Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Dylanologists: Chapter 1

"It starts with the voice. One day we hear its strange, broken glory and before long everyone else in our lives would rather jam ice picks into their ears than listen to another Bob Dylan song. We know what you’re thinking. That the man cannot sing, that he yelps, grunts, and canterwauls, that he sounds like a suffering animal or a busted lawn mower, tht his throat is a rumbling, grating cement mixer. How can we ever explain this so you understand? Dylan’s voice, so reviled and ridiculed by you heathens, is a wonder of the world to us. It’s human, real, and above all expressive. It embodies rapture, heartbreak, rage, bitterness, disdain, boredom. It can be by turns biting, sarcastic, and deeply funny. It’s freighted with weirdly spellbinding magic. It’s what pulls us – the faithful – to the foot of the stage, and keeps us there for a lifetime." 
~David Kinney, Introduction to The Dylanologists -- Adventures in the Land of Bob

Today is the official launch day for David Kinney's new book, The Dylanologists. As I noted Sunday when writing about Sean Wilentz's Bob Dylan in America, every book has to have an angle, a story that sets itself apart from the herd. The Dylanologists is no exception. Kinney's book seems to be a collection of portraits of the people who have become, with various degrees of passion, fans of Bob Dylan, his music and persona.

It's immediately apparent that David Kinney has done a great deal of research regarding Dylan's fans. And he brings a unique angle that has probably been missing in the multitude of other books written on our most productive and influential singer/songwriter/performing artist of the past half century. I am not sure how many Dylan biographers have been to Hibbing's Dylan Days, for example. For New York writers this remote corner of the upper midwest must feel like Antarctica, which it actually resembled much of the year.

In the opening paragraph of his intro Kinney focuses on one of the most divisive features of Dylan's music: his voice. How many different ways has this voice been described? Do a Google search and read what reviewers have written  over the years. His detractors say it sounds like his words are scraping across sandpaper. 45 years ago Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test described it as "rheuming." Whatever it is, many have found it off-putting. Others, however, consider it one of the most evocative voices in recorded history. And it is not just our imaginations. Note how Kinney places himself squarely in the camp of the faithful: "Dylan’s voice... is a wonder of the world to us." He writes it as if he means it.

What confuses me, however, is how the pictures of Dylan's fans seem to almost be mocking them.Or maybe it's that the ones I encounter here come across as caricatures, like cartoon characters. Disclaimer: Maybe I'm sensitive because I've gotten to know a couple of these people a little bit. Here's a metaphor that you might relate to. Your friend takes some photos of you at a party. He posts them on Facebook. A few are unflattering. You wish he'd shown you the pictures first so you could say, "Oh Jack, I wish you had shown me that one first."

In our house we have a special photo album for these "funny photos." Yes, they do show us in some comical, ridiculous and unflattering ways, and we laugh over them when we share them with friends. Do these pictures of Dylan fans make us look foolish to critics?

Chapter One is titled Pilgrims. And yes, Hibbing, Minnesota is a place where Dylan fans from all over the world come to as if on a pilgrimage. I first discovered this at an open house event several years ago at the Duluth Armory, the place where a 17-year-old Robert Zimmerman came to hear and see Buddy Holly a couple days before "the music died." He says something happened that night when Buddy Holly looked at him "from three feet away."

That afternoon, when I took a tour of the facility the Armory Music and Arts Center was trying to resurrect as a historic building, I began talking to some of the people visiting and discovered they were from France and Germany, among other places. The live music was being performed by a former winner of the Singer/Songwriter Contest that is a highlight of Dylan Days.

In short, places become important for pilgrims. In Hibbing the house Bob Dylan lived in is one such place. His high school auditorium is another, Zimmy's a third, and the Androy Hotel across the street where he had his bar mitvah (if I remember right.)

Dylan's house in Hibbing, 2009
So it's natural that David Kinney would begin his stories here. What kind of people make pilgrimages to the childhood homes of rock stars? Well, I can tell you that there lots of people who make pilgrimages like that. My wife's friend's cousin came from Sweden in hopes of seeing these places where young Bob lived and played as a child.

Three years ago I met a gentleman from England who was here visiting during Dylan Days. He shared that Liverpool has become a place for pilgrims in recent years. He's co-authored papers citing a surprising stat in this regard. Liverpool tourism increased by 40% once Liverpool embraced the notion of making some "places" for the pilgrims to have their picture taken.

Leaver has written, "Music-based tourism is well developed and growing, especially in countries featuring both mature tourism and music industries, such as the USA and the UK." One source estimates that destination travel related to music involves as many as 55 million annual visits worldwide. The destination points rely on evidence of cultural activities, incidents and tangible artifacts that can be photographed.

After writing about this on my blog, David Leaver sent me additional documents supporting the notion that places are important and need to be remembered. Communities can invest in and utilizes these "places" as a draw to increase tourist revenue.* I remember an article citing top ten places for fans of rock to visit in their lifetimes, in addition to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Places where Les Paul, Buddy Holly and Jimi Hendrix lived were listed. It's good for the communities and emotionally satisfying for the fans.

From the Bill Pagel archives.
All this to say that one of the "Dylanologists" mentioned early in the book is a certain Bill Pagel, a pharmacist who has devoted himself to collecting all things Dylan, from photos and posters to, well, almost anything including the high chair Bob sat in as an infant. He tried to purchase Bob's boyhood home in Hibbing and after years of hoping it would become available finally purchased an adjacent home. He also purchased the house in Duluth's Central Hillside where the Zimmerman family lived those first six years of young Bob's life. Kinney calls him "the ultimately Dylan pilgrim." He arrived in Hibbing in 2006, and stayed.

Many of us who visit and utiilize BobLinks.com had no idea that this Bill Pagel also owned Bob's Duluth childhood home. I wrote a concert review about Dylan's 1998 visit to Duluth and was greatly surprised to find a website with set lists for every concert and reviews collected there. I submitted it and this unknown person placed it online with other such offerings. Years later I discovered it was Mr. Pagel.

As things evolved, I found myself last year invited to visit that Hillside home. I'd met the downstairs tenant (it's a duplex) at a local art event the year before. I'd also become friends with people on the Bob Dylan Way Committee here, including John Bushey, host of Highway 61 Revisited, a weekly radio program devoted to unearthing rare tracks, interviews and favorites these past 20+ years. Bushey hosted as I visited the Pagel property and saw what was going on there. It's being renovated to replicate its look and feel as it might have been during those early years when the musician was just growing up.

I saw the high chair the infant Dylan sat in. And I saw the vision Bill Pagel has for the space. We have yet to meet, but in talking with Bushey I also saw other pieces of a grand scheme to make Duluth into a place where pilgrims can visit and pay homage.

Receivin the Medal of Freedom
In the book Kinney allows Pagel to defend his motivations as "not obsessed but dedicated." I'm possibly oversensitive and too close to the picture to see it properly, but the sense I get is that people like Bill, and others herein described, might appear to be weird to outsiders because of their unusual passions. I get the feeling though that the overall picture is painted in such a way as to be borderline less than flattering.

It requires a very unusual kind of person to spearhead such an undertaking and my feeling is that great achievements happen only when people are unusual in their dedication. Isn't this why the catchphrase "Follow Your Bliss" is so popular, but rendered so meaningless because of our lack of courage in really doing that? We might get branded as kooks.

To his credit, the very next section in Kinney's book is about Bob Dylan's own pilgrimages as a fan to the places his own heroes hailed from and grew up. In May 2009 he visited the boyhood home of John Lennon. He has also visited Neil Young's boyhood home. He expresses awe and not indifference in these encounters with his heroes, imagining what it was like when they filled these spaces.

Collectors have all kinds of passions. Birdwatchers will travel all over the world to see something rare. Some people collecting baseball memorabilia. Others collect art. Jay Leno collects cars. Some collect experiences. They climb mountains all over the world or visit caverns. And then there's The Dylanologists.

I've only read the first chapters, but it's evident thus far that I will be reading on. Like the fans he describes, I can't seem to put it down. Maybe in the reading I can learn a little more about myself. And if i'm taking at all too serious, feel free to send me a note that says, "Dude, lighten up."

There, I've said my piece for today. Don't forget, this coming weekend is the beginning of our North Country Dylan Celebration her in Duluth, and the following weekend Bob's 73rd birthday.

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EdNote: This blog entry and others like it have the aim of raising awareness for the upcoming Salute to the Music of Bob Dylan concert which will kick off the 2014 North Country Dylan Celebration in Duluth and Hibbing. Sacred Heart Music Center, May 17, 2014. For tickets to this event visit dulutharmory.org/events.

Visit the Salute Facebook page and share with your friends by clicking the Invite button. 

A Salute to the Music of Bob Dylan is a presentation of the Armory Arts and Music Center and Magic Marc Productions.

Top three: Ed Newman
Dylan at Warfield Theater, SF: Bill Pagel
House in Hibbing, 2009: Nelson French
Accepting the Medal: Mandel Ngan, May 29, 2012

1 comment:

Steven said...

Good one, E. I am also impressed by what I've read so far, but a little skeptical. I'm not sure some Dylan fans want to be pigeon-holed or analyzed any more than Bob does. It seems a bit opportunistic. I'm also concerned that he takes some of the "obsessive" thinking of others, and integrates it into the narrative as if it might be his own. Ironic I suppose considering what we know about Dylan's "borrowing." I personally provided some material that ties quite tightly into the thesis I've gleaned from the book. I was surprised to receive no mention in the credits. Dylan is a serious study and it feels weird when you don't feel respected for your contributions. That said, I haven't finished the book either, and I'm sure he did a ton of research. We will see.