By May 1966, John Lennon and Bob Dylan had become the only serious candidates for the newly conceived “Spokesman of a Generation” title. At the height of their creative powers, each of the men sought to break free from their own reputations by making music that had no precedent. Dylan, having stretched the very definition of a pop song with “Like a Rolling Stone” the previous July, had just completed the sprawling double disc, Blonde On Blonde. The Beatles’ groundbreaking Revolver wasn’t due out until the end of summer, but sessions began weeks earlier with Lennon’s “Tomorrow Never Knows,” a track that blended acid-tinged philosophical lyrics with boldly innovative production.
The only known footage of Dylan and Lennon together was filmed during this fantastically productive annus mirabilis. But instead of recording an artistic summit of the highest order, the camera captured the incoherent ramblings of two impossibly stoned rock stars riding around London in the back of a chauffeured limousine. Though they don’t solve all of society’s ills, the scene is a fascinating, unvarnished look at the tense alliance between the superstars.
It was shot on May 27th, 1966, by director D.A. Pennebaker as part of Eat the Document, a follow-up to his 1965 documentary Don’t Look Back, which had chronicled Dylan’s first tour of England. The musician was unhappy with the black-and-white cinéma vérité approach of the earlier film, and chose to direct the latest tour documentary himself. This second trek through the U.K. proved to be even more eventful than the previous year’s thanks to the controversial use of his electric guitar, which elicited arguably the most famous heckle in rock history. But rather than focus on these electrifying performances and backstage moments, Dylan shot surreal improvised scenes with members of his entourage.
One of these featured Dylan and John Lennon cruising through London’s Hyde Park early on May 27th, 1966, after a night at the Beatle’s suburban home. While Dylan associate Bob Neuwirth handled sound duties, Pennebaker rolled camera.
“They had a funny relationship to begin with,” the filmmaker remembered in a 1999 interview with Gadfly magazine. “In this particular scene it was as if they were trying to invent something for me that would be amusing in some way, but at the same time they were doing it for each other.” To be kind, the combined efforts of these world-class wordsmiths owe less to the sharp wit of Oscar Wilde and more to the wild free association of James Joyce. Less charitable individuals would call it drugged-out incomprehensible babble. Dylan in particular is worse for the wear. “It was not exactly a conversation by any means,” says Pennebaker. “Dylan was so beside himself and in such a terrible state that after a while I don’t think he knew what he was saying.”
Completely devoid of logic, the dialogue runs like a Dadaist comedy routine that must be seen to be believed, but never completely understood. They touch on why the English beat Hitler in World War II (answer: the Thames River), homesickness, baseball games and figures on the contemporary music scene – including the Mamas and the Papas, Johnny Cash, an English folk-rock group called the Silkie and Lennon’s own bandmates.
Perhaps the only constant is Dylan’s complaints of nausea. “Oh, god, I don’t wanna get sick in here,” he moans, doubled over in pain. “What if I vomit into the camera? I’ve done just about everything else into that camera, man. I might just vomit into it.” Lennon teases him mercilessly with an ad-libbed commercial and some tough love. “Do you suffer from sore eyes, groovy forehead or curly hair? Take Zimdawn! Come, come, boy, it’s only a film. Pull yourself together.” Dylan is too pained to respond. According to Pennebaker, Lennon had to help his musical comrade to his room at the May Fair Hotel, where he made good on the promise to spill his guts.
Lennon recalled the incident vividly when speaking to Rolling Stone cofounder Jann Wenner in 1970. “We were both in shades and both on fucking junk, and all these freaks around us. I was anxious as shit. … In the film, I’m just blabbing off and commenting all the time, like you do when you’re very high or stoned. I had been up all night. We were being smart alecks, it’s terrible. But it was his scene, that was the problem for me. It was his movie. I was on his territory, that’s why I was so nervous.”
Whether they were actually on heroin (a.k.a. “junk”) is uncertain. Regardless of precisely which substance was in their bag, there’s clearly a divide between the two that goes deeper than chemicals. Lennon’s anxiety was present from the moment Dylan asked him to be in the film. “I thought ‘Why? What? He’s going to put me down.’ I went all through this terrible thing,” he told Wenner. Maybe he was right to be nervous. Dylan had just released “4th Time Around,” which has been alternately referred to as an affectionate tribute to, or a searing parody of, Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood.” Lennon bounced back and forth between interpretations throughout the rest of his life.
Though the Beatle had been quick to praise Dylan, calling him “the best in his field” in a 1964 interview, the compliments were seldom returned. Lennon wore Dylan’s influence openly, crediting him for inspiring introspective acoustic tunes like “I’m a Loser” and “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.” Dylan, for his part, “went electric” shortly after the Beatles became a major musical force. Though rock & roll was an integral part of his roots, the sound and success of the Fab Four obviously contributed in part to his stylistic shift. “Dylan liked to say how much the Beatles learned from him,” the band’s road manager Neil Aspinall told author Phillip Norman in John Lennon: The Life. “John used to mutter, ‘He learned a bit from us, too.'”
The pair would reportedly meet only once more following the May 1966 encounter, in 1969 after Dylan’s headlining performance at the Isle of Wright festival. Though Lennon’s admiration for Dylan remained, it seems to have dimmed after the infamous car ride. Perhaps the sight of his idol in such a sorry condition reduced Dylan from hero to human. Lennon dismissed Dylan’s New Morning with a terse “it wasn’t much” and 10 years later told Playboy he had “stopped listening to Dylan with both ears.” Lyrical references in songs like “God” and “Serve Yourself” took a critical view of his colleague. On the other hand, Dylan has grown more vocal in his affection for Lennon over the years, penning the tribute song “Roll On John,” which closed his 2012 album, Tempest.
The final cut of Eat the Document was rejected by distributors and remains unreleased. But both the film and its outtakes have surfaced on the bootleg circuit and are now widely available online, thankfully preserving this historic meeting between rock’s twin poet laureates.