Why these visions of Bob Dylan keep fans up past the dawn

New book sheds light on the legendary songwriter's most obsessive followers.

 |   Long-form |   11-07-2015
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In the opening chapter of Stephen King's new novel Finders Keepers, an old author is jeered at, rebuked, and finally shot dead, by a "fan" who can't come to grips with what the writer did to his most famous character in his third book.

"Here's what I want to know - why in God's name couldn't you leave Jimmy Gold alone? Why did you have to push his face down in the dirt? […] Advertising? I mean, advertising? House in the suburbs? Ford car in the driveway? Wife and two little kiddies? Everybody sells out, is that what you were trying to say? Everybody eats the poison?"

What the unhinged fan doesn't know is that the author has two further Jimmy Gold novels written out in his private notebooks - two books in which the character "becomes himself again", turning his back on the conformity he had briefly embraced. But it might not have made a difference anyway. This reader is too far gone. His identification with Gold ran so deep that the change in arc amounted to a personal betrayal. And the only possible response is to confront and silence the treacherous artist.

I thought of this scene while reading David Kinney's The Dylanologists: Adventures in the Land of Bob, especially a passage about an obsessive Bob Dylan fan named Peter playing a record in his therapist's office, and telling the shrink by way of self-analysis: "This is how I feel. Everything I'm trying to tell you is on this record. It's all there."

The song he plays is "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" - you know, that collection of angry-sad aphorisms, some of which have now become platitudes through repetition and overuse. A song packed with lines like "He not busy being born is busy dying", and "Money doesn't talk, it swears", and "Even the president of the United States/sometimes must have to stand naked", all of them much less effective on paper than in the young Dylan's sneering-yet-weary voice.

There is this stanza too - "Advertising signs that con you/ Into thinking you're the one/ That can do what's never been done/ That can win what's never been won." Which begs the question: What would Peter think, decades later, watching the older version of Bob Dylan appear in ads for soft drinks, cars and lingerie? Is there material here for a new Stephen King short story?

Maybe, but for now we have The Dylanologists, which is about the long history of Dylan-obsession, and, by extension, about the complicated relationship between an artist and his audience. Including that age-old debate: Does the former have some sort of responsibility to the latter?

For Dylan, the answer has been a clear no. ("I never asked for your crutch, now don't ask for mine," he sang in "Fourth Time Around" - to a lover, or to a needy fan?) Kinney's book has for its epigraph this amusing exchange: "You don't know who I am, but I know who you are," a fan says. "Let's keep it that way," the legendary songwriter replies. As Kinney observes, "Dylan created personas and then demolished them, denied they had ever existed, and scorned the people who still clung to them. Almost as soon as any one image was lodged in the public's mind, he began to resist."

This is not a new thought, of course: apart from being discussed in earlier books, it was a subtext of Martin Scorsese's documentary No Direction Home, which includes scenes from Dylan's famously uncooperative press conferences (Question: "What about the recurring motorcycle imagery in your songs?" Answer: "Um, I think we all like motorcycles to some degree") - and directly addressed in the film I'm Not There, which was constructed entirely around the enigma of Bob, how he could be many things and many people at different times. 

blanchett-imnotthere_071115022934.jpg Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan in I'm Not There.

But what Kinney does is to shift the focus to those who became caught in obsession's web, with results varying from the very scary to the very poignant: the Dylanologists, sniffing out and collecting memorabilia for years, sifting through hundreds of hours of audio footage in hope of finding a previously unknown ten-minute outtake, hiding recording gear in a loaf of bread and sneaking it into a concert. This book is about how these manias came into being, and what they led to; about how personality, life experience and chance can mingle in strange ways so that one person becomes deeply, even fatally affected by another's work.

The chilling Eminem song "Stan" has a fan deciding that he and his idol are just alike, and that his hero consequently owes him his time and attention; eventually he drives himself and his girlfriend off a bridge just to get "even". But that's a dramatic ending, a clean break. The stories in The Dylanologists are about people who survive and lead an outwardly normal existence, even as they give over decades of their lives to Dylanology (and its many subsets, such as "garbology" - going through the singer's trash bin to find scraps of paper that would unlock a hidden meaning).

In its pages you'll meet people like the woman who was so mesmerised when she first saw Bob on stage that it ended her long-time love for opera - "They are trained animals compared to what Dylan does". But there are other, more intense fandoms, revealed in an ever-broadening spiral of madness. One person writes a 536-page Dylan to English Dictionary to decode the layers of meaning behind lyrics - and then, after half a lifetime of Dylanologising, "realises" that "Blowing in the Wind" was really a veiled racist rant, and that he had wasted all these decades worshipping a bigot. Someone else asks for a single screw from a piano - owned by another collector - that Dylan used. ("What would the man do with it? Wear it on a necklace like a totem?") There are those who don the accoutrements of a regular life - marriage, secure job, mortgage - but feel like charlatans (like Jimmy Gold in Stephen King's novel?), never quite part of the world they have settled for. A high-schooler who thinks about killing himself, and when he racks his brain for reasons not to do it, this one makes the most sense: he doesn't want to miss the next Dylan album when it comes out.

Through all this, Kinney keeps himself mostly in the background, though he claims, in his Introduction, to being an "unreformed obsessive" himself. Writing about his early encounters with Dylan's work, he says: "There were songs about girls, and war, and politics. I didn't know who all of the characters were: Johanna, Ma Rainey, Cecil B DeMille, Gypsy Davy. I couldn't honestly say I knew what Dylan was saying half the time. But the lines were riveting."

A personal aside: I can relate to some of this. In the mid-1990s I went through a phase when the lyrics of every song in Highway 61 Revisited, Bringing it all Back Home and Blonde on Blonde - the three great albums of Dylan's controversial 1965-66 electric phase - were firmly implanted in my head, through months of listening to them on my player at home and on my car deck (and always in Dylan's own voice - it was only later that I came to enjoy some of the cover versions, such as Eddie Vedder's "Masters of War" and "Lou Reed's "Foot of Pride"). And though it has been years since I heard those albums in full, I still sometimes find myself silently mouthing lines from "Tombstone Blues" or "Desolation Row" or "Stuck Inside of Memphis" (even when some of these numbers are musically repetitive or boring, the words just trip off your tongue).

5701850_126_071115022429.jpg Highway 61 Revisited cover.

In the internet's early years, I read fan sites, pored over analyses of the more surreal, stream-of-consciousness lyrics; I particularly remember the interpretation of the "sword-swallower" stanza in "Ballad of a Thin Man" as a conservative homophobic being caught unawares in a homosexual experience (and the "one-eyed midget" in the same song being a euphemism for a penis). Other lines worked best when you didn't try to pin down their exact meaning, when the associations and imagery they created in your mind - the vaguer the better - was what mattered. (Does "the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face" become more vivid when you see it as a description of Joan of Arc being burnt at the stake? Doubtful.)

It didn't seem like a phase at the time; it felt like obsession. But now, reading The Dylanologists, I know better. For a short while in my teens, I probably convinced myself that I could write a long, line-by-line analysis of "Visions of Johanna". But a man named John Stokes actually went ahead and did it, and did it on an epic scale, producing 65,000 words about that song: a labour of love, creativity and grand folly that might be said to exist almost independently of the verses that inspired it. One of the achievements of Kinney's book is that it almost convinces you that Bob Dylan's greatest legacy might be as a cipher, a pretext for the playing out of other people's life stories, forever disappearing through the smoke rings of their minds. 

Writer

Jai Arjun Singh Jai Arjun Singh @jaiarjun

Writer and critic. Blogs at Jabberwock (http://jaiarjun.blogspot.in ). Author of Jaane bhi do Yaaro: Seriously Funny Since 1983. Edited The Popcorn Essayists.

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