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.