“I wasn’t going to be anyone’s puppet…”: Dylan in Paris ’66, and other puppet stories

By on May 24, 2015

It’s Bob Dylan’s birthday — he was born Robert Allen Zimmerman on May 24, 1941, in Duluth, Minnesota — and so we’ve got a special theme post today: Dylan… and puppets. Or marionettes, if you prefer.

First up, we have “Desolation Row – The Marionette Performance.” As the description says here, “This 10 minute film is a collage of music and imagery set down by two artists who lived 450 years apart in history. The unexpected union of these visionaries was a chance encounter late one night while perusing through an old book of engravings by the Flemish artist, Peter Bruegel the Elder while listening to the song “Desolation Row” by Bob Dylan.

In an instant an uncanny collaboration was taking place. The wildly strange visual imagery of Bruegel was illustrating the equally bizarre lyrics of Dylan. They were in tandem. Yet neither medium violated the unique vision of the other. This unusual film captures this creative apparition through the use of marionettes, engravings and music.”

Part Two is here.

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Okay, let’s go back to 1966 for our next puppet reference:

Bob Dylan arrived in Paris a few days before his scheduled concert at the Olympia hall, which was to be held on May 24, 1966, his 25th birthday. It was the very end of a world tour he’d begun in February of that year, and he was understandably tired of being on the road, and since this was the first tour where Dylan employed an electric band backing him  following his “going electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival — The Hawks, who would later become The Band — he was having a difficult time with audiences, some of whom were heckling and being obnoxious throughout the second, electric half of the concerts.

dylan-microphone

Concert-goers were sometimes hostile, yelling at Dylan from their seats, and shouting phrases like “phoney!” and “traitor!” between songs. One man had also shouted from the audience at one of his concerts, “Where’s the poet in you? What’s happened to your conscience?,” to which Dylan responded,  “There’s a guy up there looking for a saint.”

Just a week earlier, towards the end of the May 17, 1966 concert at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, England, an audience member named John Cordwell yelled out “Judas!” between the songs “Ballad of a Thin Man” and “Like a Rolling Stone.” Dylan answered back, telling the man that “I don’t believe you… you’re a liar!”, before he shouted to the members of his band to “Play it fuckin’ loud!”

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Even the press began to go along with the dissent of his fans. Robert Shelton later wrote in Dylan’s biography that the press was behaving like a “conformist, Neanderthal mob.” In Paris, he was forced to endure a particularly difficult press conference, a predictable debacle considering how the press had been treating him thus far. The French press expressed outrage about the forthcoming Dylan’s concert at the Olympia in Paris, where two thousand seats, costing up to 60 francs (about $12), had sold out a month in advance. It was noted by grumpy journos that the American folk singer would make more than Maria Callas — “more,” noted Paris Jour,than a worker earns in ten years.”

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They also seemed quite truculent about Dylan staying at the posh George V Hotel, where he was ushered into a luxurious suite bedizened with Spanish master paintings and Louis XV furniture. “What’s this”, Dylan reportedly said to the maitre d’hotel. “You should have known I don’t dig Louis the Fifteenth. If you don’t get me a decent suite in the next five minutes, I’ll take the airplane back to America.” Monsieur Dylan was shown into a another luxurious suite, sans Louis XV — but with a carpet that monsieur didn’t like. He relented, “Well, if we have to camp, let’s camp.”

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Bob Dylan and Françoise Hardy backstage at l’Olympia, Paris, May 1966.

Some filmed footage survives, of course, filmed by director D. A. Pennebaker, and shot under Dylan’s direction (Pennebaker’s groundbreaking documentary Don’t Look Back had chronicled Dylan’s 1965 British tour).  The film was originally commissioned for the ABC television series Stage ’66. It later edited by Dylan and Howard Alk to produce a little-seen film, Eat the Document, an anarchic account of the tour. Drummer Mickey Jones also filmed the tour with an 8mm home movie camera.

On Monday, May 23, 1966, Bob Dylan faced the media during a press conference at the Hotel George V. He brought with him a puppet named Monsieur Finian.

No video seems to exist for this one, but photographer Barry Feinstein included some of the photos from this particular press conference in his exhibition “Who Shot Rock & Roll: A Photographic History, 1955 to the Present,” which opened at the Brooklyn Museum about five and a half years ago (October 30, 2009–January 31, 2010). The curator, Gail Buckland, quotes Feinstein in the catalog about this particular puppet reference, saying:

‘”In the morning we went to the flea market and Bob bought this puppet. Every time one of the journalists asked him a question, he put his ear to the puppet’s mouth and pretended to listen to the answer. Then he would tell the press. It drove them nuts. They didn’t understand him.”

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Here’s how the press conference went:

Reporter: What did you think of your first night in Paris?
Dylan: It was very dull.

Reporter: Why is the puppet here?
Dylan: It followed me.

Reporter: Is it a mascot?
Dylan: No, it’s a religious symbol.

Reporter: What religion?
Dylan: It’s a symbol of the religion of tears.

France Paris Bob Dylan Presser

Reporter: How much are you getting paid for your concert in Paris?
Dylan: 350 million dollars.

Reporter: Tomorrow is your birthday – how do you feel about that?
Dylan: It’s a crime to talk about it.

Reporter: Why do you sing?
Dylan: Because I like to sing.

Reporter: Do you want to express something with your singing?
Dylan: No.

France Paris Bob Dylan Presser

Reporter: What do you think about death?
Dylan: Very exciting.

Reporter: Which song will you open with tomorrow night?
Dylan: ‘Hello Dolly.’

Reporter: What did you think of the American intervention in the war in Europe in 1944?
Dylan: Do you think that’s an easy question?

Reporter: Yes.
Dylan: Well, I don’t answer easy questions.

Reporter: What do you enjoy doing?
Dylan: Smoking and eating.

Reporter: What interests you in life?
Dylan: Nothing.

Reporter: What makes you happy?
Dylan: A bowl of soup. Being kicked in the ribs by a friend.

Reporter: Are you happy?
Dylan: Yes. As an ashtray maybe.

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The Olympia concert would prove to be anticlimactic. The audience tended to be unruly, but Dylan was not passive to heckling. Someone had draped the stage with a large American flag. which seemed to upset some of the audience partly because of America’s controversial involvement in the former French colony of Vietnam. Many shouted: “Happy birthday!” When he took time to tune his acoustic guitar (some said 14 minutes), jeers were silenced by Dylan saying: “I’m doing this for you. I couldn’t care less. I wouldn’t behave like that if I came to see you.” Many in the crowd realized that Dylan was doing it on purpose to mess with them, which made them even more agitated, and they actually welcomed the appearance of the Hawks once the electric portion of the show began, but by then, Dylan had had enough, telling the audience, “Don’t worry, I’m just as eager to finish and leave as you are.”

The Paris Tribune later reported that Dylan’s nervous strain had weakened his performance, concluded that “this strange figure, with his beautiful handling of an unruly audience and his haunting Desolation Row leaves an impression that will linger.” They were kind compared to Arts Paris, who lambasted Dylan for abandoning music-hall tradition, and concluded that derision, violence, and mental breakdown were themes too serious for songs. Le Havre Libre unequivocally called the concert a failure. Paris Jour took umbrage at Dylan’s remarks during tuning breaks, such as “Hasn’t anyone got a newspaper to read?”

Le Figaro, under the headline “The Fall Of An Idol,” suggested that the audience had heard Dylan’s double, an ill-looking puppet “unable to overcome his narcotism.”

marionette

And finally, in keeping with today’s theme of Dylan and puppets, we have this last anecdote to share with you: When Cameron Crowe interviewed Dylan for his liner notes to 1985’s Biograph collection, he was asked about the quirky 1970 album Self Portrait, and Dylan said he was tired of the poor quality recordings that were being bootlegged at the time and so he would put together his own bootleg record, adding, “…. I wasn’t going to be anybody’s puppet and I figured this record would put an end to that…I was just so fed up with all that who people thought I was nonsense.”

Happy Birthday, Bob Dylan!

About Bryan

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide and a dozen other websites and zines, most of them long gone. He’s also worked for over twenty years at reissue record labels, and penned scads of liner notes -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He is now somewhat reclusive and bides his time quietly in his dusty Miracle Mile hermitage in Los Angeles, CA.