Elvis Costello, Patti Smith and Mavis Staples will be among the dignitaries expected in Tulsa, Oklahoma, this weekend for the opening of the Bob Dylan Center, the museum and archive celebrating the Nobel laureate’s work.
Dylan himself won’t be among them, unless he surprises everyone.
The centre’s subject and namesake has an open invitation to come anytime, although his absence seems perfectly in character, said Steven Jenkins, the centre’s director. Oddly, Dylan was just in Tulsa three weeks ago for a date on his concert tour, sandwiched in between Oklahoma City and Little Rock. He didn’t ask for a look around.
“I don’t want to put words in his mouth,” Jenkins said. “I can only guess at his reasoning. Maybe he would find it embarrassing.”
It’s certainly unusual for a living figure — Dylan is due to turn 81 on May 24 — to have a museum devoted to him, but such is the shadow he has cast over popular music since his emergence in the early 1960s. He’s still working, performing onstage in a show devoted primarily to his most recent material.
And he’s still pushing the envelope. ‘Murder Most Foul,’ Dylan’s nearly 17-minute rumination on the Kennedy assassination and celebrity, is as quietly stunning as ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ was nearly a half-century ago, even if he’s no longer at the centre of popular culture.
The centre offers an immersive film experience, performance space, a studio where visitors can play producer and “mix” different elements of instrumentation in Dylan’s songs and a curated tour where people can take a musical journey through the stages of his career. The archive has more than 100,000 items, many accessed only by scholars through appointment.
Museum creators said they wanted to build an experience both for casual visitors who might not know much of Dylan’s work and for the truly fanatical — the skimmers, the swimmers and the divers, said designer Alan Maskin of the firm Olson Kundig.
The museum hopes to celebrate the creative process in general, and at opening will have an exhibit of the work of photographer Jerry Schatzberg, whose 1965 image of Dylan is emblazoned on the building’s three-story facade.
Since Dylan’s still creating, “we’re going to continue to play catch-up” with him, Jenkins said.
So for a figure who was born and raised in Minnesota, came of musical age in New York and now lives in California, how does a museum devoted to his life’s work end up in Oklahoma?
He’s never seemed the nostalgic type, but Dylan recognised early that his work could have historical interest and value, Jenkins said. Together with his team, he put aside boxes full of artefacts, including photos, rare recordings and handwritten lyrics that show how his songs went through revisions and rewrites.
With use of those lyrics, two of the early displays will focus on how the songs ‘Jokerman’ and ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ took shape — the latter with lyrics so elastic that Dylan was still changing verses after the song had been released.
Dylan sold his archive in 2016 to the Tulsa-based George Kaiser Family Foundation, which also operates the Woody Guthrie Center — a museum that celebrates one of Dylan’s musical heroes and is only steps away from the new Dylan centre.
Dylan likes the Guthrie museum, and also appreciates Tulsa’s rich holdings of Native American art, Jenkins said. Much of that is on display at another new facility, the Gilcrease Museum, which is also the world’s largest holding of art of the American West.
“I think it’s going to be a true tourist draw to Tulsa for all the right reasons,” said Tulsa Mayor G T Bynum. “This is one of the great musicians in the history of humankind and everyone who wants to study his career and see the evolution of his talent will be drawn to it.”
Bynum hopes that it also encourages others who may someday want to put their archives on display, and make Tulsa a centre for the study of modern American music.
Dylan designed and built a 16-foot high metal sculpture that will be displayed at the entrance to the museum. Otherwise, he had nothing to do with the museum’s design and declined, through a spokesman, to offer a comment about the opening.
“If Bob were telling us what we could or couldn’t do, it would have felt like a vanity project, in a way,” Maskin said. “It was a tremendous relief not to have to satisfy Bob Dylan.”
Still, it’s safe to assume the lines of communication are open if necessary: Jenkins, the centre’s director, is the brother of Larry Jenkins, Dylan’s long-time media representative.
In addition to a dinner to celebrate the opening this weekend, Costello, Smith and Staples will all perform separate concerts at Cain’s Ballroom. Costello was asked to program a jukebox that will be on display at the museum and, within a day, submitted his suggestions for 160 Dylan songs and covers, Steven Jenkins said.
The Bob Dylan Center is open to the public on May 10.
Maskin has no expectation that Dylan will ever see the designer’s work. Still, he indulges himself in a fantasy of a slow summer day, a security guard dozing in the corner, and someone slipping in wearing black jeans, sunglasses and a familiar mop of hair to wander among the displays.
“To be honest, I don’t think that’s going to happen,” he said. “I think he’s interested in the work he’s doing, and not the work he’s done.”