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On the Outside Looking In

On the Outside Looking In

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:

In “#16,” Dylan deals with identity directly, ascribing boxes of wigs labeled “Lucille Ball,” “Kim Novak” and “Julie Andrews” with a modernist’s absurdity:

He writes, “the room was silent mama” (a rare concession to blues vernacular), and continues,

Jesse Jarnow hosts the Frow Show on WFMU. He lives in Brooklyn and blogs at jessejarnow.com.

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Jesse Jarnow

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