City Journal Autumn 2014

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Autumn 2014
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Books and Culture

Matthew Hennessey
Bobcats
For some fans of Bob Dylan, no level of involvement is enough.
16 May 2014
Photo by Ben Salter

The Dylanologists: Adventures in the Land of Bob, by David Kinney (Simon & Schuster, 256 pp., $25)

You may think that you know Bob Dylan. You may remember him as the Greenwich Village folk hero, the antiwar troubadour in the checked shirt with the harmonica around his neck and Woody Guthrie’s sailor’s cap on his head. You may have heard the controversy over his decision to “go electric” in the mid-sixties, and the betrayal felt by his first generation of fans—they booed him and called him Judas. You probably know he influenced everyone from the Beatles to Bruce Springsteen. You might do a decent imitation of his pinched, wheezing vocal style. You may have liked the Travelling Wilburys. Maybe you caught his Cadillac commercial during the Super Bowl and thought, “Okay, I didn’t expect that.”

You thought you knew Bob Dylan, but you didn’t know anything. You didn’t know about the Dylanologists.

The Dylanologists are not scientists or academics, as the term implies, and they are not mere devotees, like Deadheads or Beliebers. They are something other, something barely accessible to the average music fan, even to the cultivated aficionado. The Dylanologists are crazy. They are competitive collectors and concert bootleggers. They are elitist interpreters and amateur critics, committed tour followers and dedicated lyrical detectives. The passion of the true Dylanologist makes every notion you ever had of art appreciation or brand loyalty seem rather spare.

The Dylanologists are not homogeneous. Some are New Paltz hippies. Some are born again Christians. Others are upper-middle-class Londoners with jobs at British Telecom. For some, being a Dylanologist is a full-time gig. For others, it is the only thing keeping them from suicide. But all Dylanologists are united by this: they do objectively insane things. They hunt through Dylan’s trash. They leave one Dylan concert at midnight and line up on the street for the next night’s show. They buy the house next door to Dylan’s childhood home in Hibbing, Minnesota, where he was known as Robert Zimmerman. They barter valuable keepsakes for a single screw from the music stand of a piano that supposedly stood once in the parlor of Big Pink, Dylan’s onetime home in Woodstock, New York. They write and publish fanzines read by 12 subscribers. They think Dylan is communicating with them in code.

The Dylanologists are nuttier than Pete Seeger’s homemade granola, and David Kinney, who has written the definitive book on this oddball subculture, is right there in the cereal bowl with them. Kinney confesses his own irrational fascination with Dylan, and his book is partly an attempt to deal with it. In his introduction to The Dylanologists, Kinney writes, “We who listen too hard are compelled to do things that are difficult to talk about.” But why do they listen so hard? Because Dylan wants them to, or so it seems. According to rock critic Greil Marcus, “[S]omething in Dylan’s writing leads people to believe that there is a secret behind every song. And if you unlock the secret then you’ll understand the meaning of life.” The elliptical poetry of Dylan’s lyrics has kept admirers busy for decades sorting out the biographical details from the historical references and pinpointing exactly where license and literary allusion merge. Dylanology is more than a cottage industry; it’s a cottage mentality: Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mr. Jones?

When asked how he feels about this exegetical approach to his work, Dylan has been coy. Sometimes he chastises. “These so-called connoisseurs of Bob Dylan . . . Get a life, please. It’s not something any one person should do about another. You’re not serving your own life well. You’re wasting your life.” Other times, he has offered encouragement: “People can learn everything about me through me songs—if they know where to look.”

Wherever you look in the Dylan canon, you’re likely to find a paradox wrapped inside a riddle conditioned upon a conundrum. Dylan seems to have made it his life’s mission to keep people guessing: “What I’ve done, what I’m doing, nobody else does or has done. When I’m dead and gone maybe people will realize that, and then figure it out.” Dylan may have thought he’d given the world 100 years’ worth of puzzles to be solved. He may have imagined his legacy would expand and deepen as history’s detectives sorted through his oeuvre of songs, poems, and cryptic utterances. He may have thought he was playing the artistic long game.

But whatever game he was playing—if he was playing a game—Dylan didn’t reckon on the Internet. Over the last decade and a half, Dylanology’s super sleuths have used the Web to unravel his most enduring mysteries. They may have discovered Dylan’s dirty little secret: an obsessive penchant for poetic scrapbooking and literary sampling which, according to one Dylanologist, comes “pretty close to real plagiarism.” The essential ingredients of his later work—including 2001’s “Love and Theft,” 2006’s Modern Times, and Chronicles, his 2004 memoir that one critic called “The Da Vinci Code of rock ‘n’ roll”—have been definitively sourced. Each was heavily “influenced” by other, mostly obscure, published works: Japanese author Junichi Saga’s Confessions of a Yakuza; the novels of Jack London, Henry Miller, and Thomas Wolfe; the Civil War poems of Henry Timrod; and even a 2000 edition of a Fodor’s New Orleans travel guide. Dylan borrowed images, rhymes, and lines—sometimes verbatim—from them all.

This is no longer a secret. Dylan himself confirmed it in a 2012 Rolling Stone interview. “Oh, yeah, in folk and jazz, quotation is a rich and enriching tradition,” he said, before turning testy about the implications of the criticism. “[I]f you think it’s so easy to quote [Henry Timrod] and it can help your work, do it yourself and see how far you can get. Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff. It’s an old thing—it’s part of the tradition. It goes way back. These are the same people that tried to pin the name Judas on me.”

So is Dylan a fraud, or are the Dylanologists taking issue with his methods just “wussies and pussies?” Kinney sees no “intent to deceive” on Dylan’s part, just “an invitation to enjoy the game.” But every Dylanologist must make up his own mind. For some, the disappointment of realizing they may have devoted their lives not to an original poetic voice, but to a master pastiche artist, is too much to bear. Others have been energized by the news that their guru has been playing their game all along. Dylan was communicating in code! It was just a matter of time (and technology) before the Dylanologists could prove it.

Bob Dylan might be a poet, a thief, a genius, or a fraud. He might be stone-cold crazy, like the Dylanologists who worship him. But he’s not what you thought he was. He’s much more interesting than that.

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