Another side of Bob Dylan on display at EMP: Does new exhibit demythologize the myth - or are we more tangled up than ever?

"Does John Steinbeck sympathize with his characters? I think he does and now I will try to prove my theory. Of course, he does not sympathize with every single one of them in every one of his books; but he does, I think, sympathize with most of them. I have taken three of his best selling books to prove this..."

Feel free to flinch.

The very mediocrity of this opening paragraph of an American high school essay, written in neat, self-conscious cursive, catalogues it in the basement of our collective unconscious. It - or something very like it - is something we've all written.

Even in a museum, on display behind glass, the words remain unimportant, except as a reminder of the possibilities that await every high school student.

The teenager who turned in the paragraph for a grade was Bobby Zimmerman, later known as Bob Dylan.

In the context of a new exhibit at the Experience Music Project - Bob Dylan's American Journey, 1956-1966 - the words help shed light on the humanity of a legend. Yet even such mundane minutiae do little to alter the myth surrounding Dylan, the icon.

The exhibit of pre-iconic Dylan artifacts walks an ambiguous line between myth and history. It takes you step by step past the formative years of Dylan's musical apprenticeship and into the tumultuous evolutions and revolutions of his early artistic career.

Bob Dylan is perhaps the most (over)analyzed and idealized of all 20th century American musicians, and the exhibit does credit to both the hype and the reality of his rise to stardom.

Its success lies in a careful selection of artifacts that are both deeply personal and fascinatingly arcane.

You're met at the entrance with the literal bedrock of Dylan's early life. Over 1,500 pounds of iron ore from his hometown of Hibbing, Minn., have been mounted on the exhibit wall as backdrop to the memorabilia of the late adolescence of Robert Zimmerman, a young man who, according to the high school yearbook on display, aspired one day to play with Little Richard.

However, the dog-eared copy of Woody Guthrie's autobiography, "Bound for Glory," foretells a different future, one steeped as much in the populism of American folk tradition as in the glamour and popularity of rock 'n' roll.

It is in this decade between the mid-1950s and the mid-1960s that Dylan makes his first forays into both musical performance and the creation of a public persona. Early on, he appears briefly as the piano player for Bobby Vee and the Shadows - under the name Elston Gunn.

As you move from Hibbing into Dylan's time in the Dinkytown neighborhood of Minneapolis, and from there on to New York's Greenwich Village, the backdrop behind the exhibits changes from rigid hometown stone to supple, tanned buckskin, the texture of a troubadour of the emerging folk revival. The focus in this period is on his folk contemporaries and influences, such as Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Pete Seeger, Dave Van Ronk and Joan Baez.

If you have any doubts about the consciousness and will applied to the creation of Bob Dylan's public persona, you need only look at a pair of photographs hanging above a collection of McCarthy-era social-engineering pamphlets.

The first is of a seated Woody Guthrie wearing a striped shirt and jacket, strumming a guitar with a cigarette hanging from his lower lip. His brow is furrowed in detached concentration, as if he's wrestling with an emotion on the guitar and watching it at the same time float away in a puff of tobacco smoke.

The second photo is of Dylan in his late teens, and the similarities are beyond uncanny. From the way he's holding his guitar, to the placement of the cigarette, to the all-but-identical striped shirt, it's as if Bob were mimicking every perceivable aspect of Woody's style. The only difference is a subtle distinction in expression, a kind of sweet sadness and vulnerability that's missing from the older, more weathered version.

Across from a battered cowboy hat with a ragged horsehair hatband that once belonged to Ramblin' Jack, and next to a copy of a Time Magazine cover sporting a painting of Joan Baez, a letter from Baez to her mother chronicles a meeting with Dylan in Upstate New York. He is referred to only as "you-know-who." The letter describes vaguely sexual encounters between the two of them and the fact that "you-know-who" is unabashedly dirty, smelly, long-haired and insane.

The point of interest is that the letter was written by "you-know-who" - Bob Dylan.

There's nothing but good humor and exuberance in his words, but it just goes to show that he seemed incapable of not continually making himself over to suit his own idealized image, even while simply having fun.

Past comfortable listening stations that allow you to hear selections from his early albums, along with a few rare tidbits, you'll find everything from a Lord Byron collection inscribed, inscrutably, "Hatfully yours" to Suze Rotolo, one of Dylan's girlfriends (she's the girl huddled close to him on the album cover of "Freewheelin'"), to rejected album cover photos, to some excepts from Phil Ochs' FBI files.

You then move from Dylan as topical folk songwriter to Dylan as rock 'n' roll icon, buckskin exhibit backdrops giving way to black biker leather as Bob dons sunglasses and pointy Beatles boots.

Here there are artifacts from his period with The Hawks (later The Band), his transition to electric instrumentation, and the codification of his new image through the films of D.A. Pennebacker. From Pennebacker's groundbreaking documentary "Don't Look Back," a camera and an editing viewfinder are displayed.

This is a period of upheaval for Dylan, during which he distanced himself from the folk revival. As he began writing more personal and esoteric lyrics, his message, paradoxically, became more universal and less inclined to sit comfortably within the confines of an established movement.

Be sure not to miss the object key to the cover of "Bringing It All Back Home" (the woman is Sally Grossman, the wife of his manager, not Dylan in drag, and the cat's name is Lord Growling) and one of Dylan's paintings from after his near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1966.

After viewing the artifacts, listening to the songs and watching the short films compiled specifically for this exhibit from footage to be used in the upcoming Dylan documentary directed by Martin Scorsese, one thing remains abundantly clear:

Bob Dylan is Bob Dylan, for better or for worse, and no amount of insight and investigation will truly dissemble the image or the myth.

Couched in mythic terms, this exhibit chronicles the Adventure and the Initiation of Dylan's own hero journey. It's all laid out before you, from the call to adventure, to the crossing of the first threshold, to the road of trials, to the meeting with the goddess (who takes many forms).

Jasen Emmons, the curator, provides some insight into the shaping of Bob Dylan as both a man and an icon, but in the end it's impossible to come to any conclusion other than that they are one and the same.

If anything, the exhibit demonstrates that Dylan himself was often unsure about the line separating myth from reality. He was able to survive and evolve as an artist and a human being by minimizing the distinction between the two. Drawing the boundary line is the work of fans, publicists, critics and scholars - and of us, the viewers of exhibits like Bob Dylan's American Journey.

Dylan couldn't have created his legend without us, and we could not have made a modern myth without him.

Bob Dylan's American Journey, 1956-1966, runs through Sept. 5, 2005, at EMP. For further information, visit or call EMP-LIVE.

Sean Molnar is a deejay and freelance writer living in Seattle.[[In-content Ad]]