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").
One of the weaknesses of "topical songs" is their temporal quality -- they were, by definition, of the moment. What Dylan wanted to do, what Woody Guthrie had done, was to write songs that were forever.
It is interesting that in collections of Dylan's songs or greatest hits, beginning with his first collection in 1967 and including "The Essential Bob Dylan" (2000) and the just released "Dylan" in either its 18- or 51-song editions, the collections don't include such protest songs as "Only a Pawn in Their Game" or "With God on Our Side" or "North Country Blues" or "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" -- or even "Masters of War," which has gotten some play during the current conflagration. Only "Blowin' in the Wind" and "The Times They are A-Changin'" seem to make the cut (and even "Blowin' in the Wind," which quickly became an anthem of the civil rights movement, today sounds apart from the rest of Dylan's canon).
As Dylan became one of a kind, he found himself part of a tradition of self-invented, self-created artists who have forged their own way. He rejected the notion of being a leader and even the whole notion of leaders. Yet he remains, as this exhibition demonstrates, "the voice of a generation."
When I listen again, as I've recently been doing, to some of Dylan's most popular songs from his early years, such as "It Ain't Me, Babe," "Positively 4th Street," "Ballad of a Thin Man," or "Just Like a Woman," what strikes me is not the visionary quality but the peevishness -- the stubbornness. A lot of those songs, including "Like a Rolling Stone," are put-down songs. That also is very much of his time.
As a child of Depression-era middle-class Jewish parents, coming of age in the 1950s, a decade of conformity, Dylan's stance was one of rejection, one of going his own way -- and as such he was as much "the voice of his generation" as Arthur Miller, Rod Serling, Lenny Bruce or J.D. Salinger. His "topical songs" ask Eisenhower/Betty Crocker America to wake up to the reality of racism in the South and the potential of nuclear self-immolation. His more personal or abstract songs expose "phonies" among friends, lovers, music critics -- and offer an anthemic call to reject the direction parents, society and the establishment would have us undertake. He is an individualist.
In the late 1950s and '60s, a generation was searching for their own truth, not their parents'. Dylan's disdain, evident in so many of those early songs, is all about staying one's own course. It was about saying "No." Dylan said it to his parents' way of life, to his hometown of Hibbing, Minn., to college and Dinkytown, to the folkies and the protest movement and finally, by 1966, to his fans. He wasn't going to work on Maggie's farm no more.
Similarly, the whole controversy surrounding Dylan going electric is also given perspective when witnessed via the installation at the Skirball and through the prism of those times.
Living in the shadow of the atomic bomb, living through the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Civil Rights Movements, were reasons for high seriousness. But what Dylan displayed from his first appearances, much as Woody Guthrie did, was a sense of humor and a sense of fun (that was often absent from the serious-minded folk scene).
Then President Kennedy was assassinated. Time stopped for a moment there. You might think that such a momentous and tragic event would put a pall on the very notion of "fun," but to the contrary, it was a reminder that leaders are temporal, and time is short. After a proper mourning period, the nation found a way to experience joy again -- and it came through music: The Beatles arrived in America.
This exhibition does a great job of making clear that, in retrospect, the question should have been: Why shouldn't Dylan go electric? Not only was The Beatles' sound and spirit infectious, but by capturing the American public (and the record charts), they launched a challenge to all American musicians -- a sonic space race, if you will. If the Beatles could access the roots of rock 'n' roll -- Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins -- why couldn't Dylan, who had been playing Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran songs in high school and knew that for him, factually and musically, Highway 61 led from the Delta to Minnesota. It was his musical heritage to use.
At the same time, all sorts of performers were already going electric with Dylan's music -- The Byrds, The Turtles, even Sonny and Cher had their versions -- so, why in the world would Dylan let them have hits with his songs and not decide to join in the fun?
All of which led to an incredibly creative output that would have Dylan, in little more than a year's time, release three albums (one of which, "Blonde on Blonde," was a double album), producing a cornucopia of songs, bold and funny, mystical and cryptic, full of longing and lyricism.
Several of my friends' teenage children are now Dylan fans, so I thought I would ask them why they listen to or care about his music. I interviewed separately Bijou Karman, 16, a 10th-grader at Crossroads School in Santa Monica, and Dakota Nadlman, 15, a sophomore at Agoura Hills High School, and they said remarkably similar things. Both came across Dylan through their parents' record collections; both love music from the '60s and had started by listening to The Beatles and then found their way to Dylan.
"I like the sound of his voice," Bijou said. "His voice is so unique," Dakota said, elaborating that Dylan has led him on a journey to listen to all of the artist's influences, from Guthrie to blues artists. For Bijou, Dylan makes her "feel like I was in the '60s." They respond because he and his songs remain real and authentic.As for me, there was a time, not so long ago, when I was wondering why it was I was still listening to Dylan -- why buy the latest CD, why go see him in concert?
As I said, I'm a fan but not an uncritical one. I quipped in 2001 that I thought "Love and Theft" was the best album of the year -- if the year were 1937. An artist follows his own path, but there is a contract with his audience that, periodically, requires renewal. I had no problem with Dylan sinking deeper into the American roots catalogue, but his Hoagy Carmichael-type and Texas Swing stylings were not really to my taste. So I thought that perhaps I had come to a "Most likely you go your way, and I'll go mine" moment. God knows there was enough Dylan music I liked to fill my iPod, and, as Dylan has pointed out himself, there are many, many cover versions to listen to (there are quite a few good ones on the Dylan 30th anniversary celebration album -- and there is even an album of reggae covers of Dylan songs I quite enjoy called, "Is it Rolling, Bob?").
Last summer, however, I somewhat reluctantly accompanied friends to see Dylan perform at the Orange County Fair. To my surprise, he spent the evening on electric guitar and piano, standing the whole time (even swaying/dancing at times), driving his way through a set in which his voice got stronger and clearer (well, somewhat clearer) as the evening progressed.
As I watched, a line from "Song to Woody" came to mind: "There are not many men that done the things that you've done." Dylan was up there, playing his songs, some harking back 40 years and more.
There are not a lot of artists like him, doing what he is doing. I felt inspired. I decided there and then that if he keeps his faith with himself, I'll keep faith with myself, and I'll keep listening as long as he keeps playing.
Which brings me back to the Skirball.
"Bob Dylan's American Journey, 1956-1966" offers much to enjoy whether you are a hardcore Dylanologist, a rock fan more at home staring at walls in the Hard Rock than in a museum, someone who cares not a whit about Dylan but wants to study the 1960s, or you are (as we might put it on seder night), the child too young to have ever heard of Bob Dylan.
The Skirball's Dylan exhibit sets a context and gives narrative to the emergence of a singular talent who, like his generation, like his nation, were party to dramatically changing times, and who wrote and performed songs that are still being played, by Dylan himself as well as many others, and that will continue to be heard and appreciated as unique and true -- even as their provenance and genesis become the stuff of museum exhibits and history. "Bob Dylan's American Journey, 1956-1966" opens Feb. 8 and continues through June 8 at the Skirball Cultural Center. For more information go to Skirball.org
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.