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BOOK REVIEW / FAVORITE BOOKS 2008

'Lookin at life'

December 07, 2008|Carolyn Kellogg

In 1964, Bob Dylan looked at a stack of Barry Feinstein's photos and wrote a pile of poems to go with them. And then, well, Dylan forgot about the whole thing. When asked, in the foreword, "Do you remember writing the text?" he responds, "Actually, no."

Unlike a lyric repeated so many times it's hard to genuinely hear it, the poems in "Hollywood Foto-Rhetoric: The Lost Manuscript" by Bob Dylan with photos by Barry Feinstein (Simon & Schuster: 160 pp., $30) are fresh and arresting in their play with language. In "19," a long poem that accompanies a sequence of photos drawing closer and closer to the Hollywood sign, the striving narrator begins optimistically but soon is seeing the sign -- and perhaps Hollywood itself -- up close: "grime rolls in it / there's holes in it."

All of Feinstein's photos in the book were taken in early-'60s Los Angeles, and he finds an empty beauty in the corners and strangeness of Hollywood -- a Rolls-Royce gleaming in front of an unemployment office, the empty pool behind Marilyn Monroe's house the day she died. The 23-year-old Dylan writes here of death -- "lookin at life / watchin it being lowered into the ground / unable t change a thing" -- but what exactly that means is best left to aficionados, who will parse these verses as they have his lyrics for decades.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

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