Bob Dylan was already rather fond of self-reinvention when, in early 1964, he arrived in Hollywood, metaphorically, via the photography of Barry Feinstein. There, for a moment, and only a moment, he transformed into the poet that people frequently still want him to be. “Hollywood Foto-Rhetoric: The Lost Manuscript” — the recently released book in which Dylan’s words accompany Feinstein’s early 1960s work — is the remarkable document of that moment.
In large regard, “Hollywood Foto-Rhetoric” (Simon & Schuster, 2008) is journalism. Dylan and Feinstein are merely correspondents reporting on the end of the golden era of Hollywood from the perspective of the emerging world in which they are participants. By ’60s standards, their scope is modest. But the book is also art, directly executed and informed by a new worldview with complex roots perfectly exemplified by Dylan himself.
Just two years earlier, Dylan had legally been Robert Zimmerman, a Jewish kid from Minnesota’s Iron Range, proud grandson of Eastern European immigrants. But transformation was in his core. In turn, he’d already become — by imitation, professional and personal — James Dean, Woody Guthrie and, lately, Arthur Rimbaud. When he first arrived in New York in 1960, he told interviewers he’d been in the circus and that he’d traveled with old bluesmen.
Dylan’s ingrained outsider-ness was the direct product of World War II, he has explained. “I was born in 1941,” he told a crowd recently. “That was the year they bombed Pearl Harbor. I’ve been living in a world of darkness ever since.” Like many of his generation, Dylan had a basic distrust of humanity, which was fed by the twin atrocities of concentration camps and atomic bombs. In that way, Bobby Zimmerman transformed into the classic Jewish outsider, Bob Dylan. He could invent new masks whenever he needed, truthful or not. Classic Hollywood, really.
It is a similar outsider-ness — perhaps self-consciously Jewish, perhaps not — that permeates Feinstein’s take on Tinseltown. In one sequence, Feinstein’s camera moves closer and closer to the Hollywood sign, its imperfections magnified as it grows larger. (“Must be some horrendous joke,” Dylan observes.) Feinstein — who shot the album cover of Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’” and was married to Mary Travers of Peter, Paul & Mary — is the perfect tour guide for the 23-year-old Dylan.
In the early ‘60s, Feinstein followed his nose for behind-the-scenes tableaus while working as a production assistant at Columbia Pictures. In 2008, his work is just as remarkable — even without Dylan’s participation. In fact, “Hollywood Foto-Rhetoric” was first scheduled for publication by Macmillan in 1964, only to be pulled from production due to edgy images, such as a sign behind a bar reading “Fagots — Stay Out.”
Public and private, insider and outsider crash in Feinstein’s Hollywood, identity blooming in the space between: Judy Garland (born: Frances Ethel Gumm) on-set but off-camera, the house of Marilyn Monroe (born: Norma Jean Baker) the day she died, mourners at Gary Cooper’s funeral, press agents relaxing poolside. For Dylan, an outsider Jew so defiant that he toured as an evangelical Christian, Hollywood is catnip.
Shades still on, naturally, Dylan riffs in a rarely heard voice. While surrealisms dance with the rhythms of talkin’ blues, the writing is largely free from folk allusions. Absent, too, is the abstraction that plagued “Tarantula” (his 1966 experimental novel) and the scathing put-downs that marked his contemporaneous songs — which isn’t to say that “Hollywood Foto-Rhetoric” isn’t devastating. It’s still pure Dylan.
In “#13,” next to pictures of a beehive-haired woman in an acting class, a “voice of authority” speaks:
all right now, supposin that you’ve just received
a telegram explainin that your husband has
been eaten by a boa constrictor after the atomic
bomb has just fallen in new jersey…now how would
you react in such an instance?
Dylan’s writing is frequently classically gorgeous, too: “destroyed ruins/tilt the day,” is a lovely, small phrase that he has written near an image of toppled backlot columns.
In “#16,” Dylan deals with identity directly, ascribing boxes of wigs labeled “Lucille Ball,” “Kim Novak” and “Julie Andrews” with a modernist’s absurdity:
i found me in a box
ripped it open
put myself on
did the same.
Despite the literal costume-play, it quickly turns to a cautionary tale:
cannot be covered
by a name
an we hardly ever
have t speak
for we dont
each other anything.
Especially in Hollywood, it seems, Dylan is wary of the notion of fixed identity. In the book’s concluding sequence, “#23,” next to images of film stars clutching their Oscars, the statuettes at center frame, he recalls the Tom Paine Award he’d received from the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee the preceding year. Uncomfortable at being pinned down by the new old left as a protest singer, he’d reacted with a knee jerk, accepting with a boo-inducing speech in which he sympathized with Lee Harvey Oswald. This effectively severed ties with his earliest patrons. Always identifying, that Dylan.
He writes, “the room was silent mama” (a rare concession to blues vernacular), and continues,
the room was silent
except for this hysterical laughin
stemming from the ridiculousness
of such useless property
but i couldnt tell
who was laughing mama
i couldnt tell if it was me
or this thing
i was holding.
Dylan’s art — here lashed not only to a specific time, but also to specific images — would rarely be so fixed again. Dylan was always making sure that the audience, at least, would wonder whom it was they heard laughing. No wonder he got out of town quickly.
Jesse Jarnow hosts the Frow Show on WFMU. He lives in Brooklyn and blogs at jessejarnow.com.