January 19, 2011

Jonathan Franzen's Dylan Humiliated Donovan. But Does He Really?

In Jonathan Franzen's 2010 novel Freedom, he uses a scene between Donovan and Bob Dylan from the 1967 D.A. Pennebaker documentary Don't Look Back to parallel the competitiveness of two of the novel's characters, Walter and Richard. Here's the excerpt:

The Bob Dylan documentary Don't Look Back was such a touchstone for both Richard and Walter that Patty eventually rented it and watched it with Walter, one night when the kids were little, so that she could see the famous scene in which Dylan outshone and humiliated the singer Donovan at a party for cool people in London, purely for the pleasure of being an asshole. Though Walter felt sorry for Donovan — and, what's more, felt bad about himself for not wanting to be more like Dylan and less like Donovan — Patty found the scene thrilling. The breathtaking nakedness of Dylan's competitiveness! Her feeling was, let's face it, victory is very sweet.

Dylan, by all accounts—from Don't Look Back to Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home—had an extremely competitive edge and desire to succeed that brushed some people the wrong way (ie. stealing a friend's record collection, covering "House of The Rising Sun" without crediting its original composer). And that's fine. Once-in-a-lifetime geniuses don't always have time to be polite. But the interaction Franzen describes between Donovan and Dylan seems like an exaggerated analysis of events. Donovan plays "To Sing For You" and then Dylan shares his own song, "It's All Over Now Baby Blue." Am I missing an undercurrent of competitiveness? What do you think?

"I looked in the closet, there was Donovan," said Dylan on stage with a laugh, referring to the press's interpretation of the Scottish songwriter as  a "Dylan clone."

From Hard Rain: A Dylan Commentary by Tim Riley:
At the party of his hero, Donovan is beside himself, happy just to be in Dylan's presence. He offers up To Sing For You," a generically inncuous ditty the brings squishy smiles to the faces of the listeners, as much from childish pleasure as from embarassment. The guitar is handed to Dylan, and Donovan requests "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." Dylan goes into the first verse, emphasixing the lyric "Yonder stands your orphan with his gun" as though correcting somebody's misinterpretations of the line, smiling it right. It's a masterful trump of Donovan's overpleasant minstrel, and the mood in the room chanes insantly to one of dond respect (Donovan looks like he's just gone ten rounds).

Donovan - "To Sing For You" (from Catch The Wind)



  1. I don't really understand this "humiliation" thing... Donovan asks Dylan to play "Baby Blue" and he does. Not much more to say.

  2. I agree. Also, earlier in the video dylan says "that's a good song, man" in a very genuine way. Just because BD smiles while playing for donovan doesnt mean it is in mockery.

  3. F--- Yes! It was competitive and mocking for the sake of humiliation, IMHO.

  4. Well, it's in character for Patty Berglund to view the scene as maybe more competitive and humiliating than it was. So yeah, it's exaggerated. But that's one of the best performances of "It's all over now, Baby Blue" of all time. And while I do think Dylan was being polite to Donovan -- and did mean it when he said "that's a good song, man;" he was definitely trying to outperform him -- and did.