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Review: Dylan's most devoted fans seek messages in his lyrics and eye contact from the stage

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"The Dylanologists" (Simon & Schuster), by David Kinney

A Bob Dylan obsession manifests itself in a variety of ways in "The Dylanologists: Adventures in the Land of Bob."

Dylan fans from around the world celebrate his May 24 birthday by converging on the northern Minnesota town of Hibbing, "the capital of the Land of Bob." They may stop for a burger and a beer at Zimmy's, the Dylan-themed bar and restaurant in the town that Robert Zimmerman fled more than 50 years ago before he took on a new identity and became arguably the most influential and enduring entertainer of his time.

For the more obsessed, such a pilgrimage is not nearly enough. Seeking a material link to their idol, they acquire pieces of the original windows of Dylan's home after its most recent owners replaced them. "It's like the four thousand relics of the true cross," one fan said. Another Dylan devotee bought Dylan's highchair and the home in Duluth where his family lived when he was born.

These Dylan enthusiasts, or Dylanologists, as Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Kinney calls them in his very readable and entertaining book, include artifact collectors, fans who attempt to record his concerts, scholars who look for hidden meaning in his songs and those who seek a personal connection with their hero by getting to the front of the house at concerts and trying to make eye contact with him.

Part of Dylan's mystique is his career-long refusal to communicate with fans about changes in his musical styles or the themes and lyrics of his songs. "What better way to build your following than to tell people to go away?" Kinney writes. "Dylan kept people off balance. He did the unexpected. He refused to explain himself."

His quest for privacy only fuels the efforts of the fascinating collection of Dylan fans who Kinney profiles with affection and gentle humour: Michelle Engert, who meticulously deciphered and transcribed the small red notebook containing barely legible phrases that would emerge as the lyrics of Dylan's much-acclaimed 1975 "Blood on the Tracks" album; Mitch Blank, a dedicated searcher for underground recordings of performances that might otherwise be lost forever; and Scott Warmuth, one of a cadre of Dylan scholars who search with academic rigour for lyrics that appear to have been borrowed from poetry, fiction or even Hollywood movies.

The best known Dylanologist — he is credited with coining the term — was A.J. Weberman, who in the late 1960s and early '70s famously sifted through the garbage bins outside Dylan's Greenwich Village house in search of clues to a secret code allegedly hidden in the singer's lyrics. Weberman went on to comb through the trash of Jackie Onassis, Henry Kissinger and Dustin Hoffman, among others.

For some Dylan fans, nothing tops the prospect of scoring a concert spot at the foot of the stage. But winding up "on the rail" means arriving the night before the show, waiting in line without sleep and swapping sharp words and elbows with others who have the same goal in mind. Kinney describes how it's done by going along with superfan Charlie Cicirella, who flies in from Cleveland to catch three successive nights of Dylan's performances at a club in New York's Hell's Kitchen, an odyssey that culminates in exhilaration and fatigue.

While there's no shortage of Dylan biographies or analyses of his work, "The Dylanologists" offers an interesting examination of Dylan's cultlike band of followers who seem to put their lives on hold while dedicating themselves to the performer and his music. Fans will certainly enjoy this book, but so, too, should readers who seek a fascinating examination of a strange subculture.



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