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Mixing Up The Medicine - Book Review (Pt.1)
This is the first in a series on the new Dylan Archives book ‘Mixing Up The Medicine’ by Mark Davidson and Parker Fishel. Here we’ll look at some of the background for this incredible new book and how and why it came to exist.
When the Bob Dylan Archives were first announced in 2016 even the most in-the-know Dylanologists were shocked: Bob Dylan had saved 100,000+ items from throughout his career and they were going to go live in an archive in Tulsa Oklahoma, along with every audio and video clip ever recorded? Whaaaaaat?
Six years later, the shock has passed, but the breadth and depth and impact is still being revealed. Researchers were the early beneficiaries - with access to the archives writers have given us books and articles full of details and stories we otherwise would have never known.
And since May of 2022, it’s given 50,000+ Dylan fans from around the globe the chance to get up close with a selection of the materials at The Bob Dylan Center. The building’s two floors contain about a dozen distinct exhibitions and experiences that make hundreds of the Archive’s items - including films, photographs, memorabilia, manuscripts, unreleased music, never-before-seen film, and a number of interactive experiences - available to anyone who wants to see them.
But for the millions of Bob Dylan fans that can’t or haven’t made the trip to Tulsa, and maybe don’t read every new Dylan book or article, the impact of The Bob Dylan Archives has been limited.
That all changes with the release of Mixing Up The Medicine - a gorgeous and luxurious new 600 page book out next week (Order at Amazon). It’s filled to the brim with over 1000 of the most interesting, important, rare, and revealing objects that are held in the Bob Dylan Archives, but it is far from just a picture book.
“I quickly realized that everything I thought I knew about him was a misconception.” - Benmont Tench
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When the Dylan Archives arrived in Tulsa, things were neatly in boxes but largely un-labelled and not particularly organized. Curators Mark Davidson and Parker Fishel and their teams have spent the years since the items arrived (which happened in waves) organizing, preserving, cataloging, and understanding what it was they had. It’s a process they don’t consider finished even today.
And while Dylan’s collection is the foundation, It has been substantially augmented by the acquisition of additional related archives from contemporaries like Phil Ochs, Cynthia Gooding, Izzy Young, Harold Leventhal and others, as well as via acquisitions and donations from the biggest private Dylan collectors in the world including Bill Pagel and Mitch Blank and Barry Ollman.
There have also been open market purchases (although they do not buy every cool Dylan item that goes up for sale) and they sometimes even get small donations from fans who may just have an item or two that could help round out The Archives. For example, I bought a bunch of the Tempest ‘coins’ when a Bob Dylan pop-up store appeared in NYC in 2012. Earlier this year I asked if they had any, and when it turned out they didn’t I shared a couple. Much to my delight, they appear in the new book.
From the full riches of The Bob Dylan Archive, and all the curation work that’s been over over the past 6 or 7 years, Mark and Parker fashioned the exhibitions and experiences within The Bob Dylan Center.
It’s a remarkable place to visit, and while a visit could be done in a breezy hour or two, walking by walls with 200 items and just glancing at the most prominent, and skipping many of the interactive listening opportunities, another approach would be to spend several hours a day for up to a week meticulously looking at, reading, listening to, and watching everything - plus giving your brain sufficient time to begin to process what it all reveals and means.
And the public display reflects only a very small percentage of the Archive’s holdings. Beyond time and space, there are other practical realities - how much text does anyone want to read off museum walls? How can the full story, or even the relevant context for the thousands of events and incidents in Bob Dylan’s life be conveyed in a self-guided tour?
Another factor is location: The Bob Dylan Center is in Tulsa OK, not a place most people ever get near and those that do are there for limited time. The reasons it’s there have been covered elsewhere, but no matter where it was located most people wouldn’t be there often.
All of this creates two issues:
How does The Bob Dylan Center reach people who can’t visit them, both to further their core missions and to entice more to actually visit
How does The Bob Dylan Archive share more of that they have - both items and knowledge - more than the Center itself can hold.
A book is an interesting part of a solution. It can share huge amounts of information and if done right might combine memorabilia with photos with essays with manuscripts with an organizational structure with introductions and explanations in ways that weave together and make a big and complex story interesting, approachable, and digestible to people with a very wide range of levels of interest. Plus of course it’s easily distributed around the world.
This is exactly what Mark Davidson and Parker Fishel, along with their colleagues at the Dylan Center, the Dylan organization, a few dozen essayists and the publishing and production teams at Callaway have done. The result is incredibly compelling and effective - and a huge gift to Bob Dylan fans and scholars everywhere.
In Pt.2 we dive into Mixing Up The Medicine and look at the varied and interesting ways this book wrestles with the vastness of the Archives and Bob Dylan.
Listen to our one hour conversation with Authors Mark Davidson and Parker Fishel - we discuss the book and the Archives - in S02.18 of the Dylan.FM podcast now available to all Paid Members. Subscribe here or in Apple Podcasts.