By Kieran Loughney
The smallest of New York dwellings may contain the biggest of lives. They may even contain multitudes.
On meticulously stacked shelves, in neatly labelled binders and portfolios, framed on walls and displayed in glass cases in his fifth-floor walkup one-bedroom West Village flat, Mitch Blank’s life’s pursuit dazzles the viewer. Mitch has spent more than a half century following the paper trail, unearthing audio recordings, video tape, photos, and the humblest bits of what he terms “cultural detritus” to preserve the legacy of a Nobel, Pulitzer, and Presidential Medal of Freedom winning artist. “I’m a musical archeologist,” he tells me as he guides me through his place. His Rosetta Stone, the intense focus of his quest, is the life and work of a skinny Jewish kid from northern Minnesota. That kid, one Robert Alan Zimmerman, dropped out of college to pursue his interest in folk, blues, country, and early rock & roll music. He rambled into New York town and stepped onto the stage of a coffee house in Greenwich Village, appearing under his freshly chosen alias—Bob Dylan.
My own life-long interest in Dylan’s music took root in my teenage years. As a young man, like a rolling stone, I’d set out hitchhiking around the western U.S. and found myself living in a one-room fruit-picker’s cabin on the Canadian border in Washington State. I’d spend evenings by a wood-burning stove listening to my only record—Bob Dylan’s then newly-released Basement Tapes. The double album made a fine companion, with its comical stompers and enchanting melancholy ballads. These days, my record collection brims with every album by Dylan, and I must have any new record he releases. I’ve stopped counting the times I’ve seen him in concert.
It seemed nearly predetermined when quite by accident I met the affable Mitch Blank on a West Village sidewalk some months ago. We’d both narrowly missed being hit by a speeding bike. I asked, “Did you see my rant about hazardous bikers in WestView News?” With a knowing nod, he said, “I read WestView all the time.” And then, apropos of nothing seen but clearly the guidance of an invisible force of kindred spirits who often seem to coalesce in the West Village, he asked, “Do you like Bob Dylan?” I could only laugh and answer, “Nope, I love Bob Dylan.” After a brief chat he handed me a business card identifying himself as an archivist for the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Blame it on a simple twist of fate.
A few weeks after our initial meeting, Mitch invited me to his place. “My father made a modest living with the US Postal Service,” he revealed. His scruffy moustache barely camouflaged his ready smile as we sat in his dimly lit flat, a man living among history and choosing to honor it too. “I have pleasant childhood memories of working with my dad on his stamp and coin collections. It was what they now call quality time.” Young Mitch began saving bottle caps and comic books. His fondness for collecting and his organizational skills led to a career as a photo and film researcher at The Getty Research Institute archive. His fascination with Greenwich Village’s “great folk scare” in the 1960s and its burgeoning music scene ignited Mitch’s sense of mission. He understood a cultural shift had occurred and wanted it properly chronicled for future generations. “We all breathed the same air, but that change only happened here. Future generations will want to know why.” Mitch embedded with the musicians, club owners, and fellow collectors in the West Village and beyond. “Most only get to see the tip of the iceberg. This is all below the surface stuff,” he explained.
A glance around Mitch’s living room reveals faded handbills from long-defunct Village coffeehouses, locally published fanzines critiquing early Dylan performances, a program from the 1965 Newport Folk Festival when Dylan first “went electric,” and a battered sign from Kettle of Fish, an early Dylan haunt. There are buttons, posters, photographs. A harmonica rack Dylan used on the legendary Rolling Thunder tour sits in a glass case. It thrilled me to witness my longtime passion played out in a neighbor’s vision. Mitch jokes that one thing he’ll never expect to find is a Bob Dylan business card. “That would be like seeing a unicorn on Bleecker Street,” he tells me with a chuckle.
Mitch has maintained his friendships and contacts with musicians, industry folks, and other collectors. Because of his long association with the official Dylan archive, a new project would require Mitch’s input. The Kaiser Family Foundation planned to buy Dylan’s personal archive and build a center to house it in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Mitch would fly to Tulsa and meet with the family to decide if some of his own archive might be added to the center’s. The Kaisers proved to be progressive, community-conscious, and (important for Mitch), politically enlightened.
In May, Mitch was invited to the grand opening of The Bob Dylan Center. He and his friend and fellow guest of the center, retired Chicago pharmacist Bill Pagel, shared adjoining hotel rooms. Pagel, also a collector, once bought baby Bobby’s highchair. “I entered end-stage collecting,” he admitted to me in a phone call from Tulsa. Pagel purchased not just one, but both of Dylan’s childhood homes in Hibbing, Minnesota. The Bob Dylan Center has the largest collection of material tracing the life and work of any living musician. The bulk of the archive came from Dylan himself. It turns out, Bob saved everything too. But among the display cases throughout the center are items bearing placards which read, “From the Mitch Blank Collection.”
Mitch is quick to emphasize his love of our neighborhood and it’s easy to understand his affection. Much of Manhattan races from its past to a future of pencil-thin cloud-piercing buildings, and streets starved for sunshine. We West Village residents prize our home’s storied past, the tree-lined cobblestone streets, the historic brownstones from which writers like James Baldwin and Willa Cather, and musicians like Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Dylan himself, and artists and activists like John Reed and Jane Jacobs launched world-changing ideas. Mitch embodies this attitude. He knows the value in maintaining a clear view of the past to find our way forward. He has been systematically moving his collection “off-site” lately. “You’ve got to molt to grow new feathers,” he tells me. Much of Mitch’s collection will eventually be enshrined at the Tulsa archive, to be examined by future academics and Dylan enthusiasts.
Mitch Blank hasn’t just preserved Dylan’s legacy, but also our collective heritage. In doing so, he’s earned his own place in West Village history. As Mitch could certainly tell you, in a song from my treasured Basement Tapes, Dylan sings: “Take care of all of your memories, for you cannot relive them.”