The Bob Dylan Center: There’s Still Nobody Anywhere Quite Like the Jack of Hearts
TULSA — The Bob Dylan Center, which opened here last week, reminds us how deeply we should appreciate the best American songwriter of the last 60 years.
It also reminds us that if we ever start assuming we really know the guy behind all that songwriting, well, we’ll always be one too many mornings and a thousand miles behind.
Spread over 29,000 square feet in what was once the Tulsa Paper Factory, the Center offers what will be a rotating sample of some 100,000 personal items Dylan sold to the center in 2016.
These items range from early noodling on lines for “Like a Rolling Stone” to a snapshot of Dylan with Liberace, taken at a David Letterman taping in 1984.
On the lower of the Center’s two floors, items like these are woven into a more or less chronological narrative, much of it written by Dylan historian Sean Wilentz. The goal, largely realized, is to tell a story rather than create a museum-style focus on singular artifacts.
It’s a serious collection, with a second-floor “Reading Room” where most of the Dylan archives are reserved for scholars, researchers, writers and other people doing approved Dylan or Dylan-related projects.
Plain old visitors get a curated sample. Among Dylan’s songs, for instance, the opening exhibits focus on a half dozen, including “Chimes of Freedom,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Jokerman” and “Not Dark Yet.” These are not presented as necessarily his best songs, but as mileposts.
Accordingly, the accompanying texts emphasize the impact of the songs, or Dylan’s own take on them. With “Not Dark Yet,” he said this was where he started to write “finished songs” — in contrast to his earlier work, which he called “blueprints for songs.”
That assessment may surprise some fans who consider a song like “Visions of Johanna” or “Every Grain of Sand” to be pretty much finished as is. But it dovetails with his habit over the years in concert of reworking arrangements and sometimes lyrics.
Almost totally absent here, finished or unfinished, is much of anything directly addressing Dylan’s personal life after high school. No tabloid details, nothing on his relationship with, say, Joan Baez, his first wife Sarah or any other women. There’s a charming wall-size picture of Dylan and Suze Rotolo, taken at the Freewheelin’ album cover photo session and left here to speak for itself.
Otherwise, the closest the Center treads to Dylan’s private life are cute get-well cards sent by fans after his 1966 motorcycle accident. Or postcards from Allen Ginsberg, in tiny but legible handwriting. Or the Christmas card sent by Paul McCartney, with a whimsical drawing next to the signature.
Dylan himself left drawings all over the pages on which he scribbled lyrics. You envision him almost absent-mindedly sketching a reindeer, or a nearby object, while he’s racing through his mental dictionary to find the right rhyme for “feel.”
The drawings, logically enough, aren’t as riveting as the early incarnations of the lyrics themselves. Some writers hate the idea of having their first drafts revealed, but Dylan’s have circulated for years, and if it ever bothered him, it doesn’t now.
Maybe when a piece of hotel stationery with early “Rolling Stone” lines sold in 2014 for $2.05 million, you come to accept the upside of unveiling the creative process.
For those who can’t afford $2.05 million, the Center provides a glimpse of “Rolling Stone” lines that didn’t make the final cut, like “All the friends that want to brag / Turned out to be just method actors in drag.”
Good call to have refined that one, though it does capture the song’s pointed tone.
“Like a Rolling Stone” is one of the songs on which Dylan reflects in various video interviews here. He sounds calm and serious, in contrast to other videos from his surreal early press conferences. His strategy then, he says now, was “absurd answers” to “stupid questions.”
He’s right about the questions.
Given his gift with words, the exhibition wisely spotlights a number of his remarks over the years, which might seem random but like so many Dylan songs end up making his own singular kind of total sense.
In fact, just hopscotching from one remark to another would be a good Dylan 101 course. Two samples:
“You’ve got yesterday, today and tomorrow all in the same room, and there’s very little you can imagine not happening.”
“I try to live within that line between despondency and hope.”
In the videos, he explains the wildly disparate imagery of “Desolation Row” by saying, “I started writing songs before I understood why or how.”
He says he went electric because “My songs are pictures and the band makes the sound of the pictures.”
He explains his early reaction to fame by saying, “It was mystifying to be called a genius. It’s a role I couldn’t play.”
Much of the material at the Center will be known to some extent by those who have read the hundreds of books and thousands of articles on Dylan over the past 60 years. This is a nice distilled aggregation that cuts through much of the clutter that has sometimes taken the Dylan discussion away from what matters, which is his work.
By putting the music front and center, whether through the history of a song or a vintage video in the screening room, these two floors confirm how breathtaking that body of work has been.
In that sense, the artifacts can relax and be pure historical fun, like the leather jacket he wore at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival where he famously “went electric.”
Yet those artifacts are unavoidably part of larger stories. With Newport ’65, it has been repeated for decades that Pete Seeger was so outraged by Dylan’s betrayal of folk purity that he threatened to get an ax and cut the power cable.
A postcard from Seeger to Dylan frames that moment a bit differently. Seeger did make that threat, he writes, but his outrage had nothing to do with Dylan playing the electric guitar. It was the fact that the sound system was so bad no one could hear the songs properly.
Plugging in? No big deal. “If Howling Wolf could go electric,” Seeger wrote in the postcard, “why not Dylan?”
Dylan himself says he never approached music as something that could be sold to the disinclined. “You either pick up on it,” he says in one video, “or you don’t.”
Still, the gift shop doesn’t just offer $40 T-shirts, vinyl LPs, the DIY manual “How To Make Your Own Tambourine” and most of those hundreds of Dylan books. It also sells Dylan influences and faves like “The Grapes of Wrath,” “On the Road,” “The Odyssey” and Bertolt Brecht. Read and learn.
The Bob Dylan Center presents nice pieces in a rich puzzle we must accept we will never finish.
(Bob Dylan Center, 116 East Reconciliation Way, Tulsa, Oklahoma. 918–392–3483. Web: bobdylancenter.com.)