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This place rocks

Dylan exhibit covers it all, backed up by Orbinson, Petty, Keys, Outkast . . .

Email|Print| Text size + By Steve Morse
Globe Correspondent / July 16, 2006

CLEVELAND -- A Led Zeppelin tune boomed through the courtyard as I entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum . ``Good times, bad times, you know I've had my share," sang Zep's Robert Plant . The line summed up the honesty of the music -- and certainly applied to the artists enshrined in this stunning, pyramid-shaped site on the scenic shore of Lake Erie.

Between 450,000-500,000 pilgrims visit this futuristic-looking museum each year, drawn by seven floors of exhibits that trace rock from its barroom beginnings to its stadium peaks. There are added reasons to make the trek this summer because of a spectacular, two-story exhibit on Bob Dylan (entitled ``Bob Dylan's American Journey 1956-1966 "), plus stirring new tributes to Roy Orbison, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, and George Harrison and Ravi Shankar's Concert for Bangladesh.

From the moment you walk in, you are overwhelmed by the immensity of the place. Hanging from the ceiling are the Trabant cars that U2 once dangled from the roof of their stadium stage. And nearby is the giant, hot-dog-shaped prop the members of Phish sat in as they were hoisted above a Boston Garden crowd.

But my focus this time was on the new Dylan exhibit and I was not disappointed. Before his vocal cords were ravaged by time, Dylan was truly the voice of his generation. Not to take anything away from his latter-day persona -- some of his concerts are still compelling -- but they pale next to his mid-'60s heyday celebrated here.

Early Dylan songs permeate the exhibit, pumped out of interactive listening stations that contain the entirety of the classic albums ``Highway 61 Revisited " and ``Blonde on Blonde ." Continuous concert clips are shown in an adjacent film room, while smaller viewing booths air footage from D.A. Pennebaker's ``Don't Look Back" (compiled from a 1965 British tour ) and Martin Scorsese's recent Dylan documentary for PBS.

But it's the memorabilia that commands the most attention. There are 175 pieces from 32 sources, notably from Joan Baez, once his girlfriend. She includes a letter to her mother that was comically written by Dylan himself, pretending to be Baez. He describes her new lover by saying, ``We have such FUN. Wow, he takes baths and everything!"

The happy duo is pictured at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963. ``They were folk music's glamorous couple," reads the photo caption. ``Baez gave Dylan class and he gave her sex appeal."

The exhibit starts with Dylan's boyhood in Hibbing, Minn. There's even a wall covered with 1,500 pounds of iron ore chips, emblematic of Hibbing's central industry. And, of course, there are some of Dylan's guitars, including the Martin acoustic that he played at Gerde's Folk City in Greenwich Village in 1961. Also on display are hand written lyrics to ``Like a Rolling Stone ," and several autographed album covers on which Dylan wrote not just his name, but some of the better-known lyrics, one being ``Don't follow leaders, watch the parking meters."

His high school yearbook is on display, as is his schoolboy, 22-page essay on John Steinbeck 's ``The Grapes of Wrath ." Writes Dylan: ``Does John Steinbeck sympathize with his charac ters? I think he does and now I will try to prove my theory." His teacher, however, grades the paper a B and writes, ``I think more could have been done with this, don't you?"

The exhibit does a great job of showing Dylan's early musical influences and features mini-exhibits on two of his heroes, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Dylan first moved to New York in hopes of meeting Guthrie. Dylan soon appeared on a compilation album (using the fictitious name Blind Boy Grunt ) released by Broadside magazine , but actually made his recording debut playing harmonica on a Harry Belafonte disc.

Folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary put Dylan on the map by doing his protest song ``Blowin' in the Wind," which hit No. 2 on the pop charts in 1963. And the rest was a fantasy ride for the artist, who made his first album for just $402. It wasn't long before Dylan wanna bes were everywhere, among them the Byrds, Barry McGuire, and Donovan .

The Dylan exhibit, which runs through Sept. 7, marks the first time the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum didn't do its own curating, according to Jim Henke, a museum vice president. Instead it was curated by the Experience Music Project in Seattle, which signals a new era of friendship between the once-contentious institutions. (The Rock Hall has returned the favor by loaning various disco and reggae items to the Seattle museum.)

Viewing the Dylan mother lode is a day trip by itself, but not to be overlooked are the Orbison and Bangladesh tributes, which both run until the end of the year. Orbison is honored with a special room that contains personal items including wedding photos, performance contracts, and a personal date book that lists his second-to-last concert at the Channel Club in Boston, before he died of a heart attack in 1988.

Orbison's life was plagued by tragedy and that makes this a particularly affecting exhibit. He lost two sons in a fire in Nashville and lost his first wife, Claudette, in a car accident. As a big Orbison fan, I admit I was overcome when I saw her picture on the wall, inscribed with this note: ``To my beloved Roy, all my love forever."

The homage to 1971's Concert for Bangladesh is likewise riveting. A screening room shows the Madison Square Garden benefit performance with Harrison, Shankar, and friends -- including Dylan. There's a copy of a check made out to UNICEF for $243,418.50. Also fascinating are several donation letters from fans, including one from Mike Fortunato of South Weymouth, Mass., who writes, ``I have always been skeptical about giving to organized causes. But this I know will be going to help people, not paying for a mahogany desk in [somebody's] office."

No trip to the Rock Hall is complete without having lunch in the upstairs cafe that extends to an open-air balcony over Lake Erie. Afterward, I caught up with a curator, Howard Kramer, who showed me highlights of the Petty exhibit that has just opened. As fellow rock `n' roll fanatics, we pored through notebook after notebook of Petty's typed lyrics, to which he had made written changes. Initially, Petty didn't think he had enough items for an exhibit, Kramer said, but that's a typical response.

``What always happens when we approach an artist is that we hear, `Oh, he doesn't have anything,' " Kramer said. ``But pretty soon you're in their home closets and you've hit the vein."

The rest of the afternoon was spent viewing holdover exhibits that run the gamut from Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, to the ``Sound of Soul" (with an Al Green clergy robe on display), the Beatles (highlighted by a John Lennon report card where his science teacher complains that John ``spent most of his time devising witty remarks"), the Rolling Stones, the London/New York punk era, and the Seattle grunge movement. There's also a sprawling fashion exhibit boasting Madonna's bustier, a Dolce & Gabbana jacket from Alicia Keys , and a leather overcoat from Aerosmith's Joe Perry . Not to mention Ritchie Valens 's roller skates and a maroon suit from Andre 3000 of OutKast .

Another Led Zeppelin song blasted through the courtyard as I left, offering a perfect bookend to the day. With word of a new exhibit devoted to The Clash set to open in October, it appears there will continue to be exciting reasons to make this rock pilgrimage.

Contact Steve Morse, a freelance writer in Cambridge, at spmorse@gmail.com.

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