Bob Dylan is America’s very own, homegrown obsession. But do we really need another book about the reigning supremacy of Bob the Legend? His mysticism and magnetism are well-documented, and they are two of the elements that turn his fans into followers and his followers into obsessives.
Indeed, Dylan’s textual trail runneth over; from scholars to sketchers, poets to portraits, every inch of Dylan has been combed over time and again. And yet, and yet, we’re still no closer to understanding his ways and means than we were in the beginning.
The “obsessive” title gets bandied about more than just a little in David Kinney’s intense and supremely smart book, The Dylanologists: Adventures in the Land of Bob, a hyperreal road trip through the meetings and the minds of some of Dylan’s more loyal followers and hardcore fans. The “obsessive” tag bothers most fans of Dylan that Kinney turns to in the book. One super fan, Bill Pagel, the owner of Dylan’s highchair, insists he is “not obsessed but dedicated” and asserts that, when it comes to Bob, no matter what lengths he goes to, “his heart is in the right place.”
Kinney posits that Pagel and others like him aren’t far off, but he also offers that Dylanology is what gives those followers meaning. “It was written in his code,” Kinney says of Pagel. And so it goes with most of those who pursue Dylan beyond casual fandom. They are not obsessive, they’re just seekers who have found their white whale to hunt.
One gets the sense that their only issue is that there’s no attainable level beyond obsession—besides madness. And that’s where all of them draw the line, although some fans walk perilously close to that cliff. (One fan, “The Man in the Fedora”, insists on remaining nameless, and one or two others have a tenuous grasp of reality, at best.) Still, if you’re a Dylan fan, there’s always room for dedication because his career lends itself easily to study.
Kinney, like Dylan, Kerouac, and Guthrie before him, is on a road trip through Dylan’s America, cataloging, digesting, and ruminating on the nature of Dylan’s eternal pull. Whereas other Dylan books have traced the artist’s career from point to point, Kinney reverses the authorial roles and examines Dylan through the complexities of his most fervent adorers.
As with the cloaked and cowboy-hat adorned mythos, he discovers what many of us have known all along. There’s no understanding Dylan, there are only theories and futile devices to deconstruct him through his songs, crude maps with red herrings that Dylan has fashioned for those silly enough to attempt a revelation; a bread crumb trail in a maze that simply loops back on itself, like a snake eating its own tail.
That kind of indictment doesn’t stop Dylanologists—and Kinney, occasionally—from attempting deconstruction and interpretation. In a meta-fictional manner, Kinney is both author and hunter, too. His text occasionally reminds you that he’s the man behind the notepad profiling the subjects, but he’s also on the trail himself, excavating the Dylan mythos, as well. Kinney doesn’t hide behind the veil like other biographers of Dylan have done; instead he hurls himself into the fray, waiting in line for 16 hour stretches to see Dylan concerts, tracing bootleg tapes down on the internet, and visiting spots and haunts where Dylan occasionally appears.
As much as we’d like to remove ourselves from that type of Dylanological pursuit, the mere act of reading The Dylanologists thrusts us headlong into the puzzle that is Dylan and forces us to confront real and personal issues about our lives. What does it mean to define our time by someone else’s work? Where does that magnitude of creativity come from? And finally, how much of our time is wasted—or not wasted—on the pursuit of the impossible?
Kinney has uncovered some Dylan fans that have been motivated and moved to achieve goals in their lives that they might not have otherwise. For example, Michelle Engert, after she was questioned by Bucky Baxter, Dylan’s guitarist, is inspired to become a public defender. (“Dylan had made her a better lawyer,” Kinney states unequivocally.) Other fans have found comfort and emotional peace in his lyrics and albums.
For others, however, Dylan is a source of innate negativity, a man who is incapable of delivering on the promise of his former greatness. The word “betrayal” comes up a lot for some fans; they feel betrayed by music, betrayed by his scorn for hardcore fans, betrayed by the words he works to conjure. That type of betrayal is made manifest and amplified by accusations of plagiarism in both his music and his own memoir, Chronicles: Volume One.
Kinney’s chapter addressing these accusations, “Down the Rabbit Hole”, is by far the most intriguing of the book, not just because Kinney gets in on the fun, too, by lifting phrases and peppering them in the chapter (I spotted a Thomas Hardy reference and went back to find what else Kinney had left for us), but also because Dylan may have wittingly begun the biggest debate about musical authenticity and authorial ownership since earlier this year when Led Zeppelin were sued for musical plagiarism.
All of this is to say, Kinney’s book runs deep and fast, allowing our own inner Dylanologist to have some time in the sun. A new book about Dylan, no matter what angle or element, will hardly bring us any closer to unraveling the enigma of Dylan. But what we pull away from it, and what Kinney demonstrates with force and aplomb, is that the worn out maxim of relishing the journey, not the destination, might be the only consistency we’ll ever get out of Dylan.
It’s not an answer, but it is the right question. And the journey is a hell of a lot of fun, too.
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