TULSA, OKLA. — Standing in the doorway, I heard Bob Dylan’s voice in the distance. His words beckoned me to turn the corner, and then I realized: There were no other visitors to the Bob Dylan Center.
It was the day before the May 10 opening of the new $10 million museum/archive, where his voice emanated from a splashing multi-screen installation for an audience of exactly one.
A rare commemoration for a living – and still active – artist, the center is called the “BDC” on t-shirts and hoodies. How bland. And confusing. (CBD?) This big place needs a name that sings – how about “The Bob”?
I was having a solitary experience at The Bob, not unlike how I engage with his recordings. Absorbing lyrics, responding to rhythm or melody, lost in my thoughts.
How does it feel to be alone, in the middle of two Bobness stories?
Immersive and exclusive. Crushing. There was also pride – that one of us had dreams and visions he couldn’t achieve in the land of 10,000 lakes, so he reached out to the world. Today, the living legend, who turns 81 on Tuesday, left us tens of thousands of items from his personal archives.
What a saver he was: Artifacts like the leather jacket he wore when he went electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Priceless ephemera like a 1964 letter of admiration from Johnny Cash and a postcard from apology from Pete Seeger. And oddities like the autographs he reluctantly signed for a member of the 1981 band in three wise ways — with his right hand, his left hand, and a pen in his mouth.
There are four drafts of his first book, “Tarantula,” and three pocket notebooks with lyrics to 1975’s “Blood on the Tracks” — the kind of items that will draw dylanologists to Tulsa. Some are on display, others available by appointment in the archives (with white gloves).
The center’s 29,000 square feet are packed with Bobabilia: performance footage and interviews, posters and paintings, articles and essays, bootleg albums and excerpts. Just no Grammys or trophies of any kind.
It’s Dylan: Put him on a pedestal but don’t treat him like he’s there.
The new spot is in an old brick warehouse on a street named Reconciliation Way, two doors down from the Woody Guthrie Center in this once booming oil town known for musicians such as Bob Wills, the Gap Band and Leon Russell.
For three days before the official opening, I plunged into a sea of Bob with other VIP visitors.
There was Dick Cohn from St. Paul, who has known Dylan since he was 14 at Camp Herzl in Webster. Wis.
“I think I took that picture!” Cohn beamed as he showed off a snapshot of Herzl campers, including his pals Larry Kegan and Bobby Zimmerman (now Dylan) with a guitar.
There was Bill Pagel, the obsessive Dylan collector who bought the singer’s childhood homes in Duluth and Hibbing, where Pagel now lives. He walked me through The Bob, showing items from his massive collection. There’s an enlargement of a matchbook from 10 O’Clock Scholar, a Minneapolis coffeehouse where Dylan played in 1959-60; a 1978 Dylan tour jacket and a photo of his own great-niece reading a children’s book about Dylan.
Pagel is particularly fond of his surreptitious Super-8 film of Dylan at a 1980 concert, roaring through “Groom Left Standing at the Altar” in San Francisco with guest guitarist Mike Bloomfield, who died three months later.
“The film ran out and I had to put on another film,” Pagel recalls. “Fortunately, in the end, [Bloomfield] walks over to Bob and gives him a hug. And I understood.”
There was Kevin Odegard, a proud Minnesotan who, in a simple twist of fate, played on Dylan’s iconic “Blood on the Tracks” sessions in Minneapolis in December 1974. The acoustic guitar that Odegard strummed on “Tangled Up in Blue” – and his gold plaque for the album – are on display at the Bob.
“I was the outlier in my little town of Princeton,” Odegard said as he stood beside his framed guitar. “I had Bob right away. He’s an older version of the kid I felt inside of me.”
This weekend, Mark Davidson was masked and wired. As chief archivist and curator, he has researched and collected items since Dylan sold his personal archives in 2016 for $20 million to the George Kaiser Family Foundation to establish this center.
“Even though Bob kind of walked away from [his early life], it’s a thread that runs through his work,” Davidson said. “When I think of the Upper Midwest, I think of people who aren’t sighted, who aren’t mince words, and who have an ethical sense of what what does work mean? They are diligent, hardworking and dedicated to their craft.”
Venerable singer Taj Mahal stopped by the ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ exhibit.
“You’ve heard the songs, you’ve seen them live, you have to read stuff in Rolling Stone or Crawdaddy or Spin or Mojo,” Mahal told me, “but that stuff is invaluable because it expands what you know about a person.”
Who’s that kid in a Will Rogers hat and Buddy Holly glasses, reading a book by the stairs?
Max Nobel, a recent university graduate, was helping to promote the center’s reading alcove, organized by American Poet Laureate Joy Harjo. She selected “Moby Dick,” “Grapes of Wrath,” collections of Allen Ginsberg and James Baldwin, and all kinds of books about Bob, including “Dylanologists,” the Nobel pick that day.
Author Lewis Hyde saw his own book ‘The Gift’ on the shelves. A retired professor and graduate of the University of Minnesota, he has a few words to say about that school’s most famous dropout.
“Fame is not his friend,” observed Hyde. “He’s not interested in his career story. It’s a snapshot of 70 years of hard work.”
Or as a quote from Dylan himself states on a wall: “Life isn’t about finding yourself or finding anything. Life is about creating yourself and creating things.”
Hyde curated a creativity exhibit that features vintage photos of Jerry Schatzberg, including powerful portrayals of Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones in drag and, of course, Dylan. Schatzberg shot the cover for “Blonde on Blonde,” Dylan’s revered 1966 double album.
Rock Hall of Famer Elvis Costello, who performed as part of the opening festivities, programmed an interactive jukebox featuring 162 Dylan songs, influences and performers. While chatting with a handful of music journalists, Costello said he once discussed songwriting with Dylan at a party at videographer Chuck Statler’s Minneapolis loft around 1982.
Costello told Dylan he feared fame would keep him from stepping aside to people-watch — a necessity in songwriting. “I was naive enough to ask that,” he said. “It was good that he took the time. I don’t remember what he said, but it was so weird because everyone in the room was getting quieter and quieter and trying to listen, and then it all stopped and Bob said, ‘I have to go.'”
Another visitor to the center, Minnesota singer-songwriter and friend of Dylan’s, Gene LaFond, also remembers the party: “Bob must have stayed two hours talking to Elvis. Two of his children were with him and they knew they were hiding under a table. “
There are lots of things for the kids at the Bob. They could dig the interactive devices that stream music and interviews, and a conspicuous digital display that flips through drafts of “Tangled Up in Blue.”
In a recreation of a recording studio, visitors can listen to Dylan talk to his producers and musicians during the sessions. You can hear several approaches to the song “Mississippi” and play the engineer, adjusting the volume for vocals and various instruments.
All that and more for $12 ($10 for students and people 55 and over; free for 17 and under)—a modest fee for a museum.
A few quibbles: The first floor story timeline is too heavy on enlarged reproductions instead of the original artifacts. Barely three explanatory kiosks for 92 uncaptioned displays on the second-floor archive wall are impractical; a printed list must be provided. More seats for tired museum legs would also be welcome.
Barry Duffy and Lauren Sheffer, two opening day visitors dressed in t-shirts proclaiming their Gopher State roots, were two Bob lovers with no complaints.
“I loved the interactivity of the whole center,” said Duffy, now retired in Florida. “And I love how Dylan was never satisfied. He was always striving.”
“Always creating,” Sheffer quipped.
“We just scratched the surface in two hours,” he said.
“We will definitely be back,” she said.
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