Friday, July 20, 2018


     As I write, an impending strike threatens to shut down the film and television industries completely. The contract between the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE), my union for the past several decades, and the Alliance Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) expires on July 31st.  And the two sides aren’t even close to an agreement.

     In addition to editors like myself, IATSE  (known to members as the IA) represents cinematographers, production designers and art directors, costume designers, hair and makeup artists, lighting experts and sound technicians.  AMPTP speaks for the owners and managers of television networks and motion picture studios, along with the heads of streaming entities and executives running smaller production companies.  Those of us who make movies and TV shows, represented by our union, in other words, are at odds with those who finance and/or manage our work.

      The most contentious issues – filmmakers’ demand that the workday not be so long that our health and safety are endangered and our demand that we get the same residuals from streaming services as actors, writers and directors in order to keep our pension and health insurance fund solvent – seem straightforward enough.  But in these times, when union membership is low, when monopolistic corporations behave as though they hold all the cards and when new media have disrupted normal avenues of distribution and broadcasting, nothing is simple.

      In the IA’s 124 years of existence its goals and achievements have, on the contrary, been relatively uncomplicated:  wages commensurate with the rarity of members’ skills, employer contributions to a pension fund substantial enough for members to retire comfortably, affordable high quality health coverage also paid for by employers, overtime pay for overtime work, and provisions for reasonable meal breaks and time off from workday to workday.  Negotiations between the union and studios have sometimes been contentious, of course; there have occasionally been strikes. 

     But in the past half-century labor-management battles never posed an existential threat to the union.  The entities that financed movie production recognized that a unionized workforce was good for them.  Filmmakers’ reasonable compensation package made competition for jobs intense, so producers have always gotten the highest quality work from union crews. 

     My son, Adam Miller, posited early in his editing career that the only way to make a good low budget film is with a big budget crew, because well-paid filmmakers can’t be inefficient.  Wasting time is too costly.  So wise financiers happily pay more - and save money in the long run - by hiring expert and efficient union crews that deliver high quality work, on schedule.

     I was unaware of the union when I fell in love with cinema and still romanticized the starving artist as much as any college student.  But after graduation, starvation was a tough sell.  My very middle class parents had just forked over much more tuition than they could afford.   Becoming aware of union wages (and above scale rates), however, enabled me to tell mom and dad that just like lawyers and doctors, filmmakers are often paid well.  I could work my way up in a field about which I’d become passionate, and the compensation would be good.  It was the union, of course, that made such a claim possible.

      When I joined the New York Editors Guild (IA Local 771) at the start of my career, hourly rates, insurance benefits, guaranteed time away from the workplace at the end of each day, and employer contributions to our pension fund were at an all time high.  But from the early ‘80’s to the present, organized labor has been under attack, so it’s gotten harder and harder for IATSE to negotiate agreements as good as those of the pre-Reagan years. 

     I’m not saying the union was perfect back then.  East and west coast locals hadn’t yet merged and were often at odds.  It was hard to become a member if you didn’t have family already in the IA.  Those of us who struggled to get on union shows even suspected a degree of corruption in addition to the obvious nepotism.  Finally, contracts between the studios and the various film crafts expired at different times, so a picture could be edited even if the cinematographers struck or designed and shot even if the editors were out; we were not a united front.
     But today all of the film crafts’ agreements with the AMPTP terminate on the same date, July 31st.  And this gives the IA true power to negotiate a good deal for us, because if there’s a strike we all go out and the networks are left without programming to start the television season, and movie studios won’t have finished films for “awards season.”

     Knowing we have this strength, it seems like a no-brainer to strike if the AMPTP won’t meet our demands on life and death issues.

     Let’s talk first about the length of the workday.  People outside the movie industry may not be aware that a 12-hour workday is considered normal in Hollywood; we often toil for as many hours in one week as non-filmmakers do in a week and a half.  Sometimes it’s much worse.

     Exacerbating the problem is the fact that the current contract requires only 8 hours between the end of one workday and the start of another.  In other words, if Tuesday’s shoot wraps at midnight there’s no financial penalty for requiring the production crew to be back on set at 8am.  Add commuting time and the need to unwind for a few minutes and what we wind up with is sleep-deprived filmmakers who do nothing but work. This not only wreaks havoc on our family lives, it becomes extremely dangerous.     

     The late cinematographer Haskell Wexler made these dangerous work conditions a cause célèbre after camera assistant Brent Hershman was killed in a car wreck in 1997, falling asleep while driving home from a job at the end of a 19-hour workday (which was preceded by four 15-hour days).  What the IA wants codified in the new contract, as I understand it, is 12 hours between wrap and call, and a maximum 14-hour workday.  Not only does that seem reasonable to anyone outside the motion picture industry, it seems absolutely vital to all of us in it.  The AMPTP seems to disagree.

     The issue of employer contributions to IATSE’s pension and welfare fund is more complicated.  Our pension plan is funded largely by employer contributions for every hour we work.  But as studios have made fewer and fewer films in the past decade, that revenue has diminished. 

     There is an additional source of pension plan funding:  residual payments from distribution in secondary markets – feature films on DVD and Blu-ray or sold to television networks and airlines, for example.  But these traditional forms of revenue are drying up as viewers today stream most content.  And right now, streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu don’t pay residuals to the IA pension and welfare fund. 

     Consequently, the solvency of the plan itself is nearing “critical status.”  As of January 1, 2017, it was only 67.4% funded, and under federal law, a pension plan is considered to be in “critical” condition if funding falls below 65%.
     No one questions the importance of adequate pension payouts or affordable high quality medical coverage.  But when it comes down to financing pensions and insurance for those of us who work behind the scenes, the AMPTP is pleading poverty.

     Which is crazy!  While the studios complain that profits and attendance are at an all-time low for theatrical films and that TV ratings are way down, projected 2022 income for the film and TV industries, including power players Netflix and Amazon, is  $119.2 billion, up from $64 billion in 2017.   Clearly, then, the industry is making record profits.

     Simply put, my union sisters and brothers and I deserve to share fairly in the revenue. The AMPTP has already granted the Writers, Actors and Directors Guilds  “new media” (streaming service) residuals for their health and pension plans.  We want the same square deal.
     Because of streaming, of non-existent anti-trust law enforcement and of windfalls generated by recent corporate tax cuts, media corporations are so flush they’re considering construction of a $100 million tram to the Hollywood sign. How about investing that money in the those of us behind the camera who make the movies and TV shows that generate their mega-profits?  “Instead of a tram,” says a Local 600 spokesperson says, “let’s hike up instead and fund our pension!”

     Of course, I hope a strike can be averted.  Organized work stoppages wreak havoc with the very kind of economic security for which IATSE has struggled.  But at the moment the AMPTP seems intransigent on what, as I said above, are truly existential issues.  If we stay united and recognize our own bargaining power, we can make them do the right thing!


Thursday, June 15, 2017


     The Monterey Pop Festival -- held two years before its better-known stepchild, Woodstock -- was the first weekend-long rock concert.  It turns 50 on June 16th.

     I was too young and too far away to join the west coast hippie devotees who flocked to the event.  So I waited for D.A. Pennebaker’s cinéma vérité documentary MONTEREY POP!, released over a year later, to have my first festival experience. I went to the Kips Bay Cinema on Manhattan’s east side excited to see the bands in the film.  I left feeling that my life had been fundamentally altered, certain I wanted to become a filmmaker (even though I had no idea know what that would entail). 

     True, when you’re in your mid-teens, as I was when I saw the picture, every moment is pivotal.  But the twists and turns of popular culture in the late sixties were sharp and mind-bending regardless of one’s age.                                                                                                                                           

In 1967, Hollywood was knocked off its center by such movies as BONNIE AND CLYDE, THE GRADUATE and Luis Bunuel’s BELLE DE JOUR.  At the same time, in the six months leading up to Monterey, the face of rock ‘n’ roll changed even more radically. 

The Doors, The Grateful Dead, The Velvet Underground, Janis Joplin with Big Brother and The Holding Company, and The Jimi Hendrix Experience all issued debut albums.  And two weeks before the festival, The Beatles – using orchestral music, shifting time signatures, sitar and tabla solos, and revolutionary recording techniques -- shattered rock ‘n’ roll’s few remaining limits with “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” All of these new sounds spread quickly, reaching tens of millions of teenagers like me who listened to FM’s “progressive rock” radio. 

     Disc jockeys pioneering this new format played album cuts that were never released as 45rpm singles.  Such singles, the foundation (and only content) of AM Top 40 programming, were generally superficial.  FM’s darker, more complex tracks – with lyrics about whiskey bars, backdoor men and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds -- became the soundtrack of my adolescence. There were songs about pills that altered your size and made you feel eight miles high.  Songs that asked, “Are you experienced?”  Songs that made me feel supercool indeed!

     As California, New York, London and Liverpool bands were forging a rock ‘n’ roll renaissance, Pennebaker -- with far less fanfare -- was transforming cinema in ways Hollywood hadn’t considered.  On May 17, 1967, DONT LOOK BACK, his film about Bob Dylan’s second British tour, hit theatres.  I had just become a Dylan fan and here was an intimate portrait that made me feel like I was hanging out with my new hero! 

     I experienced the same immediacy, a year and a half later, watching MONTEREY POP!

     Again, that motion picture was life changing.  I couldn’t fully articulate why at the time.  But as I look back 50 years I realize I watched it like a kid at a magic show, so enthralled I needed to find out how the tricks were done. Somehow I knew I could learn moviemaking.  Even now, as I revisit the film, I discover tropes and connections that weren’t apparent to me before.  Half a century later, MONTEREY POP! continues to inspire.

     What was groundbreaking and what enabled D.A Pennebaker to achieve such intimacy was cinéma vérité – a term coined by French documentarians for an array of techniques they had developed and which were refined in the U.S. by Richard Leacock, Robert Drew and the Maysles brothers along with Pennebaker. 

     Common wisdom about this genre, translated as “truthful cinema,” is that lightweight 16 mm. cameras and Nagra tape recorders developed in the sixties enabled moviemakers to be unobtrusive. Consequently their subjects – people like JFK and Hubert Humphrey in PRIMARY, Dylan in DONT LOOK BACK and dozens of musicians and hippies in MONTEREY POP! – were unguarded and unselfconscious as they couldn’t have been in front of Hollywood’s 350-pound Mitchell cameras and cumbersome audio systems.

     But the most important innovation in vérité wasn’t technological; it was a change in the attitude and behavior of directors.  Touring with Bob Dylan and, later, shooting musicians and audience members in Monterey, the filmmaker got subjects to reveal themselves to him by opening up to them.  If Dylan told a joke, Pennebaker laughed then became simultaneously vulnerable and entertaining by telling one of his own. 

     Likewise, during the making of MONTERY POP!,  the director and cinematographers engaged truthfully and openly with festival organizers, with a young woman who seemed incredulous that they hadn’t been to a “love-in,” with dozens of pot-smokers, and with the musicians at the movie’s center.

     Yet there isn’t a trace of dialogue from behind camera in the finished film; it was deleted entirely during post-production.  And this absence of filmmakers as narrators or interlocutors is another defining characteristic of cinéma vérité.  The documentarians’ openheartedness and candor off-camera enables those on camera to speak and act without restraint, while the magic of editing keeps the audience focused exclusively on the subject.

     So despite the genre’s name – “truthful cinema” -- these movies rely upon a great deal of artifice.  In Jean-Luc Godard’s LE PETIT SOLDAT, Bruno Forestier (a photographer played by Michel Subor) says, “Photography is truth. Cinema is truth 24 times a second.” Errol Morris, reflecting on his experience making THE THIN BLUE LINE and on its vérité progenitors, countered: “Film is lies 24 times a second.”   

     Motion pictures like DONT LOOK BACK and MONTEREY POP aren’t merely “windows onto the world,” easily contrasted with fiction features’ “reflection of reality.”  Their creators select what they shoot just as carefully as Hollywood feature directors.  And they use all the resources of theatrical film editing – disjunction of sound and image, sequential rearrangement, deletion, repetition, sound effects and music among them – to tell their stories most dramatically (and with the greatest emotional authenticity).

     Of course, I wasn’t aware of selection and editing when I was a young pup in the late sixties.  All I knew was how good these films made me feel.  How different they were from what I was used to watching on TV and in movie palaces.

     But blades of grass were busting through the concrete sidewalks of suburban America – including those of my working class Queens neighborhood. Changes were afoot not just in music and movies but in writing about society and pop culture. 

     In September ’67, I read an article in The Saturday Evening Post about kids (not much older than I was) who had run away to Haight-Ashbury.  Tens of thousands of them, living communally or on the street, smoking weed every day and tripping every other!  The piece, “Hippies: Slouching Toward Bethlehem” by Joan Didion, went much further than more glib reporting on “The Summer of Love” by television networks and mainstream newsweeklies.

     It complemented and exceeded Scott McKenzie’s hit song, “If You’re Going to San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair).”  And it was eye opening!  In The Post, no less – subscription par excellence of my grandparents’ quest to assimilate by reading the most Americana-infused magazine around -- with its Norman Rockwell covers and common sense features.

     Didion’s piece, a paradigm of New Journalism, is actually a close relative of MONTEREY POP! and its cinéma vérité siblings.  Didion, Tom Wolfe (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test), Norman Mailer (Armies of the Night) and other practitioners of the genre were compelled to create a fresh kind of reportage not just because old methods had become stale, but because their stories were about unprecedented phenomena; unique styles had to be found for the telling. 

     Dan Wakefield, a reporter for The Nation, described new journalism as reporting “charged with the energy of art.”

     Wolfe had to be “on the bus” and write with a novelist’s linguistic virtuosity to capture the “stranger than fiction” quality of hundreds of people taking huge doses of pure LSD-25 together, come what may.  Mailer had to be an insider to paint his compelling, insightful picture of writers, poets, critics, students, university chaplains, Yippies and mystics who marched on the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War.  Didion had to live among her Bay area post-beatnik dropouts to give readers the genuine article.

     These writers interacted with their subjects in the same way the new wave of documentarians did.  But they presented their interactions quite differently.  Cinéma vérité directors, as I said earlier, cut themselves out of their movies.  For new journalism, the writer’s presence became a defining characteristic of thee story.

     Being central in their own narratives, new journalists made a clear break from traditional objective reporting.  No “this reporter” or “editorial we” for Wolfe, Mailer and Didion!  Stories written accountably in the first person could go much deeper than dry, deadline-driven, style-less newspaper articles about acid, Vietnam War protests and hippies.

    While seeming to take the opposite approach – deleting themselves from scenes in which they had participated during principal photography -- vérité directors broke with newsreel tradition.  Shown in movie theatres starting in the 1930’s and reborn as the basic format for TV feature stories, newsreels used (usually bombastic) voice-overs and superimposed titles to tell the audience what was important in any given piece.  Their creators imposed drama in the most heavy-handed manner, leaving viewers feeling that all stories were alike and essentially meaningless.

     By making himself invisible, Pennebaker let his subjects speak for themselves and allowed viewers to discover what was dramatic. 

     Which brings us back to MONTEREY POP!  The film begins with a “psychedelic” title sequence in which lights pulsate behind colored paper seen through still-wet enamel paint on glass. Janis Joplin and Big Brother’s “Combination of the Two” roars on the soundtrack. 

     Such artistry – absent from documentaries I’d seen – gave me a sense of the light show that accompanied festival performances as well as concertgoers’ euphoric, hallucinatory experience.  Big Brother’s lyrics evoked “dancing at the Fillmore” and made viewers at the Kips Bay want to jump out of their seats and join in.

     The title sequence holds up to this day.

     And it does so because of artifice!  Showing people tripping can’t capture what they see on acid.  Pennebaker’s (and editor Nina Schulman’s) inventiveness in post-production provides an experience much richer than what “objective” camera work and newscaster narration would have shown.

     The title sequence leads easily into a montage of people arriving in Monterey, underscored by Scott McKenzie’s “If You’re Going to San Francisco.”  There are images of hippies smoking, dancing and blowing bubbles.  Of psychedelic school buses and babies.  A candid shot of David Crosby checking audio gear, overjoyed.  “Groovy!” says Crosby, “A good sound system at last!”  A plane flies by and, in post-production, the editors decide not to use a sound effect for it.  We’re immersed in this amazing world, not just watching it from outside.  Because editors selected, rearranged, compressed and otherwise manipulated these images!

     By following McKenzie’s song with The Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreaming,” Pennebaker eliminates the need for spoken narration.  We see and hear that we’re in California.  That hippies have come from far and wide, as have musicians. That the sound is going to be great. There’s no need for a newscaster to repeat what we already know.

     What knocks me out is that the order in which songs are used in the film feels completely natural even though it’s unrelated to the actual sequence of events.  A band called The Association opened the festival.  The Mamas and Papas were the closing act two nights later, but their set is the first shown in the movie.

     D.A. Pennebaker, you see, found a much more powerful organizing principal than mere chronology: the film’s performance timeline is a genealogy of rock ‘n’ roll.  The Mamas and the Papas lead off with a love song, the foundation of popular music.  Canned Heat plays some Mississippi Delta Blues.  Simon and Garfunkel are up next, representing folk music with a tinge of poetry. They’re followed by the African jazz of Hugh Masakela.

     After Masakela, MONTEREY POP! follows rock to new heights – new directions which were the essence of 1967 rock.  The Airplane marry Lewis Carroll and Ravel in “White Rabbit.” Janis performs “Ball and Chain” with such power the Goddesses of Blues look down and smile. An electric violin solo leads into Eric Burden’s rendition of “Paint It, Black.” Keith Moon redefines rock ‘n’ roll drumming.  Jimi Hendrix descends from another (benign, delightful) planet to perform “Wild Thing.”  Ravi Shankar plays a 15-minute raga shown mostly with thunderstruck cut-aways of listeners, including guitar virtuosi Mike Bloomfield and Hendrix.

     I must admit I didn’t know the extent to which Pennebaker re-ordered the performances until I heard him talk about it.  But the film’s structure is perfect. MONTEREY POP! builds and builds and builds to a point where you want to jump up and give Shankar a standing ovation along with the festival crowd.

     I could go on and on.  Pennebaker’s system for making sure his ten cameramen (yes, all men) knew which songs to shoot and which not to (involving DONT LOOK BACK’S Bob Neuwirth) is fascinating.  That they didn’t roll on Janis Joplin’s only scheduled performance because she hadn’t signed a release (with souls having to be sold to get her to go on again) is probably worthy of its own post.  The reason the film’s climactic raga had to be edited on extremely primitive equipment even though Pennebaker owned a technologically advanced system will captivate postproduction practitioners. 

     But it’s time to wrap up.  Which I’ll do by quoting D.A. Pennebaker's associate Robert Drew, talking in 1962 about what he hoped a nascent cinéma vérité would ultimately be:

     “It would be a theatre without actors; it would be plays without   playwrights; it would be reporting without summary and opinion; it would be the ability to look in on people’s lives at crucial times, from which you could deduce certain things and see a kind of truth that can only be gotten by personal experience.”

     MONTERY POP! embodies Drew’s aspirations for the genre.  That’s why it remains as engaging and moving as it was a half century ago. That’s why – a half century later, when pop culture is driven (into the ground) by demographic research and marketing algorithms  MONTEREY POP! can still change lives.


Friday, January 6, 2017


     I was delighted when Bob Dylan received the Nobel Prize for Literature last month.  Some writers continue to question the Swedish Academy’s choice but Mark Ford, in his New York Review of Books piece, “Why He Deserves It,” makes a strong case for Dylan’s worthiness. And Joyce Carol Oates, Bernard-Henri Levy, Salman Rushdie and Billy Collins, among others, agree with Ford.

     “Most song lyrics don’t hold up without the music and they aren’t supposed to,” Collins says in an interview. “Bob Dylan is in the ‘2% club’ of songwriters whose lyrics are interesting on the page even without the harmonica and guitar and his very distinctive voice.”

     Allen Ginsberg always embraced Dylan as a poet. “I heard ‘Hard Rain’ and I wept,” he tells interviewer Jeff Rosen in Martin Scorsese’s 2005 documentary, NO DIRECTION HOME.  “Because it seemed like the torch had been passed to another generation of Beat illumination…  I was knocked out by the eloquence of ‘I’ll know my song well before I start singing.’”

      Jonathan Lethem, whose 2006 Rolling Stone interview might be the best piece of Dylan journalism to date, says in the October 2016 issue of Vulture:

      “…(H)e’s the bard of the age so I didn’t find it either to be a shock or objectionable.  It was almost like, Let’s graduate him to the highest award we can think of and be done with it. 
     “If I could quibble,” he continues, “it would be with the Nobel committee’s specific citation of him as a ‘poet.’” Disagreeing with Collins (about terminology but not Dylan’s merit), he continues,  “A lot of Dylan’s writing dies on the page (but) that’s beside the point…  He’s in the oral tradition.  His work isn’t meant to look like a Wallace Stevens poem. But I like the fact he’s kicked up a controversy again, because controversy is intrinsic in his identity and his accomplishments.”
     I like it too.  But in my view, the controversy is a tempest in a teapot.  The Nobel Literature Committee honored Dylan, in their words, for “having created new poetic expressions within the American song tradition.” In NO DIRECTION HOME, Dylan recalls influences from that tradition: Hank Williams, Johnny Ray, Odetta and the astonishing John Jacob Niles (crying and playing Appalachian dulcimer.)  Muddy Waters, Peter LaFarge, Dave Van Ronk, Cisco Huston.  And Woody Guthrie!
     Pablo Picasso’s assertion that “good artists borrow, great artists steal” surely applies to Dylan as he absorbs Guthrie’s tone -- his stance and his themes -- or as he reworks Niles’ “Go ’way From my Window” into “It Ain’t Me, Babe.”  Lethem, in “The Ecstasy of Influence,” shows that purloining previous works to create new ones is quite natural. And for nerdy fans like me, awareness of these “thefts” is delightful. There’s pleasure in hearing musical allusion – Fats Domino’s impact on McCartney’s “Lady Madonna” vocals, say, or Mendelssohn’s presence in John Williams STAR WARS score – just as awareness of literary allusion entertains good readers.  With Dylan the influences are manifold and, therefore, even more fun to catch.
    For Lethem, again, Dylan’s genius isn’t about the words literally on the page: “The action is in the almost theatrical power of his embodiment of his language. Not in poetry per se.”  For the vocal compositions to have their full impact you have to see and hear them performed.
     The physical beauty of the songs -- listening to them performed live without yet seeing them played and sung -- was my first supercharged experience of Bob Dylan. 

     Barely 13 years old, standing outside Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in August 1965, I was puzzled when those inside booed “Like a Rolling Stone.” It was one of only two Dylan tunes I knew, and I loved it. Not only was it the number 1 song on my favorite AM station, this anthemic rant against the poverty of privilege made me move and groove, blissfully unaware of Dylan’s roots in a more orthodox folk world that was shocked by his latest electrified incarnation.
     The other Dylan song of which I was aware was “Positively Fourth Street.”  I won the record in a WMCA “name it and claim it” contest and I played the grooves off it.  The rock that I knew and loved at the time was about holding hands, never dancing with another and, when really complex, falling for leaders of gangs. Now, here was a song about betrayal -- damned if I even knew what that was at 13 – which made the angry tone of Dylan’s vocals stand out.  But Al Kooper’s lilting organ fills were downright gleeful, or at least they made me feel that way.  What an amazing contrast!
     Devouring this embodied rock and roll, setting my hi-fi on replay or listening to Dylan on my transistor radio (after all, the songs “had a beat we could dance to”) happily coincided with eighth grade English classes covering rhyme and meter. That made the songs even more powerful for me. I connected them to poetry.  I even discovered that both singles were written in second person, a rare voice in rock lyrics.
     And encouragement from English teachers – not the maudlin, sanctimonious kind going on about “rock poems” in Frederick Weisman’s HIGH SCHOOL, but really cool ones – led me back in time to the pre-electric Bob Dylan. That Dylan wrote and performed "protest” songs, classical ballads such as “Boots of Spanish Leather” (featured since 1996 in the Norton Anthology of Poetry) and imagist confessional lyrics.
     I already knew the giddiness of dancing “’neath the diamond sky with one hand waving free” from The Byrds “folk rock” cover of “Mr. Tambourine Man.” But eating trail mix with my pals Ricky Newman and Harriet Moss, in Harriet’s basement after school one day, I discovered “Chimes of Freedom.”
Tolling for the rebel, tolling for the rake
                                                                           Tolling for the luckless, the abandoned an' forsake’d                                                    Tolling for the outcast, burnin' constantly at stake                                                                                                                                   
An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

LBJ had barely begun his relentless bombing of Vietnam as we memorized “Masters of War.”
Come you masters of war
You that build the big guns
You that build the death planes
You that build all the bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks

     And this is where the “new poetic expression within the songwriting tradition” begins to take shape.  Bob Neuwirth observes on the DONT LOOK BACK commentary track: “No one had heard these kinds of (political) songs outside of union halls and labor rallies.  But there they were.

     As soon as I do look back and discover the Dylan of protest songs, however, he astonishes again with the miracle of Blonde on Blonde. The first double album ever, as far as I know, stays ahead of a nascent counterculture with “Rainy Day Women” from which my pre-teen buddies and I discover that we “must get stoned.”
     When I hear “Visions of Johanna,” I can actually seejewels and binoculars hang(ing) from the head of a mule” – probably at the same time my parents inadvertently introduce me to Dada during trips to the Museum of Modern Art.  “To live outside the law you must be honest,” from “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” becomes a motto.  And “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” the first song ever to take up an entire album side, opens me to the truth -- later affirmed by Leonard Cohen -- that the deepest romantic love, especially Chelsea Hotel romance, is in 6/8.
     I follow Dylan in the gossip columns (Rolling Stone had yet to publish its first edition), where it’s rumored that he’s been in a motorcycle accident.   Then John Wesley Harding is released and I discover Western outlaw heroes, St. Augustine, lonesome hobos, escaping drifters, and watchtowers from which you couldn’t even see Jimi Hendrix on the horizon.
     For me, at this point, Dylan isn’t (in what I think is Lethem’s sense) embodied yet. I haven’t completely felt his theatrical power. But that changes on February 24, 1968:  I sneak into a Carnegie Hall side entrance and watch a sold-out Woody Guthrie Memorial concert. The gods and goddesses of folk are there – Pete Seeger, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Odetta, Richie Havens, Judy Collins, Arlo… And Dylan appears, with The Band.
     He’s the headliner on a show without one. He tears through “Grand Coulee Dam,” “I Ain’t Got No Home” and “Mrs. Roosevelt” as though Guthrie wrote rock’n’roll.  The music is mesmerizing.  
     But, really, it’s the way Dylan stands.  He’s a reverse image of Woody, his hero. Where the Oklahoman’s guitar neck points to the sky, the Minnesotan’s points to the ground.  Like a divining rod.  As though he uses it to find life-giving water.
     It’s also the way Dylan approaches the mic to belt into it… like a jungle cat ready to strike.  His own body’s electricity makes his eyes twitch as he wails. The energy is so powerful the lyrics lose their meaning; I can’t take my eyes off of him.
     A few months before the concert, DONT LOOK BACK opens at the 34th Street East Theatre.  If memory serves, it’s still playing as I jones for another look at Dylan weeks after the show.  And there it is again in grainy 16mm black and white, almost as hyper-real as Dylan in the flesh: his handheld image, lithe, twitching, androgynous, divining and divine; I get my fix of Dylan in a cinema verite documentary as fresh as the music itself.
     A year later the ever-transforming bard appears on television, on Johnny Cash’s variety show, to promote Nashville Skyline.  Now he’s a crooner! He sings “Girl from the North Country” with Cash, another hero of his, and it’s a rare gem of a performance.
     After that, time, for the true fan, passes slowly.  I’m off to college more than a year later and, finally, New Morning is released. On a cold slushy day in Ithaca, I walk past the ghost of Richard Farina and the living spirit of Thomas Pynchon to a record store on Eddy Street, and discover still another side of Bob Dylan.
      Track One, “If Not for You,” is the first Dylan song covered by a Beatle.  The title track, “New Morning,” like the “weatherman” lyric in “Subterranean Blues,” becomes part of the Weather Underground’s lexicon.  “The Man in Me” later becomes the first Dylan song in a Coen Brothers film, sonically synonymous with THE BIG LEBOWSKY’s Dude. 
     “Day of the Locusts,” finally, seems most resonant today; it helps explain why the winner of 2016’s Nobel Prize for Literature was loath to attend the December 10th ceremony in Stockholm.  The song is about Dylan receiving an honorary Ph.D. from Princeton in 1970.  Its lyrics suggest that Dr. Dylan, whose commencement companion is David Crosby, took some sacramental medicine to celebrate: “The man standin’ next to me, his head was exploding/I was prayin’ the pieces wouldn’t fall on me.”  In the next verse, Dylan sums up his Princeton experience: “I sure was glad to get out of there alive.”  Yes, he writes, “…the locusts sang and they were singing for me.”  But were these creatures benign, like the song’s “birdies flying from tree to tree,” or deadly like Nathaniel West’s and Yahweh’s?
     The lesson of Princeton is don’t go to events where you have so little in common with your fellows that, “There (is) little to say, there (is) no conversation.” 
     Over the years, Bob Dylan attends Grammy presentations and Kennedy Center gatherings – where he can consort with musicians and perform instead of speaking about his music - but not the Academy Awards. (He’s in absentia when he wins an Oscar, in 2001, for “Things Have Changed,” his song in Curtis Hanson’s WONDER BOYS.)
     Of course, there may be more to it. “Masters of War” is still in Dylan’s repertoire on The Never Ending Tour. It’s hard to imagine a poet who will “stand over (war-makers’) graves ‘til (he’s) sure that they’re dead” traveling to Sweden to get a prize, no matter how lofty, named after the inventor of dynamite.  But he doesn’t turn down the award, after all, as Jean-Paul Sartre did in 1964; that might seem disrespectful to its many worthy recipients and suggest false modesty. Instead, he sends Patti Smith to the ceremony, where she performs “Hard Rain:”
     As I look back over the 46 years from Dylan’s Nobel Prize to his Princeton Ph.D., his prolificacy during the first decade in which he writes staggers me. The magnitude of his body of groundbreaking work seems as significant as his personal embodiment of it. So does its diversity. Back in 1971, while Dylan’s still in the first fifth of his career, he provides another cinematic delight.  His music for Sam Peckinpah’s PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID not only contains the classic (yet ever-changing) “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” it underscores his own performance in the film as an enigmatic character named Alias.
     On August 1st that same year, I see Dylan, embodied again, at the Concert for Bangladesh in Madison Square Garden.  He performs “Hard Rain” and “Times… Changing.”  Then he teases and delights, playing the intro to “If Not for You” to ease not into that song but into “”Love Minus Zero/No Limit.”  Identical chords for different aspects of romance! So physical! So musical! And Dylan, in a denim jacket and jeans, flanked by George Harrison and Leon Russell, is radiant. As Woody Allen once said, “I’m vibrating like a tuning fork.”
     In early fall, still 1971, Dylan releases “George Jackson,” his elegy to Black Panther Jackson, who was shot dead by a San Quentin Prison guard. It’s an inspiring reminder of Dylan’s unabated and often revolutionary iconoclasm. Light years, it seems to a 19 year-old, from his “protest” period, yet further to the left than anything he’s done.
     And the hits keep on coming! Street Legal features “Changing of the Guard,” a song that will become Patti Smith’s best Dylan cover.  Blood on the Tracks contains Dylan’s most evocative narrative verse songs yet, “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.” Desire features the saga of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and an ode to New York mobster Joey Gallo, along with a couple of the most tender love songs he’s written.
     Just before Desire’s release I see the embodied Dylan anew, at his Rolling Thunder Review’s “Night of the Hurricane,” a benefit concert to get unjustly convicted middleweight Carter out of prison. Again, we’re in Madison Square Garden.  The band is stellar – Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Scarlet Rivera, Neuwirth, Ginsberg, T-Bone Burnett (later of Coen brothers fame) and a host of studio musicians. Dylan’s vocals are crisp. The show abounds in theatricality, with its star in whiteface make-up.
     And then, as if in a dream, I meet him.  Still with a penchant for gatecrashing, I get into the Felt Forum after-party by reading the guest list upside down and claiming to be Michael Ochs, Phil’s brother. (Sorry Michael, I hope you got in, too.) The room is filled with heroes: McGuinn, Joni Mitchell, Richie Havens, Baez, Sam Shepherd, members of The Band, assorted New York literati. There’s an overabundance of charisma. Yet when Dylan enters, time stands still, all goes quiet.
     I lose my idol in the crowd, then, to my amazement, find him standing next to me at a buffet table. It’s a moment I’ve fantasized many times. We make eye contact. I say, with remarkable ease, “That was a great show!” And Dylan responds with his signature Iron Range rasp:  “Thanks, man. I love playin’ New York.  Because audiences are honest.  If you’re not good they let you know it.  But if you are they let you know that, too. And, yeah, they did seem to like it tonight.” 
     He was so authentic, so present.  I, on the other hand, wasn’t ready for a connection.  So my response must have seemed like Ralph Kramden getting caught by Alice doing something really harebrained; “Homina-homina-homina-homina,” I think I said.
     Over the next four decades, the hits continue.  “Jokerman,” “Unbelievable” and “Things Have Changed” stand out for me among the literally hundreds of unique, genuine and even groundbreaking songs the Nobel laureate writes between our brief encounter and the present. There will no doubt be more.

     I continue to be deeply moved as Dylan embodies his music.  The concerts I attend -- a MILLER’S CROSSING post-production crew outing to Jones Beach, a show in Anaheim, one in Toronto, another at the Hollywood Palladium – are grand moments. Yes, of late, he sits at a piano for much of the show and sometimes his voice tires after a few numbers. But he’s still electrifying. It’s still theatre. And he continues to:
…build a ladder to the sky and climb on every rung/                                                 (and he stays) forever young.