owns the rights to "Eat The Document" and thus holds the cards to whether it is ever released or becomes another "Cocksucker Blues" in the history of great '60's rock documentaries. Does anyone care that Dylan is doing a line of speed off of the top of a grand piano in the opening shot? Does it somehow diminish the power of the music that he was making? I don't think anyone who matters could really give a damn. Dylan does though, and as a result this great film will probably never get the remastering and distribution it so rightfully deserves.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Have you even seen "Factory Girl" yet? If not, don't call Christensen "horribly miscast" just to appear cool among the sad Dylan camp. Geez.

casey said...

Now that's how you do a blog post. Really nice read.

Anonymous — have you seen Factory Girl? It doesn't look so hot to me, regardless of who they chose to portray "Dylan." The Sedgwick story is such a snooze. She was just another vacuous muse for yesterday's Kings of Bohemia. Imagine if she hadn't died young — would anyone even care?

Everything I need to know about her life is in that shitty song by The Cult: "Edie (Ciao, Baby)." I liked it when I was 14.

Why not make a movie about Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme? Devendra can play Manson.

jay said...

I wonder if anonymous has ever read this blog before or just found it while searching for Hayden Christensen fan sites.

I haven't seen the film in its entirety yet but I have seen two different trailers and about a five-minute excerpt prominently featuring Christensen. First off, the guy is a mediocre actor at best. He has a pretty face and it helped him land a few roles. Good for him.

Secondly, I think the whole concept of creating a "fictional" character that is so obviously Dylan was ridiculous to begin with. Casting a hack actor who looks/sounds/emotes nothing like Dylan was a bad move on the casting director's part. But obviously they care more about getting tickets sold than autheticity.

As for me having concerns about "appearing cool among the sad Dylan camp"....I don't even know what this is supposed to mean, far less how to respond to it. I write a local VT music blog--I'm pretty damn far from addressing Dylan's "camp".

Your name isn't "Donna" by any chance? :)

jay said...

I'll second Casey's request for a Squeaky Fromme biopic. Or maybe one about "Sexy" Sadie.

I've had a long-time fascination with the Manson Family, and while there are plenty of films that focus on Charlie, there is little on the Manson Women. Might be time to write a screenplay....

casey said...

Let's quit our jobs and make that screenplay happen!

jay said...

You're a writer, I have a film degree....

**jay prepares letter of resignation**

Anonymous said...

uh has anyone seen star wars episode two or three? there lies all the evidence one needs to prove hayden christensen cannot act. what is a sad dylan camp i wonder?

casey said...

It's like fat camp, but with depressed zimmermen.

casey said...

re: Factory Girl:

http://www.avclub.com/content/node/58418

Now I really don't need to see it.

T.J. said...

Interesting. I really want to see "Eat the Document" now. I still have to see the Scorcese doc though. Have you heard about the Todd Haynes Dylan bio coming out "I'm Not There"? It seems to directly address the way he's always challenged how people view his persona. I thought Masked and Anonymous was about that too but in its relationship to politics. Like Dylan was expressing frustration with how critics in his generation want to politicize what he supposedly stands for. Perhaps I'm filtering my memory of the film through what he said much more directly in his memoirs about the issue.

jay said...

I'm really excited for the Todd Haynes film. The use of multiple actors to portray the single role of Dylan is not only a clever experiment but also a nice homage to a multi-faceted & chameleon-like artist.

"Masked and Anonymous" was a grossly underrated film & hopefully will be re-discovered eventually. It explores a lot of Dylan's philosophical and intelectual obsessions, expecially those dealing with the concept of self & the myth of identity. I remember filling up half a notebook with thought tangents I had after watching it the first time. Maybe I'll have to organize them into an essay at some point.