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A Box O’ Dylan: Conversation with Jon Polk
Posted: 04/15/11 12:22 AM ET
A Conversation with Archive Designer Jon Polk
Mike Ragogna: Jon, what does Bob Dylan mean to you?
Jon Polk: Wow, his music is so much a part of my identity, it is difficult to have complete perspective on it. Growing up, music was the single most important thing to me, and singer-songwriters were what mattered to me most. It all led back to discovering Bob Dylan. I was always strongly effected by both his lyrics and his music, and he was the first artist I felt that way about. Today, my three-and-a-half-year-old son is obsessed with Bob Dylan, seriously. He got exposed to it, of course, while I was working on this project, but he really took to it and can sing along with at least ten songs, and makes lyrical references that blow me away. I am very proud of that, and could not be happier that he chose Bob as his first musical influence. Take that, Bieber!
MR: Do you have any stories about how his music affected you, meeting or working with him, and what are your thoughts or opinions on how he affected the culture?
JP: As I said, his music is so much a part of my identity, I cant imagine my world without it. Dylan and The Beatles were the two alchemists that everything good was filtered through, both before them and after. They obviously were strongly influenced by everything before them, but magically turned it all into something different and better. And, of course, they had an important effect on shaping each other. And in some way, everything good that came after seems to owe them some debt. I was aware of all that for as far back as I can remember. I have not met him. I have stood within ten feet of him on a number of occasions, but never crossed the line. I don’t know what I would say to him that he would find remotely interesting, and could not risk saying something stupid I’d regret forever. I love the concept of the artist on the pedestal and like to avoid personal experiences where I have to mentally remove them from that perch. He is the very rare artist that has managed to maintain mystery, even to this day and I love that, respect it, and don’t want to have to lose that feeling. Everything I did on this project was run through his manager. It is my understanding that he approved certain elements himself… but even that, I don’t need to push. It was a rewarding experience knowing I was given the license to do this, and that the end result is something he approved whether directly or not.
MR: Who came up with the content strategy for The Bob Dylan Archive Collection?
JP: It was my idea. The basic format followed what I did with The Beatles Box Of Vision, and The John Lennon Box Of Vision. The big content difference was using the historical album reviews to create a sort of guided journey through his discography. Album reviews were my comic books growing up — I devoured them as a kid deeply into music. I always felt that even the really great critics brought impossibly high expectations, even when Bob exceeded them, and got too personal when reviewing his albums. I thought it would be a great way to look at Dylan’s catalog, and at the same time, it would be an interesting look at how rock criticism was born, grew up, and even entered middle age, all through the body of reviews of Dylan albums.
MR: What are the components and dimensions overall of each piece separately?
JP: The showcase box is over 13 inches high, 15 inches wide, and four inches deep. Fully loaded — before you store your CDs — it weighs in at 15 lbs. The LP artwork book is larger than LP size so the artwork can be LP size with a respectful border in a 220-page, hardcover book of restored LP art. The “Catalography” discography book is 54 pages of discography, classic album ads, and historic review excerpts in a similarly oversized, soft cover book. And the CD storage book, also larger than LP size, is wide enough to showcase 17-18 LP spines and hold 48 plus CD albums.
MR: What assets were you given to create the layout, especially for the album artwork portion?
JP: As with The Beatles and any artist pre-1980, it is impossible to find much of any of the original film or artwork. Sony Music was gracious enough to allow me access to their archives. But I had to supplement by going to collectors, combing vinyl record stores, and, thank God for eBay.
MR: Can you describe the “scrapbook” feature that holds all 43 of Dylan’s CDs?
JP: It is essentially a binder, albeit a really nice, industrial looking one. Each page is laid out specifically to store four CD albums on each side, so eight albums per page. I designed and even hold a the US patent for a method for storing CDs and CD booklets in one-to-one correspondence with each other on a page so you don’t have to store the CD in one pocket and the booklet in the pocket next to it. You can even store digipak boxes and mini LP sleeves, and there is a neat way to store double-size digipak boxes, like for Blonde On Blonde and The Basement Tapes). You can even store both the mono and stereo versions of the same CDs in the same compartment. It allows you to efficiently and elegantly store and display a lot of CD albums in a single book (as) an entire body of work. It comes with six pages, so it comes with storage for 48 CD albums. The artwork specifically designates where to store each of the 43 official chronological Bob Dylan albums. And you can even add pages to store more.
MR: So the binder will be able to be expanded with new releases?
JP: Yes and it comes with a few “blank” spaces already which can accommodate a few already.
MR: What went into assembling the “catalography” information, how was it researched?
JP: A good four months of hunting down and reading every Bob Dylan review I could find. There were a few great (book) anthologies of Dylan reviews that I consulted to keep in check. But it was mostly researching newspaper and magazine archives, and reading, reading, and reading.
I tried hard to be broadly representative, but it was irresistible at some point to keep a few consistent voices. I wanted it to be readable straight through. I leaned towards comments that more broadly described the albums than specific songs. I tried to include things that i thought were surprising. And, I couldnt resist to get some humor in there wherever possible. I held an online contest a few months back where I offered a free Archive to Dylan fans who could identify which albums 13 selected excerpts where about. It took three days for anyone to get them all right, and a full week for even five people to do it. So I think I did a good job turning up some surprises, for even the most devoted fans.
MR: What’s the cost and where can one purchase the Bob Dylan “Archive” Collection?
JP: It is $130 (US), £85 (UK) and €100 (EU). You can buy it online at http://www.BoxOfvision.com.
MR: What other artists will be given the “Archive” treatment in the future?
JP: There are many that I hope to do. Aside from the ones with the more obvious large iconic catalogs — there are a bunch i am thinking about right now — there are ones that present particular challenges for music storage. For example, I am working on a way to store a Grateful Dead fan’s entire collection — the studio LPs, their show tapes, and their digital downloads. I’d also like to do an artist whose body of work is really post LP, but present LP versions of all the artwork. I have ambitious hopes and plans.
MR: Do you have any advice for new artists?
JP: Learn from the masters, but aim to be an alchemist. It should not be about trying to be a new Dylan or a new Beatles. Use your influences but create something new. But a real artist doesn’t need my advice — they will do what they do because they have to.