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Tangled Up in Dylan

In all of American pop culture, there's no obsession that comes close in intensity or complexity to the strange and tender madness that is Dylanology

Bob Dylan
Ebet Roberts/Redferns
April 12, 2001

Someday, no doubt, when the keepers of the tower officially allow that Bob was one of the two or three greatest American artists of the second half of the twentieth century, Dylanology will be boiled down to a standard three credits, a dry bonepile of jewels and binoculars to squeeze in between the Yeatsology and Whitmanology. You might even be able to major in Dylanology, hand in papers on the interplay between Deuteronomy and Dock Boggs in Bob's middle period. But for now, even as the Dylan economy grows each day (a mint copy of the rare stereo version of Freewheelin', which contains four extra songs, goes for $20,000), Dylanology, the semi-sub rosa info jungle of writers, fanzine publishers, collectors, Web page keepers, DAT tapers, song analyzers, old-girlfriend gossips and more, retains a bracing hit of democratic auto-didacticism, a deep-fried aroma of overheated neocortices.

"We are fanatical because we are fanatics," says the indefatigable Paul Williams, author of more than twenty-five books, whose Bob Dylan: Performing Artist 1960-1973, Bob Dylan: Performing Artist 1974-1986 and the ongoing Bob Dylan: Performing Artist 1987-2000 will likely approach an aggregate 1,000 pages before he's done. Speaking of his Bob "compulsion," Williams, who is also the former literary executor of Philip K. Dick's estate, says, "If Shakespeare was in your midst, putting on shows at the Globe Theatre, wouldn't you feel the need to be there, to write down what happened in them?"

Williams, who put Dylan on the cover of Crawdaddy magazine, which Williams founded in 1966, is a believer in what he calls "the process." For him, the more than forty conventional, non-bootleg recordings put out by the artist since 1962 are just the blueprint, the starting point, since Dylan, famous for a restless ambivalence toward his own creations, is constantly changing these songs in performance. This means Williams, who solicits donations from Dylan fans so he might continue his work, spends a lot of time comparing and contrasting tapes made at the thousands of shows Bob has given since 1961, which adds up to a lot of alt.versions of "All Along the Watchtower" (1,125 live performances as of January 1st, 2001, according to Glen Dundas' Tangled Up in Tapes, as compared to 1,008 for "Like a Rolling Stone," 175 for "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," 53 for "Visions of Johanna," 22 for "Ring Them Bells," and one each for "Oxford Town" and "Bo Diddley").

"Writing a book about Bob Dylan is a twenty-four-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week, 365-day-a-year project," Williams says.

This comprehensive approach is standard in D Studies. Bob is a big topic, getting bigger all the time, as he continues to flummox presumptions of reclusiveness by barnstorming 100 dates a year, churning up ever more Dylanology in his wake. Clinton Heylin's recent update of Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited now tips in at 780 pages, a strain on the bookshelf that also includes Heylin's Bob Dylan: A Life in Stolen Moments — a day-by-day account of Dylan's doings from the years 1941 to 1995. Even more colossal is Michael Gray's ever-expanding revise of Song and Dance Man III The Art of Bob Dylan, which now stretches to 918 pages, including a 111-page chapter titled "Even Post-Structuralists Oughta Have the Pre-War Blues." But even this seems curt compared with Oliver Trager's forthcoming (release is timed to Dylan's sixtieth birthday, on May 24th) Back Pages: The Definitive Encyclopedia of Bob Dylan. Talk about bringing it all back home (the UPS man who delivered the 1,179-page manuscript to my house was puffing hard): This deeply annotated sprawl of song analysis and cool gossip is enough to keep D fans occupied through a short nuclear winter.

It does not stop, as witnessed by the more-than-5,000-item sales list put out by Rolling Tomes Inc., the Bob megalopolis run by the charming Mick and Laurie McCuistion out in Grand Junction, Colorado. In addition to their quarterly On the Tracks, the McCuistions, who have four full-time employees engaged in what Laurie calls "Bob work," recently added a monthly newsletter titled "Series of Dreams," because, as Laurie says, "there's just so much stuff happening all the time."

As everyone agrees, the current red-hot center of Dylanology is Bill Pagel's Boblinks Web site, based in Madison, Wisconsin, which, in addition to posting a set list (and several highly personalized reviews) within a half-hour of Bob leaving the stage in any part of the world, also offers access to more than 300 other Dylan pages. Here, along with linkage to Sony's own "official" Bobdylan.com and its mighty lyric finder, one encounters the various personal Dylan shrines, cyber tours of Hibbing, Minnesota (where signs welcome the traveler to the "home of Kevin McHale"), hundreds of interviews with the Bobhead and numerous pages such as "A Lily Among Thorns: Exploring Bob Dylan's Christianity." "Lily" offers a compendium of Dylan's Slow Train/Saved-period brimstone preaching: On one particular tempestuous evening in Tempe, Arizona, the Rev. Bob, in a sin-killing lather over persistent cries of "Rock &roll!!!" screams, "If you want rock & roll, you can go down with rock & roll! You can see Kiss! You can rock & roll all the way down to the Pit!"

Displaying ecumenicalism befitting its seeker hero, Boblinks also features "Bob Dylan: Tangled Up in Jews." The site offers "highlights of Dylan's Judaic journeys," such as "changing his name from Zimmerman," "studying with Lubavitch Hasidim," and a description of the First Annual Bob Dylan Ceremonial New Year's Bread Toss, "in which Bob's rabbi shares where it's at and The Man himself blows the Jewish horn."

On Boblinks, one notes that a lot of the good Bob Web pages have already been claimed. Breadcrumbsins is taken. Foggyruinsoftime is taken. So is cowboyangelsings, powergreedandcorruptablessed, fantasticcollectionofstamps, and expectingrain.com. The latter is maintained by the genial Karl Erik Andersen, who works in the national library in a small Norwegian town astride the Arctic Circle and is happy to tell you how he rigged up a wireless system so he can listen to Bob while he shovels snow, which is most of the time. Still, with more than 500 Bob song titles to choose from, many site names remain. As of this writing, such desirable addresses as huntedlikeacrocodile.com, bleachersoutinthesun.com, IstayedupallnightintheChelseaHotelwritingSad-EyedLadyoftheLowlandsforyou.com, Iputmyfingerstotheglassbowedmyheadandcried.com and hitthatdrummerwithapiethatsmells.com are all available.

SSo many quotations, so many conclusions written on the wall, I needed not remind myself as I went out walking through Greenwich Village a few days ago. Dylan can spend the rest of his life inside whatever gated Eden in Malibu, but the Village will always be the mystic Mississippi Delta of Dylanology — Bob Ground Zero. Over there, downstairs at 116 MacDougal, where a bar called The Wreck Room is now, that was the Gaslight. Dylan sang "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues" there, before Dave Van Ronk did "Cocaine Blues." Upstairs was the Kettle of Fish, the bar where Dylan hung with the despondent Phil Ochs and once brought the Supremes, blowing blowsy folkie minds. Around the corner was the sainted Gerde's Folk City. Across Washington Square Park, now outfitted with surveillance cameras by Rudy Giuliani, was the Hotel Earle, currently renovated for tourists but then scruffy and bleak, $19 a week, home to Bob back in 1962.

That was a whole other Dylanological epoch, I thought, strolling, most positively, to the West 4th Street subway station to take the ever-adventurous D train uptown to 59th Street. I was on the way to talk to my old acquaintance A.J. Weberman, who is both the inventor of the term Dylanology and the discipline's most reviled figure.

As students of primeval D-ology know, A.J., who quit college in 1968 to create the first computer-generated Dylan Word Concordance, is most famous for going through Bob's garbage. This "garbology" action was part of a fullscale assault launched by the Dylan Liberation Front, a bunch of Yippie pot smokers who thought Dylan, the most angel-headed head of the generation, had fallen prey to a Manchurian Candidate-style government plot to hook him to sensibility-deadening hard dope. These findings were based on A.J.'s highly idiosyncratic interpretations of "Dylan's secret language," a code that, once cracked, revealed words like "rain" and "chicken" (as in "the sun is not yellow — it's chicken!") to actually mean "heroin." It was Dylan's addiction that led the poet to make sappy records like Nashville Skyline and New Morning when his great gift could have been better used speaking out against Vietnam, A.J. contended.

"Dylan's brain belongs to the People, not the Pigs!" was among the fervent cries back in 1970, as A.J. led the forty or so smelly hippies in his Dylanology class to Bob's home at 94 MacDougal Street, where they screamed for Dylan to "crawl out yer window" and answer charges that he had been co-opted. After an unsolicited DLF-inspired block party for Dylan's thirtieth birthday, which resulted in the NYPD shutting down Bleecker Street, and a long series of hectoring phone calls (the tapes were compiled on a Folkways Records release entitled Bob Dylan vs. A.J. Weberman, now a major Bob collectible), Dylan struck back.

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