Book review

'The Dylanologists: Adventures in the Land of Bob': the neverending superfans

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David Kinney is a good soldier in the army he documents in “The Dylanologists: Adventures in the Land of Bob,” his depiction of a largely invisible society built around Bob Dylan the man, the myth and the riddle.

The relentlessly opaque and inventive Dylan began as a cult figure more than 50 years ago, siphoning into his own hipster-hobo persona the style and heritage of Woody Guthrie.

Before long, he was turning out classics of the folk and rock era. Mr. Dylan’s evolving sound alienated the folkies and thrilled the rockers, turning him into an icon. Half a century later, he continues to release albums — with Mr. Dylan, they will always be albums — while conducting what has been dubbed his Never Ending Tour.

Mr. Kinney focuses on the superfans who line up early for Mr. Dylan’s erratic concerts, parse his lyrics as if they were scripture and form a haphazard community that, the writer suggests, considers the object of their faith more important than work or even sustenance. It’s a strange bunch, particularly considering Mr. Dylan has always rejected being considered a leader.

By David Kinney
Simon & Schuster ($25)

Mr. Kinney’s subjects include Elizabeth Wolfson, a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and clinical psychology professor whose life would be complete if she wrote a book —  and met Mr. Dylan. “The Dylanologists” also includes chapters on A.J. Weberman, a New Yorker whose Dylan obsession, memorialized in garbage scouring, made news early in the singer’s career, and Scott Warmuth, a Long Island disc jockey bent on tracking Mr. Dylan’s lyrics to their source.

Mr. Warmuth raises questions of self-plagiarism by Mr. Dylan as well as questions about whether he stole from the work of others. The novelist Jonathan Lethem, a noted Dylanologist, defends Mr. Dylan in the name of “artistic appropriation.”

And there’s also Mitch Blank, who lives in Greenwich Village and curates the Blank Archives —  “thousands of pieces of tape and paper having to do with Dylan, the counterculture, the Village folk scene, and whatever else that had, at one time or another, captured Mitch’s fancy.”

When Mr. Blank told a visitor he owned the upright piano used at Big Pink, the name of a house in Woodstock, N.Y., where Dylan and the Band worked together in 1967, the visitor asked Mr. Blank for a screw from the piano:

“What would the man do with it? Wear it on a necklace like a totem from some dark religious cult? Mitch didn’t know and he didn’t care. Whatever made him happy.

“After his guest left, Mitch said, he found another screw, went back to the bedroom with his screwdriver, and replaced it. Just in case it happened again,” he wrote.

That story could be the germ of a Dylan song. While the characters explored in “The Dylanologists” are more interesting than one might expect (perhaps because no one has chronicled them in such detail before), Mr. Kinney downplays the decline of Mr. Dylan himself by treating some of his later work with more respect than it deserves.

Mr. Dylan’s voice reached new lows, both literally and in terms of quality, with “Tempest,” his most recent album. Mr. Kinney is more critical of Mr. Dylan’s puzzling 2004 autobiography, “Chronicles, Vol. 1,” than his latest recordings, but he raises several interesting questions: Where will the Dylanologists go once their man stops touring or dies and how might Mr. Dylan extend his brand again?

To Dylanologists, however, answers to such questions matter less than Bob Dylan himself. As long as he continues to infuriate, illuminate and obfuscate in interviews, and as long as he makes records and tours, the fans will be there, interpreting, rejoicing, bemoaning, adoring.

Mr. Kinney’s book proves there’s always another side of Bob Dylan.

Carlo Wolff is a reporter for the Cleveland Jewish News who first saw Dylan on the Rolling Thunder Revue stop in Burlington, Vt., in 1975. He also saw Dylan on his “Slow Train Coming” tour and on two Never Ending Tour dates.

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