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Tangled up in Bob

Freewheelin' devotees can't explain Dylan's draw

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The Bob Dylan publishing industry has produced no shortage of titles with dubious angles.

Last year, for example, a U.S. business writer came out with one, Forget About Today, arguing that the perpetually scruffy songwriting genius missed his calling as a self-help guru.

So a book devoted entirely to the Bobster's obsessive fan base would seem to be long overdue, given that it has been more than 40 years since the notorious Dylan "garbologist" A.J. Weberman rooted through the man's trash in Manhattan's Greenwich Village.

In The Dylanologists, an enthusiastic though largely superficial effort, American journalist David Kinney proves himself an adept prose stylist and a knowledgeable guide through the Dylan canon.

A self-confessed Dylan addict with one other previous book to his credit (about fishing, of all things), Kinney has also worn out much shoe leather to track down dozens of his fellow Dylanophiles, the men and women (though mostly men) who catalogue his live concerts, collate his recording output, collect his personal detritus and comb through his every utterance.

In August 2010, Kinney made it to Sturgis, S.D., for a Dylan concert at the town's massive annual biker rally. "It's (bleeping) insanity!" he quotes an unnamed Winnipegger who had driven 11 hours to catch the show. "What is this place?"

This tends to be the average fan's level of insight. Only slightly more satisfying is Kinney's pilgrimage to Dylan's hometown, the hardscrabble mining town of Hibbing, Minn., which he describes as a "quintessential melting pot" and "more bustling than you'd expect from a little flyspeck in the middle of nowhere."

Everywhere Kinney goes, he talks to Dylan nuts. Nina Goss, an English PhD, writes about the artist "in thickly layered sentences that unfurl like frantic attempts to grasp the truth."

Mitch Blank, an archivist, claims to own 180,000 recordings of Dylan songs. Bill Pagel, a collector of memorabilia, owns Dylan's red Naugahyde high chair and wants to purchase his boyhood house in Hibbing.

One Canadian gets several pages. Glen Dundas, "a quiet accountant" from Thunder Bay, Ont., spent the '80s and '90s illicitly taping Dylan concerts all over the world and "establishing himself as a respected hub in a global tape-trading network."

Obscurities outside their chosen obsession, these people are well-known to each other. None of them, however, can persuasively articulate why they are so drawn to their hero, beyond the most obvious of platitudes. "He's always done what he wants to," Kinney quotes Dundas as saying. "It's awesome, really."

Dylan, of course, has long been scornful of those who tramp around after him. But Kinney points to the irony that Dylan himself at 19 trekked to New York to worship at the hospital bed of his idol Woody Guthrie.

A bigger irony here is that the best parts of the book are not Kinney's fan profiles, which too often end without a point, but the recounting of Dylan's career highlights and musical accomplishments that he interweaves between the main events.

He makes his biggest contribution to Dylanology in the chapter about Scott Warmuth, a New York-born disc jockey and blogger who has scoured the Internet to catalogue the bits of his songs Dylan has lifted from others writers' poems, stories and books.

As if to demonstrate his objectivity, he gives the well-known British-born Dylan biographer Clinton Heylin a platform to pan the last decade or so of Dylan's so-called Never-Ending Tour: "The band stinks, Bob doesn't know the words, he can't sing for shit."

Despite what cynics might say, Dylan's contribution to popular culture is unassailable. In that light, the idolatry Dylan continues to attract makes sense, even if his worshippers cannot fully explain it.


A former Free Press books editor, Morley Walker loves Bob Dylan almost within the bounds of reason.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 24, 2014 G7


Updated on Saturday, May 24, 2014 at 8:36 AM CDT: Formatting.

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