The Bob Dylan Center, which had its ribbon-cutting in Tulsa, Oklahoma’s arts district Tuesday morning, is very much a choose-your-own adventure place. The museum’s director, Steven Jenkins, says they tried to make its exhibition spaces equally interesting to “skimmers, swimmers and divers.” Another way to look at it would be that it’s for both big-picture-takers and squinters. Some will come in and be drawn to articles of clothing, like the leather jacket he wore at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 when he went electric. Others will literally get down on their knees and narrow their eyes to take in the sometimes minuscule cursive of his lyric scraps, and the handwriting that was a part of his constant revisions even after he eventually went Selectric.
Scholars can furrow their brows over why Dylan crossed out one line and inserted another in songs like “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Jokerman,” but there are a lot of aspects to what the Center has on display that are more tickling than Talmudic. Dylan’s silliest doodles? Christmas cards from the Beatles? An assortment of vintage bootleg LPs? A collection of fan mail that went unread from the mid-1960s until the 2020s? As is apropos for an artist who represented something different to every follower, there’s something for everyone here, whether you want to study his early paintings or his latter-day Western-wear stage suits. Here are 20 fun things to look for when you take Route 66 to the place where Dylan’s 60-year career is honored.
1. Dylan’s entry gates iron sculpture
The creator of “Cold Irons Bound” is hot for iron, and he has been for decades, as fans know. Dylan has been pretty hands-off with the museum beyond selling his archives six years ago, but he did do one thing specifically for the Center — a 15-foot tall sculpture he created last year. You don’t even have to pay to get in to see it — it’s right inside the front entrance, before you get to the ticket desk, right next to an equally tall photo of the younger Dylan in his best James Dean/Kerouac mode.
“Gates appeal to me because of the negative space they allow.,” Dylan is quoted as saying in accompanying text. “They can be closed, but at the same time they allow the seasons and breezes to enter and flow. They can shut you out or shut you in. And in some ways, there is no difference.”
2. Kevin Odegard’s “Blood on the Tracks” guitar
The Dylan album some fans consider his greatest, 1975’s “Blood on the Tracks,” famously represents two recording sessions with two different sets of musicians, in New York and then his native Minneapolis. Kevin Odegard was the Minnesota picker who got drafter to play guitar on the five tracks culled from the latter sessions, although those musicians famously went uncredited on the album artwork for decades. A talented writer as well as guitarist, Odegard co-wrote a book about the album, “A Simple Twist of Fate: Bob Dylan and The Making of Blood on the Tracks.” Now he’s donated the Martin guitar that was used on “Tangled Up in Blue” and other tracks, along with the gold record he received.
“Why saddle our children with the idea that you’re going to have to come in and clean out our basement? No, we’re going to give these things where they’re counting,” he says. “Everybody gets to enjoy this. Roger McQueen came through and played it — what better gift could I get?” Odegard was high on the Center as he toured it over the weekend: “The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame can do what it wants, but this thing is enormous and stands alone.”
3. Elvis Costello’s Dylan (and friends) jukebox
Costello chose 162 songs for an electronic jukebox that you could easily spend all day going through, if only the Center had put a chair next to it. (That they didn’t was presumably deliberate, to make sure others get a turn.) It includes not just Dylan’s own songs but those of the heroes who influenced him and covers that came after. Eventually the jukebox is expected to have other celebrity curators, but it’s hard to imagine anyone besting the breadth in Costello’s selections. Some of the sequential selections are obvious: Merle Haggard’s “Workin’ Man Blues” is followed by Dylan’s “Workingman’s Blues #2″; Charley Patton’s “High Water Everywhere, Pt. 1” is preceded by Dylan’s “High Water (for Charley Patton)”; “Song to Woody” is on the playlist next to Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” Outside choices range from “Why Try to Change Me Now,” a standard Dylan covered on a sort-of Frank Sinatra tribute album not too many years back, to Dylan covers including the Staple Singers’ “Masters of War,” Bryan Ferry’s “Positively 4th Street,” Dolly Parton’s “Don’t Think Twice” and — this one is good enough to maybe not even count as favoritism — Diane Krall’s “This Dream of You.”
“I was asked to do it and I thought, ‘That’s a great puzzle.’ It’s a party game for anybody isn’t it?” says Costello. “Somebody else will say, ‘Oh, you left that song out.’ I tried to represent the beautiful covers in other languages, the way that early on Bob’s songs traveled around the world in instrumentals and versions in Spanish and French and Italian. Then his lyrics wre denser in the mid– 60s and harder for people to transform them. And then again, around the time of ‘Time Out of Mind,’ those songs very much lent themselves to interpretations from very radically different vocalists — Tom Jones, Adele and people like that… I tried to represent all that. And a few of my favorite of the outtakes that really showed something different about the song, that I feel anyway. You might feel different; you might like the original better.”
4. Dylan’s Newport Folk Festival leather jacket
Actually, very few items of clothing are on display at the Center. But if you feel the hair standing up on your arms as you approach this one, it’s understandable — it may still have some electricity coursing through it. He wore it on July 25, 1965, when he famously turned on the juice at the Newport Folk Festival, alienating some fans in the audience who wanted the continuing likes of “Chimes of Freedom” were quite unprepared to rock out.
5. Pete Seeger belatedly tells Dylan why he asked him to turn it down
Next to the leather jacket is a note written from Seeger, the figurehead of Newport, to Dylan explaining why he tried valiantly to get the volume taken down a notch or 10 during the legendary festival set. The note was a slow train coming — though it’s undated, the exhibit materials say it was sent in the 1980s or later.
6. Mr. Tambourine Man’s tambourine
This didn’t come from the archives that the George Kaiser Family Foundation bought from Dylan, but was one of the first acquisitions that was made once it was clear a museum would be underway. It’s the tambourine that inspired “Mr. Tambourine Man,” although the instrument that belonged to Bruce Langhorne was really a Turkish frame drum with jingle bells affixed to the inside. Dylan had seen Langhorne play it around the Village prior to penning the 1964 tune, and the musician played on a number of Dylan’s sessions in the early ’60s. Fortunately, being a poet, the bard did not write “Mr. Modified Turkish Frame Drum Man.” Langhorne sold it to the Center shortly before dying in 2017.
7. Breaking down the stems on “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”
A small simulated studio that can hold a few people at a time in its “control room” offers four different Dylan A/V experiences at any given time, which will be replaced by others in future rotation. Right now, one of the highlights is the chance to turn four knobs and make your own mix of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” or just isolate individual tracks.
8. An aural history of “Mississippi”
In the same “studio” space, you can get a non-interactive history of how Dylan tried a number of times to cut the song “Mississippi” during the “Time Out of Mind” sessions in 1997 before finally abandoning it — until he went at it again a few years later for the “Love and Theft” album and immediately got what he wanted. Here’s the thing: Subjectively speaking, I find the abandoned arrangements that he tried earlier to be livelier and a lot more fun than the perfectly fine version he eventually came up with. Which makes me think that the “Time Out of Mind”-centric “Bootleg Series” boxed set, whenever they get around to releasing one, will be a monster.
9. Christmas cards from the Beatles
Dylan ran into three out of four admiring Beatles (minus Paul McCartney) when he was playing the Isle of Wight Festival in 1969. Later that year, he got Christmas cards from three out of four Beatles (minus Ringo Starr) and their families. George Harrison’s is the most playful, with its ““Happy Harmonuka” salutation, its hope that “may you get lots of wine and cakes and stuff!,” a doodle of Harrison with his dogs, and a signoff that reads “love from the fab 1.” There’s more where that came from in the exhibits, as Harrison decades later sent Dylan an equally flourish-filled update on how the mixes on a Traveling Wilburys record were coming along.
10. Dylan’s paintings
There isn’t a huge selection of Dylan’s original artwork on display at the moment, but much of what is (pen doodles and ironwork excluded) is oil paintings dating back to his first true experiments as a painter in the late ’60s, when he started out working in the style of Marc Chagall.
11. The legendary “Blood on the Tracks” notebooks
Presented as a kind of holy grail, these three notebooks contain the earliest lyrical ideas for the classic “Blood” album. This is where the ability to squint starts to come in handy. Two of the notebooks are owned by the Center, and a third with the near-final lyrics is on loan from the Morgan Library & Museum. Obviously no one can flip through the notebooks, but there’s a lot more “Blood” in the museum where this came from.
12. An entire section devoted to “Tangled Up in Blue” drafts and lyric changes
Panels are devoted not just to the different iterations “Tangled” went through before it was recorded, but alternate lyrics that Dylan has sung in the 1,700 live renditions he’s done of the tune since releasing it in 1975. (A 2013 addition: ”Yesterday is dead and gone, and tomorrow might as well be now.”) The alterations Dylan made to early drafts are fascinating, as he experiment with changing pronouns to make the verses first-, second- and third-person. We even learn of extra characters who didn’t make the final cut, like “cousin Chuck, who got me a job in an airplane plant.”
13. Correspondence from Johnny Cash
One thing is clear: J.R. Cash had even more fun writing letters than he ever had writing songs… and may have tipped one or two back before he sat down to pen a missive “Friend Bob,” Cash begins in this 1964 letter, “I am so fermentingly pleased to pore over your letter. It leaves me logger-headed, but loose as a goose and laughing.”
14. Fan mail from after his motorcycle crash
You don’t think of Dylan fans as necessarily the types who would respond to reports of his accent with a “Cheer Up!” greeting card picturing a red-nosed guy in bed with a thermometer. But it takes all kinds of kinds to be a Dylanologist, then as now.
15. Folk City flyer
For this early folk-club appearance in New York City, Dylan was second-billed to the bluegrass act the Greenbriar Boys. Oh, and “never a cover charge.” Your time machine or mine?
16. Remnants of a prospective stage musical
In 1969, Dylan agreed to work on a musical theater piece with playwright Archibald MacLeish, to be titled “Scratch.” They apparently didn’t get far, as the Center’s text notes that Dylan was not agreeable to taking notes on how to rewrite his songs, which pretty much disqualified him from collaborative stage work forever. What does survive, along with some thrilled correspondence from the playwright, are a few artifacts like Dylan’s tentative song list, segregated into Acts I and II, with titles that never made it onto a record (“Soul of a Nation,” “Continent of America,” “To Become a Man,” etc.) and some that shortly did (“The Man in Me” and “New Morning,” the latter with the alternate title “The Next Morning”).
17. Lenny Bruce’s phone number
It’s a little late to be of much use to you now, but it was It was OL-74384, as captured in an open 1964 notebook that also includes some lyric thoughts.
18. Michael Bloomfield’s final performance, on Super 8mm film
A section devoted to Dylan’s 1979-81 gospel period includes a live performance of “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” from November 1980 in which he was joined on stage by one of his essential mid-’60s guitarists, Bloomfield, for the latter musician’s last stage performance before he died. The recording came out a few years ago on a boxed set, but the museum has matched it to some previously unseen, possibly fan-shot 8mm footage.
19. His fake biography for the Monterey Folk Festival
Dylan had his fabulist moments early in his career (or much later, if you count the fibs in the Martin Scorsese “Rolling Thunder Revue” film). For his first west coast appearance in May 1963, he apparently wrote his own short bio for the program, which among some otherwise earnest entries includes one for Dylan that starts: “When you tour with the carnival at age 14 playing guitar and piano, you’re bound to learn a lot of land and of music.” Later, the blurb promises, “The closest Dylan comes to international material is the parody of an Israeli song, ‘H’ava Ngila’” (sic).
20. A 1959 photo of Dylan with a crewcut and suit-and-tie
The very budding artist is seen in 1959 participating in a hootenanny with University of Minnesota students at the campus’ Minnesota Hillel building. For some reason, he is the only one wearing a tie. The photo doesn’t come from Dylan’s archives but was donated by Marvin Karlins, seen accompanying Dylan on guitar in the photo.
21. “Not Dark Yet” draft lyrics
One of the great songs from Dylan’s middle act is seen in all its constantly revisionist glory: “My room looks like it ain’t been lived in for years / I’m waiting for the dust to settle on my tears,” he writes in an abandoned couplet, and “I’m not good enough for heaven, I’m not bad enough for hell.”
22. The bootleg wing
It’s actually just a small window, but the Dylan Center does acknowledge the artist as the most bootlegged performer of all time with a set of four illicit LPs that came out many years before Dylan inaugurated his own “Bootleg Series,” including “Million Dollar Bash.”
23. The “Jokerman” wing
If you thought the finished version of the “Infidels” song is confusing, wait till you read through all the alternate drafts, an “Iliad” or “Odyssey” unto themselves.
24. The bookstore
Enter, or exit, through the gift shop, which not only includes a lot of vinyl and museum merch but a generous assortment of books. Most are about Dylan, of course, but it also sells tomes by opening weekend guests Patti Smith and Elvis Costello, presumed influences Henry Miller, James Baldwin and Bertolt Brecht and definite influence “Confessions of a Yakuza” by Junichi Saga (scraps of the text turn up on Dylan’s “Love and Theft” album). Oh, and “Wait Till I’m Dead” by Allen Ginsberg — a title we’re glad Dylan didn’t take to heart when it came to finding a place for his archives.
25. The book-reading niche
If you can’t afford all those books about Dylan, there’s a nearly hidden cul de sac, with a street view, with a library of books about the bard and a couch to sit and read them on, if you’ve got a week or two.