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Mixing Up The Medicine - Book Review (Pt.2)
This is part two in a series on the new Dylan Archives book ‘Mixing Up The Medicine’ by Mark Davidson and Parker Fishel. In this we look broadly at what the book is made up of, and just what kind of Bob Dylan book it is. Pt1. is here.
In May 1963, Studs Terkel asked Bob Dylan about his new song ‘A Hard Rain Is A-Gonna Fall’. The song is a cascade of imagery written at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Dylan explained: “I wrote that - every line is another song - it could be used as a whole song - every single line.” (listen below)
Dylan has used a somewhat similar technique many times - parading a list of vignettes and disconnected lines and characters and imagery to tell stories much bigger and longer than the songs that contain them. It’s not that details are lacking - “The guilty undertaker sighs” - “She walks along with a parrot that talks” - “I rode with him in a taxi once” - “In one I committed a crime” - “the sound of the keys as the clink” - it’s just that the full story would just be too long and impossible to tell. In fact, the full story can’t be told, because life and the world is just too complex.
This of course is never more true than when the subject is Bob Dylan. So it was very wise indeed that in Mixing Up The Medicine, authors Mark Davidson and Parker Fishel resisted any effort to be comprehensive.
Instead, they approached this book as something of a collage, with incredible detail and depth on certain events in Dylan’s life, but completely ignoring others. But as presented this isn’t a flaw, and it leaves you to simply revel in each fantastic episode they’ve chosen to include without ever feeling burdened about the ones that aren’t here. You get a sense of Bob, and a taste for the life that he’s led, through the jumble of biographical bits and recording highlights and featured live performances and the people and relationships that are documented.
I’ve come to think of Mixing Up The Medicine as a scrapbook built by professionals. In fact, the closest thing to it that Dylan fans might own is something put out in 2005 called "The Bob Dylan Scrapbook 1956 - 1966”. It’s very cool boxed book, put out at the time of the ‘No Direction Home’ film - you can still pick one up rather easily and affordably. (Amazon Link)
As the name suggests it’s a jumble of photos and promotional items and small text explainers. It may even have a few essays (I’m away from my copy at the moment.) It’s just a jumble of neat things a fan would have grabbed over those years, organized and annotated. It’s fun because unlike a simple book there are cards stuffed in pockets, and unbound lyric sheets, fold-outs and cutouts - like a scrapbook where you’ve stuffed ticket stubs and other ephemera.
Mixing Up The Medicine is kind of a scrapbook too (without the pull-out and fold-out stuff) and evokes the same feel. But it’s vastly better made - the rarities are rarer, the writing is better, the essays are more plentiful, it covers Bob’s entire life and not just a few years. It’s a massively scaled-up effort.
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When you first get your hands on this book you want to rifle quickly through every page to try and take it all in, and simultaneously carefully read every word and stare endlessly at every photo. It’s an object that a deep Dylan fan wants to somehow just consume, to inject into their veins. You’l have to accept that this is going to take a while - a long while.
My approach may prove common: quickly flip around a bit to get a sense of it and enjoy the rush - searching out favorite albums or incidents - and then after a few minutes of that going back to the start and moving through very slowly taking in every word and image (often more then once).
While the photos and visuals can give the sense that this is a coffee table picture book, the truth is there is a lot of text here that you’ll want to read carefully. There are 30 essays in the book that alone would be a book worth buying - and would fill a respectable sized book all alone. These essays are written by a variety of writers and musicians and thinkers, bringing diversity of all kinds to the task of considering Dylan.
Just look at this list: Sean Wilentz, Lee Ranaldo, Marvin Marlins, Greil Marcus, Barry Ollman, Jeff Gold, Luce Santa, Tom Piazza, Griffin Ondaatje, Amanda Petrusich, Clinton Heylin, John Doe, Gregory Pardlo, Anne Margaret Daniel, Raymond Foye, Richard Hell, Joy Hart, Alex Ross, Terry Gans, Michael Ondaatje, Robert Rubin, Jeff Slate, Greg Tate, Larry Slogan, Allison Moorer, Peter Carey, Ed Ruscha, Alan Licht, and Douglas Brinkley.
Interestingly, the project in many ways started with these essays, as when The Archives first got to Tulsa the team there began to offer some special people the chance to choose an item they found interesting or important, and write something about it. Those essays sat around a while and eventually took shape as the core of this book, where they are surrounded by so many images and additional text.
This ‘additional text’ is likely a book’s worth too - written by Mark and Parker, who as curators of The Bob Dylan Archive also did the nearly impossible task of sourcing and researching and finding the relationships between all of these physical items and lyric manuscripts and photos. Their writing very economically tells the over-arching story, shares the relevant details of each image and artifact, and also puts them each into context and helps readers to understand why this typescript or that photo or the chosen memorabilia matters and what’s cool about them.
Take the ‘Born Again Years’ - it’s a story we all know. But over the course of a few pages the book points out things we have never known - the dates the first manuscripts were written, when the songs started taking shape at sound checks, and more - you get the feel and smell of it and even if in some ways it is just the summarized version. It’s very satisfying to continuously find new details and nuance about these well worn episodes in Dylan’s life and career.
And while I haven’t counted, there must be 150 of these ‘events’ that get serious attention. Every page you turn is exciting, because it’s another milestone, another killer photo, or another incredible essay.
It is worth mentioning the heft of this thing: It will be the biggest and heaviest book most people own. Very few of even the die-hard-y’ist Bob Dylan fans will make it through this in any detail in just a sitting or three. It will take most people months or years of chipping away at it to really read every essay, take in every photo, decipher all the Dylan handwriting, and even more to think about what it all tells you about Bob Dylan.
The good news is that it’s available today. So at least you can get started.
In the next part of this review, we’ll dig into some of the best new facts and photos found in the book. (Part 1 is here.)
Sign-Up to Win
Thanks to our friends at Calloway, we’re giving a copy of Mixing Up The Medicine away to one lucky person. Just be a subscriber either free or paid. The winner will be chosen Monday October 30, 2023. Anyone can win but US Shipping Address required.