A week ago I made a long-delayed visit to L.A.’s Skirball Center to see its exhibit “Bob Dylan’s American Journey 1956-1966.”
I’m a Dylan fan of almost 30 years standing but it took a while for my interest in seeing the show to overcome my inertia. Viewing a cache of memorabilia didn’t strike me as a must-see as far as deepening my appreciation of Dylan’s music, and as it turned out, I’m not sure the visit did help all that much.
And yet for me the visit was diverting enough to have been worth the trip and the $10.
One of the first things you see is a wall of 45s featuring 100 versions from all over the world of “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Among the grab-bag of performers: Trini Lopez, Spike Jones, Marlene Dietrich, Les 3 Menestrels, Odetta, the Harmonicats, Sven-Ingvars, Vince Guaraldi, Stevie Wonder, Gun Sjoberg and Srecko Zubak. Some of them sound like characters in one of Dylan’s more surreal songs. Odetta’s version, by the way, is the more grammatically precise “Blowing in the Wind.”
Inside the exhibit are typed and handwritten lyrics to classic Dylan songs, concert tickets, handbills, photos, video clips, correspondence and recordings of songs by Dylan and by folk and blues artists who inspired him. It made for an enjoyable hour.
Some of the material wasn’t new to me and yet it was neat to see the actual object. I’m thinking here of the famous Robert Shelton review that led to Dylan’s recording contract. This version is the original, clipped from the New York Times. I’ve seen young Robert Zimmerman’s 1959 Hibbing High yearbook photo in many books, but here was the actual yearbook. I knew his stated ambition was “to join Little Richard,” but did you know his club affiliations were “Latin Club 2, Social Studies Club 4”?
We also see his inscription in a female classmate’s yearbook that includes the charming comment: “You have the most beautifullest hair in school, too.” There’s also a 1964-ish letter to Joan Baez’s mother written by Dylan openly pretending to be Joan, talking about how in love they were and how wonderful he was.
Silly, inessential stuff, but kind of fun.
I overheard a tour guide say that Echo Helstrom, Dylan’s first girlfriend, phoned and was given a private tour of the exhibit. There were plenty of regular folks there when I visited, from all ages. Including polite but bored children enduring their parents’ mini-lectures on the 1960s civil rights movement.
One of the coolest objects was Bruce Langhorne’s tambourine, the one that inspired “Mr. Tambourine Man,” in a glass case. I recall reading where Dylan described the tambourine as being as large as a wagon wheel. Well, it’s not that big, but it’s probably 15 inches across.
If you’re curious about Dylan, whether you’re a neophyte or a hardcore fan, I’d say the exhibit is worth a visit.
The exhibit, which opened in February, continues through June 8. Many of the neatest lectures, films and other ancillary events are past, but there are more. On Sunday, Ann Powers, the L.A. Times pop music critic, will lead a tour at 2:30. Wish I’d waited a week to go. And the rare documentary “Eat the Document” will screen May 29 at 8 p.m.
If you’re not curious about Dylan, thanks for reading this far.