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How Bob Dylan Beat the Press

Reporters are the 'badfellas' in Martin Scorsese's PBS documentary about the folk-rock legend.
 
 
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Surely, one of the non-musical highlights of the extraordinary Martin Scorsese film about Bob Dylan's early days, airing on PBS on Monday and Tuesday [Sept. 26 and 27], arrives when a press photographer, at a briefing, asks the young rock star to pose for a picture. "Suck on a corner of your glasses," the gentleman instructs.

Dylan, fingering his Ray-Bans, rebels. "You want me to suck on my glasses?" he asks incredulously.

"Just suck your glasses," the photog advises.

"Do you want to suck my glasses?" Dylan asks, handing them to the photog, who obliges by licking them. "Anybody else?" Bob wonders.

This exchange, from 1966, is only one of several press games/battles that play a key role in part II of the documentary, No Direction Home . In fact, they represent the climax of the film, as Dylan burns out, not just from the boos that greeted his switch from acoustic to electric but from inane questioning by the press. The film ends with Dylan begging for a long vacation, followed by end notes revealing that he had his famous motorcycle accident a few months later -- and then did not tour for seven years.

That's one way to Beat the Press.

But Dylan has always had a combative relationship with the media, and wrote one of the most scathing and, arguably, most influential attacks on the press in modern times, "Ballad of Thin Man." That song holds that memorable refrain: "Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is, do you, Mister Jones?"

And he's still at it. Earlier this year, on "60 Minutes," Ed Bradley asked him about the passage in his recent memoir "Chronicles" where Dylan revealed that he always figured the press was something "you lied to." Bob told Bradley that he knew he had to answer to God, but not to reporters.

Of course, there was a time when some people thought Dylan was God.

In any case, the Scorsese film shows plenty of evidence of why Dylan turned off to the press long ago. Along with many of his fans, they just didn't "get" him, especially when he changed the face of popular music in the mid-1960s.

"You don't sing protest songs anymore," a reporter asks.

"All my songs are protest songs," Dylan replies evenly. "All I do is protest."

Later, someone at a press conference asks him how many other protest singers exist. It's as if the man is asking Sen. Joe McCarthy for the number of Communists in the State Department. Dylan ponders it, then replies, "About 136." No one laughs.

"You say about 136 -- or exactly 136?" the reporter asks.

"Either 136 or 142," Dylan says, settling it.

On another occasion, a reporter asks what "message" and "philosophy" he was trying to impart by wearing a Triumph motorcycle shirt on the cover of the greatest album of all time, "Highway 61 Revisited." Dylan says he just happened to be wearing it the day the photo was snapped, but the press guy persists. Finally Dylan pleads, "We all like motorcycles some, right?"

Then there's the young woman who credits him with a song he didn't write ("Eve of Destruction") and asks if his songs have a "subtle message." When Bob asks where she read that, she replies, "In a movie magazine."

On another occasion, a man asks, "For those of us well over 30, how do you label yourself and what's your role?"

Dylan laughs, then answers, "Well, I sort of label myself as well under 30 -- and my role is just to stay here as long as I can."

It only gets worse. One reporter asks if he agrees that his early records were better than his latest. Another wonders if he considers himself "the ultimate beatnik." Bob asks him what HE thinks about that. The man says he can't comment because he has never heard Dylan sing.

"You've never heard me sing and yet you want to sit there and ask me these questions?" Dylan replies.

Just before Dylan announces that he wants to quit for awhile, he is shown in a hotel room on the road discussing press coverage of his riotous 1966 tour of England with The Hawks, where audience members shouted out that he was a "traitor" or even "Judas" for abandoning folk music. Dylan comments that one story actually claimed that "everybody" walked out of one show.

"I saw one person walk out," he relates. Then he jokes that he will walk out of the next show. "I'll tell them Dylan got sick," he promises. Which was true enough. His semi-retirement soon followed.

In the Scorsese film, the current-day Dylan comments a bit about all of this. "I had no answers to any of those questions," he explains. "But it didn't stop the press from asking them. For some reason they thought performers had the answers to all these problems in society. It's absurd."

He also says: "People had a warped idea of me, usually those outside the music industry -- 'spokesman of a generation,' and all that."

Spokesman or not, "Ballad of a Thin Man" still rings true, exactly 40 years after it first appeared.

You walk into the room
With a pencil in your hand
You see somebody naked
And you say, "Who is that man?"
You try so hard
But you don't understand
Just what you will say
When you get home

Because something is happening here
But you don't know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

Well, you walk into the room
Like a camel and then you frown
You put your eyes in your pocket
And your nose on the ground
There ought to be a law
Against you comin' around
You should be made
To wear earphones

Because something is happening here
But you don't know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

 

Greg Mitchell ( gmitchell@editorandpublisher.com) is editor of E&P, former executive editor of Crawdaddy, and attended one of Dylan's electric shows in 1965.