Defining Dylan -- If That’s Even Possible

Times Staff Writer

“Museums are cemeteries. It’s not the bomb that has to go, man. It’s the museums.”

-- Bob Dylan, 1965, from Robert Shelton’s

“No Direction Home”


NEW YORK--Visitors to the august Morgan Library and Museum in midtown Manhattan these days can feast on a bounty of antiquities and great art, including three Gutenberg Bibles, the sole surviving manuscript of Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” a collection of ancient Near Eastern sculptures ... and artifacts from Bob Dylan’s years in New York.

That’s Robert Zimmerman, to be precise. The wandering boy from Hibbing, Minn., who changed his name, came to New York City in 1961 with a beat-up guitar and transformed the face of American pop culture. A new exhibit, “Bob Dylan’s American Journey, 1956-1966,” focuses on his early songwriting career and it raises an unusual question: How do you pay tribute in a museum setting to a creative person who is very much alive and scoffs at the idea of being pinned down under glass?


The exhibit blends original documents like handwritten lyrics and letters with video snippets and booths where visitors can hear legendary albums such as “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” “Bringing It All Back Home” and “Blonde on Blonde.” There are also films shown on Dylan’s life, his songwriting and the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, where his then-new electrical performances were greeted with boos.

It is the first major museum treatment of Dylan’s legacy, and the exhibit -- created by the Experience Music Project in Seattle, a nonprofit group begun by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen -- is merely the latest example of Dylan-mania: “The Times They Are A’Changin’,” a Broadway musical based on his work, opens next week; Lincoln Center will host a star-studded tribute to him next month; Dylan, 65, just kicked off a 24-city tour; his latest album hit No. 1 on the pop music charts; “No Direction Home,” a two-part documentary on his life and times, produced by Martin Scorsese, continues to air.

For some visitors, like Ann Bragg from Long Island, the Morgan exhibit pays proper tribute to a seminal American artist. “It’s about time that he’s honored this way,” said Bragg, who took in the show before hurrying back to a tour bus waiting outside. “A whole generation grew up with him, and he’s had a huge impact.”

But others find a troubling irony to the whole affair. A sense that Dylan has made a career out of being hard to pin down, and that it’s strange -- to say the least -- to find him treated like a historical figure while he continues to barnstorm around the country.

“It doesn’t seem like he belongs in there,” said Steve Katz, a graying boomer from Portland, Ore., as he left the museum with his wife, Jan. “This is one person’s idea of Bob Dylan. So how much of what we see in there is really him?”

Katz hastened to add that he had been impressed by the historical accuracy of the exhibit and artifacts such as Dylan’s handwritten lyrics to “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Gates of Eden.” But he chuckled as he took one last look, saying: “I think Dylan would get a kick out of this. He’d be very amused.”


Dylan had nothing to do with the presentation, which premiered in Seattle and then moved to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum in Cleveland before coming to New York last month; it travels to the Smithsonian Institution next year.

Curator Jasen Emmons said Dylan’s manager had given his blessing to mounting the exhibit, but conceded: “There’s great irony that Bob Dylan is in a museum. But the presentation is done in a way that it brings him to life and tries to humanize him. People tend to forget who he was: a vital young person with a great sense of humor.”

It’s commonly known, for example, that Dylan and folk singing queen Joan Baez were briefly involved. But few have seen the gag letter -- lent to the exhibit by Baez -- in which Dylan wrote to her mother, pretending to be her. “Mummy,” the letter read, Dylan “doesn’t bathe” and had thrown her on the bed, “like a caveman.”

The text for the exhibit was written by Ann Powers (now pop music critic for the Los Angeles Times). As visitors enter, they are greeted with a large photo of Dylan and an opening statement that says he, like other great artists, “has come to represent the very historical moment that formed him.” Dylan, it concludes, “has done more to define American creative expression than anyone in the past half-century.”

As he read these lines, Christopher Hauke, a London psychiatrist and a longtime fan, nodded approvingly. But then he added: “Everything we know about this guy is that he doesn’t like it when people define him. And here he is, really being defined.”

In the past, Dylan has criticized those who see him as a leader of any kind. In “Chronicles, Volume One,” his memoir, he wrote: “I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation that I was supposed to be the voice of.... Being true to yourself, that was the thing. I was more a cowpuncher than a pied piper.”


The exhibit documents his iconoclastic path: He left a lonely, desolate Midwest town and hit New York, determined to make it as a folk singer in the Woody Guthrie mold. When he rose to national prominence with politically motivated songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” he was the darling of folkie activists and the civil rights movement. But just as quickly, Dylan abandoned those supporters and struck out in a new direction, blending urban folk music with blues-based rock ‘n’ roll, and penning dark, introspective lyrics that had never been heard on the AM radio.

“He was a hero to me; the first album I ever owned was Dylan’s first album,” said Jim Canary, a museum visitor who runs a rare-books store in Bloomington, Ind. “And he’s still going strong. But here, in this exhibit, it’s like my whole life is becoming a part of history.”

So, to quote a famous song, how does it feel?

“It feels odd,” Canary shrugged. “But whatever. Maybe this was inevitable.”

As he spoke, a listening booth inside the exhibit played “Visions of Johanna,” one of Dylan’s most celebrated and enigmatic songs. His weary, mournful voice rang out above the passersby, singing the line: “Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial.”