Bob Dylan, the muscian, poet, and cultural icon, turns 75 today. Dylan's album Blonde On Blonde is now 50 years old this month. So is D.A. Pennebaker legendary documentary film, Dont Look Back, which gave the audience a chance to see the subterranean bard live his life while he was rising up in his career.
To honor Dylan's birthday and Pennebaker's film release anniversary, Inc. spoke with Pennebaker about Dylan's creative process and spirit of innovation and reinvention. Pennebaker, who is known for his cinéma vérité style, said he never asked Dylan all the questions journalists at the time were dying to ask the artist-- like why he changed his name from Robert Zimmerman, whether he is a folk singer, and the meaning behind his songs. Pennebaker said he wasn't interested in poking and prodding, he just wanted to be a fly on the wall and dig the scene coming out of Greenwich Village.
"I was just watching, I never interviewed him," Pennebaker says. "So, we never came to that kind of sense of uselessness. Dylan liked the idea that I was watching him. We were all part of a world Dylan was surrounded by and he didn't know more about it than I did. We were all busy watching it to see what was going on."
Pennebaker, who has made other legendary documentaries like Monterey Pop, says every media outlet was trying to understand Dylan and his influences in 1965. The press wanted to know how a nameless poet from Duluth, Minnesota, with a scraggly voice had entered the scene and suddenly became one of the counter-culture's fountainheads. But Dylan wasn't interested in any of these questions. In Dont Look Back, Dylan tells Time magazine reporter Horace Freeland Judson why he has no patience for the press:
"I don't have anything to say about these things I write, I just write them," Dylan said. "I'm not going to say anything about them. I don't write them for any reason, there is no great message...."
So how did Dylan became so successful? He is one of the best-selling artists of all time with over 100 million records sold. He's been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Pulitzer Prize committee gave him a special citation for his impact on American culture. In 2012, President Obama gave Dylan the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The Kingdom of Chance
Dylan is very wary of defining a creative process as such, Pennebaker says. For Dylan, creating a song is less a concrete, time-tested process and more of a channeling of feelings, Pennebaker says. When it comes to writing a song, he calls Dylan's process elusive.
Dylan believed that "you don't know how you do it or what you do but you have a feeling that it will work," Pennebaker says.
In Dont Look Back, there is a scene during which Pennebaker filmed Dylan writing a song: Dylan pounds away at the piano, trying to "find" the tune, Pennebaker says.
Pennebaker says that's how Dylan creates, he "finds a song in his ear" and bangs on the piano until it comes out the way he heard it, Pennebaker explains.
"He knows how to write a song, he's taught himself how to do that. But for him, it's all kind of chance. Chance rules the world he occupies in a way I barely understand," Pennebaker says.
Dont Look Back
Pennebaker named the film "Dont Look Back" to pay homage to Satchel Paige, an African-American baseball player during the 1930s and 1940s. Paige, who was a pitcher, famously said, "Don't look back because something might be gaining on you."
"To me, Satchel's quote means if you're a person who is driven to make artistic decisions you should never look back at them," Pennebaker says. "You can only look ahead in your life, and I think that's what Dylan has done."
For the poet, Pennebaker says, looking back doesn't help to accomplish anything. Everything is right in front and straight ahead, he says.
"Dylan gets on with it, he never looks back, he always looks ahead," Pennebaker says. "The artist should be looking ahead and into the unknown."
The man, self-assured
Pennebaker says that Dylan has a certain something that other people do not have. It took a while for Pennebaker to put his finger on the quality, but soon he identified it.
"He has assurance, a funny kind of assurance that whatever he is doing it is the right thing," Pennebaker says. "Jackson Pollock had that, too. What he was doing was absurd and all his painting friends would tell him that regularly, but he had this assurance and never stopped. He was assured up to the end. Dylan, like the poet Byron, has that assurance."
He says if you dedicate your life to your art or your passion, you need a special kind of assurance that doesn't wane.
Pennebaker, who worked for Time and Life before starting his own independent documentary company with his partner Chris Hegedus, says that spending all that time with Dylan while making Dont Look Back helped him decide to strike out on his own.
"Making that film showed me why I make films, I can't even explain it," Pennebaker says. "After that I felt strong enough to do everything all by myself. I had quit Time and Life because something was happening."
Looking back, Pennebaker says he picked up this air, this whiff of entrepreneurship from Dylan.
"Go your way with as much assurance as you can find," Pennebaker says, explaining how he sees Dylan's creative process.