AUGUST 6, 2014
WE DON’T CHOOSE our obsessions; our obsessions choose us. If we chose them, then they wouldn’t be obsessions; they’d be pet projects or hobbyhorses. They wouldn’t be ways of life. They’d be a thing found within the space of our own personal realms, rather than a thing that determines the very shape of those realms. For the people profiled in David Kinney’s The Dylanologists: Adventures in the Land of Bob, Bob Dylan is certainly a bona fide obsession, and not always of the healthy kind, either.
Some would say there are no healthy obsessions. I would say they’re wrong. There are healthy obsessions. There are obsessions that have chosen us because they are integral to our lives — because they conform to the contours of our consciousness. There are obsessions that make the world’s weight less lumberous — that enhance rather than diminish our vitality and verve. And there are obsessions, finally, that answer to no peer pressure, either in the affirmative or the negative — that obey their own orbit, oblivious to opinion.
Most of the obsessives found in these pages seem to meet the above criteria for healthy obsession, but, really, how can we know for sure, and who are we to judge anyway? We all have our own obsessions, and, if we’re lucky, they’re healthy ones. But even that much is beyond the powers of our determining. None of us gets to be the arbiter of his very own psyche, any more than the eye can spy on itself or the knife can cut itself in quarters.
This all goes for Dylan himself, too, who is actually quoted in these pages confessing, “People have told me that they’ve heard a song of mine, and it’s changed their lives. Now, I can only believe that or disbelieve it. But I know what it is to feel that because I’ve felt that way myself about some other people’s work.” Nevertheless, as he says elsewhere in the book, the familiarity and intensity demonstrated by many of the devoted leave him to wonder, “Wow, man. What else can be in that person’s head besides me?”
Even Dylan’s girlfriends have not been safe from the frenzy and fervor found in his fans. They would get random calls asking what Dylan was really like. One of them even had to change her name after a caller said that he was going to kill her boyfriend just so he could see what it’s like to fill his shoes. “I’ve been hiding for years,” she tells Kinney, and she’s not joking.
You may find yourself feeling affection for the so-called tape hunters — pursuers of bootleg recordings — even though they do not always seem to be obsessives of the purest kind (they often covet a recording simply because it’s rare, therefore raising their own esteem, rather than because it provides anything fresh or revelatory about Dylan and his music), and even though they often take liberties, Kinney tells us, “that would be frowned upon by the more ethically minded.” The reason for your reluctant affection is the sheer doggedness and inventiveness of these fans:
One cajoled the owner of an ultra-rare tape into playing it for him over the phone and ran a tape recorder so he could have his own copy. Once, collectors got hold of a tape that had been delivered to the U.S. Copyright Office by Dylan’s office to register a batch of songs; it was either copied in the office or swiped outright. To get a copy of Dylan’s 1978 film, Renaldo and Clara, a band of traders arranged to screen it publicly. A theater was booked and tickets were sold. The movie was rented and shown, and then, in the brief period before they had to ship the film cans back, they took it [heavy symbolism here] to a mental health facility — somebody knew somebody — and ran off a video copy.
The ingenuity of these guys is at least equaled by that of the tapers themselves, the ones who give the tape hunters something to go after:
The ripping you heard in the bathrooms before a show was the sound of men pulling off gear taped to their legs and backs. They would disassemble their video cameras and give the parts to friends to smuggle inside. They would sneak gear inside a loaf of bread. One hid his lens inside a coffee thermos with a false bottom just an inch or two from the top. When he poured a little coffee in, it looked like a full pot. One guy stuffed all his gear inside a pillow and strapped it to his girlfriend so she looked like she was with child.
Dylan, for his own part, never has been able to muster much contempt for these thieves, since so much of that contempt seems to have been reserved for those applying the same crazy creativity to the interpretation of his lyrics. This is thievery of a much crasser kind, according to Dylan. At least the bootleggers are dealing in something that actually exists; these exegetes and expositors, on the other hand, are determined to devise their own Dylan. He has called these Talmudists “imbeciles who wouldn’t know the first thing about writing songs,” continuing, “That such people have spent so much of their time thinking about who? Me? 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.”
However, the decoders of Dylan’s sacred texts are not always out of order or out of line. Nowhere is this truer than in the case of those who’ve devoted their energies to Dylan’s 2004 memoir, Chronicles: Volume One. Dylan is an obsessive, too, remember, and even though the object of his obsession may not be Bob Dylan (not to any irrational degree, anyway, given his personal stake in the subject), we all have our Bob Dylans, perhaps Bob Dylan more than most.
Kinney believes that many, if not most, of the borrowed phrases, motifs, and ideas — from literature and history and music — found in Chronicles were meant to be found, that they were planted by Dylan in a mischievous mood, meant to be discovered by the Dylanologists. Even though I don’t agree with this, it should be clear to anyone at all familiar with the creative process that these are not outright thefts, or even borrowings, so much as legitimately processed influences — and, in some cases, even improvements.
Take for instance this description of Johnny Cash:
Johnny didn’t have a piercing yell, but ten thousand years of culture fell from him. He could have been a cave dweller. He sounds like he’s at the edge of the fire, or in deep snow, or in a ghostly forest, the coolness of conscious obvious strength, full tilt and vibrant with danger.
Many were scandalized when Scott Warmuth reported some of these very same phrases stolen from the property of Jack London, who’d employed them in “The Son of the Wolf” (1899). But the phrases exist scattered and disassociated throughout the 6,000-word story. What’s missing is compression, and context, and the instinct to apply these sentiments to Johnny Cash. That’s what Dylan gives to them. Warmuth, to an extent, seems to understand this, and so does Kinney, who, though he does not mention this passage in particular, mentions a different one Dylan came to by way of London. In doing so, Kinney mentions that London himself “had been accused of plagiarism in his time.”
If nothing else, these literary liftings only enhance Dylan’s enigmatic mystique, as if any enhancement were necessary, or even seemingly possible. These Dylanologists are unapologetic eccentrics too, some of them of the first rank, which bodes well for anyone lucky enough to read this fascinating book. Kinney counts himself among them, having first found Dylan the summer before his junior year of high school, in the basement of his childhood home.
For the longest time, I felt alone in this addiction, and a little crazy. No one in my world took Dylan as seriously as I did. But it also seemed as though I was in on a secret. In time I came to realize that there were many others like me — an entire underground nation of unreformed obsessives. I had a people.
One day not long ago, I set out to meet them.
They include the proprietors of Zimmy’s, a Dylan-themed bar and grill in Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota; a woman who stands amidst her Dylan shrine while she tells Kinney of leaving her mother’s church: “I got my church. It’s right here”; and a guy who identifies the second — not the first — time he listened to “Like a Rolling Stone” as being the first — not the second — time he never felt alone.
Then there’s a guy named Bryan Styble, whom Kinney identifies as the “founder of the first Dylan fanzine, Talkin’ Bob Zimmerman Blues, and the man involved in acquiring the ‘armpit tape’ copy of Dylan playing in the St. Paul attic apartment in 1960.” He is a onetime Jeopardy! contestant with Asperger’s who confesses, “I’m an intense person. That’s why people don’t like me.”
Styble is also a guy who literally stalked Dylan — as in, the man himself; as in, moving to Los Angeles in part because Dylan lived there; as in, driving past Dylan’s rehearsal studio three times a week; as in, hanging around outside whenever he heard music from inside; as in, intentionally driving by the house of Dylan’s ex-wife on his way home from work every day; as in, memorizing the cars and license plates found there; as in, looking for those cars and plates outside the studio; as in, crashing the bar mitzvah of one of Dylan’s sons; as in, having what Kinney calls “a few uncomfortable encounters” with Dylan around town that “mostly […] went fine”; as in, waiting outside the studio all night one time, until finally, at 10:15 p.m. Dylan came outside to put something in his car; as in, saying, “Bob, can I talk to you for a second?”
The rest of what happened is inside The Dylanologists, just waiting for you. But here’s a spoiler: Styble is not the worst among the obsessed, because Styble is a guy who understands that it’s not about Bob Dylan so much as it’s about Bryan Styble. Dylan’s just the guy being obsessed over, but Styble is the one doing the obsessing. Styble is the one asking the questions, and he’s the one getting the answers. Styble knows that it’s never about what he has to say on behalf of Dylan; it’s all about what Dylan has to say on behalf of him.