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The Dylanologists by David Kinney, book review: What happens when fan worship meets the mystery that surrounds Bob Dylan

 

I used to think my friend Stuart had it bad. He once invited me over to his house to look at his Bob Dylan archive – rare this, rare that, in which pride of place was taken by a ticket to a Dylan concert in Belfast in 1966, the first time Stuart ever saw him.

I don't know how many times Stuart has seen Dylan since – dozens and dozens – but I do know that through his connections he often gets a seat in the front row. Stuart used to call round occasionally with a new Dylan bootleg for me. It was all a bit furtive. "This one's really good," he'd say. "It's come straight from the master-tape."

I love Dylan. I've been to plenty of Dylan concerts over the years, and never go more than a few days without listening to him. I've read more than one of the countless Dylan biographies. But I'm not in the Stuart class – and Stuart, I discover, is nowhere near the class of "Dylanologist" so engagingly described by the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer David Kinney, in a study that leaves one squirming at the memory of all the high-falutin' rubbish one might have talked about Dylan over the years.

It's hard to think of any creative figure in any genre from the past half-century who gets under the skin the way Dylan does. And the devotees and obsessives whom Kinney uncovers are clearly suffering from some kind of affliction – "fans" like Bill Pagel, whose Dylan-related purchases range from the Minnesota house the singer once lived in to the high chair he occupied as a toddler.

Mitch Blank's vast collection of Dylan artefacts includes one of his pianos, and there was an occasion when he received a visit from someone who was gripped by a case of Dylan-itis that appeared to be even worse than his own. The visitor asked Mitch if he could have one of the screws from the piano. That's right. A screw from Dylan's piano. Just one. Perhaps to frame and stick on a wall.

Then there are the secret "tapers" – concert-goers intent on illegally recording Dylan's performances, and prepared to pull all manner of stunts in order to get round those who would stand in their way. One taper, Kinney tells us, smuggled the necessary equipment into the auditorium by getting his girlfriend to pack it round her waist and pretend she was pregnant.

Kinney does not patronise or pity or scorn these people. He writes about them with, if not warmth, then no disrespect, and there's a gripping chapter in which he joins hard-core fans vying to be first in line for a series of concerts Dylan performed in New York in 2010. The one whom Kinney mainly latches on to is, like many of his counterparts in this strange, intense, rather stressed-out sub-culture, a troubled soul lacking any sort of settled existence. He gives up chunks of his life to travel thousands of miles to follow Dylan from one gig to the next, excursions he can't really afford. Except that "gives up" is not quite right, because for all these fans Dylan represents a search for greater meaning.

Kinney writes with wit and an acute eye for detail, and as well as producing deft character studies of those who can't get close enough to the man behind the shades, he is very good on Dylan himself and the extent to which he may have encouraged such extreme behaviour by cultivating a mystique right from the outset of his career.

Dylan has form of his own in this regard – his celebrated 1961 visit to Woody Guthrie when the folk legend was lying in a hospital bed constituting what might now be regarded as stalking. I loved the story Kinney tells of Dylan – just another tourist – turning up in Liverpool in 2009 in order to visit the childhood home of John Lennon, which had become a National Trust property. Unfortunately, we're not told what Dylan said when he was offered membership.

So, while Dylan might be worshipped, he's a worshipper himself, his Christian phase offering the most vivid example of this inclination. To listen to Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour – his revelatory radio series of a few years ago – was to discover a man so steeped in music history, and so possessed of an urge to impart his knowledge and share his enthusiasms, that his legacy as an educator is every bit as assured as his legacy as a musician.

Other people's "messages" are one thing. Dylan's happy to get behind them. But the idea that he might have any of his own is one he has always resisted. With every evasion he stokes people's fascination with him. Never mind his Never Ending Tour – now in its 27th year – which seems to be as much about staying one step ahead of the pack as it is about uniting him with his public. And in the most troubling chapter of the book we discover one reason why Dylan might want to keep his distance.

All art is to some extent a process of borrowing from what went before, and that Dylan built his career on old folk traditions – reinterpreting songs that go back centuries – is generally seen as an aspect of his greatness. He's not stealing. He's honouring. But through a Dylanologist called Scott Warmuth, Kinney discovers just how much of a magpie Dylan is. And we're not just talking lyrics to his songs. Chronicles: Volume One – the first volume of Dylan memoirs (will the promised Volume Two and Volume Three ever materialise?) – turns out to be littered with phrases lifted from elsewhere, and what this means is that a whole new field of investigation is opened up for his followers. So where did Dylan get that from?

The disillusionment that comes with unrequited love is one of this book's primary themes, and any Dylan fan who picks it up needs to be braced for a bit of disillusionment themselves. But will I now think differently when I listen to "Visions of Johanna", or "Tangled Up in Blue", or "Every Grain of Sand", or any other of Dylan's many masterpieces? Well, maybe. But will they move me any less? I doubt it.

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