In paying tribute to Bob Dylan at a concert held during the opening festivities for the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Elvis Costello sang an epic, rip-roaring “Like a Rolling Stone,” apparently the first time he’s covered the signature song of his most obvious influence in full in concert. But earlier in the set Costello also did a lesser-known balladic chestnut from the Dylan catalog: “I Threw It All Away.” Of course, that title was the very opposite of the message being sent out by the new museum. To our benefit, as it turns out, Dylan may really not have thrown much of anything away.
The Center, which had its official ribbon-cutting ceremony Tuesday, is curated from an archive that contains about 100,000 artifacts, only a tiny percentage of which are on display to the public, with the rest reserved for researchers and scholars or to be put out later as the museum rotates some of its exhibits. Even if it represents just the tip of the iceberg of the collection that Dylan sold to the George Kaiser Family Foundation, with an exhibit space of 29,000 square feet now open to the public, it’s a hell of a tip. So while Tulsa made its name as an oil town, it’s counting on a big boon from Dylanologists who’ll be coming to the city to go drillin’ for Dylan, in a facility artfully built into an old warehouse next door to the nearly decade-old Woody Guthrie Center.
So hello, Cleveland… er, Tulsa. The Dylan Center is certainly the greatest monument to a single living musician that exists in the museum world. Its appeal to musical tourists will necessarily be less than that of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which aims to encompass the entire history of popular music since the mid-1950s. But, in spite of or maybe even because of its narrower focus, the Center at least now rivals the Hall as rock’s most estimable fixed attraction. And that’s not just blowin’ smoke in the wind.
In the weekend preceding the ribbon-cutting, a VIP preview was held for donors, dignitaries and journalists, six years after the Kaiser Foundation acquired the musician’s offerings for an amount reported to be near $20 million. The festivities included nightly shows at the nearby, nearly 100-year-old Cain’s Ballroom — famous as the one-time home of Bob Wills, and also a legendary Sex Pistols gig — which brought in not just Costello but longtime Dylan pals and tourmates Patti Smith and Mavis Staples for concerts.
As for who’ll patronize the museum, the Center’s director, Steven Jenkins, says, “We talk a lot internally about skimmers, swimmers and divers — the skimmers being someone who says, ‘Yeah, I remember ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’,” and who might just stop in for an hour or two and ooh and aah at physical artifacts ranging from Dylan’s 1965 Newport Folk Festival leather jacket to the Christmas cards he got from the Beatles and a charmingly loquacious letter from Johnny Cash. (Read Variety‘s list of “25 fun things to look for at the Bob Dylan Center” here.) The skimmers might be those who wants to sit down in the Center’s tiny replica studio and listen to excerpts from a myriad of radically different arrangements Dylan tried of the song “Mississippi” between 1997-2001, or use an elementary mixing board in that mini-“studio” to isolate the early-’70s audio stems of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” The divers will be those who contort their bodies and squint to try to make out each lyric change Dylan crossed out or penned in as he revised the lyrics for his “Blood on the Tracks” album in three tiny notebooks that are seemingly suspended in midair behind glass.
On the Saturday before the official opening day, everyone among the VIP preview guests was seizing on something different that caught their attention. Moving along one wall was comedian and podcast host Marc Maron, who was transfixed by a Super 8mm film of Dylan performing “Groom Still Waiting at the Altar” with his band and guitarist Mike Bloomfield in 1980. Maron is no skimmer — he’s Dylanologist enough to have been able to point out Dylan’s love interest at the time among the three 1980 backup singers. Nearby, blues great Taj Mahal was making his way through, and said, “I’m marinating at the moment, but my first impression is: Well done, well done, well done.”
On the opposite wall across the same gallery, Dylan biographer Clinton Heylin was rapt with fascination as he gazed at a photograph he’d never seen before. It takes a lot to surprise Heylin, who has already previously spent 10 weeks in Tulsa sifting through the archives for his books and can be said to have seen and heard it all. But new to even him was a reproduction of a 1959 photo of Dylan sitting among some students at a hootenanny on the University of Minnesota campus, recently donated by the man sitting next to young Dylan in the picture. “You sort of need to know a lot of information in order to appreciate how stunning and mind-blowing that is,” said Heylin, still taken aback by the sight of the soon-to-be counterculture bard in a crewcut, suit and tie.
One stop everybody makes is at the 125-song-plus electronic jukebox Costello curated for the exhibit space, which includes covers of Dylan’s work and songs by those influenced him as well as Dylan’s own landmark recordings and A-level studio outtakes. “They’ve done a beautiful job,” said Costello, hovering nearby after a brief first-time visit on the day of his concert. “The balance is really amazing, because it’s a story you could tell a million ways.”
In their Tulsa performances, Costello and Smith did three Dylan covers apiece — or two-and-a-fifth, really, in Costello’s case. Besides “Rolling Stone” and “Threw It All Away,” he interpolated a snippet of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” right at the climax “Pump It Up,” as a tip of the hat to that song’s talking-blues lineage. Earlier in the day, at a small press gaggle, Costello had hinted that he might do that. “I couldn’t have a problem with Olivia Rodrigo and her producer lifting that ‘Pump It Up’ figure [as some say they did with the song ‘Brutal’]; it comes from Bob anyway, and him from Chuck Berry [with ‘Too Much Monkey Business’] before that, and Chuck from somebody else with that. So I would say it’s within everything, and if we sing a specific Dylan song, that would confirm it.”
Smith, for her part, opened with a quiet “Boots of Spanish Leather” and later did an equally acoustic “One Too Many Mornings,” but in-between did a howlingly electric “Wicked Messenger,” seeming determined to convey the righteous message that Dylan is the best we’ve ever had.
Dylan reportedly loved the Guthrie Center when he toured it in 2016, right before selling his archives, and he’s given this his blessing as well as his back pages — and he even contributed a 15-foot-tall ironworks sculpture for the entryway. But will the mercurial legend ever stop in, himself?
“I’m not allowed to wager on company time, but I believe that I will never meet him in my lifetime,” laughs chief archivist Mark Davidson. “There are others here that think otherwise, so I maybe have a friendly wager on that. He was in town a couple of weeks ago to play Cains, and we all went to the show,” even though Dylan did not stop in to check out the facility that honors him while he was passing through. “He had this towel over his piano, for the Tulsa Drillers — it’s the minor league baseball team here — so it sounds like he might have caught a couple of things while he was in town,” Davidson notes, sounding not at all surprised at where Dylan’s priorities might have been.
But if Dylan is reluctant to check out his own Center, he showed no such reticence when it came to looking at the Woody Guthrie Center down the block in 2016. Part of that may have been due diligence, as he was about to sell the Kaiser Foundation, which funds that museum, his own archives. But he is also renowned, of course, as Guthrie’s most famous fan, dating back to the 1950s. “The story that I’ve been told,” Davidson says, “is that it was set up like a military operation, and I think a lot of people were probably thinking it was going to be some sort of photo op when he got there got there. But it was just George and a few other people and he had the museum to himself, and I think he really enjoyed looking through all the Guthrie materials and really connected with some of the pieces.” So maybe he’ll be leaving his own Center to whoever the next-next-next Bob Dylan is, the way he once aspired to be the next Woody.
Says Jenkins: “I think he knows that his materials are good here. But what interests him more is the next recording session, the next ‘Murder Most Foul,’ or pulling the bus in the Cincinnati and putting on the best possible show that night. ‘Don’t look back,’ right? But the paradox to me is that, well, he did keep everything.”
What the Olson Kundig-designed Bob Dylan Center means for Tulsa is incalculable, even though it already has a lot going for it, with a burgeoning arts district, the reopening less than two weeks ago of Leon Russell’s legendary Church Studios (which also offers tours), the in-progress Oklahoma Museum of Popular Culture across from Cain’s, and the more traditional Philbrook and Gilcrease art museums. The city is a Route 66 tourist mainstay too, of course, but as Architectural Digest put it in a recent feature: “Tulsa is in the Midst of a Massive Cultural Renaissance.” Dylan offered his salute to the city in a brief exchange with Vanity Fair, where he said, “There’s more vibrations on the coasts, for sure. But I’m from Minnesota, and I like the casual hum of the heartland.”
Musician Kevin Odegard played on five tracks on “Blood on the Tracks” when Dylan revisited his native Minnesota to wrap up work on that classic album. He has donated the acoustic Martin guitar he played on “Tangled Up in Blue” and four other songs to the Dylan Center, and that’s on display now along with Odegard’s gold record and a scrap of paper containing chord changes. Odegard, incidentally, has made Tulsa his second home, so enamored is he of the city.
Speaking of the Greenwood massacre of “Black Wall Street” residents that is the city’s ugly legacy, Odegard notes how Tulsa played up, not down, the hundredth anniversary of that scourge in 2021. “It’s a fantastic place geographically and spirituality, and they got out in front of the Black Wall Street issue. How many midsize cities in the United States dealt with (their racial issues) like that? They’re running Greenwood tours,” and indeed, the Kaiser Foundation also funds a Greenwood Rising museum dedicated to chronicling the massacre and its traumatic, still-healing aftermath. “They’re very much on top of a situation that who has remained dormant in 20 or 30 other cities (with similar legacies) nationwide.”
Of the museum, Odegard says, “There’s no curator in the world that does better work than Mark Davidson. It’s not a competition, but this thing stands alone. The Rock Hall of Fame can do whatever they want, but this thing is enormous and it’s one of a kind. And I’m not going to say Tulsa is the next Seattle; we have a whole different thing. But I think Tulsa is going to resonate with music lovers as much as Cleveland or any other locale.”