Only a pawn in their game: Bob Dylan and the stupidest fans in rock

The answer, my friend, is hidden in Bob Dylan’s songs, just waiting to be found – or so the obsessive and cranky Dylanologists insist.

Bob Dylan surrounded in 1972 - not all fans were happy just to listen, however, and some turned Dylan into a guru and hung on his every word. Keith Beaty
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Fan: "You don't know who I am, but I know who you are." Bob Dylan: "Let's keep it that way." This is the telling epigraph that prefaces The Dylanologists [], David Kinney's fascinating study of folk obsessed with the famed singer-songwriter born Robert Allen Zimmerman. Demonstrating Dylan's quick, acerbic wit and his testy relationship with his devotees, the quote is deliciously apposite. In many ways Adventures in the Land of Bob is an account of Dylan's determination to shake off and /or wrong foot those who claim to love him most.

Kinney is a journalist of catholic interests who won a Pulitzer Prize for his political writing with the New Jersey newspaper The Star-Ledger in 2005. Here, over the course of 241 beautifully written pages, he probes the minds and motives of those for whom following Bob has become a religion – and, in some cases, a ­sickness.

"You're wasting your life," the author quotes Dylan telling fanatics after the release of 2001's Love and Theft and yet more guesswork about his lyrics. But the Dylanologists are in too deep, unfazed by their hero's disdain for them, and they typically see themselves as dedicated, rather than obsessed. Earlier in the book, Kinney quotes the rock critic Greil Marcus, who has been asked: "Why are Dylan fans the worst?" "[They're] not just the worst – they're the stupidest," replies Marcus. "I think it's because something in Dylan's writing leads people to believe that there is a secret behind every song. And if you unlock that secret then you'll understand the meaning of life."

Kinney discovered Dylan's music just before he started high school. He'd come across his elder brother's five-album box-set Biograph in the basement of their childhood home. "The man glowering on the front cover looked like he didn't take orders from anybody," he recalls. "I liked that." The author is also good on how an obsession with Bob can take root – and on the well-worn arguments of naysayers: "We know what you're thinking. That the man cannot sing, that he yelps, grunts and caterwauls, that he sounds like a suffering animal or a busted lawnmower…"

Though quality control is sustained throughout the book, its opening chapter Pilgrims is particularly strong. As we follow fans to Hibbing, the small Minnesota town that Bob left in 1959, we realise that, in viewing Dylan through the glazed eyes of the Dylanologists and the odd subcultures they frequent, Kinney will be able to tell Bob's story in a fresh, compelling way.

As we learn about Dylan’s upbringing, we also learn about Zimmy’s, the local, Dylan-themed bar and restaurant where you can buy a “Hard Rain” hamburger. Then there’s “ultimate Dylan pilgrim” Bill Pagel, a Chicagoan who settled in Hibbing in 2006, and whose vast collection of Dylan-related artefacts includes everything from a ceramic candy bowl that belonged to Bob’s grandmother, to the house in Duluth, Minnesota where Dylan was born in 1941.

But it’s the events in Hibbing one day in September 2004 that grip most. Kinney tells of the ripples of excitement that ensue when folks learn that Bob himself is back in town for the funeral of his distant relation, Myrtle Jurenes. There’s a lovely comic tension as Zimmy’s proprietor Bob Hocking tests the long, but not easily discountable odds of Bob stopping by for a “Simple Twist of” sirloin, but in the end Dylan is seen sprinting across a lawn and into the driver’s seat of his Ford pickup. He’s been spooked by the sudden arrival of a local TV crew and is heading out of town apace.

In a chapter titled Hostilities, Kinney shows that it was the lyric of Blowin' in the Wind, written in 1962, that "branded Dylan, once and for all, as a folkie, as some sort of political activist". But Dylan didn't wanted to be pigeonholed as the new Woody Guthrie and as the well-documented "Dylan goes electric" controversy of 1965's Newport Folk Festival underlined, nor did he want to be appropriated by – or seen as a figurehead of – any particular group.

These and other facts enable the author to establish how and why Dylan became a reclusive, increasingly enigmatic figure. He notes that “he quickly grew tired of reporters who were [informed by nothing other than] the media echo chamber” and tells of how Bob and his first wife Sara Lownds awoke at their Woodstock home one morning to find “a man standing in their bedroom, just watching them”.

By 1969, Dylan had enough of Woodstock and he moved his family back to New York City in search of anonymity. “He didn’t find it,” notes Kinney. “Instead he came face to face with a new breed of fan: the Dylanologist.”

The author is careful not to tar all of his “ologists” with the “deranged” brush. Thus Mitch Blank, a Greenwich Village-based archivist specialising in rare Dylan recordings, is described with affection, perhaps because “he came to the conclusion early on in life that he could justify having all of this stuff only if he shared it” (plenty of Dylanologists, Kinney shows, are duplicitous and mercenary when trading “liberated” recordings).

Blank is trustworthy enough to have established a friendship with Dylan’s manager, Jeff Rosen, but he also understands those whose needs are less healthy than his own. When a Dutch Dylan fan learns that he has the piano from Big Pink, the famed Woodstock house where Dylan recorded with The Band, Blank gifts him a screw from the piano’s frame, as requested. He can’t help wondering, though, if the Dutchman will “wear it on a necklace like a totem from some dark religious cult”.

The book also explores the cautionary tale of the drug casualty Alan Jules Weberman, the most infamous and misinformed Dylan fan of them all. Weberman believed that Dylan’s lyrics operated at multiple levels of meaning, and in the early 1970s he went through the singer’s trash outside his home in NYC, searching for a “a piece of paper that contained a translation of his hieroglyphical poems”.

Yet for all of his flights of fancy – Weberman asserted that Dylan had contracted HIV; that he was a racist and a Holocaust denier – Kinney is able to quote a rare, summarising moment of clarity from the man he dubs “father of the Dylanologists”: “I wasted my [expletive] life on this s***.”

Elsewhere we read of a woman who calls herself Sara Dylan and claims she is the singer’s twin sister, separated from him at birth. There’s a vulnerability in her that Dylan seems to recognise when they meet by chance in the street in DeKalb, Illinois in 1990, and according to another Dylan fan who knew her, the singer subsequently ensured that Sara had a free ticket waiting for her at any concert of his she attended (Sara had previously followed whole tours, hitchhiking if need be).

This was a rare, but not isolated instance of Dylan being charitable to one of his devotees, but the story ends sadly. Sara – real name Renee Shapiro, from Pharr, Texas – was murdered in 1992. A note found in her bag suggested she’d been en route to yet another Dylan show.

In a much lighter section, Kinney documents the practices of Dylan concert bootleggers. In the early 1980s, concealment of the cumbersome, now primitive-seeming kit demanded great ingenuity, hence faked pregnancies and hollowed-out loaves. “The ripping you heard in the bathrooms before a show,” Kinney writes, “was the sound of men pulling off gear they’d taped to their legs and backs.” And given the Never Ending Tour that has continued to see Dylan play hundreds of shows every year since 1988, the bootleggers have had plenty to keep them busy.

Kinney’s book shows that there are many Dylans. The late 1980s has-been who saw himself as “a fictitious head of state from a place nobody knows” bears little resemblance to the Pepsi-promoting Bob of today, a figure seemingly at home in the corporate world.

It’s the Dylanologists, it seems, who have become disillusioned. There’s a lovely passage here where one of their number, Clinton Heylin, ostentatiously reads a newspaper at one of Bob’s shows, this a protest at the singer’s insular, lacklustre performance.

The Dylanologists is whip-smart and refreshingly-skewed, and its chapter Down the Rabbit Hole reveals how recent research by the seeming whipping-boys of the book's title tells us much more about Bob's creative process than the singer would have us know. Better yet, this is a Dylan book that even non-Dylanologists will likely enjoy.

James McNair writes for Mojo magazine and The Independent.