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Art creeps into our lives. It sneaks its way all the way to our darkest vices and secrets. And back.
It just so happened that a few days after I first saw Johan Svensson's exhibition at gallery Ping Pong, I got the chance to interview one of the people from his long series of homemade album covers.
The man from "Highway 61 Revisited."
No, not Dylan. The guy standing behind Dylan on one of music history's coolest album covers. Bob Neuwirth. The anonymous man whose jeans-covered legs and wrinkled t-shirt can be seen behind Dylan on one of the most famous and most reproduced album covers of all time. He has a camera in his hand.
Before I saw the exhibition I did not know it was Neuwirth's legs I had been looking at. The Dylanites of the world have no doubt always known, but not me. All I knew was that the photograph was taken on the front stairs of The Breakers, a mansion in Newport, Rhode Island.
Everytime I took the album down from the shelf, I wondered who the man behind Dylan was.
Neuwirth was constantly at Dylan's side during the 60's and 70's. You can see them together in D.A. Pennebaker's documentary "Don't Look Back" at London Heathrow airport one day in May, 1965. They scream a version of "London Bridge Is Falling Down" and seem to be just as stoned as usual.
Neuwirth was with Dylan the first time Dylan heard The Byrds' electric version of "Mr. Tambourine Man." He comforted Joan Baez and other former girlfriends and introduced Dylan to new ones, among them Andy Warhol's star, Edie Sedgwick. Interesting people were always drawn to Neuwirth. Both Patti Smith and Sam Shepard were brought into Dylan's inner circle by Neuwirth.
Of course Neuwirth is the man behind Dylan.
And if it were not been for Johan's exhibition I would never have known.
Neuwirth did not want to talk about his time with Dylan. Maybe this was because they are still friends. Or maybe he is saving his memories for the biography we all want to read. Because he is clearly interested in art himself I tired to coax him into speaking about Dylan. I mentioned I had just been to an exhibition of new "takes" on, among other works, a series of classic Dylan album covers. Suddenly, his "memory loss" was forgotten and he told me that it was him standing behind Dylan on the cover of "Highway 61 Revisited".
I tried to coax him further with the suggestion that there could have been a little more of his body in Johan's interpretation of the cover. Johan could have shown Neuwirth to us all. But he did not even seem to understand what I had said.
He was right, of course. Johan's goal was certainly not to break down the mystery of the photograph. To suddenly show us the whole "man behind" on the cover of "Highway 61 Revisited" would do the world a disservice. Instead, Johan's loving reproductions of the album covers - his enormous, sympathetically messy, manically put together work - deepen the mystery. And the irony and the humor. Johan's work makes me read even more into the wild, disorderly thoughts and fantasies in those faces, environments and societies.
He humanizes and defuses the bright detail-rich surfaces in a way that makes it easier to be taken in by them.
And he makes me reflect even more over my own, similarly manic record collection.
We record collectors - just like book and art collectors - build an important parallel between our collections and our selves. We gather our personalities and place them on shelves in our living rooms and up on our walls so that everybody can see exactly who we are.
Johan draws his favorite album covers - and a lot of them - but he also allows us to look into his soul. That might seem ordinary, or slightly embarrassing, but it still comes uncomfortably close to the truth.
That is easy to identify with. Especially if you have nearly fifteen thousand old vinyl records on your own shelves.
Or if you once broke up with a woman just because you found a Genesis record on a shelf in her living room...
Lennart Persson, Music Journalist