Bob Dylan is an artist of many faces: poet, folk hero, rock genius, visual artist, writer, welder, songsmith, Nobel Prize winner. He is, perhaps, what we project onto him of ourselves and our world. Bob Dylan: Mixing Up the Medicine is a 605-page immaculately designed compendium that seemingly encompasses all possible sides of the legend. The book expands on the inaugural exhibits at the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which opened in 2022 and houses the complete Dylan archives. If you can’t get to Tulsa, Mixing Up the Medicine is the next best thing.
If you are expecting beautiful photos, art and memorabilia, you’ll find those here. If you want to read personal correspondence from Johnny Cash, Joan Baez, Jack White and other luminaries, look no further. And if you’d like to attempt to decipher Dylan’s chicken-scratch handwriting, you have your work cut out for you. But what sets Mixing Up the Medicine apart from other books of its type is the writing. Authors, artists and musicians visited the Tusla archive and were asked to choose a single item that “enticed, beguiled, stirred, perplexed, or galvanized them,” and then write an essay about it.
Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo selects a painting of the first record that Dylan—as 15-year-old Robert Zimmerman—recorded, a breathless cascade of radio hits tracked in a music shop’s recording booth with two friends for $5. Ranaldo imagines that evening in the songwriter’s youth with aching specificity. Poet Gregory Pardlo uses a letter written to Dylan by Black Panther Party leader Huey P. Newton to explore Dylan’s relationship with Black activists and artists. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo chooses the Japanese album cover of Blood on the Tracks, lyrically riffing on “Tangled Up in Blue.” Author Tom Piazza takes inspiration from a typewritten draft of “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” to pen a short play about a self-serious scholar who seeks the input of an exhausted, half-mad Dylanologist. And there’s more.
In the epilogue, Douglas Brinkley writes, “Dylan is an experience more like a meteorite than a mummified artifact of scholarly pursuit.” Mixing Up the Medicine, with all its heft and weight, keeps the man in motion—dazzling, beguiling and multidimensional. For Dylan acolytes, the joy of this tome is in combing its pages for the people we once were—our own changing faces, and those we will become.