I never seem to tire of Bob Dylan. Not that he doesn't frustrate, annoy, anger, or bore me at times, but his work, be it musical,Chronicles, or car commercial, is always worth investment, something to anticipate and heed and relish and dissect. Love him or hate him, there's inarguably a lot to digest. Bob Dylan is a real meal.
Yet as much as I like Dylan, I've never felt the need to attend or bootleg every performance, or scrapbook every lost-and-found lyric sheet, just as, though I'm a bit of a Beatles freak, I've never wanted to own a piece of Ringo's hair.
The title subjects of award-winning journalist David Kinney's new book, The Dylanologists, are those Dylan super fans who devote time, money, energy, health, love, everything to the pursuit, acquirement, and study of all things Dylan. Kinney, himself an admitted acolyte, goes on a kind of Morgan Spurlock-like quest for others like him, "an entire underground nation of unreformed obsessives." What he finds are some like him—that is, people with jobs and lives outside of Dylan—and others whose jobs and lives are Dylan.
In quasi-narrative fashion, Kinney begins his story in Dylan's hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota, then globetrots chapter by chapter through the lives and half-lives of various self-proclaimed Dylanologists. There's a kind of gradation to the subjects: On the extreme end is a figure like the notorious A.J. Weberman, originator of the term "Dylanologist," a hippie holdover and hard drug repository, who "'spent hours and hours listening to Dylan, taking Ritalin, LSD, mescaline, smoking joint after joint trying to figure it out,'" eventually digging through Dylan's garbage, staging "birthday parties" outside Dylan's apartment, and essentially stalking the artist with increasing paranoia.
Most of the other subjects aren't nearly this frightening: They're restaurant owners (at one establishment, Zimmy's, one can get a "Simple Twist of" sirloin for $15.99), professional tape collectors/archivists like Mitch Blank (whose apartment is a kind of Dylan museum), bootleggers, PhD's, academic and popular bloggers, and other fans who've sunk into the rich well of Dylan's music only to never come up. These are the people who camp in general-admission lines for hours or even days on end, then rush the stage to get "on the rail," that is, front-row center where they can bask or bake under Dylan's withering disregard.
Kinney writes mostly in an engaging novelistic manner, as in this bit about the owner of Zimmy's: "But that afternoon in 2004...Hocking could not help himself. He had to hope [Dylan would come into his restaurant]. Maybe, maybe, maybe. Maybe. Then he saw it: a news truck parked right next to the restaurant. He saw it, and he knew. No way Dylan would run that gauntlet..."
This approach works for the most part, but certain areas are ripe for further analysis. A passing remark about the bootleggers—or "tapers"—being "almost exclusively men," for example, seems a point worth extrapolating. Throughout, Kinney shies from examination of the deeper pathological impulses behind Dylanology (or extreme fandom in general), of, say, the dubious morality or legality of unofficial bootlegging, or the type of collecting that amounts to a kind of hyperclerical hoarding, or simply what might qualify as an artist's right to privacy—or an audience's right to access.
The Dylanologists is thus more a popular accounting of a particular artist's most rabid fans rather than a sustained analysis of what such fandom might mean, more a corroboration for the initiated than inquest for the infidels. Still, the book reveals by implication, especially in such contentious areas as Dylan's conversion to Christianity in the late 1970s, and the more recent charges of plagiarism both in his music and his mannered memoir, Chronicles: Volume One.
I've always found Dylan's "born-again" years to be among his fiercest and fieriest. The resulting "betrayal" of his audience was just another plus, as Dylan turned the philosophical tables on those demagogic fans who, as Kinney says, "all felt like they were on his side [in the 1960s] when he pointed fingers at those who didn't get it...Now he was pointing at them." The crowd's disillusioned protest seemed feeble compared to Dylan's feverish conviction, ignited as he was by the first flush of Jesus Christ: "'You wanna rock 'n' roll...you can go see Kiss and you rock 'n' roll all your way down to the pit.'" As Dylanologist Peter Stone Brown says, "'No other performer fucks with his fans like Bob Dylan.'"
Might Dylan's supposed plagiarism then be just another form of such fan-fucking? Kinney offers a wide range of opinions, from the disenchanted poet Roy Kelly to supporters like best-selling author Jonathan Lethem. For Kinney's Dylanologists, such "material outsourcing" is merely another opportunity for more Dylan-digging. "Great," Kinney quotes one as saying, "Now I've got the next couple of years booked." The most recent songs especially, and certainly Chronicles, reveal a complex, even systematic cut-up method, a cross-integration of intertextual references, not merely direct transcription of existing material. If it's plagiarism, it's plagiarism with a definite artistry and purpose.
Ultimately, The Dylanologists ends up feeling quite sad. It just seems like such a huge waste of human energy to ponder, let alone catalogue, something as random or intuitive as, say, a nightly song list. Some of the book's subjects recognize this. As Kinney writes, one Dylanologist "joked that he didn't know what was worse, waking up an alcoholic or waking up as the editor of a Dylan fanzine." Many, both "credentialed and crackpot," have essentially subsumed their own lives into that of Dylan's, almost like unofficial ancillary employees, a fact certainly not lost on the singer himself: "'There's a whole world of scholars, professors, and Dylanologists, and everything I do affects them in some way. And, you know, in some ways, I've given them life. They'd be nowhere without me.'"
Of course, the opposite is just as true: A performer goes nowhere without fans, especially fans so interested and invested in one's work. It's a residual bonus that Dylan continues to reward such never-ending adulation and intense scrutiny. As David Kinney's The Dylanologists proves, even Dylan's students are a worthy study.
David Kinney's The Dylanologists: Adventures in the Land of Bob will be released on May 13 by Simon & Schuster; to purchase it, click here.