On the Outside Looking In

Bob Dylan’s Journey Through Hollywood

By Jesse Jarnow

Published January 15, 2009, issue of January 23, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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?


like this?

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
everyone else
did the same.

Despite the literal costume-play, it quickly turns to a cautionary tale:

…nakedness
cannot be covered
by a name
an we hardly ever
have t speak
for we dont
call
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.

  • Image 1
  • Image 2



The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “I don’t want to say, ‘Oh oh, I’m not Jewish,’ because when you say that, you sound like someone trying to get into a 1950s country club, “and I love the idea of being Jewish." Are you a fan of Seth Meyers?
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.