On Friday December 3, 1965, Bob Dylan held what has long since gone down as one of the most legendary press conferences in pop music history. Standing in sharp contrast to the often mumbling, rambling Dylan seen in many of his more recent-day press events — such as when he was interviewed by 60 Minutes a year or so back — here Dylan was animated, engaging, and even funny at times.
Orchestrated by the celebrated jazz turned pop-music critic Ralph J. Gleason, the event was held in the studios of San Francisco's KQED TV. Coming just a few months after Dylan had stunned the crowd at Newport by going full-blown electric (and basically horrifying the folkie purists there), media interest in Dylan was at an all-time high. So the room that afternoon was filled with a throng of chain-smoking old school reporters (Dylan himself was never too far from a cigarette) who rubbed shoulders side by side with counter culture figures like Allen Ginsburg and Bill Graham.
As you'd probably expect, the sixties generational mix often made for some truly inspired theatre.
Over the years, this infamous press conference has been seen in bits and pieces in many of the various Dylan biopics – the most recent being Scorsese's brilliant No Direction Home. Fully restored here the way it was meant to be seen — filmed in glorious black and white and recorded in beautiful mono sound — this DVD replays the entire event here and now for the first time some forty years later.
Although Dylan looks a little tired (he rubs his eyes constantly throughout), he is fully engaged in a way rarely seen in his interviews. And as I said, he is downright funny at times. Such as when he is momentarily distracted by a cigarette ash apparently dropped down onto his pants.
But he never misses a beat as he is asked every imaginable question from the ridiculous ("What does that motorcycle on your shirt on the album cover actually mean?"), to the sublime. The great quotes here come so fast and furious over the course of fifty minutes; it is sometimes a little hard to keep up. The most well known of these comes early. When asked whether he thinks of himself as more of a singer or a poet, Dylan famously responds "I think of myself as a song and dance man."
We also learn his opinions of some of the various other artists of his day. When asked if he thinks Donovan is a good poet for example, Dylan responds with a flat sounding "no." He then adds, "but I think he's a nice guy though." When asked who his favorite poets are, Dylan rattles off a list that includes Allen Ginsburg (seated in the audience) as well as Charlie Rich, W.C. Fields, and Smokey Robinson.
When Bill Graham asks who he thinks did the best covers of his songs, Dylan singles out Manfred Mann for praise. Ever the concert promoter, Graham manages to place a flyer for a Jefferson Airplane concert at the Fillmore on Dylan's interview table. Dylan later happily pimps the show for Graham by holding the poster up and saying he'd be there if he didn't have other commitments.
In another quote that is classically Dylan, he describes folk music as "a constitutional replay of mass production." If that one has you scratching your head, just think of the folks who were there that day.
Perhaps most interesting is the nonchalance Dylan displays about his own success. When one reporter brings up the charges of sellout from the folk music purists, Dylan replies by saying that he has no comments, no arguments, and that he doesn't feel guilty. When another needles him repeatedly over why he thinks he is so popular, Dylan claims a sort of puzzled indifference. When it comes right down to it, he simply says he doesn't really know why. For a guy around whom the entire pop music universe basically revolved at the time, perhaps it is that quote that is the most telling one here.
With the release of the great Modern Times CD this year, there has been a notable revival of interest in Dylan of late. For those climbing aboard for the first time, this DVD provides some great insight into the earliest years of a musical icon. For longtime fans, it makes for a glimpse of Dylan at his most revealing that has rarely been seen since.
It also makes for some great theater.