For Rick, with love
D.A. Pennebaker Looks Back
The legendary filmmaker talks about Don't Look Back, Eat the Document, Dylan, and The Band, and the DFA video that hasn't -- yet -- seen the light of day
by Carol CaffinBandBites, Volume I, No. 7, May 15, 2007.
Copyright © 2007 by Carol Caffin. All Rights Reserved.
"Legendary" is one of the most hackneyed adjectives in the English language. Every once in a while, though, the description not only is apt, but also, somehow, necessary. In the world of documentary films -- particularly those in the often unscripted, usually no-frills "direct cinema" style, of which he is considered by many not only a pioneer but a master -- few names are as legendary as that of D.A. Pennebaker.
It was through the lens of Pennebaker's hand-held camera that the general public got, if not its first glimpse, certainly its most real, most lasting and, ultimately, most iconic, filmed images of Bob Dylan. Those unforgettable black-and-white scenes of pre-electric Dylan on and off stage, in hotel rooms, in cars in London, and flipping hand-drawn cards to "Subterranean Homesick Blues" -- and the still images of the shadowy figure who seemed to follow him, camera on his shoulder and whimsical stovepipe hat on his head -- are permanently etched in the psyches of Baby Boomers everywhere.
Of course, D.A. Pennebaker, who will be 82 in July, and Bob Dylan are indelibly linked. And, by extension, "Penne" is linked to The Band as well. After all, it was Pennebaker who shot the footage of Dylan's 1966 electric tour with The Hawks/Band that would become one of the music world's most celebrated film fiascos, the much-bootlegged but never officially released Eat the Document. It's no wonder, then, that although the award-winning filmmaker's body of non-music-related films is large and impressive, to many, he will always be the pioneer of the modern rock doc.
It was truly an honor to speak to Mr. Pennebaker, who happily shared his memories of Dylan, The Band -- and the ten-plus hours of footage sitting in his vaults of Rick Danko, Jonas Fjeld, and Eric Andersen.
CC: How did you first get involved with Dylan and the project that became Don't Look Back? Did Albert Grossman call you?
DAP: Well he came to visit actually. He came to see us.
CC: When you say 'us'...
DAP: I had a little studio down on 43rd Street. And Ricky [director Richard Leacock] and I had a little company called Leacock Pennebaker. We had two or three people working with us -- it was not a big company or anything; it was just a small... we were on the top floor of a building that was later torn down. We were doing different films. Ricky had done a film on the quintuplets in North Dakota [1963's A Happy Mother's Day], and I had done a film with Lester Pearson [Mr. Pearson, 1962] who was then the Prime Minister of Canada. So, we'd been doing some films, and we had done a lot of short films. And when he [Grossman] arrived, he asked me if I would be interested in going to England with them on that tour they were gonna do.
CC: Grossman had seen your films and had been familiar with your work then?
DAP: I don't know what he had seen. Dylan, I know, had seen the little "Daybreak" film, the short film [Pennebaker's five-minute documentary, Daybreak Express, set to the music of the Duke Ellington song of the same name], because Sara, who later married him, Sara worked for us and she had given him a copy. And I think he had also seen some stuff that we may have done that was shown on TV, stuff that I had shot -- Rick and I had gone to Hungary with Casals, you know, the cello player. And we had done a film for CBS, and I think he [Dylan] had seen that somewhere. I didn't know that until years later. That's all I know that he saw. Other than that, I have no idea why he called me.
CC: So Sara, when she was Sara Lownds, worked for your company?
DAP: She worked for Time Life. We had an office at Time Life and were connected to Time Life at the time. We had done, oh, two or three films -- actually, it was more than that, it was about six or seven films -- for Time Life, and then I had quit and started my own company. [Sara and Bob] did not get married until after '65. But anyway, she knew me and she certainly knew Dylan.
CC: Do you know what she did there at Time Life?
DAP: Yes. She ran an office that was set up in the Time Life Building in 49th Street, or wherever it was, and we had an office down on 43rd Street. She kind of acted to connect the two. The one uptown was tied to the Time Life Bureau and the whole works, and we were just in a production studio downtown, which I had run, and we produced the films for Time Life down there. She sort of ran that office briefly -- not forever, but during the time I was there. I think she got out of there afterward.
CC: That was around '64 or '65?
DAP: Yeah... well, a little earlier than that, maybe '62, '63.
CC: Who was it that you dealt with on Don't Look Back? Was it Grossman or was it Dylan? And did they tell you "this is the type of film we want" or did they leave it up to you?
DAP: They didn't tell me anything. They just said "Would you like to come along?" I mean, I guess they assumed I'd bring a camera. But in a sense, I did a film and I paid for it. I think that they put up some money for Jones and Howard Alk to come along. Supposedly, they were gonna have this other old girlfriend of Dylan's come. But then she didn't come along.
CC: Do you know who that was?
DAP: Yeah, it's the one that... oh... [pauses]
CC: Suze? Suze Rotolo?
DAP: Yeah, yeah. They told me about her [but] I never did meet her. She was supposed to come but they had broken up by the time he had left, so she didn't come along. There was kind of no hierarchy involved, but there never was with Albert and Dylan. They would talk together, I guess, and figure things out. In fact, there was nobody there who was my boss. I kind of did whatever I needed to do.
CC: So it wasn't "Come along to make a film," it was just "Come along."
DAP: I don't think they understood how to hire anybody to make a film. I mean, they'd never done it before. Howard Alk was gonna be a cameraman, so I brought another camera for him. Jones [Alk] knew something about doing sound, so she was gonna tape sound for me. So, it was really just me, and these two people who were friends of Albert's and Dylan's too, I guess. And I brought along Bob Van Dyke, who was gonna do the concert sound; we were gonna record every concert on tape, although we weren't gonna make any kind of a music film.
CC: Mr. Pennebaker, for a person my age -- this music and your images were part of the background of my childhood -- this is quite an honor. So I hope you don't mind, but I have to ask you one "fan-ny" question. It's about "Subterranean Homesick Blues." The cue cards: where are they?
DAP: Where are they now?
DAP: You know, I know a lot of them got blown away... they were showering over London somewhere. We lost quite a few of them that afternoon because we were up on the roof of the hotel filming the last [version]. I don't know if you've seen that [version]...
CC: Of course. There were two versions of that, right?
DAP: There were three, actually. There was one original one that they started with in the park back behind the hotel. And we -- that was kind of rough, because a policeman was sort of grabbing at me from behind while I was shooting it, so I couldn't do it.
CC: Yeah, that could hinder things.
DAP: We finally went into the alleyway so we could have some peace. So what happened to the cards that remained -- we just may have left them there. I didn't want to bring them back, although I probably should have. I just have no idea what happened to them. They disappeared.
CC: Well, in 1965, they probably meant nothing, but now, like the film, they've become almost iconic.
DAP: Oh yeah, you could get a lot of money for them on eBay! [laughs] Or make some new ones and sell them on eBay -- who knows?
CC: So did you and Dylan just sit there with markers making up these cards?
DAP: Joan [Baez] did some of them and Donovan did some -- Donovan was really good. I remember doing some, but I can't remember for the life of me which ones now. It just sort of happened. They appeared.
CC: Well, thanks for clearing at least part of it up. In the film, in addition to Dylan, there's [Allen] Ginsberg and Bob Neuwirth and somebody else.
DAP: Yes. And there's the guy who was Dylan's producer -- you know on the record with Captain Ahab ["Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" from Bringing it All Back Home]? His name is Tom Wilson.
CC: I didn't realize that was Tom Wilson.
DAP: I liked him quite a bit. He was a terrific guy, I thought.
CC: One more question about that tour, and then we can go to '66. Do you know what the dynamic was between Dylan and Joan Baez, why she left that tour?
DAP: There was probably lots more going on under the table that I wouldn't know about. [From] what I've gleaned over the years -- I'd known Joan slightly, I don't know how, but I knew her through somebody -- she had been on a tour with Dylan just before this tour, around the States. It had been much more kind of her tour and Bob was invited along. It had that quality to it. And I think she came along thinking that he'd reciprocate, you know, and that he'd invite her up on stage to sing with him. He didn't want to do that at all and it was clear from the beginning that he didn't. But she was also there because she had started this school near Monterey [The Institute for the Study of Nonviolence], and she wanted it in England. There's this very famous school, Summerhill, and she wanted to go see how that was run. So, one of the reasons she left us was to go see that school. She spent some time there. When we came back [from the tour], I actually went to her school and we talked a little about Summerhill.
CC: Well, some people think -- and it could appear -- that Dylan was taunting her a bit.
DAP: I think he just didn't want -- he wanted to go through that thing by himself. He didn't want to make it a joint concert thing. He had some new songs that he was gonna sing for the first time and he didn't want her onstage. And when she realized that, she split. There may have been some bad feelings; I don't know. I'm sure she was upset in a way. But I know later, she came back when they did the Rolling Thunder [Revue] and she was involved with that.
CC: Okay, that was for the Dylan fans. Now for the Band people. Can you tell me about Eat the Document? Tell me about your first meeting or first awareness of The Band, of who these guys were.
DAP: It was in Los Angeles, and they were on their way to Australia. That was the first time I really met them.
CC: Were they with Dylan?
DAP: They were with Dylan. He was recording there and then they were gonna go out to Australia. And I went out because he wanted to talk to me about making another film. I'd finished Don't Look Back but I hadn't released it. I don't think I'd even shown it to him. I'm not sure. Then he said he wanted to make this film and he didn't want to make it like Don't Look Back. He wasn't sure what he wanted to do, but he wanted to direct it and he wanted me to film it for him. He would figure out how to edit it and everything. So it was gonna be his film, and all I would do is be the cameraman, and I agreed to do that. Then off he went to Australia, and I didn't see him for a while. The next time I saw him, I was flying off to Sweden with Howard and Jones again, and I met him in Sweden, and it sort of began there. And we filmed.
CC: And that was in '66?
CC: And when was it that he was going to Australia? Also '66?
DAP: You know, I think he'd gone up to Newport -- I'm not sure about the dates. The years all run together for me. But that was the first time that I'd met The Band. Although he did do a concert at Carnegie Hall, but I don't remember if he had any of The Band there.
CC: What are your memories about those guys, individually and collectively? And what was the dynamic on that tour?
DAP: You mean before they went to Australia or in England?
CC: When you actually went on tour with them.
DAP: Well, we got on very well with the organ player.
DAP: Garth. He was a very good friend right away. I don't remember why, but we hit it right off. Then, Robbie sort of hung out with Dylan a lot, so I filmed the two of them a lot, you know, at night playing music or whatever. Then -- I'm trying to remember -- there were some other people involved. They were just guys. I didn't really think about their differences because I was so busy trying to think about what to film. It was a lot different than filming a single person on stage, you know. So we had two cameras and Howard wanted to interview people in the audience and stuff, and I wasn't sure I wanted to do that. It was a little complicated.
CC: You guys all travelled together though, right? Did you hang out with Dylan and The Band?
DAP: Yeah, we were at the same hotels. We hung out, yeah, very tight. And Mickey Jones was there, who was the drummer in place of Levon, because Levon was not with them. He had played with Johnny Rivers, so I kind of knew who he was. Lou Adler was a big fan of Johnny Rivers, so I knew about Johnny Rivers. They [The Band] were just people. I don't have a strong memory of them as individuals except for Garth.
CC: I interviewed Mickey recently and he mentioned that everyone called Robbie "Barnacle Man" because he was always attached to Dylan.
DAP: [Laughs] Yeah.
CC: Was there that kind of sense on the tour?
DAP: Very much so. But see, I didn't get in on any of that attitude. But I knew that Robbie was definitely with Dylan -- a lot. I mean, he did sort of hang onto him [laughs].
CC: Whatever happened to that footage for Eat the Document? Dylan owns that?
DAP: That was not like Don't Look Back. There was a definite difference between them. Don't Look Back was mine and later -- it's really a shared thing because we're partners in the film. So we let him have copies of a lot of the Don't Look Back stuff. But the problem with the film [Eat the Document] was it was supposed to be an ABC program; that was the plan. But ABC was getting very nervous. It was gonna be a one-hour program, but nobody knew who was doing it or what was being done. It almost got to be a mystery. And Albert said to Dylan and me, "I want you two guys to put something together so we can show ABC." And I'd say "It's not my responsibility; I'm just the cameraman." [ABC said] "We're looking for a film out of it" and I said "Well, you'll have to talk to Grossman." And then Albert would call me and say "What are we gonna do here? We gotta have something ready for them" or whatever. So Dylan and I put together... it was really kind of a sketch of a film. But it certainly was not what Dylan wanted to do, for sure. But I kind of did it the only way I knew to do it. And we never really did anything with that; and then Dylan decided to get to work on it. You see, he had his motorcycle accident somewhere in there.
CC: That was summer of '66, right?
CC: Do you think that motorcycle accident did happen?
DAP: Well, something happened, because when I went up to see him he was strapped in a chair of sorts. But, I mean, I don't know. I heard all sorts of stories. But from what I knew, he was definitely recovering from something. And then we set up an editing machine, and [got] an assistant editor, and they worked up there for a few months.
CC: In Woodstock?
DAP: Yeah. Well, in Bearsville.
CC: Bob Neuwirth -- he's somebody who -- I never understood quite what his role was besides being Dylan's buddy.
DAP: Yeah, he was mostly that. Well, he was actually on Don't Look Back. He was a musician. He was also a painter, which is interesting. He spent a lot of time up in Cambridge. He sort of... Dylan likes to have somebody around that he can talk to. It's a funny thing, and Neuwirth knew exactly how to do that. When I saw him early on while I was filming, I realized that he understood exactly what I was doing with the film. So I knew that he was somehow gonna make it happen, which he did. Neuwirth was a very important part of Don't Look Back, and it's hard for me to describe exactly why, but we both knew.
CC: It seemed that way to me, too -- sort of an intuitive relationship.
DAP: Yeah, absolutely. The problem that Dylan would have with people in general was that, if they saw him as kind of a minor celebrity or whatever they took him to be, but they didn't know where he'd come from or what he was doing or anything else, they'd be wondering why he changed his name, things like that -- he couldn't stand that. That drove him nuts. He needed a person that really understood everything about him from almost the moment they met him. That's what Neuwirth could do. That made him very comfortable with Neuwirth. The problem was -- and I guess this has happened with other people with Dylan -- that after a while, he [Dylan] sort of changes and becomes a different person, and that person is no longer necessary so he sort of shoves them off. But I don't think he's ever really shoved Neuwirth off. But, it was something that I didn't need to know, so therefore I didn't bother to. What I saw was what I saw.
CC: Okay, there was Eat the Document, but also Something is Happening. What was that about?
DAP: Well, that's the film that we made for Albert to quiet down ABC, and it never got shown to anybody -- well I think a couple of people saw it. But I didn't want to get into a film competition with Dylan at all, so I just kept it under wraps here.
CC: What happened to that footage?
DAP: That's still around. It's just a work print that's never been released.
CC: And that's yours or Dylan's?
DAP: Well, it's my doing. I put it together, but it's really Dylan's footage.
CC: Do you think either of those will ever see the light of day? I mean I know Eat the Document's been around...
DAP: Yeah, and I think he's no longer too happy with it. Well, who knows? I always think anything sooner or later will see the light of day, but it's not going to in the immediate future, no.
CC: Which brings us to "the trio" -- Danko Fjeld Andersen. Well, let me backtrack for a second. Did you have any contact with any of the guys in The Band after the '66 tour?
DAP: A little bit with Rick. And I also saw... [pauses] the hippie-type guy. Not in The Band, but in the trio.
DAP: Yes, Eric Andersen. I know he lived in Norway, but I'd seen him and talked to him for some reason, some place or another.
CC: How did you get involved in filming Danko Fjeld Andersen in 1991?
DAP: I think Eric came to me. He said that they were gonna do a tour, and he brought me the record. We heard the record and we really liked it. And it came up that there was gonna be this little tour up in New York State. And we had a little time, so we said we'd go along and film it, which we did. It was as simple as that. It wasn't put out as a big film we were gonna do or anything. And the problem, we knew, was gonna be getting rights to the music, which would always be difficult. It had a limited kind of possibility for it.
CC: How many hours of footage were there?
DAP: Oh, about ten hours. I know at the time, Rick thought that maybe we could get money from [the label in] Norway to make a music video to go with the record, but it wasn't forthcoming. Nothing ever came of it, so we just finally put it away and figured someday it would emerge, when it was time...