May 9, 2014

‘The Dylanologists’ examines the tangled cult of Bob Dylan

David Kinney, a self-confessed Bob Dylan junkie and the author of an acclaimed book about zealous fishermen, is on familiar ground with “The Dylanologists: Adventures in the Land of Bob.” Crisscrossing the country, he profiles compulsive concertgoers, fanzine editors, aging groupies, souvenir hoarders and amateur songwriting analysts.

In the spring of 1965, Bob Dylan’s record company invited reporters to interview him during a West Coast concert swing. Predictably, the enigmatic young star wasn’t interested in providing the scribes with a set of ready-made quotes. “When an L.A. journalist asked for a word to the fans, Dylan responded, ‘Astronauts,’ ” biographer Clinton Heylin recounted in “Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades.”

Dylan was never going to pander to the public. But that hasn’t stopped some of his acolytes from developing frenzied fixations.

One immersed himself so deeply in Dylan’s songs that he came to believe the singer predicted the death of Princess Diana. Another sneaked into his son’s bar mitzvah. A third needed to rent storage units in four states to hold all of his memorabilia, a cache that included the high chair Dylan sat in as a baby, his grandmother’s candy dish and a stack of phone books from his Minnesota hometown.

These and other devotees are the focus of “The Dylanologists: Adventures in the Land of Bob,” David Kinney’s look at a famously ardent fan base.

The self-confessed Dylan junkie and author of an acclaimed book about zealous fishermen is on familiar ground here. Crisscrossing the country, he profiles compulsive concertgoers, fanzine editors, aging groupies, souvenir hoarders and amateur songwriting analysts.

Given the unparalleled artistry and the corresponding creative troughs of Dylan’s long career, it’s fitting that Kinney’s book is alternately intriguing and leaden. Some of his “Dylanologists” are perceptive students of the singer’s place in the American storytelling tradition. Others aren’t so discerning, their uncritical hero worship similar to that exhibited by dozens of other musical fan bases.

Kinney’s best chapters concern the handful of fans who, despite the millions of words written about Dylan over the last half-century, manage to broaden our understanding of his work.

In 2006, after the release of Dylan’s “Modern Times,” there was a brief flurry of articles about the similarities between the album’s lyrics and Civil War poet Henry Timrod’s verse. That was the last most of us heard of it. Here, Kinney goes deep into the world of Dylan-centric lyrical excavation, exploring the methods and motives of textual sleuths who’ve dedicated substantial portions of their lives to decoding his writing.

Among the most dogged of this bunch is a Dylan diehard named Scott Warmuth. An Albuquerque, N.M., radio host, Warmuth has obsessively scrutinized Dylan’s 2004 memoir, “Chronicles,” and the lyrics of his recent albums, finding dozens of phrases that he says the singer borrowed from a wildly esoteric set of texts. For instance, a single song from the 2001 album “Love and Theft,” according to Warmuth, contains allusions to Lewis Carroll, Edgar Allan Poe, the Bible and a New Orleans visitors’ handbook.

Warmuth’s findings, coupled with similar breakthroughs by like-minded fans, created something of a crisis within the world of Dylan studies, Kinney reports:

“People took sides. Over here, Dylan was lambasted as a thief of intellectual property, a copyright violator, and a plagiarist. Over there, he was doing what artists had done for all time. He was celebrated as a creator of ‘modernist collages.’ ”

The other debate that animates hardcore fans centers on Dylan’s recent albums and the so-called Never Ending Tour that has seen him play more than 2,500 shows since 1988. Though some reflexively contend that Dylan is better than ever, there seems to be a growing body of fans who believe otherwise.

This group of erstwhile aficionados provides Kinney with some of his most provocative subjects.

“The band stinks, Bob doesn’t know the words, he can’t sing for (expletive),” Heylin, the Dylan biographer, says of recent Dylan concerts. “Which bit of it is fantastic?”

But among Kinney’s Dylanologists, the clear-eyed skeptics are outnumbered by star-struck fanatics.

Members of this latter group collect memorabilia and moments — they often talk of personal encounters with Dylan, and Kinney breathlessly relates several of these tales with more credulousness than they might deserve. “It was Dylan who grabbed her by the waist,” he writes, like the author of a bodice-ripper. “He pulled her over, kissed her, and strode off.”

Kinney has a weakness for this kind of stuff. Perhaps realizing that too many of his interviewees sound alike, he frequently resorts to overwrought prose meant to imbue commonplace fandom with a heightened degree of drama. “That night, she was no passive audience member,” he writes of a Dylan concertgoer. “She concentrated, she worked.”

Dylan plays scores of shows a year, so he must feel some kinship with his fans. All the same, Kinney notes, the singer has no time for those who look for hidden meanings in his lyrics and invade his privacy.

“That such people have spent so much of their time thinking about who? Me?” he said in a 2001 magazine interview. “Get a life, please.”

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