When Life magazine sent Barry Feinstein out with Bob Dylan during his 1966 world concert tour, the photographer had already exhibited an aptitude for iconography in his portraits of film stars (Marilyn Monroe among them) and politicians (John F. Kennedy in particular), and of the singer/songwriter himself (that's a Feinstein photo on the cover of The Times They Are a Changin', below). Dylan arrived at a pivotal moment in the twentieth-century, the climax and demise of its cultural symmetry, a time when pop music challenged middle-class values. Initially a folk singer, Dylan was soon reinvented as a rock star, with an appearance that filmmaker/musician Joel Gilbert accurately describes as "a cross between Woody Guthrie and James Dean."
A lot of Gilbert's new documentary, Bob Dylan World Tours: 1966-1974, is an examination of Feinstein's still imagery with the photographer on hand to guide us. Observing Dylan's startling crossover from folk to rock, he used black and white throughout the 1966 assignment and explains its value as an essential component of print journalism. In just a little over a decade after this tour, as magazines such as Life and Look lost their potency on the newsstands, black and white would unfortunately be used less and less. This in itself lends a nostalgic flavor to Feinstein's pictures, while his subject's buoyancy is situated somewhere between childlike and ingenious, a presence as abstract as his verse. (Though we would liked to have shown samples of Feinstein's work here - what better way to persuade you to check out the DVD? - we're prohibited by copyrights.)
In terms of record sales, Bob Dylan never matched the commanding figures of The Beatles or the Rolling Stones or the multitude of one-hit wonders who breezed on and off of the charts. A whiny nasal singing voice notwithstanding, he was generally considered difficult and "different," whose probing work poked fun at sacred cows when not unmasking façades, a kind of Freudian pop too up-close and personal for general tastes. But he had an astonishing (and astonishingly quick) evolution as a songwriter that ranged from heartfelt ballads to protest anthems and rock tunes of spitting ferocity. Perhaps his greatest gift was a line of pointed, theoretical humor that made him a descendant of the Surrealists, Jonathan Swift, and Lewis Carroll. Through a sober and unimposing lens, Feinstein managed to capture this wellspring of off-center aplomb poker-faced, blending chiaroscuro with pop art just moments away from psychedelia.
When the photographer joined him for a quasi-'comeback' tour eight years later, Dylan had just emerged from a quirky transition. There were reports of a motorcycle accident in '66, of Dylan breaking his neck, an experiment with country music and an entirely different and deeper voice heard on the Top-40 hit, "Lay Lady Lay." Feinstein admits his skepticism of the accident, and Bob Dylan World Tours: 1966-1974 flirts with the suggestion that the artist concocted it to retreat from the public eye. But the 1974 concert tour ripped through cities with the vigor and heat of a mad cyclone, and Feinstein's photographs - now all in color - did their best to capture both Dylan and The Band at a thunderous turning point.
I remember that tour vividly: at Madison Square Garden, sitting to the side of the stage near one of the giant speakers, we were all blowin' in the wind of a fast, tight tirade. How that level of adrenaline was maintained night after night is one of the mysteries of performance, and the record album of the tour, Before the Flood, could never duplicate the intensity of the live experience.
Bob Dylan World Tours: 1966-1974 arrives at a time of renewed interest. There have been other unauthorized video projects (Bob Dylan - World Tour 1966: The Home Movies, also directed by Joel Gilbert; and Tales From a Golden Age - Bob Dylan - 1941-1966), and Larry Charles's feature film written by and starring Dylan, Masked and Anonymous. Above all else, there was an unexpectedly candid memoir, Chronicles, Volume One, and Martin Scorsese is now preparing Bob Dylan Anthology Project for television.
A musician who fronts Highway 61 Revisited, 'the world's only Dylan tribute band,' Gilbert is short on both the capital and clout to woo A-list celebrity participation. Interviewing Barry Feinstein about his assignments is a worthwhile pursuit and a touching tribute, and conducting it at the photographer's Woodstock home adds a degree of intimacy. But Bob Dylan World Tours: 1966-1974 endeavors to reach beyond its limits and capture the essence of an epoch without the involvement of Dylan nor any of the other major players involved. There is a visit with D A Pennebaker, who made the Dylan documentary Don't Look Back (1967), but it's a hasty Q&A that has the feel of a spur-of-the-moment drop-in call.
There are plenty of other areas in Bob Dylan World Tours: 1966-1974, however, that warrant investigation. A selection of extra features offers a beautifully arranged gallery of Feinstein's photography set to pleasant instrumental accompaniment (performed by Gilbert and his band - there's no Dylan music on the soundtrack). And there are two relaxed and extended bonus interviews with musician Bruce Langhorne and club owner Izzy Young, who recall the young Dylan starting out and his methods (or lack thereof) in the recording studio. Plus, Gilbert gets to hone his skills as straight-man to 'Dylanologist' A.J. Weberman (photo above), a prime candidate for The Howard Stern Show. They're an interesting pair, especially when discussing 'garbology,' Weberman's daft art of deciphering Dylan lyrics by picking through the songwriter's trash.
Gilbert travels the country miles of Woodstock to old houses once owned by Dylan and members of The Band, and knocks on the door of Big Pink (no one was home that day). It's an alternate universe where old bohemians named 'Bananas' and 'Grandpa Woodstock' are apt to pause for an impromptu recital of "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues." Positioned to recreate Dylan's motorcycle accident for the video, we imagined Gilbert was a charter member of a collision reenactment group out of David Cronenberg's Crash. It's alright: he thought twice, and didn't take the spill. But such devotion is irreproachable, and only a cold heart would condemn the effort and limited resources of Bob Dylan World Tours: 1966-1974, a labor of love.