The unseen Bob Dylan

Missing footage of a legendary Sixties tour is coming to light at last. Tim Cumming relates the tale of a great lost document
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Chronicles was a revelatory memoir, but of his imaginative rather than his personal life. It was a portrait in which you saw the pores of the skin more clearly than the lines of the face. Dylan's kind of deep focus has a way of keeping the rest of us back. He is a famous self-revisionist - if only for the hell of it - and one wonders what will be revealed in Scorsese's three and a half hours of film. Key figures such as Joan Baez, Suze Rotolo, Allen Ginsberg, Al Kooper and Dave van Ronk were also interviewed for the film but it is mainly Dylan's viewpoint: Scorsese adopts the approach that the principal witness is the subject.

The interviews are backed by a mass of previously unseen footage, and one of Scorsese's biggest jobs was marshalling the motherlode of Dylan's own archive. A good portion of it was shot by DA Pennebaker, who joined Dylan's 1965 UK tour to film Don't Look Back. Dylan invited him along the following year, but this time as a cameraman for his own movie. Every night, Dylan and the Hawks were turning in the performances of their lives. People booed. People still came. They did the same thing night after night. It was the greatest rock'n'roll tour, ever. "The stuff I shot was some of the most extraordinary performance footage I've ever filmed," Pennebaker remembered for Time magazine. His second shoot featured complete concerts, Dylan doing things on the street, going into a rap, and all sorts of other, extraordinary, unseen material.

Yet Eat the Document, the film Dylan made, has never been officially released, is rarely shown, and ranks with The Rolling Stones' Charlie Is My Darling as one of the great unknown movies of rock'n'roll. "It was an attempt on Dylan's part to direct a film," says Pennebaker, "and he knew even less than I did about it. We were like a couple of foundlings."

Bob Neuwirth - Dylan's ringside companion in the transformation from folk star to rock icon - worked with Pennebaker to make their own cut of the 1966 footage, called Something is Happening. Dylan rejected it as being too much like Don't Look Back, and re-cut it at his Woodstock home, with his friend Howard Alk and The Hawks' Robbie Robertson.

ABC, who commissioned the film, rejected it for being incomprehensible to a general audience - which is true - and, since then, Dylan has more or less washed his hands of it. There have been occasional showings over the years, most recently at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, but when Uncut announced their Dylan film season at the NFT, Eat the Document, like the long-suppressed 1970s epic Renaldo and Clara, was noticeable by its absence. (At least they bagged the Dylan-penned Masked and Anonymous from 2003, a ragged, vaudevillian, sub-tropical fever of a movie that's a lot more entertaining than the universally bad reviews suggested.) "I don't think he really likes it," says Pennebaker of Eat the Document. "It is a peculiar icon of our times. But no one knows what it is because not many have seen it."

What strikes you when you finally get your hands on it is its rawness and the air of studied carelessness with which it is put together. It's a rushed, contemporary record rather than a retrospective account, a vision of Dylan's strange reality struck in the white heat of its happening. It's the hidden text beneath the epic retrospective, and in many ways deeply anti-iconic - an assembly of seemingly random snippets, some vivid, some mundane, most frustratingly brief, with Dylan often at the edge, the back, or the side.

There is no narrative, and scenes are cut and scrambled to the point where the cut-up ideas of William Burroughs seem to be creeping into the mix. It's as if Dylan is intent on disappearing into his own picture, cutting into the iconography, Burroughs-style, even as it was taking hold. And yet amid the clatter of trains, buses, taxis, hotels and crowded, unresolved scenes, there are fascinating, fleetingly intimate vignettes - of Johnny Cash and Dylan duetting over an upright piano, or Dylan with Neuwirth in a Glasgow hotel room, previewing two beautiful, tender Blonde on Blonde-era songs that have never been released or entered any songbook. You feel that you're a witness to some unsolvable mystery in the making.

Haunting images appear - the fall of red stage-curtains, a fan's startled upward gaze, as if ET was standing there, Dylan and entourage at a river's bend, by a tree laden with blossom, visiting the site of a teenage suicide. Dylan, with his big hair and big shades and tiny figure, stands against the landscape like a man who'd fallen to Earth that very minute. He looks planet-stunned. Later, in a taxi with Lennon, it looks as if he is about to throw up.

Fractured and uncentred, shakily filmed and with a soundtrack dominated more by interference than music, Eat the Document can be read as Dylan's immediate reaction to the blinding intensity of a tour that burned him at both ends and brought the curtain down on the first great phase of his career. No wonder he kept his shades on. It was his first attempt at direction, and one senses that he was trying to do in the cutting room - and failing with honour - what he did in the studio and with his songs, marshalling a wild, semi-improvised juxtaposition of images, scenes and music to work wonders.

With Dylan seemingly holding back on releasing any new recordings in favour of next month's epic, and carefully-choreographed, re-examination of his past, one wonders what kind of document he would make now, and what performances Pennebaker would capture when Dylan returns to play in Brixton at the beginning of November.

These days, grinding his foot into the floor behind his piano and bending awkwardly into the microphone set just above his keyboard, as if toying with his own pain threshold, his cracked, fissured voice is still capable of reaching into the audience to twist its heart. As he moves in his inscrutable but workmanlike way from town to town, tottering across the stage like an aged villain in a Peckinpah shoot-out, the eye of Horus on the stage curtain behind him, a chessboard floor rolled out beneath his feet, this most enduring of modern icons continues to challenge, surprise and confound.

'No Direction Home' is out on CD on 29 August, on DVD on 3 September, and on BBC2 from 26 September. 'The Dylan Scrapbook 1956-1966' is out on 1 October (Simon and Schuster). Bob Dylan plays Brixton Academy, London SW9, 20-24 November

Comments