20 June 2015

The Dylanologists by David Kinney

So when you ask some of your questions, you're asking them to a person who's long dead. You're asking them to a person that doesn't exist. But people make that mistake about me all the time. 
—Bob Dylan, 2012

If you've ever spent any time around any sort of fan community, most of the people you meet in The Dylanologists will be familiar types. There are the collectors, there are the hermeneuts, there are the true believers and the pilgrims. Some reviewers and readers have derided a lot of the people Kinney writes about as "crazy", but one of the virtues of the book is that it humanizes its subjects and shows that plenty of people who are superfans are not A.J. Weberman. They seem a little passionate, sure, and if you're not especially interested in their passion they may seem a bit weird, but how different are they, really, from denizens of more culturally dominant fandoms — say, devoted sports fans? (Indeed, the term "fan" as we think of it now dates back to 19th century American sports, at least according to the OED.)

Or how different are they from academics? That was the question that kept buzzing through my brain as I read the book. It's no surprise to me that one of the great Milton scholars of our time, Christopher Ricks, would have become a Dylanologist; the fights among the Dylan fans are at least the equal of the fights among the Miltonists, who can be a rather contentious lot... (Speaking of Miltonists, Stanley Fish's invaluable "What Makes an Interpretation Acceptable", a chapter from Is There a Text in This Class?, came to mind again and again as I read.) In so many ways — its esotericism, its gate-keeping, its initiation rites — academia is a collection of high-falutin' fandoms.

Given that I have spent most of my life studying written texts, it's probably predictable that the chapter I found most exciting in The Dylanologists is the one about Scott Warmuth and other researchers who have traced the vast web of references, quotations, echoes, allusions, shadows, and traces of other writings through Dylan's own, particularly in Dylan's work over the last 15 years or so. (See Warmuth's fascinating essay for the New Haven Review about Dylan's Chronicles: Vol. 1.) One of the things that makes Dylan so extraordinary is that he's like a human filter for particular strains of Americana and of musical and literary history. He's like a human cut-up machine. Puritanical squawkers may scream, "Plagiarism!", but for me the effect of, for instance, Warmuth's revelations about Chronicles is that I was in even more awe of Dylan's achievement — the book reveals itself to be not just a memoir, but a more readable cousin to Finnegans Wake. Dylan's references, allusions, echoes, riffs, cut-ups, and copies expand his work and connect it to networks of meaning.

Don Hunstein; Bob Dylan, New York, 1963

(It's worth noting, tangentially, that these references, allusions, echoes, etc. are most effective at the level of language and music. While Dylan certainly has written songs and even entire albums that are explorations of what in fandom get called tropes, he's too great an artist to exert most of his energies at that level.)

(It's also worth noting that there are inevitably differences of power in how such references, allusions, echoes, etc. are perceived and the effect they have, especially in a culture of white supremacy. Dylan's not always great about this, but he's also not always bad, and to castigate him for "appropriation", as some people do, seems to me too reductive to be useful. At the same time, as I pointed out in a review of a book about Charley Patton and Jimmie Rodgers for Rain Taxi's most recent print issue, racism shaped what was possible for even the most talented artists, and the popularity of Patton and Rodgers, for instance, can't be said to be parallel: "The nature of their popularity was significantly different, and no small bit of that difference must be the result of race — both the race of the musicians and the racialized marketing of record companies that offered one set of music to black (and mostly Southern) audiences and another to white (and nation-wide) audiences." Both men were significant to the history of American music, both were hugely talented, and both drew from and played off of similar influences. But Jimmie Rodgers got rich and Charley Patton didn't, even though today it's Patton's name — partly due to Dylan's advocacy and homage — that is probably more likely to be recognized.)

Masks are easy to pick up and just as easy to discard. He's a man of masks, the man of thin wild mercury — the Dylan we know, the Dylan we can know, is a performance. The original image that was sold of Dylan — the earnest protest singer — has been resilient, and people still seem shocked when Dylan does something like a TV commercial. But Dylan was never pure, and it drives purists crazy. Dylan is all poses, all artifice, and he always was. He's not, though, a postmodern ironizer; his earnestness is in the earnestness of his artifice. (His art is real for as long as he performs it.) Many fans fall in love with the earnestness, but hate the artifice.

Fans tend to be both passionate and possessive. This is a bad recipe for Dylan fans, because he seems to take a certain joy in pushing against whatever expectations are set up for him. The history of Dylan fandom is a history of fans denouncing him at every juncture. The "real" Dylan is Dylan before he went electric, Dylan before he went country, Dylan before he went gospel, Dylan before the doldrums of the '80s, Dylan before he did a Victoria's Secret ad, Dylan before... Kinney does a good job of showing the ways that great passion can also lead to great disillusionment and even great hatred. The relationship between fans and celebrities can be pathological and destructive. One of the strengths of Kinney's book is that it shows various ways that pathology may manifest, from the benign to the fatal.

There's a kind of Harry Potter syndrome to a lot of fandom, well expressed by one of Dylan's die-hard followers, an expert at getting to the front of the admission line at concerts. Kinney asked him if he wanted to meet Dylan (not all fans do). Charlie said yes. "I think he would think I was funny. I really believe I could be the one guy who could talk to him without bullshit."

I really believe I could be the one guy — the one guy who understands, the one guy who knows the beloved's soul, the one guy who really gets it. The true fan. Another fan says late in the book:
"He and I have been through a lot together and he doesn't know it," she said. "He doesn't know I exist. Can you see how that would be frustrating? I don't have any grandiose idea that because he's affected me he's going to care. I just think it's not fair that it's a one-way relationship." She wasn't delusional. She didn't think he was going to ask her out on a date, or invite her to his home. But if he did she would have to drop everything and go. "I don't think he's Jesus, I don't think he's the messiah. He's just a human being. But he's filled with poetry."
Or another fan, one that Dylan seemed to occasionally pay some attention to:
"I think it's a wonder he shook my hand. I don't want to speculate," he said. But a few minutes later he stopped midsentence and looked me in the eye. "I take that back. I do have a theory, and I happen to think it's right. I don't think it, I know it. I think he's got a problem similar to my problem: being misunderstood, being misjudged. People take me the wrong way. I suspect it's because they don't listen to the words I say."
Fans may want to distance themselves from religious fanatics, but theirs is still a religious position — fan as worshiper, artist as God — and as various people have pointed out over the years, there's a secular religiosity that such fervent fandom satisfies. The fan is created in the god's image, the god in the fan's. I could be the one guy; He and I have been through a lot together; I think he's got a problem similar to mine. Throughout its history, the word fanatic possesses a religious connotation, and a fan, of course, is a type of fanatic. We don't worship gods that seem alien to us.

I don't say all this to scoff. Personal identification is a fundamental part of any artistic appreciation. It's hard for such identification not to slip toward certain types of fantasy, dreams of contact. I'm a huge fan of some things, and so is Bob Dylan: Kinney tells the story of Dylan's visit to John Lennon's childhood home, and the experience described is that of a fan. Even in academia, at least in my field of literature, one of the things that motivates some of our work (now and then, here and there) is the sense that we can understand a particular text or writer in a way that nobody else can.

And then there are relics. Kinney tells various tales of collectors: people who not only listen to the music, or collect rare recordings, but seek out physical objects somehow related to the singer. As I was most intellectually interested in the hermenauts close reading Dylan's texts, so I felt most sympathy for the people whose lives have been in many ways hindered by their quests for Dylan's stuff. I inherited a collector's personality from my father, though I hope I've also learned from his negative example, because for all the pleasure it sometimes brought him, his quest for the stuff (in his case, militaria, guns, etc.) in so many more ways limited his life. On the other hand, like so much else in fandom, collecting seems to have given the Dylan collectors a sense of purpose as well as a sense of community.

Relics are also religious, a kind of objective correlative for the zeal of worship. The Benjaminian aura becomes for some people even more important in the age of mechanical reproduction. Is anybody who really cares about a work of art impervious to this? I was recently at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia, where a friend works, and getting to see and even hold so many unique items of literary history was overwhelming. "I now know what people mean by 'religious experience'," I said. I understand the impulse to buy the windows of Dylan's childhood home, even as I recognize that such an impulse is absurd. Kinney's book conveys both the attractions of the impulse and the absurdity.

This paragraph toward the end of the final chapter is especially revealing of the complexities that Kinney is able to find in the subject of Dylan and his most passionate fans:
What must it be like to be Dylan, the music writer Paul Williams once wondered, and carry around "the half-formed dreams of millions on your back"? Dylan always had been afraid of his followers, and Williams could understand why. "Their relationship with him is so intense, they expect so much, and more than once over the years they've turned really nasty when he chose to deliver something other than their notion of who 'Bob Dylan' should be." Williams wrote that in the aftermath of the first gospel concerts in 1979, but he just as easily could have said it after Another Side in 1964, Newport in 1966 [sic], Nashville Skyline in 1969, Live Aid in 1985, or London in 2009. So many controversies. So much disappointment. Dylan acted entirely unfazed: "Oh, I let you down? Big deal," he said once. "Find somebody else." More than one fan really did wish he had died in the motorcycle wreck in 1966. It would have been better that way. He'd have been frozen in his glory. Instead he got old. He kept putting out new records and doing shows. He kept confounding.
One of the effective choices Kinney makes is to set the book up as a kind of biography. It generally, though not slavishly, follows Dylan's career from the early days to later. The Dylanologists become a cast of characters, moving in and out of the narrative. These two structural choices sometimes can be frustrating or feel a bit strained, but nevertheless give the book a unity and sense of narrative momentum that wouldn't otherwise be available. I expect readers' interests will ebb and flow depending on which types of Dylanologists they themselves find most interesting, and it's also likely lots of people will want to know more about particular people and less about others, making it difficult to say the book is entirely satisfying, but Kinney's interest is not so much in individual manifestations of Dylanology, but in how the idea of Bob Dylan gets kaleidoscoped through the many different ways of hearing him, seeing him, loving him, and hating him. I'm Not There did something similar in a more abstract way, and it might make a good companion piece with The Dylanologists, certainly more so than any conventional biography, which can really only tell us so much, and very little of what truly illuminates the work. Whether The Dylanologists can illuminate the work depends on what you desire for illumination. Certainly, it illuminates the quest for illumination.