Bob Dylan: Electric. American Writers Museum, Chicago, November 16, 2018-April 30, 2019.
REVIEW BY Kenneth Daley, Columbia College, Chicago
As its title suggests, the primary focus of Bob Dylan: Electric, the exhibit currently on display at Chicago’s American Writers Museum, is 1965, Dylan at Newport and the electric songs of the ‘65 albums, Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. Dylan’s ‘64 Fender Stratocaster, captured in Diana Davies’ iconic photo of Dylan playing Newport 1965, hangs in the center of the exhibit, encased in plastic like a religious relic. Underneath the guitar lies a copy of the ’65 festival program, illustrated by Jonathan Shahn, son of the social realist, and opened to Dylan’s absurdist short story, “Off the Top of My Head.” To its right, headphones offer the exhibit goer a recording of the Newport performance of “Maggie’s Farm,” the song from the newly released Back Home that Dylan chose to open the electric set.
The exhibit is relatively small, mounted in a 100-foot long corridor connecting two sides of the Writers Museum, and organized into six sections: Highway 61 Revisited; Influences; Newport Folk Festival, 1965; Don’t Look Back; Dylan’s Impact; Nobel Prize. Curated by rock critic Alan Light, with photos and objects on loan from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Bill Pagel, James Irsay (the guitar), and others, the exhibit brings together an entertaining collection of historical artifacts, among them, studio logs, job sheets, and photos from Dylan’s 1965 Columbia recording sessions; a “fair copy” manuscript of Dylan’s hand-printed lyrics to “Tom Thumb’s Blues”; Dylan’s playfully annotated/illustrated copy of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye; a beautiful 1965 painted handbill in orange, blacks, and blues, by Eric Von Schmidt, announcing Joan Baez and Dylan in concert; the opening pages from the original transcript of D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 film, Don’t Look Back. Each section of the exhibit includes audio or audiovisual components.
Unfortunately, none of this constitutes, in the words of the Museum’s promotional materials, “an unparalleled display of Bob Dylan’s contribution to American music and literature.” That Dylan’s embrace of rock altered American culture is an oft-told tale (two recent attempts, Elijah Wald’s Dylan Goes Electric! (2015) and Greil Marcus’s Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads (2005), sit at the entrance to the exhibit), and the telling here is only superficial, an introduction to the uninitiated as opposed to anyone even reasonably well acquainted with Dylan’s life and career. Most disappointing is the concluding section of the exhibit devoted to “Dylan’s Impact,” consisting of an oversized selection of banal quotations from well-known musicians (and a few writers) speaking to Dylan’s genius and achievement. “It almost makes me furious sometimes, how good his lyrics are,” says the inspired Dave Matthews from somewhere far on desolation row. “Bob’s songs seemed to update the concepts of justice and injustice,” Joan Baez helpfully chimes in. Headphones are lined up along the lower portion of the wall offering audio clips of various artists covering Dylan songs, in case you’ve missed Hendrix’s All Along the Watchtower, or find Miley Cyrus’s rendition of You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go compelling evidence of Dylan’s vital contribution to American music.
Even weaker is the exhibit’s treatment of Dylan’s contribution to American literature. The Nobel Prize section is merely an exercise in hagiography, a collection of newspaper headlines and a gold-embossed invitation to the award ceremony. The script of Dylan’s lecture and the full twenty-seven-minute recording that he cannily set to music are made available absent any analysis of Dylan’s place in the vernacular American tradition of songwriting, or any interrogation of the relationship of song to literature. Copies of Moby-Dick, The Odyssey, and All Quiet on the Western Front, classic literary texts that Dylan singles out as having informed his music, dutifully sit on a shelf along the wall. So nearby sit copies of the 2016 edition of The Lyrics: 1961-2012, and Chronicles: Volume One (2004). Tarantula, Dylan’s 1971 collection of prose poems, is represented only by a picture of its front cover. The out-of-print 1973 Writings and Drawings is not represented at all, nor any of Dylan’s other early publications — “11 Outlined Epitaphs,” the prose poems printed on the back of the 1964 The Times They Are A-Changin’; “Some Other Kinds of Songs…Poems by Bob Dylan,” printed in the jacket notes of the other 1964 album, Another Side of Bob Dylan; the columns Dylan penned for the short-lived, folk-song magazine, Hootenanny; the open letter to friends in Broadside.
Except for “Tom Thumb’s Blues,” the exhibit includes no manuscripts, correspondence, notebooks, or any other archival materials that would lend insight into Dylan’s composing process or literary contributions. There is nothing here on loan from The Bob Dylan Archive in Tulsa, the resource most likely to provide the materials necessary to craft the definitive display of Dylan’s contribution to American music and literature. But if you find yourself in Chicago, Bob Dylan: Electric offers a pleasant enough hour among Dylan memorabilia and photographs, some of which you very well may never have seen before.