Dylan Speaks: the legendary 1965 press conference in San Francisco

UnknownIn Paul Williams’ authoritative book Bob Dylan: performing artist 1960-1973, the early years Williams describes an event:

This one hour press conference, held and filmed in the KQED-TV studios in San Francisco on December 3, 1965, hosted and produced by critic Ralph Gleason and featuring an intriguing mix of amateur and professional newspeople plus special guest questioners like Allen Ginsberg and Bill Graham, is quite simply one of the most affecting Bob Dylan performances currently circulating on video.

Williams’ book was published in 1994, and now more than a dozen years later this 42-year-old press conference has been re-issued on DVD “digitally remastered from the original 2″ master videotape.”

So what we have here is an historic document really. Bob Dylan speaks to the press. He looks so young. His face… fresh, almost glowing, topped by a curly mop of hair; his mouth sometimes smirking always expressive, lips pursed as he ponders his next one word response. There is not a bit of music, no songs, no guitar, no harmonica rack… just Bob Dylan in tweedy jacket sitting at a desk behind a motley set of microphones answering questions like, “I’d like to know about the meaning of the photograph with you wearing the Triumph T-shirt… that’s an equivalent photograph — it’s got a philosophy in it.” Dylan looks at the questioner (a young man with dark glasses and a bush of hair and beard, maybe from a college newspaper) as if he can’t believe the question, and says, “Mmmmm, I haven’t really looked at it that much.” The hirsute fellow replies, “I’ve thought about it a great deal…” Dylan says, “…it was just taken one day… I don’t really remember too much about it…” All of his answers have this incomplete quality to them. Is he putting everyone on? Probably. He likely cannot believe the serious way such inane questions are put to him. He was 24 years old at the time.

Ralph J. Gleason introduced him to the gathered journalists saying that Dylan would answer questions on topics from “atomic science to riddles and rhymes…” and they ask him about his T-shirt. A more serious journalist asks, “Do you think of yourself primarily as a singer or a poet?” Dylan smiles, “I think of myself as a song and dance man.” He does some business with a cigarette, dangling it from his mouth, searching for a light, he eventually asks the audience for a match. He seems shy, then smug, then confident, then sure his next comment will get a laugh. It does. He looks pleased. When asked to label himself and explain his role he says, “I label myself as well under 30, and my role is to stay here as long as I can…”

It goes on like this for an hour. He responds to questions about the draft (this was during the Vietnam War,) about protest demonstrations, about success, and puts a twist on everything taking very little of it seriously. In retrospect this seems perfectly reasonable. At the time, to the generation of newsmen who gathered in San Francisco, he must have seemed smug and stand-offish. Forty odd years later there is a wonderful innocence to it all. His responses presage the honesty found in the first volume of his autobiography, Chronicles: volume one.

Will you view and re-view this DVD? It’s hard to say. It’s black and white, tedious editing, no visual creativity, just questions and answers. And as such it’s fascinating stuff, a look into a time that seems far removed from today. If you want to catch a glimpse of the Sixties, you could do worse than spending an hour watching and listening to Dylan Speak[s].

(Eagle Eye Media, 2006)

About David Kidney

David Kidney was born in the Marine Hospital on Staten Island in the middle of the last century, when the millenium seemed a very long way off. His family soon moved to Canada, because the air was fresher. He has written songs and stories, played guitar, painted, sculpted, and coached soccer and baseball. He edits and publishes the Rylander, the Ry Cooder Quarterly, which has subscribers around the world. He says life in the Great White North is grand. He lives in Dundas in the province of Ontario, with his wife.