The Dylanologists: Adventures in the Land of Bob
By David Kinney
Simon & Schuster, 256 pages, $25
‘The Dylanologists” is a truly maddening book.
Ostensibly, it is the story of the obsessive, sometimes paranoid fans who pore over every Bob Dylan lyric and concert, who worship, scrutinize, stalk, analyze and clearly annoy the man himself. But author David Kinney makes you truly loathe most of the title characters. They’re irritating, irascible and often pathetic. Their interpretations of Dylan’s songs are inept. They seem to miss the point of Dylan’s very significance.
But then, by dribbling out choice tidbits of Dylan’s life and work — so much more interesting and poetic than the mundane lives of his pathetic fans, and often so artfully rendered — Kinney makes you feel like one of them.
The net result is a kind of self-loathing. As I read “The Dylanologists,” I kept wondering: Am I as clueless, and as blindly besotted, as these people?
Clearly, I am nowhere near the extreme cases: I’m no A.J. Weberman, Dylanologist par excellence, who has rummaged through Dylan’s garbage and, somewhere along the line, clearly exited the land of the rational. He now maintains that Dylan is actually a reactionary and a racist — and he lives in a kind of bunker, obsessively hoarding recordings and memorabilia.
But the more moderate folks, the ones who make pilgrimages to Malibu, California (where Dylan has lived recently) or Minnesota (where he grew up) — some of them feel like they could be me. And yet, the way Kinney renders them, they seem like weirdos, kvetches, misfits, pseudo-intellectuals — it’s no wonder Dylan himself can’t stand these people who trek to every show and pore over every lyric. I couldn’t stand them either.
As I read through “The Dylanologists,” though, I started to dislike Kinney as well. To be sure, the book is impeccably reported. Kinney is a Pulitzer Prize winner, and he knows how to render the choice detail: the revealing cuff link, the smell of incense. But there aren’t enough interior details. The Dylanologists remain enigmatic.
Or worse, boring. The obsessiveness of Dylan’s fans is legendary, but is it unique? It strikes me that there are cat fanciers and philatelists who exhibit as much obsession and attention to meaningless detail as these fans. Because we get precious little analysis in the book, these fans end up seeming like fanatics first, Dylan fanatics second. Most of them are unable to articulate their fascination, resorting instead to hyperbole — one fan calls Dylan the “artist of the millennium.” (Shakespeare, anyone?)
Yet Kinney doesn’t do much better. He vividly captures the romance of Dylan’s early career, the meanderings of his middle period, the flashes of brilliance in his late work. But he doesn’t connect the dots. Why are Dylan’s fans so obsessive, while those of, say, the Rolling Stones are not? What is behind this phenomenon?
There are moments of reflection; at one point, Kinney compares the hardcore fans to inmates in an asylum, unaware that they’re insane since everyone else is too. But then again, this is also true of gamers, truthers, birthers and Beliebers. That doesn’t get us anywhere.
Ironically, Dylan himself emerges as the least enigmatic figure in the book — quite odd when you consider the opacity he’s cultivated over the years. As rendered by Kinney, he is a brilliant musician and songwriter, yes, but ultimately not more than that. His personal tribulations (here Kinney lapses into standard biography) are no more unusual than that of other rock stars. He seems almost… normal.
In contrast, Dylan’s fans make him out to be any number of messianic figures. Some seem not to have let go of the very earliest of Dylan’s incarnations: the protest singer, the voice of a generation. That persona was fully shed half a century ago, but the “Judas” crowd is still trying to figure it out. Others focus on later incarnations, poring, for example, over the sources of the 2004 memoir “Chronicles,” which turns out to be a cut-up collage of other sources, from Hemingway to Ovid — a Dylanologist’s fantasy come true. These imaginary Dylans seem like concoctions of fantasy and projection — yet with such rich psychological and sociological veins to mine, Kinney yields precious few gems.
“Why is it when people talk about me they have to go crazy?” Dylan asked in a 2012 interview. “What the fuck is the matter with them?”
I’ve read 233 pages of “The Dylanologists,” and I couldn’t tell you.
Here’s where I might go with it. Dylan’s work in the 1960s was brilliant — unprecedented and unpredictable. At least two of his personae from that decade — the earnest folkie and the imagist poet-hipster — are icons. And each produced miracles. It’s hard to believe that the same person who wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind” also wrote “Like a Rolling Stone”; they are both masterpieces, but of entirely different types. And that’s not even counting less familiar, but arguably superior, compositions like “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” or “Visions of Johanna.”
But then, after that 1967 motorcycle accident, Dylan got so weird. The country album, the covers album, the disappearing act — and then the comeback, the Jesus years, the lost decade (i.e., the 1980s), the next comeback, the Americana, the plagiarism, the acts of masking and unmasking. Is Dylan a genius (still) or a con artist? Is there a difference? What’s going on behind the masks?
To casual listeners, it’s easy to focus on the hits and otherwise regard Dylan as another aging ’60s icon. But Dylan does consistently reward closer attention. Some of his best work is, indeed, available only on bootlegs. Some of his offbeat acts — like his ad for Chrysler, which I analyzed in these pages — are fascinating. And some of his utterances (read that 2012 Rolling Stone interview for some of the most bizarre and auto-messianic rambling this side of David Koresh) are almost inexplicable. All of which makes Dylan almost as maddening as the Dylanologists.
But a lot more interesting. The degree to which Dylan is in control of his art remains debatable. But Dylan’s American mythmaking, his poetry, his quintessentially Jewish outsider/prophetic pose — these are subjects worthy of serious attention. Having read Kinney’s book, I’m not sure the same can be said of his fans.
Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor of the Forward. He is the 2014 award winner for opinion writing from the Deadline Club.