How Bob Dylan wrote his greatest lyrics – the inside story

Friends in high places: Dylan with Patti Smith, 1975
Friends in high places: Dylan with Patti Smith, 1975 - Ken Regan

If there is anything new to be discovered about Bob Dylan, you can probably find it in The Bob Dylan Centre, a vast former paper warehouse in Tulsa, Oklahoma that houses more than 100,000 items spanning the Nobel Prize-winning singer-songwriter’s 82-year lifetime, including handwritten manuscripts, notebooks, letters, videos, photographs, artwork, recordings, instruments, memorabilia and ephemera. Many were supplied by the man himself, who sold his personal collection for a rumoured $20 million in 2016. 

Now the Bob Dylan Centre is publishing its first book, essentially the archive in miniature: Bob Dylan: Mixing up the Medicine. It is a 608-page tome examining over 1000 images and objects culled from the collection by archivists and curators Mark Davidson and Parker Fishel, who spoke to the Telegraph about the undiscovered Dylan. It is a life in fragments. “If anything, the glimpses make it more enigmatic about how Dylan gets from point A to point B,” suggests Fishel. “This isn’t a book of answers. This is a book of process.”

Bob Dylan and Friends

Everyone wants to meet Bob Dylan. One of the most revered artists on earth, he has been photographed with presidents, poets, movie stars and sporting legends. Dylan often looks nonplussed in such images, except whenever mingling with musicians, where his face really comes alive.

The book contains pictures of Dylan meeting Bruce Springsteen (then being described as The New Bob Dylan) for the first time (in the company of singer-songwriter John Prine) and hanging out with up-and-coming New York punk poet Patti Smith during the Rolling Thunder tour in 1975. Dylan attended Smith concerts before she had a record deal and would take long walks around New York with her. “It was sort of a big deal, because Bob Dylan didn’t really go to see anyone,” Smith has recalled. “He was pretty enigmatic. I related completely to him. His arrogance, his humour, his mergence of poetry and performance.”

There are photos of Dylan engaging cheerfully with musicians from across genres, including Johnny Cash, George Harrison, David Bowie, Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder and Liberace. “We had all of Ken Regan’s Dylan photography digitised. Just his work from 1975 alone was about 50,000 images,” notes Fishel. “Multiply that by entire photo collections by every photographer who worked with Dylan, and you are scratching the surface of the images we went through looking for particular photos for the book.”

Bob Dylan with Bruce Springsteen (far left) and John Prine in 1975
Bob Dylan with Bruce Springsteen (far left) and John Prine in 1975 - Ken Regan

Apart from such celebrity encounters, copious live performance shots and often rather awkwardly staged professional portraits, pictures of Dylan tend to fall into three categories: contemplatively playing guitar; reading or writing; looking out windows. Even in the midst of crowds, he usually appears wrapped up in his own thoughts. “There is another category,” according to Davidson: “Dylan smoking.”

Bob Dylan’s business cards

A card given by Otis Redding to Bob Dylan in 1966
A card given by Otis Redding to Bob Dylan in 1966

An unassuming battered black leather wallet from the 1960s turned out to be another treasure trove. “You open it up and find business cards,” reveals Davidson. “He’s got Johnny Cash’s address and phone number in there, and this card given by Otis Redding to Bob in 1966.” They met when the soul singer was playing a residency in Los Angeles. Dylan played Redding a new song, Just Like a Woman. “You know what? I’ll record that! Tomorrow!” declared Redding. According to guitarist Robbie Robertson, Redding did attempt the song but stumbled at the bridge. “The words were about amphetamines and pearls, and he said he couldn’t get those words to come out of his mouth in a truthful way.”

The Notebooks

Blue Spiral pocket notebook, circa 1974; Brown notebook, circa 1964
Blue Spiral pocket notebook, circa 1974; Brown notebook, circa 1964

“Throughout the archive, we see Bob writing on whatever is at hand, whether it’s a matchbook cover, hotel notepads, a bank deposit slip, lots of small notebooks,” says Davidson.

“When the moment strikes, he grabs the pen and gets it down,” adds Fishel. “It’s an incredible thing.”

The title page of this small, brown imitation leather dime store notebook from 1964 is imprinted with A Daily Reminder of Important Matters. “It’s part travel diary, part planner, he’s got phone numbers, (German model) Nico is in here, and (English folk singer) Martin Carthy,” says Fishel. It also contains tentative drafts of It Ain’t Me Babe, Mama You Been On My Mind and fragments hinting at such future masterpieces as Like A Rolling Stone and Tombstone Blues. “You get glimpses of imagery, you can see him pulling snatches of references out of the air, and embryonic versions of really important songs as he moves from the political songs to something more vivid and surreal.”

A slip of schoolboy doggerel shows his youth: “Instead of following the rule / of going to school / I used to sit on the stool / with drool / An on the seventh day / I sat down / an said / “Oh let me write a song” / an the song was wrote.”

“There are three Blood on the Tracks notebooks that we know about, from the City Lights Bookstore,” explains Davidson. “There’s Red and Orange, but the Blue one is the first.”

Bob Dylan staring out of a window, 1978
Bob Dylan staring out of a window, 1978 - Morgan Renard

“He made his great return in that five or 10-cent notebook,” notes Fishel. “It’s an amazing document. The handwriting is tiny and fills every page, there’s not a lot of blank space. And you can feel the energy, the inspiration, how the thing moves. Within that notebook you get a microcosm of methods or ways in which songs come to Dylan.

Shelter From the Storm is right there, on the page in one go, not necessarily finished but it’s the song. But something like Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, insanely intricate narrative pieces are being constantly reshuffled as something goes up top, then drops down and then disappears on the next page. It’s frenetic, very palpable and visceral. Other things like Tangled Up, it’s recognisable but it’s a work in progress.

“Creativity for Dylan is not like a monolith, these songs come to him in different ways. In the book, we have a practically fully formed typescript of Subterranean Homesick Blues (titled, at the time, Look Out Kid, from 1964), and you have a tiny scrap of Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through Dark Heart) from 1977, where he just has some images, and that’s the germ of the song, it just falls off the page.

“If you actually look at individual pieces, you see not just how prolific he is but the work ethic. Sometimes it’s there, sometimes you have to work at it, sometimes it doesn’t pan out. There are 45 manuscript pages for Dignity (circa 1994). And that was just to take it into the studio, where it changed a whole bunch. And then he ultimately decides the song isn’t done and leaves it off the album (Oh Mercy).”

The Golden Chords

A newspaper ad for The Golden Chords gig at Hibbing Community College, February 14, 1958
A newspaper ad for The Golden Chords gig at Hibbing Community College, February 14, 1958

“We’ve heard some of Bob’s high-school band [The Golden Chords] recordings, and they were not a particularly accomplished group, but they were certainly having fun exploring rock and R’n’B,” says Fishel. Drummer LeRoy Hoikkala still lives in Hibbing. “LeRoy brings a lot of insight to a murky part of Dylan’s past.”

In the book, LeRoy recalls how they would regularly check out the news racks for stories about James Dean. They called it their ‘mission.’ The fact that Dean was raised on a farm in Indiana but headed for Hollywood the first chance he got made an impression on the teenage Bobby Zimmerman. “LeRoy remembers Dylan saying from an early age, ‘You have these dreams, and you just have to go. Believe in yourself, and you’ll figure it out.’”

Mr Tambourine Man

Bruce Langhorne was an American folk musician, who met Dylan on the Greenwich Village scene in 1961 and accompanied him on early recordings. During one session, producer Tom Wilson asked for a tambourine, and Langhorne pulled out an instrument that Dylan recalled as being “as big as a wagon wheel.”

Bruce Langhorne’s tambourine
Bruce Langhorne’s tambourine

“It’s a big Turkish frame drum with an animal skin hide,” says Davidson. “There’s a little band-aid on it to try to keep together one of the splits.” In 1984, Dylan revealed this was the inspiration for Mr. Tambourine Man, writing that a “vision of him playing just stuck in my mind.” Langhorne is actually on the 1965 recording of Mr Tambourine Man, albeit playing a countermelody on guitar.

Dylan’s leather Jacket

“The leather jacket came from Dylan,” says Davidson.  “It’s the one he wore at Newport Festival, 1965, when he was going electric.” Because of its indelible association with such a febrile moment in sixties pop culture, the jacket might be considered an iconic piece. It turns up in a lot of interesting photos of the era. There aren’t actually many such physical objects in the Bob Dylan Centre. “

We weren’t trying to be a cheap tourist attraction,” says Davidson. “You can go to Hard Rock Cafes to see lots of outfits and decontextualized guitars. Our approach is to ask if it has a story. The guiding principle of the Bob Dylan Centre was an idea given to us by our lead design team, Olson Kundig, who said what we want to get at are the skimmers, swimmers and divers. The people who don’t know much about Dylan want to skim the surface, some are going to dive a little deeper and then the Dylan diehards can swim in the sea.

Dylan in Liverpool

Barry Feinstein photographing Bob Dylan posing with children on Dublin Street in Liverpool, England, May 14, 1966
Barry Feinstein photographing Bob Dylan posing with children on Dublin Street in Liverpool, England, May 14, 1966 - D. A. Pennebaker.

“Barry Feinstein’s photo in Liverpool with the children is well known,” notes Davidson. “But scouring through D.A. Pennebaker’s unseen 1966 tour footage, we found the film still where Feinstein is actually taking that famous shot.”

“The scale of the archive is enormous,” says Fishel. “We had it all digitised – entire photo collections, tens of thousands of shots, hundreds of thousands of manuscript pages, audio, film and video in every format from 1960 to the present day. It is still being processed, and some of the most rewarding work putting together this book is being able to make new connections.”

Dylan and the press

“Bjorn Larsson Ask is maybe my favourite Dylan photographer, who is criminally unknown,” says Davidson. “He snapped photos of Dylan across four days when he was touring Sweden and Denmark, and basically captures these very intimate scenes from the moment he lands at the airport, through the time he’s playing his gigs.”

Contact sheet of Bob Dylan’s press conference at the Hotel Flamingo in Stockholm, Sweden, April 28, 1966
Contact sheet of Bob Dylan’s press conference at the Hotel Flamingo in Stockholm, Sweden, April 28, 1966 - Björn H. Larsson Ask

Dylan had developed a teasingly combative relationship with the press. “Why don’t you write protest songs anymore?” he was asked in a London press conference in May 1966. “All my songs are protest songs,” Dylan fired back. “You name something, I’ll protest about it.”

As he told Martin Scorcese whilst filming No Direction Home: “You had to give absurd answers. When you’re in your youth and time’s on your side, you can afford to be flippant and preposterous. If they’re stupid enough to ask those kind of questions, you can be stupid enough to answer them.”

Bob Dylan: Mixing up the Medicine is released on Oct 24