Forget for a moment the galling irony that the Grammys, which snubbed Bob Dylan for decades in his prime, now is honoring him in his rock-star senescence with an impressive exhibit at the industry’s eponymous museum. Consider it a mea culpa, an embarrassed my-bad-bro gesture, by a music-industry behemoth that pretty much denied the 1960s were happening even as the era unfolded.
The exhibit on display until May 15, “Bob Dylan, Photographs by Daniel Kramer,” captures the elusive, highly inscrutable bard at the height of his powers and popularity, those heady years of 1964 and ’65 when he recorded a troika of classic albums – “Bringing It All Back Home,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Blonde on Blonde” (made in ’65; released in ’66) – with amphetamenic rapidity. Nothing, save perhaps the Beatles, so transformed rock ’n’ roll in ways both obvious (the rise of the album over the single) and subtle (the onset of poetic, surrealistic lyrics) and only later made apparent (the genre launching of singer-songwriters, Americana artists, new folk revival).
That period of Dylan’s career deserves a special place at the Grammy Museum, and the generous spread on the second floor of the building adjacent the Staples Center finally does The Master justice.
But what’s most striking about Kramer’s 50 black-and-white photos, augmented by rare footage of baby-faced Dylan in concert as well as nods to his career in toto, is not so much that it captures a semi-reclusive artist both at work and in repose. Rather, it’s that even with unprecedented access to Dylan at home in New York City and on tour stops far and wide, even when Kramer manages to catch him in unguarded moments when all personas are seemingly laid to rest, Dylan still comes off as intriguingly ambiguous, as hard to grasp as a butterfly.
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Kramer, a veteran New York magazine photographer, followed Dylan for 366 days during the most volatile time in the musician’s career – acoustic-to-electric transition – and perhaps was able to gain such access, if not clear insight, because he was not overly familiar with Dylan’s work before his assignment. “Being a photographer,” Kramer once told Time magazine, “my response was – that’s someone you want to photograph.”
Look at these photos, individually, and you see many Dylans: Dylan the ectomorphic ascetic sucking on an eternal cigarette and staring pensively into the distance; Dylan the preening poet with harmonica slung around his neck and metaphoric laurels on his head; Dylan the goof laughing and cutting up in the studio; Dylan the writer bent at the waist over crumpled notepaper, pen poised and face pinched; Dylan the suitor, making even the uber-serious Joan Baez smile and, later, showing tenderness with wife Sara, who really did have sad eyes, incredibly sad eyes, ballad-inducing sad eyes.
Mostly, though, there is Dylan the unknowable, Dylan the reticent. A man who embraced ambiguity, often marinated by a practiced ambivalence, whose willfully enigmatic ways only heightened his allure.
Those were days, understand, long before rock stars (and everyone else, for that matter) never had an unspoken thought, before every impulse was announced on Twitter and every Instagram-posted selfie amounted to a marketing ploy to move more units. It was a time before rockers licensed their music to everything from soda pop to life insurance (something to which a more wizened Dylan himself would later succumb, acknowledging it with a “Times They Are a-Changin’” shrug and direct deposit into his bank account).
So, back then, we didn’t know everything there was to know about Dylan, which made us all the more intrigued, and which ushered in the species of professional Dylanologists, men who made their living digging through his trash cans for something, anything to solve the riddle of Bob.
That aspect of Dylan is what makes the exhibit of Kramer’s photographs so arresting. It’s especially true of the shots of Dylan looking straight into the camera. Ordinarily, you’d think a full-on, eyes-wide-open image of Dylan would reveal much – windows to the soul, and all that. These, though, conceal more than reveal. These portraits are Rorschach tests for his admirers. What is he thinking? Is it all an act or are we just projecting what we want onto his work, his life, his very face?
One of the first photos you’ll see is an extreme close-up – like, counting-individual-pores close – of Dylan in Woodstock in 1964. It’s not the Mona Lisa smile of his that enthralls, or at least, not entirely. Nor is it the spray of freckles near the bridge of his nose, which startles you in the realization of just how young Dylan was (my God, only 23 then).
It’s just looking into those eyes – famously blue, of course, but appearing ravenesque in the black-and-white image – that mesmerizes. A lyrical snippet runs through your head, as you look into the vacuum of his eyes, and wonder if Dylan, too, is a vacuum, or just a vessel in which we all invest with our projections of him.
Another telling photo, this one taken backstage in a New York concert hall, shows Dylan in the foreground, and, in a mirror, a reflection of Kramer, camera covering one eye, the other squinting. Dylan’s hair is mussed as usual, as if all those fevered thoughts and verbal images were expressed in every wild follicle. He’s got his right eyebrow arched, his right hand on his hip like some androgynous ingenue, lips pursed in either mild irritation or spirited role-playing. Such a rock star, you think. But is that what he’s trying to convey? Is he that calculating, or just fooling? No answer can be found in his pose.
A man staring at this particular photo at the exhibit, one Vic Glassberg of Alexandria, Va., shook his head when a guy with a notepad next to him wondered aloud, “Which Dylan are we seeing here?”
“No, I don’t think he’s putting too much over on us,” said Glassberg, 71, a Dylan fan since close to the beginning, 1962. “There’s a certain point where artists put on a persona, but he for so long had not kowtowed to conventional wisdom or conventional taste. So that leads me to believe that what he shows is what he wants to, period. There’s nothing calculating about it.”
It’s up to the listener/viewer, then, to assign meaning to Dylan. Like a post-modern Barbie doll with snap-on wardrobe ensembles, he can be whichever Dylan we want: folky Bob, political Bob, electric Bob, reclusive Bob, alt-country Bob, born-again Bob, bluesman Bob, craggy crooner Bob.
One museum-goer who has experienced Dylan in every iteration is Chuck Nordell, of Green Bay, Wis., who was wandering the exhibit hallways reveling in the 1964-65 Bob. But it got him thinking of an even earlier Bob, the little-known newcomer of 1962, the kid brought up on stage in Boston one night by Baez. Nordell was in the audience for that performance, and he said the crowd “tittered” at Dylan’s, uh, unique voice, which so incensed Baez that she refused to play an encore.
“He was just so, so different that people didn’t know what to think,” Nordell said. “He’s always had a little disdain for the idea of celebrity. When people tried to put profound meaning to his lyrics, he’d just say, ‘It’s just there; figure it out yourself.’ He never wanted to explain anything.”
True. The burden’s all on us.
Is that Kramer photo of Dylan perched on a branch of a tree, with a short-pants tot staring up at him, a statement on staying forever young? What about that shot of Dylan leaning over a billiards table in a smoky Kingston, N.Y., bar, horned-rim glasses slipping down the bridge of his nose? Dylan as everyman, or Dylan slumming? What to make of a photo of a Bob and Sara at a Woodstock “shack” in 1965, a copy of the mystical Bhavan’s Journal near a book called “American Needlework”?
Make what you will of these compelling, conflicting images. Best to accept them as they are, don’t question because the answer, my friend, is … well, you know the rest.
Bob Dylan Photographs by Daniel Kramer
Where: Grammy Museum at LA Live, 800 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. weekdays; 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. weekends
Cost: $12.95; $11.95 for seniors and students; $10.95 for youths and military
More info: www.grammymuseum.org