There we were, members of the press on preview night at the Skirball Cultural Center, poised at the top of a ramp like pinballs at the mouth of a chute leading into a flashing machine. The exhibit was called Bob Dylan’s American Journey, 1956-1966, and curator Jasen Emmons, with the vague authority of a velvet rope, was doing his best to keep us all quiet and sequestered at the entrance while he gave a proper introduction to what we were about to experience.

Emmons provided a brief history of the show, which began at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and traveled to New York City and Minneapolis before coming to the Skirball. “The wall behind you is something really amazing,” he said, referring to a photo montage of old 45 picture sleeves for more than 50 different cover versions of Blowin’ in the Wind culled from a private German collection. Although the artists included such heavy hitters of the time as Trini Lopez, Marlene Dietrich, Cher and Stevie Wonder, most were lesser-known Germanics like Nina & Frederik and Otto, and Berndt & Beppo, the latter appearing as capable of selling Dylan’s poetics as the Von Trapp family would be at selling Lick It Up by Kiss.

“Any questions before we start?” Emmons asked. Nobody said a word. Instead, we all held our breath and shifted our weight to the balls of our feet, tipping forward slightly toward the thrilling sound of Subterranean Homesick Blues sashaying through the exhibit below. “All right,” he said, inviting us to spill in behind him like horny guys being led into a strip club, giving us the chance to ogle and hoot over the stark intellectual and artistic nudity of one of the 20th century’s most influential cultural icons.

For the next 25 minutes we politely endured Emmons’ tour the same way middle-school students might endure the drawing of Orion and Ursa Major on the ceiling of a planetarium when all they really wanted was the opportunity to look up at real stars, maybe a little bit stoned, while listening to Dark Side of the Moon and feeling indestructibly and hysterically puny.

Finally left alone to scavenge through the many thinguma-Bobs for what might be personally moving or intellectually informative, we fanned out and proceeded to blow our own minds on a decent handful of truly remarkable artifacts. There were handwritten and typewritten lyrics, autographed album covers and personalized playbills. There was Dylan’s very own tattered paperback copy of Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory,plus his own personal copy of the Woody Guthrie Songbook with the curious inclusion of Dylan’s underlining, in Pete Seeger’s foreword, of three rules for those wanting to become folksingers like Guthrie: (1.) Don’t try to imitate his accent; (2.) Don’t try to imitate his flat vocal quality; and (3.) In short, be yourself, none of which the consummate rule-breaker honored, of course. There were Dylan’s harmonica and 1949 Martin 00-17 guitar; the actual tambourine used by the guy that Mr. Tambourine Man was penned for; and a poem written in 1956 by a 15-year-old Robert Zimmerman that began:

There is a boy in school

Who don’t live by no rule

He hands everyone lots of sass

Thinking no one will kick his ass.

Most remarkable, perhaps, was the very first public recording of Dylan, at the Carnegie Chapter Hall on November 4, 1961. The sound having been recorded directly from the microphone feed, the clarity of the performance was mesmerizing, so much so that throughout most of the night it was drawing both a crowd and some impatience around the single set of headphones available for listening.

Ridiculous additions included a large glass vitrine containing the hat, guitar and boots of Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and the handwritten and typewritten lyrics to a couple of Woody Guthrie songs, plus the Greystone Park State Hospital T-shirt that Guthrie wore in the hospital while dying. Fascinating artifacts for sure, but the equivalent of playing a Charlie Parker record a little too loudly while everyone is trying to concentrate on Coltrane.

Of course, cultivating an exhibit designed to reveal Bob Dylan’s true character is like gathering shrapnel to reassemble the most telling elements of an explosion. It may in fact be too disparate an exercise to produce anything like a definitive portrait of the man. You can’t rediscover fire or relose your virginity, nor, for that matter, can you easily explain an artist so adept at explaining you. It’s like describing the surface of a mirror without having your description corrupted somewhat by the distraction of your own reflection.

“Has Dylan ever been through the exhibit?” a reporter asked Emmons before we were all invited to enjoy tuna casserole and tomato soup at the reception upstairs, perhaps even to buy some of the Dylan tchotchkes in the gift shop (which included a miniature VW-bus menorah festooned with peace signs).

“Well,” began Emmons, searching for the right facial expression as if digging through a box of doughnuts, “we didn’t hear from Mr. Dylan directly, but he spoke through his publicist saying that he’d be too embarrassed to walk through an exhibit like this.” Unable to find the right doughnut, Emmons opted for the hole, adding, “Which I really respect a lot.”

“Bob Dylan''s American Journey, 1956–1966” continues through June 8

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