Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Kinney’s book, “The Dylanologists: Adventures in the Land of Bob” (Simon & Schuster), was published today. I recommend it not only to Bob Dylan fans, but I would also suggest it might be of interest to anyone passionate about the arts, sports, or any other category you can think of. It can also serve as a primer for those unaffected with this "bug" to help explain why people get really, really into Dylan's music in ways that may baffle family and friends.
I had the opportunity to ask Kinney some questions about Dylan and his fans. Part one follows below.
(Disclosure: Kinney interviewed me for the book, and graciously thanked me in the “Author’s Note” section.)
One thing I particularly liked about the book is that you present these stories without judgment.
I come from the show, don’t tell school of journalism, and as a guy some would call a Dylan obsessive himself, I approached this project with a fair amount of empathy. I’m not sure I go quite as far as some of these Dylanologists, but I can relate.
The narrative unfolds with characters not unlike those included in some of Dylan’s epic compositions, full of passion, obsession, rejection, spirituality, and sadly, even death.
The other day somebody posted a note on my blog that said, “When you bring your life to Dylan’s music, you find your life already there in the music. How does he do that?” One reason people listen is that they hear echoes of their own experiences. Like a great novel, you can return to a Dylan song at different points in your life and find that it resonates differently. As I started the work of twinning the stories of Dylan’s life with the stories of the tribe, it was interesting to see how they meshed and how they spoke to each other.
The press I've read has been overwhelmingly positive, with the notable exception of the “New York Times.” It read like Janet Maslin had an axe to grind (or was told to have a certain slant). I thought "The Paper of Record" would admire the lengths Dylan fans go to in order to set the record straight. Maslin's take was especially ironic considering the “New York Times” reprinted an incorrect report about Dylan recording his voice for a GPS device, and published a poorly researched piece written by Maureen Dowd criticizing Dylan for "selling out" when he played China.
There does seem to be a knee-jerk, vitriolic reaction against the Dylanologists, and I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit as the reviews have started to roll in. There’s the sense that if you listen as closely to Dylan as we do, then you must be foolish or insane. You must be wasting your lives. We all know there are Dylan obsessives who appear to have mental problems. If we’re honest, we might all cop to a touch of eccentricity. And there is a fair amount of truth to the stereotype of the Dylan tragic. But many of the people I met whom I would call Dylanologists were just music fans who had fallen under Dylan’s spell. They had families and jobs. They were university professors and authors. They were also factory workers and businessmen. I met a guy who worked on Wall Street.
I wonder how different this particular pursuit is from others, whether it’s following a different musician or writer or artist, or whether it’s shopping obsessively, or hunting for an elusive orchid, or—as in my last book, The Big One, fishing relentlessly for giant striped bass. I always come back to sports. Is it a waste of your life to pay such close attention that you watch the NFL every week, or buy season tickets to see the home team, or set up a fantasy league, or wear face paint?
It’s possible that this is of a piece with the general impression of Dylan: He just writes folky protest songs, and his fans are a bunch of crazy hippies who think he’s a prophet. There are elements of truth in both of those caricatures, but they’re woefully out of date. This is the sort of conventional wisdom that led Dowd to complain about Dylan’s set list in China. I missed the 1960s, and I embarked on the reporting for The Dylanologists in 2010, so I found a different sort of crowd following a different Dylan.
(To be continued … )
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