SEATTLE -- Bob Dylan as a museum piece?
Well, why not? He's already been a folk singer, a rock star, a myth, a legend, a recluse, an actor, a best-selling memoirist and, of course, the Voice of His Generation, though he vehemently denies the last charge. He's a mystery inside an enigma wrapped in a persona that we've been trying to solve ever since he left Hibbing, Minn., nearly half a century ago, bound for glory. Now Seattle's Experience Music Project, the museological brainchild of Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, has weighed in with the first major museum treatment of Dylan's life and times. It runs through Sept. 5. Sometime after that, EMP curator Jasen Emmons is hoping, the National Museum of American History might bring it to the Mall.
Memo to the Smithsonian: Don't think twice, it's all right.
(Experience Music Project)
From the wall display of 100 different artists' covers of "Blowin' in the Wind" that greets you at the entrance (you can push a button to hear a punk-rock take or Marlene Dietrich vamping it up) to the mesmerizing, show-ending film clip of Dylan improvising nonsense lines, "Bob Dylan's American Journey, 1956-1966" manages to be simultaneously thoughtful and entertaining. It has something for everyone, non-fans and Dylan obsessives alike, though it's no doubt more rewarding for those who can at least hum a few bars of "Like a Rolling Stone."
Here, for example, is the battered Martin guitar that 18-year-old Robert Zimmerman acquired in Minneapolis in 1959 and played for the first couple of years of his Greenwich Village career. The important thing to know is that he got it by trading in the electric guitar he'd brought with him from Hibbing. Contrary to legend, Dylan was into rock -- particularly Little Richard and Buddy Holly -- before he turned into a folk singer.
Here is a set of wall-mounted headphones through which you can hear never-released material from Dylan's first real concert, in November 1961 at Carnegie Chapter Hall. He sings one of the first songs he ever wrote, about an old man found dead on the street. The show's producer lost money but paid Dylan $10.
Here is a copy of his first album, "Bob Dylan." He has autographed the cover for a fan and included a snatch of lyrics ("Hey, hey, Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song") above his signature. Similar signed album covers appear throughout the show. "It's as if he's telling us, 'Pay attention to what I'm saying -- it's the words that are really important,' " Emmons says.
Fair enough: The show is full of words, not the least of which are drafts of song lyrics. The penciled draft for "Blowin' in the Wind" includes an editing mark switching the order of the second and third verses. (Dylan's handwriting is surprisingly neat.) In the typed lyrics of "The Times They Are A-Changin'," the writer self-consciously spells "you" as "yuh."
Beyond such minutiae lies the larger contribution Dylan made by marrying original, poetic lyrics to both folk and rock music. "If he hadn't done that first," says the late folk icon Dave Van Ronk in a video interview, "the singer-songwriters of today just wouldn't exist."
As for music, there's plenty of that as well.