February 7, 2008
The genesis of early Dylan—at the Skirball
So you might think that I would be excited to see "Bob Dylan's American Journey, 1956-66," opening at the Skirball on Feb. 8. But I was somewhat skeptical.
I wondered what there was left to say about Dylan's early career, given the Martin Scorsese documentary "No Direction Home: Bob Dylan" (2005), as well as Dylan's own memoir, "Chronicles Vol. 1" (which I highly recommend for the great descriptions of Greenwich Village in the early 1960s and as one of the best descriptions of how the creative spark grew in a young artist). Also, I questioned what sense it makes anymore to use Dylan, who long ago shunned politics, to illuminate the cultural and social changes of the early 1960s. Finally, I even wondered if a museum exhibition is an appropriate place to tell us anything about a songwriter and his times.
Turns out I was wrong on all counts.
First of all, it's fun to see the many actual artifacts on display; there's Woody Guthrie's guitar and Dylan's copy of Guthrie's "Bound for Glory." There are handwritten lyrics and inscribed books; there's even the tambourine that inspired "Mr. Tambourine Man" (it belongs to Bruce Langhorne, who today can be found leading the Venice Beach Marching Society and selling Brother Bru-Bru's African hot sauce). There are listening booths where you can hear songs from the seven albums Dylan released during this period, including unreleased recordings and rare documentary footage. There's even an installation where you "produce" and play along to a Dylan track from "Blonde on Blonde." It's cool stuff.
More to the point, it's brilliantly installed (Robert Kirschner, the Skirball's director of exhibitions, told me it was the most complex installation the museum has ever done). You feel like you are walking through time. You can stop and go back; you can immerse yourself in a moment or a song. It is, for lack of a better word, experiential.
I had been concerned, too, that the exhibit would feel more like being in a Hard Rock Cafe than at a museum, but the informational labels, as well as the audio tour, create a sense of narrative, of history-as-it-happened.
Consider that in just a few decades, we have gone from Garbage-ologists harassing Dylan and family, to all of our garbage being sold on eBay. In this light, a museum exhibition forces us to take the shards of our times seriously (or as T.S. Eliot put it, "These fragments I have shored against my ruins"). There is something to be gained from bringing a critical eye and an organizing discipline to the facts of a life and to the artifacts of an era.
Viewing the exhibition forced me to reconsider some of my idÃ¯Â¿Â½(c)es fixes about Dylan.
I had always thought it somewhat ironic that Dylan, who had a such a deep connection to the work of Woody Guthrie that he came to New York with the goal of meeting him, later rejected the attention of his own fans, telling them "don't follow leaders, watch the parkin' meters."
On many a morning's constitutional, I find myself walking by Dylan's home, yet, despite being an aficionado, I can't imagine myself ringing the doorbell (not that he is at home, although there does always seem to be a whole lot of gardening going on). But the point is that Dylan was not just a fan. He had a purpose in meeting Guthrie.
As Dylan himself relates in the audio tour, at first he had no idea whether Guthrie was alive or not, but then Dylan says he discovered that Guthrie "was in a hospital with some kind of ailment. So I thought it would be a nice gesture to go visit him."
Dylan's desire to meet Guthrie was a way of affirming that Guthrie's work, his life, had meaning -- and that Dylan's could as well. But, as I feel compelled to point out, visiting the sick is more than a "nice thing"; it is also a fundamental Jewish value, a mitzvah -- bikur cholim -- so maybe Dylan did take something with him from the Hibbing shul on West Fourth Avenue or the mysterious rabbi who prepared him for his 1954 bar mitzvah. Dylan's "Song to Woody" would be the first song he felt compelled to write and the start of his journey. Self-invented as Dylan was, the exhibition makes clear that he didn't come out of nowhere. To the contrary, he came out of very specific traditions.
The strength and benefit of "Bob Dylan's American Journey," which proceeds along both personal and cultural tracks, is that it gives context to Dylan's personal choices and to what the show labels Dylan's "topical songs."
It is hard to appreciate at this distant date how young Dylan was when his career began. He arrived in New York not yet 20, and in the next year he became an established performer in Greenwich Village. However, he was not yet fully made as an artist and was still pursuing his alternative education, listening to the songs of his contemporaries and their takes on musicians who had come before -- and he was reading books that were as much guides as fuel for his creative fires. He was accessing a mother lode, a treasure trove of material, assimilating a world of folk and traditional music and making it his own. He had talent and chutzpah to spare, but working in a genre that blended traditional melodies with contemporary issues, he turned to events taking place around him, and sometimes to the newspaper itself, for material. In the sections of the show on Dylan in Greenwich Village, we can see the raw material of his songs.
The lyrics were political, but Dylan himself was not -- he was just processing stories into songs. In the final analysis, and with the hindsight of several decades, those early songs -- as much as they garnered attention for Dylan -- were not truly his own. Even when they were original, they still seemed to come from someone else (and here's the strangest thing I'm going to say in this article: Listening the other night to Dylan's 1963 Newport festival performance of "Who Killed Davey Moore?" I could swear I heard strains of "Chad Gadya").