Author David Kinney puts it all in perspective. By Michael Goldberg.
I always wondered if I was a bit, well, over the top when it came to Bob Dylan. After all, I’ve been listening to his records since I was 13, and I’m still listening.
Yeah, a long fuckin’ time.
And just this past week I watched D.A. Pennebaker’s addendum to Don’t Look Back, a film called 1965 Revisited, finished up Larry “Ratso” Sloman’s On the Road with Bob Dylan and the Rolling Thunder Review, watched a YouTube clip of Dylan and John Lennon having a very stoned conversation in the back of a cab for the benefit of a cameraman shooting the never released Eat the Document, and listened to outtakes from Blood on the Tracks, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde, recordings made when Dylan rehearsed with the Grateful Dead in 1986, mostly unreleased recordings of a 1963 Dylan appearance at Town Hall in New York and, and…
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In my crowd in Marin County in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, I was the one leading our explorations into the new frontiers of rock. I was the first to get into the Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out, and Captain Beefheart’s Safe As Milk. I got my folks to drive me into San Francisco to buy an import copy of Pink Floyd’s trippy The Piper at the Gates of Dawn at the long-gone Gramophone Records on Polk Street. This was when Pink Floyd didn’t have a U.S. record label; when Syd Barrett hadn’t yet blown his mind.
Regards Dylan, I was his #1 fan, at least that’s how I saw it.
Sure the others I hung with dug Dylan, but I was the only one who bought the Great White Wonder bootleg when it showed up in a record store bin, and soon enough I had quite a few Dylan bootlegs, mysterious collections of songs that weren’t on his official releases, each in a white sleeve, usually with the name of the album stamped on the cover with one of those rubber stamps you could get made at a stationary store, typically to stamp your address in the left hand corner of an envelope.
These days we know artists record songs that don’t end up on official releases, and in fact, officially releasing those recordings years after they were made has become business as usual. But in 1969, when Great White Wonder was first released, it was a total shock to discover all this music I’d never heard before by an artist I totally dug. It was as if the world I’d known just fell away and another world was revealed, one with a hell of a lot more Dylan music than I had previously known.
When I got my hands on the supposed ‘Albert Hall’ live set (actually recorded at the Manchester Free Trade Hall as we learned many years later), and played it for the first time, it was the most ecstatic listening experience of my admittedly short life.
So you can understand why I’ve always considered myself obsessive regards Bob Dylan, and worried that there was something, well, extreme, maybe even a bit mental, about my obsession. There was a time — now this is back when I was 15, 16, so please don’t hold it against me — when I wanted so bad to look like Dylan, which I didn’t. (I’ve applied some of my own real Dylan fixation to the fictional character Writerman in my first novel, True Love Scars, which I’m publishing in August of this year.)
So I owe David Kinney a big thank-you. His excellent book, The Dylanologists, put my concerns to rest. I mean compared to the Dylan freaks profiled in Kinney’s book, I’m an average run-of-the-mill Dylan fan. Yeah, to be a Dylanologist you have to be operating on a whole other level.
Take Bill Pagel, who actually moved to Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota. Pagel spent years trying to buy the Hibbing house Dylan grew up in, and he succeeded in buying the Duluth, Minnesota house where Dylan’s folks, the Zimmermans, lived when Bob was born. Pagel also bought Dylan’s highchair, for God sakes! And a ceramic candy bowl that at one time belonged to Dylan’s grandmother.
Me, I can’t compete with a Bill Pagel.
If Kinney’s book simply profiled a dozen or so Dylanologists it would be of interest, at least to me, but he does a hell of a lot more. Kinney manages to tell us a version of Dylan’s story, even as he also digs into what’s most interesting about the Dylan obsessives he’s chosen to include.
So in an early chapter he takes us to Hibbing and simultaneously tells us about the young Dylan, the town of Hibbing and the surrounding environment, Bill Pagel and his obsessions, and lets us hang out at Zimmy’s, the now shuttered restaurant that for many years was a focal point for fans who came to their hero’s home town.
Dig Kinney’s description of Zimmy’s:
“…a faux Hollywood Walk of Fame star on the sidewalk and a menu featuring ‘Simple Twist of’ Sirloin ($15.95). … Gazing from photographs on a towering billboard sign out front were Bob Zimmerman, age seventeen, holding an electric guitar and his high school girlfriend Echo Helstrom, posing for a glamour shot. A cardboard cutout of sixty-ish Dylan greeted diners inside the front door. He had a thin moustache and a white cowboy shirt open three buttons from the collar. On the walls were guitars and posters, a Highway 61 road sign, and images of Dylan from the 1940s and ‘50s. Bob on a motorcycle, Bob at his mother’s feet as a toddler, Bob holding a drum he made in middle school. In one photo, a first-grade class portrait, every child looks at the camera except him. He had turned his head at the moment the shutter clicked open.”
Linda Hocking, the woman who came up with the idea to turn a dying restaurant, the Atrium, into Zimmy’s, tells Kinney she was worried that people would see her and her husband as “cashing in” on Dylan’s popularity. One day not too many months after the restaurant’s name change, Dylan’s mom, Beatty Zimmerman, stopped in for lunch. After Beatty greeted some of her friends, she settled at a table and Linda walked over and asked her what she thought of Zimmy’s.
“Honey,” Beatty told Hocking (or so the story goes), “it’s about time somebody did something nice for my son in Hibbing.”
Here’s Kinney describing Dylan’s early songwriting breakthrough:
“One night in April 1962 he was sitting in a coffee house on MacDougal Street when he came up with the idea for the song that would make his name, once and forever. In the public mind, it would overshadow everything else he would ever do. He was twenty.
“At the café, there had been a long debate about civil rights for blacks in America. Dylan was not considered a political thinker around the Village, but he listened closely, and, as he told friends later, a thought flashed through his mind. The problem was not just racism, but the fact that most people didn’t speak out against it. Even those who meant well were guilty. As they went about their daily lives, their silence implicated them. He went home and dashed off some verses.
“The song asked a series of societal questions. How long before all men are free? How long until war ends? And most pressing, how long can people act like they don’t see the injustice? The answer, as anyone with a pulse would hear in the coming years, and for decades after that, was “blowin’ in he wind.” The song sounded timeless, world-weary, like an ancient hymn. The older folksingers griped that it was naïve, too simple. But it had a subtle power. It was a big song, bottomless. It left it to listeners to find the answers, which were there for anyone to grab, and yet, paradoxically, always swirling just out of reach… By asking the questions, he implied that he had the answers, that he carried around some special knowledge, some hidden truth about the world.
“From then on, everybody wanted to know what it was.”
The most interesting part of the book, for me, is a chapter called “Down the Rabbit Hole,” which deals in part with Dylan’s appropriation (theft?) of the words and ideas of other writers for his songs and his memoir, Chronicles Volume One. For example, Dylanologists discovered that Dylan had borrowed from F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Johnson, W.C. Fields, and Junichi Saga’s “Confessions of a Yakuza” (and others) for Love and Theft.
But while some have looked darkly on Dylan’s appropriations, others see it as part of a tradition that goes back to the very early days of writing poetry and songs. Kinney quotes Dylan expert Michael Gray from his book Song and Dance Man lll: The Art of Bob Dylan. “I like to think of it as deepening a resonance. You want him [Dylan] to be this lone genius who came from another planet. He never pretended to be. He’s created something out of something else. You can’t make something from nothing.”
It’s Dylanologist Scott Warmuth, who in high school was “known for being widely read, scarily smart, and wickedly funny,” who really digs deep into Dylan’s source material. Warmuth has spent over a decade looking into Dylan’s borrowings for both song lyrics and sentences in “Chronicles.”
“He takes all these lines from all these places,” Warmuth told Kinney,” and they all come off as Dylanesque.”
Kinney then gives us the example of “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum,” the opening song on Love and Theft. “Dylan sings about various sets of twins, duos, and brothers, and the thefts harken back to earlier works on the theme.” Kinney writes. “The characters in the title are best known as the copycats from Lewis Carroll. The Land of Nod is where Biblical Cain was exiled after killing his brother. ‘Your presence is obnoxious to me’ comes from a minstrel sketch involving a woman who rents the same apartment to two men and they don’t know it, since one works all night and one works all day. ‘Stab you where you stand’ is a line in the Edgar Allan Poe short story ‘William Wilson,’ about a man and his doppelganger. In a 1932 movie about circus freaks, one of the Siamese twins says, ‘Her master’s voice is calling.’ The distinctive guitar riff comes from a 1961 rockabilly song called ‘Uncle John’s Bongos’ by Johnnie & Jack, who were brothers-in-law.”
Dylan himself addressed the issue of appropriation during a 2012 interview with Mikal Gilmore for Rolling Stone.
“It’s called songwriting,” Dylan says, “It has to do with melody and rhythm, and then after that, anything goes. You make everything yours. We all do it.”
And then there are the fans who follow Dylan around from show to show. Really, like Dylan-obsessed versions of Deadheads. Some of them are tapers who record Dylan’s performances and make them available to a network of other hardcore Dylan fans, and sometimes post them on the Internet.
For example, take Charlie Cicirella, who in advance of three shows at Terminal 5 in New York in 2010, flew in from Cleveland a day early, checked in at a hotel, then went to the venue and got in line. Cicirella was the first in the line, and he stayed there all night and all day long, until the doors were opened and Cicirella was able to go inside and nab a great spot to watch the show from. And then, after the show was over, after grabbing some sleep, Charlie did it all over again, getting in line at 4 a.m.
To be a Dylanologist you have to be operating on a whole other level. What’s a little scary though is that at times as I read the book — particularly when reading about fans like Cicirella who felt a sense of community as they followed Dylan from show to show, or this cat named Bryan Styble, who in 1980 moved to L.A., started seeking out his hero, met him on several occasions and actually shook the great man’s hand once – the idea of joining that loose community of Dylan followers struck me as appealing. I do want to emphasize that this was a momentary flash of thought, not something I seriously considered.
Still, there it was.
“What would it really be like?”
If you wanna know, The Dylanologists is a damn good place to start.