At one point in I’m Not There, filmmaker Todd Haynes’ deeply personal, scattershot depiction of the “many lives” of Bob Dylan, the singer (played by an unrecognizable Cate Blanchett) climbs the stairs to the stage of a pastoral music festival (“New England” stands in for “Newport” here), unlatches his guitar case, and fires a machine-gun straight into the audience before launching into the acid-tongued defiance of “Maggie’s Farm.” It’s a bold statement in a cryptic film, but perhaps the only way to convey the real shock received by those in attendance. Here was the poster-child of the revival, the prophet of the protest-song movement, the young wizard from Duluth, Minnesota, who gave America the socially conscious gifts of “The Times They Are a-Changin” and “Only A Pawn in Their Game”, and now he was slashing at an electric guitar, singing what, at first pass, seemed to be utter nonsense. It was a betrayal on the most basic level, the seemingly deliberate alienation of his most loyal devotees.
In reality, the machine-gun was a Fender Stratocaster, which now sits as the centerpiece of a reverential new exhibit at the American Writers Museum, Bob Dylan: Electric. Alan Light, (former editor-in-chief of both Spin and Vibe, Rolling Stone rock critic, and curator of this exhibit) knows the importance of this artifact, and how the iconic “Judas” moment can help illuminate the fabric of American culture post 1965. “I was brought in once the Newport guitar had been offered to [the American Writers Museum] as a loan, to help conceive of a story to tell with that historic instrument at its center,” Light tells me from his home in New York. “[Dylan’s] merger of folk tradition with rock and roll energy, of poetic aspiration with a mass pop audience forever altered the possibilities for songwriting, for what both literature and mass culture could achieve.”
The Stratocaster sits in a glass case in a narrow hallway that connects the lobby of the American Writers Museum with other, permanent showcases. You feel as if you’re staring at some long-lost religious relic; the guitar looks at once casual and spiritual, completely pedestrian and almost inconceivable. The item is lovingly contextualized by commentary from Light throughout the exhibit. What permeates the space is an impression of Dylan’s scrappiness, his slick sense of humor, and the reach of his singular craftsmanship. A copy of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In the Rye, dated in Dylan’s hand “Summer, 1961” is turned to the last page, where he adds a simple addition “-And a bottle of Rye”, and then some brief criticism “good book! -Bob.” On the Saturday night I attended, a woman stood with her husband, in awe of the pages, declaring it to be her favorite novel. I turned to her and admitted I had just read it for the first time the week before. “And you’ll read it again and again,” she said to me “Dylan sure has a lot of Holden Caulfield in him, doesn’t he?” It’s true; from the haunting, impossible wisdom of “My Back Pages” to the dizzying, razor-blade cynicism of “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” Dylan seemed to continuously embody the anxiety of his time, and the frustrating hypocrisy of the American experiment. A lyric like “Money doesn’t talk it swears, obscenity who really cares, propaganda all is phony” would feel perfectly at home in the pages of Salinger’s masterpiece, while Caulfield’s final anecdote, “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody” could just as easily have been lifted from the liner notes of Bringing It All Back Home.
Other artifacts, such as script pages from D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (which featured Dylan in what some critics cite as the first music video for “Subterranean Homesick Blues”), and the handwritten lyrics for “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” (Dylan comments on the top of the page “Tom Thumb, He’s as Big as Crumb!”) are sublime, playful additions. A wall of quotes from the likes of Barack Obama, Bruce Springsteen and Sam Shepard illustrate how Dylan’s titanic influence has graced all aspects of society, from politics to playwriting. (My favorite, from George Harrison: “Dylan is so brilliant. To me, he makes William Shakespeare look like Billy Joel.”) Just before the exit sits a trio of books, The Odyssey, Moby Dick, and All’s Quiet on the Western Front, a nod to Dylan’s recent Nobel Prize for Literature. Anyone with even a cursory appreciation could point to the extensive literary allusions in songs like “Desolation Row” and “Tangled Up in Blue”, not to mention his published poetry and memoirs. Even so, there were detractors, claiming that a songwriter was a bit of a stretch for a primarily literary prize. When I asked Alan Light about the controversy, he argued that other Nobel recipients, such as Kazuo Ishiguro and Don DeLillo, mentioned Dylan specifically as a massive influence. “There’s an unsolvable conundrum at the heart of this debate–it seems to boil down to whether his words would be equally important without the music. As [Dylan] points out in his Nobel lecture, poetry and song were inseparable to Homer, so what’s the point of getting stuck on this distinction?”
The exhibit is also being supported by intimate events featuring musicians and songwriters discussing Dylan’s influence on their work. I was lucky enough to attend the night headlined by Robbie Fulks, a Grammy-nominated, Chicago-based songwriter, as he led the audience through some of his compositions, offering insight into his artistic inspiration. While he personally enjoys smaller, sturdier country ballads, the songwriter admitted that Dylan’s influence on him was undeniable. Fulks explained that as an 11-year-old, he purchased 1975’s Blood on the Tracks at his local record store; he ran home, placed the disc on the platter, put on his headphones, and was utterly baffled by what he heard. He says that he eventually warmed up to the record, about 12 years later. But something about Dylan’s intensity always stuck with him. And Fulks commented on Dylan’s constant metamorphosis; even if a disc seemed tossed off and slight, if you just stuck around, you knew Dylan would eventually come out with something spectacular again.
This sentiment is echoed by Light: “The going-electric moment at Newport really became a shorthand for an artist being bold and unafraid in pursuing a new creative direction, no matter the cost. [He] left the narrow lane of the folk community to see what it was like to be a rock star.” Light seems particularly interested in this dichotomy; he points to Highway 61 Revisited‘s iconic opening track “Like a Rolling Stone” as evidence. “His writing became more expansive and evocative … more experimental and simultaneously more popular. In retrospect, it would seem impossible that a six-minute, dense and literary song could be a huge pop hit. And the bigger message, received by artists of all types, was that you didn’t need to follow expectations–that greatness comes from leading your audience, not following them.”
Or, to put it in Dylan’s own words: “The sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken.”
Bob Dylan: Electric is on display at the American Writers Museum, 180 N. Michigan Ave., until April 30. The next Singer Songwriter event, featuring Louie Pérez of Los Lobos, is scheduled for Sunday, December 9, at 3:30 pm. Tickets are $12.