An exhibition of the iconic 2017 Nobel Laurette at Tel Aviv University
For those of us who grew up in South Africa in the sixties, the music of Bob Dylan was prescient. Although Apartheid was being brutally entrenched each day by Word and Boot, the lyrics of this Jewish boy from America was giving encouragement that The Times They Are a’changin’
There was a reason that a songwriter for the first time in in Nobel Prize history won the coveted prize for ‘Literature’. It recognised the power of WORDS. There have been many that dismissed his ability to sing, that “he has a terrible voice”, but who could dismiss the power and poignancy of his lyrics? His ‘voice’ not only influenced the generation of his time – but it fueled the intellectual engines to propel change – for music provided the power to share ideas, to conquer fears and to encourage people to stand up for what they believe.
Many would argue that music provided courage for the people of South Africa to face the brutality and defy the Apartheid regime.
The Bob Dylan Exhibition at Tel Aviv’s ‘Beit Hatfutsot – Museum of the Jewish People’ – presents the iconic songwriter and singer in all his complexity through film, photographs, images, posters, exhibits and music. At 75, Bob Dylan’s music and his message remain – as in the title of his 1973 song – “Forever Young”.
Again, how prescient!
The curator and organizers could have had no idea that Bob Dylan would be the 2016 Nobel Laureate in the category of literature when they began planning this exhibition more than two years ago. Few in the world – including Dylan himself – would have given it a second thought! “After all, no musician and songwriter had ever won this award before,” says Assia Reuben, the Director of Public Relations at Beit Hatfutsot. However, as with so much about the life and music of Dylan, “expect the unexpected”, said Rueben. In the muse’s own words – The Times They Are a’changin’, even at the Swedish Academy responsible for choosing the Nobel Laurates.
So, what was the motivation to hold this exhibition?
“It was always only a question of when not if, before the Museum of the Jewish People recognized this most inspirational Jew,” said Rueben. “After all, way back in 1999, Time Magazine included Dylan in its “100 most influential people of the 20th century”, describing him as a poet, artist, social commentator, and the leading spirit of the anti-culture generation.”
With a smile, she adds “We Israelis and the Swedish Academy are in full agreement.”
Times are a’changin’!”
Dylan the Revolutionary
I found the 1962 cover that stated it all – a photo of baby-faced Dylan clutching his folk guitar.
On his debut album in March 1962, Bob Dylan was unveiled to a largely disinterested United States. The country – at war in Vietnam and at war with itself – would change its tune as Dylan would literally change his. It was a characteristic of Dylan that was not always welcomed.
A portrayal of Dylan and his fans falling out of sync is revealed in fascinating video recordings beneath a hanging electric guitar.
In 1965 an electric guitar was the last image identifiable with Dylan.
The recordings are of interviews of fans leaving a Dylan concert shaken and disgusted.
“…I don’t know what he is trying to do? Appealing to popular tastes…I think it’s a bad thing…He has prostituted himself…”
Another commented: “I don’t think the spirit of the Dylan songs is being portrayed with this incredible corny group behind him. You want to hear a pop group, you just pay money to go see the Beetles, I pay money to come to see Bob Dylan play folk music – I’m disappointed!”
More extreme: “I judge Dylan by the higher standards, you know…and this was rubbish….”
What brought about this public rejection of Dylan’s direction?
On the afternoon of July 24th in the summer of ‘65, Dylan performed on an acoustic guitar at a songwriter’s workshop at Newport Folk Festival. Other workshops emptied as people rushed to hear folk music’s most famous voice. The following evening, Dylan took to Newport’s main stage dressed like a rock star armed with an electric guitar and a rock band he had assembled the night before. When some booed his flouting of the acoustic traditions of the festival, Dylan simply played louder having electrified the folk song “Maggie’s Farm”.
No longer content with merely singing “The times were A’changin”, he had decided to change the times himself.
Dylan’s music would never be the same again and his fans would ‘change with the times’.
The Beit Hatfutsot exhibition is indebted to Elliot Landy who in 1968 was a young photographer assigned by the Saturday Evening Post to shoot a cover image of Dylan who then was at the height of his fame, while Landy was a relatively unknown photographer. Landy got the job after shooting his first record-album assignment, the Band’s Music from Big Pink, which got noticed by a friend of Dylan’s. The meeting spawned a friendship, yielded an album cover, and left a series of intimate photos – all on current exhibit – of Dylan with his young family living in Woodstock, New York.
Most illuminating was how Landy – who began photographing the anti-Vietnam war movement and the underground music culture in New York City in 1967 culminating in his iconic shots of the 1969 Woodstock Festival – first engaged with Dylan.
“Photography wasn’t allowed during Bob Dylan’s concert in Carnegie Hall in 1967, so I hid my camera in my date’s handbag. I snapped away, trying to keep it a secret by only clicking my shutter when Dylan was playing loud. When I was spotted, I quickly stashed the roll in my date’s bag and wound some blank film into the camera. Dylan’s manager ripped out the blank film and we escaped with the pictures. That was the first time I saw Dylan – and the last time I saw my lady friend.”
On ‘Being Jewish’
Apart from the exhibition exploring the ‘the social revolution’ that Dylan spearheaded, and his influence on music across the globe – including on musicians in Israel – it also reveals Dylan’s own complex relationship with his Jewish identity.
As Beit Hatfusot’s curator, Asaf Galay reveals in an interview, “Everybody knows Bob Dylan – he has a persona, and it’s really important to him to keep that enigmatic persona. But there is also the man, Robert Zimmerman, brought up in a kosher home and attending a Zionist summer camp.” Some say that it was at Camp Herzl where he first performed in public. “He went up to the roof and started to play,” says curator Galay. “He wasn’t the ‘Fiddler on the Roof’; he was the guitarist on the roof.”
There are many aspects of the ‘Zimmerman’ rather than the ‘Dylan’ – the name he took as a salute to the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas – that over the years, manifested both in song and deed.
Biblical references pop up frequently in Dylan’s lyrics.
The first, the title-track of Highway 61 Revisited, opens with a retelling of the Binding of Isaac, changing the location of the sacrifice from Mount Moriah in Jerusalem to Highway 61 which runs from Duluth, Minnesota, where Dylan grew up in the 1940s and 1950s down to New Orleans, Louisiana.
Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
…Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killing done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61”
Is it coincidence or is it revealing that Dylan’s father’s name is Abraham?
This was followed a few years later by one of his all-time masterpieces ‘All Long the Watchtower’ largely based on a passage from Isaiah 21:1-10 that tells of the fall of Babylon, but whose striking imagery is refashioned by Dylan into something more obscure and dreamlike.
From the Tanach (Hebrew Bible):
“Prepare the table, watch in the watchtower, eat, drink: arise ye princes, and prepare the shield. For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth…”
To Dylan’s poetic retelling:
“All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.”
Also surprising to many visitors, is that the song and title of the exhibition – “Forever Young” – was written as a lullaby for Dylan’s eldest son Jesse. His song relates a father’s hopes that his child will remain healthy and happy. It opens with the lines:
“May the Lord bless you and guard you / May the Lord make His face shed light upon you.”
In September 20, 1983, with his father beside him, Jesse celebrated his Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, officiated by Rabbi Moshe Schlass, in charge of Bar Mitzvahs for the Ministry of Religion at the Kotel.
Dylan had come to an end with his infatuation with Christianity – musically represented in his 1979 album Slow Train Coming – and was on a return journey to his roots. This was visually evident in the photograph of Dylan with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
I saw people crowding around this photograph discussing it in disbelief – puzzled at the man who jettisoned his Jewish surname, and who sang – “Your sons and your daughters/Are beyond your command/Your old road is rapidly agin’..”– cozying up to the Rebbe!
It may all have appeared incongruous, but the 1980s saw Dylan becoming increasingly close to the Chabad movement. What followed could hardly have been a more resounding endorsement of the State of Israel than his 1983 song “Neighborhood Bully”. The lyrics equate Israel with an “exiled man”.
“The neighborhood bully been driven out of every land,
He’s wandered the earth an exiled man.
Seen his family scattered, his people hounded and torn,
He’s always on trial for just being born.”
I stood listening to this over thirty-year-old recording as if for the first time. I wondered if others around me had previously understood its meaning.
“Well, the neighborhood bully, he’s just one man
His enemies say he’s on their land
They got him outnumbered about a million to one
He got no place to escape to, no place to run
He’s the neighborhood bully”
The lyrics are an impassioned response to critics of both Israel and the Jewish people that tend to lay all the world’s ills upon this tiny nation and their tiny nation-state.
Dylan is proud that, despite the deeds and verbal abuse slung at his People over the millennia, Israel survives “on a hill” – standing tall and defiant as evident in his closing lines:
“Neighborhood bully, standing on a hill
Running out the clock, time standing still
The Israel Connection
Dylan visited Israel several times in the late 1960s and 1970s and even took steps toward joining kibbutz Givat Haim in 1983. While that fell through, what held were his strong ties to the country.
He played three shows in Israel – in 1987, 1993 and 2011 – and while the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement pressed him to cancel his most recent performance, he ignored it.
Even more recently, Israelis can thank Dylan for the 2014 Rolling Stones concert in Tel Aviv, the band’s first visit to the country. According to Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood, Dylan gave them the idea.
“He was coming off stage and said, ‘We’re going to Tel Aviv’,” Wood told Israel’s Channel 2 at the time. “He had a big smile on his face and said he loved it there.”
That set the Stones rolling, reminiscent of Dylan’s – ‘Like a Rolling Stone’!
A fascinating insight into Dylan’s humility was revealed in a quote from photographer Landy, when he asked him about politics. “He told me he wasn’t very interested in politics and didn’t know much about it. I was shocked because his music was the Magna Carta of radical political thought in the sixties. I asked him how he wrote those songs if he didn’t know anything, and he said that he didn’t create those ideas but simply picked up what was in the air, and gave it back to people in another form.”
I left the exhibition in a January downpoor. It was a blustering winter’s day with the wind howling and hail pelting the Tel Aviv University campus. Rushing to my car without an umbrella, I could not resist humming the words to another of Dylan’s masterpieces:
“Shelter from the Storm.”