Like a loony stone: Dy­la­nol­o­gists en­flame the fan in fa­natic

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - OPINION - Brian Boyd on mu­sic bboyd@irish­times.com

What’s worse, wak­ing up an al­co­holic or wak­ing up as the edi­tor of a Bob Dy­lan fanzine?

That’s the ques­tion one of the con­trib­u­tors to a new book asks him­self about his near-patho­log­i­cal in­ter­est in his sub­ject. Oth­ers re­alise they have a prob­lem when they can cor­rectly an­swer the ques­tion: “What’s the name of Bob’s ma­ter­nal great-grand­mother?” Those less stricken by all-con­sum­ing fan­dom con­tent them­selves with buy­ing up the houses the Zim­mer­mans used to live in and pay­ing mad money for the high chair lit­tle Bob used to sit in.

David Kin­ney’s The Dy­la­nol­o­gists is the best book about mu­sic that has noth­ing to do with mu­sic. By hold­ing a mir­ror up to the ob­ses­sives, the com­pletists, the weirdos and the gar­bol­o­gists (those who lit­er­ally go through Dy­lan’s bins look­ing for clues), Kin­ney pro­vides the fi­nal word on the tragi-com­edy of in­tense, un­re­lent­ing fan­dom.

Of course, there are many among us who take an un­healthy in­ter­est in the life and times of ev­ery­one from Bruce Spring­steen to The Bay City Rollers. But very few have taken the fi­nal step – as they do here – in sub­sum­ing their own lives into that of Dy­lan’s. These are fans whose homes are shrines, who spend end­less hours, weeks, months and years por­ing over stu­dio logs and set lists and or­ga­niz­ing and pub­lish­ing record­ing ses­sion data.

In their de­fence, Dy­lan is the artist who keeps on giv­ing: from the “spokesman of a gen­er­a­tion” to go­ing elec­tric, to born-again Chris­tian to sage el­der states­man. As Dy­la­nol­o­gist Peter Stone Brown notes: “No other per­former fucks with his fans like Bob Dy­lan”.

The se­ri­ously hard­core ob­ses­sive AJ We­ber­man (au­thor of the Dy­lan to English dic­tio­nary) in­tel­lec­tu­alises his over-at­tach­ment: “How was I to know I would have been to Dy­lan what Ver­laine was to Rim­baud?” Oth­ers here are in such a bad way (lives and re­la­tion­ships left on hold) as they chase yet an­other Dy­lan tour and com­pile boot­leg record­ings in their spare time, you feel a 12 step pro­gramme is re­quired.

The in­ter­net has opened up the pri­vate and clois­tered world of the ob­ses­sive fan to all. There will al­ways be those who be­lieve that an un­der­stand­ing of mu­si­cian will en­hance their un­der­stand­ing of the mu­sic it­self. It’s a thin line. Best to re­mem­ber that there are very good rea­sons for the say­ing “never meet your he­roes”.

We do hear of happy end­ings: the woman who even­tu­ally “de­codes” Dy­lan’s lyrics and gets her­self clean af­ter years of drug abuse; the young man who, fired up by Dy­lan’s early songs about in­jus­tice, puts him­self through law school and be­comes a pub­lic de­fender.

It’s all rem­i­nis­cent of Monty Python’s Life of Brian in that when­ever Dy­lan de­nies his Mes­sianic sta­tus, the Dy­la­nol­o­gists nod their head and say “Only the true Mes­siah de­nies his Divin­ity”.

Kin­ney’s book re­veals that Dy­lan him­self is ac­tu­ally a red her­ring; what Dy­la­nol­o­gists are ac­tu­ally af­ter is a mean­ing in their own lives.

Spit on me, Bob: ‘No other per­former f---s with his fans like Dy­lan’

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