Bob Dylan said it best, in a 2012 Rolling Stone interview timed to the release of his Tempest album: “Why is it when people talk about me, they have to go crazy?”
More than 50 years after he first started attracting fanatical followers, Dylan was facing down a more brutal and dangerous species of devotee. The fans had social media, and the scholars had computers; en masse, they could track every move he made and every word he wrote, said or sang. ‘Dylanologist’, once a derisive term for the self-styled expert who sifted through the Dylan family’s garbage cans, was now a word with wide colloquial meaning, if not yet a dictionary definition.
Now the world of Dylan worship has a book to call its own. David Kinney, author of The Dylanologists, is a cultist himself, but the book’s opening epigraph promises a reasonable perspective. (“Fan: You don’t know who I am, but I know who you are. Bob Dylan: Let’s keep it that way.”) And he starts with the innocent spectacle of pilgrims visiting Hibbing, Minnesota, the town Robert Zimmerman, soon to be Bob Dylan, fled in 1959 to reinvent himself as something other than a middle-class Jewish kid whose father had a furniture store. They happen to get there on the day Dylan comes home for his brother’s mother-in-law’s funeral.
What happens? Not much. But Kinney has a chance to describe several different strata of Dylan admirers, from those who’ll eat cherry pie because he did, to those who know the first name of his maternal great-grandmother to the man who bought two early Zimmerman family houses and little Bobby’s high chair.
Then Kinney makes the case for hero worship by citing instances when Bob Dylan practised it himself. He was seen touring John Lennon’s childhood home, Mendips, in Liverpool, England, and asking for directions to Strawberry Fields. He is also said to have kissed the spot in Sun Studios where Elvis Presley stood while recording That’s all right on July 5, 1954. So we all have musical idols.
But the Dylanologists found in this slender book are the most obsessive ones Kinney could find. And too often, he allows the depth of their devotion to be an end in itself. One 12-year-old boy named Peter discovers Dylan in the summer of 1963, when he plunges “into Dylan’s deep well of words”. The same person is now “almost an old man, into his 60s… and still he hadn’t drunk it dry”.
Most of the book’s interviewees have become extremely knowledgeable about Dylan’s huge body of work. But that’s not what makes them notable. In the case of this particular subject, it’s the fact that by 14, Peter had adopted Dylan’s zingers as his own, whacking his parents with “Don’t criticise what you can’t understand”, which was pretty unbeatable. Sent to a psychiatrist soon afterward, he brought the album Bringing It All Back Home, and had the doctor listen to It’s all right, ma (I’m only bleeding) and said “This is how I feel.” Dylan was the perfect crutch for anyone less articulate — or scathing, or baffling — than he.
Dylanologists love Dylan’s ability to give voice to practically any thought. And as his career continued, some began to love the fellowship of the road. They dropped whatever else they were doing — often not much — to race from concert to concert.
But Dylan kept touring. And touring. And a new breed of fan and chronicler emerged: the completist, the fan who needed to know every detail about every show. Some of these, most notably Mitch Blank, who is one of the book’s most admirable figures, have made immensely valuable contributions to music history. (Blank is credited as “hypnotist collector” on Martin Scorsese’s Dylan documentary No Direction Home.) Others have glorified piracy and theft, priding themselves on leaving no show unstolen.
The book’s bombshell issue arrives late, with Dylanologists’ Internet access. When Dylan’s career began, he could have expected scholars to spend centuries ferreting out the obscure references in his work and pondering his reasons for free-associating in the ways that he has. Now, a little typing exposes all manner of mortification. He is a ravenous artist, absorbing material from a huge array of sources just like many great, ravenous artists have done before him.
But who among them had packs of Googling, self-righteous cultists on their trails? Dylan’s startlingly beautiful memoir, Chronicles Volume I, has already been ripped to shreds by quotation checkers, to the point where he has had to address the matter of plagiarism head-on.
His position: Everything comes from somewhere, and try, just try, recycling any of Henry Timrod’s early-19th-century poetry in quite the way he has.