Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Dylanologists: Miscellaneous Notes in the Form of a Review

After reading the two-part dissection of The Dylanologists by Egil Mosbron, keeper of Johanna's Visions, I wasn't sure I had anything to add to any discussion of this book. Mosbron guts the content and splays it out in wonderfully pictographic ways so as to make plain David Kinney's systematic approach to what must have originally been an immensely unwieldy topic to tackle.

Part 2 of Mosbron's overview begins with an outline of the 8 kinds of Dylanologists, as identified by Kinney in the chapters of his book. There are:
The Pilgrims (which would include Kinney himself as one who has made the pilgrimmage to Dylan's home towns and homes.)
The Dylan Scholars
The Stalkers/Garbage Collectors/crazy ones
The Collectors
The Tapers
The Religious and the "Saved"
The "Front Row"-ers
The Lyric Dissecters

David Kinney
I found Mosbron's skill at differentiating between the various kinds of Dylan fans most helpful and I now recognize how some of the folks I have gotten to know actually fit into some of these categories quite well. Kinney did the hard work of sifting the material and organizing it, but Mosbron extracts the skeletal system that give The Dylanologists its structure, as the average reader might simply lose oneself in the stories. In point of fact that is essentially what this volume is, a book of stories.

When I first began reading The Dylanologists I was somewhat concerned that the author's aim was to build a case for how crazy Dylan's fans are. But when David Kinney spoke to the Dylan fans crammed into Howard Street Booksellers during Dylan Days two weeks ago he began by addressing this matter directly. "Where's the line? Are we crazy?"

Kinney's discovery of Dylan's Biograph in 1987 was a turning point in his life. Simultaneously, he felt alone as a Dylan lover, until he found the Dylan community while looking for bootlegs.

The book isn't just about Dylan's fans though. Woven into the fabric of the story is Bob's own story. The various phases of his life become touchpoints for the variety of fan experiences. Kinney does a good job of synthesizing the stories of his fans with the story of the man.

Most interesting is Dylan's Jesus phase, in part because it brought a whole new kind of fan onto the Dylan train. But if Dylan's Gospel-period proved confusing to his earlier fans, the long tail afterwards became even more confusing for his religious followers who sifted lyrics to find affirmation of continued faith or evidence of departure. As Kinney puts it, "The conversion and its aftermath heralded a new sort of parlor game: debating what Dylan believed."

One of the questions Kinney attempts to address is why Dylan has developed such a special breed of almost cult-like followers. Another thread through the stories is the question of whether Dylan is actually worthy of this kind of devotion. What's the real Bob Dylan like? Why do so many concerts happen where he seemingly makes no effort to connect with his audience, despite their adulation? On the other hand, this is what makes him such a peach to his keenest followers because occasionally he does give them a nod, or some gesture that lets them know they matter... or so they feel.

Mr. K. with John Bushey of Hwy 61 Revisited
Napolean created loyalty amongst his troops by occasionally pinching an ear and saying "I remember when you were with me in Egypt." One touch was all it took and men would die for him. Maybe for die-hard Dylan fans it's the same. "That song was talking to me, was written about what I have been going through." One story in the book describes a man who when he was 13 played "It's All Right Ma, I'm Only Bleedin'" for his psychologist, stating that if you listen to this you will understand what's going on inside me.

Dylan has a way of making tight connections to our hearts... or at least some of us.

Not everyone is so enamored. Nat Hentoff's experience of interviewing Dylan for Playboy magazine in the 60's proved to be an off-putting experience. Others who were once devoted found the sheen to tarnish over time, including biographer Clint Heylin and author Michael Gray whose stories are told herein.

When plagiarism and other charges are raised against their idol, why is that Dylan fans so easily forgive or forget. Nothing ever seems to stick, it just washes away. Yet for others, the accusations leave permanent stains and blemishes that leave their image of the star disfigured. Why?

The New Yorker's review of Kinney's book* begins by stating, "The critic Greil Marcus once told an interviewer that, among musicians, Bob Dylan had the stupidest fans." The opening paragraph then quotes Dylan himself telling Rolling Stone that his fans are pretty much losers. “Why is it when people talk about me they have to go crazy?… May the Lord have mercy on them. They are lost souls.”

And yet, Kinney numbers himself as one of them. Why?

For fans, Dylan books are legion.
What's interesting to me is how the people most tightly wrapped up in their Dylanology are the first to acknowledge that his "autobiography" is full of fabrications. This doesn't bother them at all. Nor does it bother them when he lifts something from here and places it there as if it were his own answer during an interview. It reminds me of when the curtain gets lifted in the Emerald City and the great Oz is just a man like us. Except he really did give gifts to those who journeyed so far to find him and please him. A heart, a brain, and courage.... and Dorothy really did go home again.

For Dylan fans, the gift he's given is a legacy of music, and musical performances, that seem to remain endlessly satisfying in one way or another. And the superfans, or Dylanologists, who go the extra mile to see as many concerts as possible, or collect as much memorabilia as possible, or as many tapes of concerts as possible... well, they're really not unique to Dylan. There were Deadheads, and there have been other kinds of fans who friends must have wondered -- or even worried -- about.

Kudos to David Kinney that he got this opportunity to devote so much of his time to a project like this, and to meet so many interesting and unusual people. He wasn't shy about going after his "live game." Bill Pagel, who owns the house young Robert Zimmerman first lived in, told how the Pullitzer Prize-winning journalist got him into the book. "This guy asked me if I was going to Duluth, and when I said yes he asked if I would give him a lift. Next thing you know I am stuck in a car with this journalist asking me questions. What was I going to do? I couldn't just not talk for an hour and a half."

Well, Pagel understands the game. He's not afraid to go after what he wants. That might be why he owns the house, and so much more, and why he's one of the characters in chapter one.

It will be interesting to see how the sales go for this book. No doubt Dylanologists will be purchasing it. Sales numbers will give us an inkling just how large the tribe really is.

Meantime, life goes on all around us... Listen to the music.


* Bob Dylan, Fanboy by Ian Crouch, The New Yorker, May 20, 2014

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