Monday, September 24, 2012

Bob Dylan: “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Punctuating)”

Hooray! It’s one of my favorite holidays, National Punctuation Day, as proclaimed by the high priest of the apostrophe, Jeff Rubin. Jeff and wife Norma have taken it as their life mission to spread the punctuation gospel.

Hollywood has not always treated punctuation with respect. In fact, basic English grammar doesn’t always do so well in films and on TV. When I was a kid, parents and teachers tut-tutted over a cigarette commercial telling the world that “Winstons taste good, like a cigarette should.” So loud was the outcry that the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company publicly apologized for using “like” instead of the more correct “as,” even while insisting that the main point was the great taste of their product. (Those were the days, of course, when adults worried about correct grammar, while cigarette ads were all over the tube as a matter of course.)

But I feel obliged to focus today on punctuation, especially the elusive apostrophe. In the late Sixties there appeared a modest black-and-white documentary that captured the “Up yours!” spirit of Baby Boomers, coming of age at a time of war and urban strife. In 1965, D. A. Pennebaker accompanied Bob Dylan on his debut concert tour of England. The resulting documentary, released in May 1967, was a raw and revealing look at a young man often called the spokesman of his generation. Its title was Dont Look Back.

In 1965 Bob Dylan was a twenty-four-year-old folk balladeer who had not yet stunned his fans by switching to electric guitar. Through such protest songs as “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” he spoke to his young listeners about the scourge of racism and nuclear apocalypse. By the time of his British concert tour, he had acquired a global following, but was increasingly wary of his growing fame. Dylan’s unease manifested itself in Dont Look Back as prickly behavior that bordered on arrogance, underscoring his refusal to be sucked into the starmaker machinery on which the recording industry relies. Whether meeting other musicians or jousting with the press, he came off on film as guarded and sometimes downright hostile.

A prime target of Dylan’s on-camera barbs was the London-based arts and science correspondent for Time magazine, who during a tense Q & A was made to look foolish and out of touch. So it’s no surprise that the Time review of Dont Look Back was extremely harsh, calling the film “a ninety-six-minute essay in cinematic truthtelling that may explain how the thin-voiced bard of the bedraggled became a subcultural prophet and a millionaire by combining the most resonant clichés of alienation and some not very distinguished music.” What Time’s reviewer missed (aside from the quality of Dylan’s musical output) is key to what attracted the young fans: the fact that Dylan, both offstage and on, so completely negated what their parents would consider appropriate entertainment. His slapdash mode of dress, his laconic on-stage manner, even his droning and nasal voice were affronts to the middle-aged. He represented the quintessential rebel, the surly punk who had no use for his elders. Even that missing apostrophe in the film’s title hinted that its subject was a rebel, pushing hard against the rules of polite society.

Today Bob Dylan is still going it alone, and still making music. His 35th studio album, Tempest, was released on September 11, 2012. No telling, though, whether his attitude toward apostrophes has improved. (Or whether he’s figured out that “alright” is not really a word.) Nonetheless, I hope he’ll join me in celebrating National Punctuation Day.


  1. Well damn. I missed it - Happy Belated National Punctuation Day! I wish someone would give me a hug and say There Their They're.

  2. Happy to oblige, Mr. Craig, if you'll accept a virtual hug.