Fan: “You don’t know who I am,
but I know who you are.”
Bob Dylan: “Let’s keep it that way.”
That quote, from the inside flap of The Dylanologists: Adventures in Bob Land by David Kinney, perfectly encapsulates a book that explores the prickly, obsessive, and sometimes toxic relationship between Dylan and a segment of his fan base. Dylan is not alone, of course, with obsessive fans. All superstars have them to some degree — John Lennon and Jerry Garcia come to mind —but Dylan’s are a different breed, anointing their man as a savior and the “voice of a generation.” Most songwriters and musicians expect and perhaps encourage their fans to fill in the blanks on some of their lyrics and the ‘meaning’ of their songs — few, however, could withstand the lengths to which Dylanologists take it.
Former girlfriends Suze Rotolo confirmed that “he attracts weird fans,” and Echo Helmstrom finally changed her name after “hiding for years.” Rock scribe Greil Marcus called Dylan obsessives “not just the worst — they’re the stupidest” and then succinctly concludes, “I think it’s something in Dylan’s writing (that) leads people to believe that there is a secret behind every song. And if you unlock that secret you’ll discover the meaning of life.”
Kinney introduces us to quite the cast of characters. It begins, of course, with AJ Weberman, who famously searched through Dylan’s garbage looking for ‘clues,’ finding only dirty diapers and dog shit. Dylan finally grants him an audience, only to find their conversation is being taped by Weberman, and angrily ends it. After spending years analyzing and ‘decoding’ Dylan’s lyrics (and concluding the singer was a junkie, a conservative, a racist, a Holocaust denier and had HIV), Weberman’s long search predictably brings him to the final and obvious realization that, “I wasted my fucking life on this shit.”
We also get the obsessive tape collector who hollows out his couch to store bootleg tapes until it collapses under the weight, various 'hypnotist collectors'’ and the man behind a fanzine who devotes two years creating a 23-part series ruminating on the classic song, “Visions of Johanna.” Of course, he later concludes that Time Out Of Mind foretold Princess Di’s fatal car accident in Paris. Oops. Authors Clinton Heylin and Michael Gray, “the world’s most prolific Dylan writers,” also make an appearance but ‘Dylanologists,’ it seems, is simply a fancy word for “crazy-ass fans.”
And while a story populated only with crazy-ass fans might be a good read, Kinney provides much more. He works in some of the flashpoints of Dylan’s career, including going electric at Newport, his infamous motorcycle accident and subsequent defection to Woodstock, his religious records, Slow Train Coming and Saved and, of course, his masterpiece, Blood on the Tracks, and its supposed muse, the dissolution of his marriage to the “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” Sara Lowndes. Even his ‘comeback’ records, Time Out of Mind, up through 2012’s, Tempest, are dissected. At each of these flashpoints, Kinney introduces a new Dylanologist and it is utterly fascinating.
Throughout the book, Dylan’s relationship with his fans, his fame and his legacy are also in play. Dylan has always kept these at arm’s length and, as an artist in a constant state of re-invention, it is fair to contemplate whether he encourages the introspection, even as he distances himself. Watch some of the press conferences on YouTube where interviewers try to pin him down on the meaning of his songs. And remember that Dylan’s film career includes a character named Alias, a movie called, “Masked and Anonymous” and the pseudo bio-pic, “I’m Not There.” Though the man himself does not appear in that flick, he is played by no less than six different actors and actresses. Telling? Perhaps.
In the end, however, Dylan the artist outlasts all of the Dylanologists; most of them realize they’ve wasted their lives on…nothing. Some die, some become alcoholics and A.J. Weberman eventually lands in jail. As Dylan says of the controversies, disappointments and misinterpretations throughout his career, “Oh, I let you down? Big deal. Find somebody else.”
The Dylanologists: Adventures in the Land of Bob is ultimately a tale of life on the fringes and if you’re a Dylan fan, this is a must read. Highly, highly recommended.
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