Here is where I wax rhapsodic about the Bob Dylan exhibit the Morgan Library in Manhattan. The exhibit covers the rise of this American folk and rock star through his "wonder years" in the mid-1960s, when he produced, in a row, three fantastic albums: Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. The exhibit looks small, so I thought I might be done quickly. In fact I probably could have stayed all day. Several pieces in the show deepened my understanding of Dylan, of whom I am a lifelong fan.
Curators at the Morgan have assembled wonderful and revealing documents. They have put up a poem Dylan wrote when he was fifteen, and a page from a book on what to learn from folk singer Woody Guthrie, a hero of Dylan's. Dylan underlines in pencil the following words: "matter-of-factness, understatement, simplicity." He underlines that "words are the most important part of the song," and that one should aim for "irregularity." Hmmm. Irregularity of voice? Word? Rhythm?
The curators devote a vitrine or two to Guthrie, including a song he wrote about Ilse Koch, a woman tried for war crimes she committed at the concentration camp Buchenwald during the Holocaust. Guthrie wrote about her because on the same day she was acquitted, an African American family was sentenced to long terms for a minor infraction. This song of Guthrie's touched me and clearly influenced Dylan's later songs about such victims as Hattie Carroll and Davey Moore.
Little listening booths punctuate the show, and I derived such pleasure from wandering in and out and listening to outtakes, covers, or originals of favorite songs, such as "Don't Think Twice It's Alright," "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," and "Ballad of a Thin Man." I also enjoyed visiting the show with my mother, who first introduced me to Dylan. She saw him in Harvard Square in 1964, where she was only one a handful of fans. When she took me to my first concert, at New York's Beacon Theater in 1989, when he walked off stage after twenty minutes and left my mother and me to get contact highs from all of the pot smoke in our section, it was only her third time seeing him.
The exhibit is not pretty. The documents of the first display, from Bob Zimmerman's childhood in Hibbing, Minnesota, are tacked up to grillwork over chunks of iron ore, since that area of Minnesota is rich in iron. The metal nuggets really distracted me. The listening booths around the exhibit are kind of jury-rigged from plastic and are hideous. No matter. The beauty of Dylan's first guitar, a double-O Martin, vintage concert posters, and the Subterranean Homesick Blues clip with Allen Ginsburg prancing like a shaman in the background more than made up for the unsightly ambiance.
Speaking of unsightly, the Renzo Piano addition to the Morgan makes the luxurious mansion seem corporate. At the same time, the towering glass lets light pour in, which considerably brightened the place on the gray day I visited. The museum's dining room has gotten such good press that it was fully booked today. We chose the cafe against my better judgment, since flimsy metal tables constituted the "cafe," and since it was in the new addition, it kind of felt like eating in the lobby of the Sony building. Yet, our host tucked my mother and me behind the glass elevator, so we could still see everything but attained privacy. We ordered the Pierpont salad--turkey, bacon, lettuce, beans, honey mustard. Two surprises made it memorable: the delectable and not at all cloying mustard dressing, and the smoky and not at all deli counter-like turkey. We also splurged on deviled eggs, which arrived with the yolks swooped and swirled, and which were sinful spread on bread. We could not resist herbed fries with brie "fondue." We ate a few, but were not impressed. The waiter inquired, and when we told him the fries were not quite crispy, he took it upon himself to take them off our bill.
The Dylan exhibit shows until January 6th.