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Mixing Up the Medicine

Mixing Up the Medicine

D.A. Pennebaker’s groundbreaking 1967 Bob Dylan documentary Dont Look Back begins with a calculated sale: the two-and-a-half minute promotional film for Dylan’s first Billboard-landing single and electric rock anthem, “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” As one of the first predecessors to the music video it’s still a stunner, more Jean-Luc Godard than Dick Clark—committed to crossing over to the pop charts on his own terms, Dylan used the clip to spotlight his hip persona, certainly, but also to call direct attention to his language by nonchalantly holding up and discarding a series of cue cards containing fragments of the absurdist slang of “Subterranean.” Such simplicity, and what a statement! Dylan was so far ahead of the game in ’65 that he already understood the best way to undermine any “natural” relationships between sound, image and performer—long before the ubiquity of music videos and the complicated intersections between art, performance, and commerce they would inherently embody and exacerbate. The “Subterranean” clip thus becomes a semiotic explosion, dicing Dylan’s lyrics into contradictions (“11 dollar bills” on the soundtrack becomes “20” on a card), awkwardly isolated blocks (“head put,” “bed, but”), commentary (accompanying “look out, kid” on the soundtrack: “dig yourself”), silly puns (“suckcess”), accents (“pawking metaws”), and seditious shorthand (“leaders ? ? ?”), all as Dylan falls behind or races ahead of the words playing over him and to the point where the song goes beyond radical, nonsensical rave-up (but man, does it scorch!) to become a thing tenuously attached to its own intended meanings, literal and otherwise, as well as the artist who means them.

Click here for Michael Joshua Rowin’s review of Dont Look Back.

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