Don’t Look Back: Watching Dylan Become A Rock Star

From April 30-May 10, 1965 Dylan toured Great Britain, a tour that was captured by documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker in his film Don’t Look Back (released in 1967).

The film is often cited for its portrayal of Bob Dylan as bratty and combative with the British press, as well as dismissive of British folkie sensation Donovan, one of an endless parade of ‘new Dylans.’ What makes it really informative and fascinating viewing is that it captures Dylan at precisely this moment when he is moving on from one thing to something else. The idea of pop stars as artists hadn’t happened yet–not to The Beatles, nor to Dylan, nor even to Frank Sinatra.  John Coltrane and Miles Davis had already moved jazz musicians in the direction of being viewed as artists rather than as entertainers, and Dylan and The Beatles would soon move in that direction as well, taking an entire generation of recording artists with them. 

1964 was the year that Bob Dylan released his third, and the last album as a Woody Guthrie/Pete Seeger folk-styled protest singer, The Times, They Are A-Changing. His fourth album, Another Side of Bob Dylan, was released in August of that same year, and it showed Dylan trending away from direct social protest and more in the direction of existential observation. It was still acoustic, but Dylan was writing in a different way and some of the songs that didn’t make it onto Another Side surfaced on Bringing It All Back Home. Released in March of 1965, it featured Dylan backed by an electric rock band on a number of songs. There were some amazing acoustic songs as well–“It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Gates of Eden,” –but the die was cast. 

When Miles Davis moved along into a new sound or a new repertoire, his live performances always trailed the recording sessions. The mechanics of writing songs, learning new arrangements, putting together new groups of musicians, don’t allow for easy changes in midstream. But in the studio, some musicians found the ability to recreate sounds they heard in their heads with the use of recording technology. Musicians could be swapped in and out or added at will. Tracks could be recorded and discarded if they didn’t produce the desired results.  

While Dylan is in England, his new single, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is released, and it is unmistakably a rock and roll record. We see him at a party singing “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” in response to Donovan’s performance of “To Sing For You.” Not only is Dylan’s song better, but we realize, right at that moment, that Dylan is already across the line. He’s becoming a rock and roll star. In a couple of months, the transformation will be complete.  

Dylan w/Donovan Don’t Look Back, 1965

We see just as clearly that Dylan was not really ever a folk artist or a protest artist, not the way some of the other musicians who fell within his orbit were. Most notably, his newer songs had moved in a completely different direction than those of Joan Baez. By the time captured in Don’t Look Back, their relationship had already run its course, and so had their musical collaboration–Dylan didn’t ask Baez to sing with him during the tour. 

Dylan set out originally to become Woody Guthrie’s most devoted acolyte, dubbing him the ‘true voice of the American spirit.’ What he discovered as he studied Guthrie and other folk singers was that the American spirit was rooted in the blues, in jazz and spirituals, in the soul music of black Americans, and in the shared experiences of poverty and oppression shared by urban blacks and rural whites. He abandoned rock music at first because he didn’t find it serious enough in grappling with the biggest subjects of humanity: life and death, our identity in the world, and our purpose. 

But by this time Dylan was ready to attempt to bring the seriousness of the blues, of country and bluegrass, of the murder ballad or the plain love song to rock music. Don’t Look Back perfectly captures this moment. 

Two months later, he would take his rock and roll show to the Newport Folk Festival and release Highway 61 Revisited. A couple of years after that he grew tired of being a rock star and went back to the basement of Big Pink to explore the roots of American music with The Band. He’s been on that journey ever since. 

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