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Tangled Up in Dylan

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Dylanology marches on; it's a continuity thing. Last week, I was eating breakfast at a formerly run-down East Village diner with Josh Nelson, who is twenty-four and aspiring to be a psychology professor. In 1990, when Josh was thirteen, his father took him to see Bob for the first time at the Beacon Theater in New York. This was no surprise. As many fathers make a fetish out of taking their kid to their first ballgame, it is Dylanological ritual responsibility to bring der kinder to Bob shows. Only a few weeks before, I'd accompanied my own seventeen-year-old daughter, Rae, to her first Dylan show, at Jones Beach, the same funky stretch of sand where, thirty-five years ago, I used to come with my friends, our bodies stark and white, stupid Bob hats on our heads.

But still, it was tense. Dads and teens, it's always tense, all the more because we were seeing Bob, and nothing about Bob is simply casual. It could have been didactic, another lesson, one more bit of proof of how my hallowed pop youth exceeded hers. But Dylan speaks to all, equally. The show worked out fine. Just for that ole-time Bob atmosphere, it rained apocalyptically, the speakers nearly blew up, and Dylan sang Rae's favorite apocalyptic comedy, "Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest."

"The rest is up to her, you've done your part," commented Josh Nelson, who, since his dad took him to the Beacon, has seen Bob Dylan perform upward of 203 times, in St. John's, Newfoundland; Regina, Saskatchewan; Cottbus, Germany; and Starkville, Mississippi. "In my mind, Dylan was just another of the those older Jewish guys whom I had heard of only in name. It's scary, but, for some reason, I grouped him with Neil Diamond and Barry Manilow. Yes, in a word, I knew nothing . . ." Josh once wrote in a college essay discussing his immersion in Bobdom. Soon enough, however, he decided that "'Boots of Spanish Leather' is no longer about sailing and 'Mama You Been on My Mind' is a song about the hopelessly unforgettable . . . no longer all foreign and ungraspable but rather now somehow understood and real."

"That's the difference," Josh said. "For me, Bob Dylan isn't the man who played Folk City and Forest Hills. The Bob Dylan I know is the man on the stage at the Beacon Theater, older, sadder maybe, but still him." It was one thing to regret the long-missed past, and another to make the most of the present and future, said Josh, who, like most younger Dylanologists, leans heavily to the study of Bob's stage performances. "We're there, keeping the flame," Josh says, proud that he'd heard that Dylan made Time out of Mind partially so his young fans would have some songs to hear for the first time, to call their own. Then, nervously pushing his kasha and eggs across his plate, Josh said that even if people called him "the walking Krogsgaard" (in reference to his encyclopedic recall of Michael Krogsgaard's authoritative listing of Dylan set lists), he didn't want to give the impression that "this" was his entire life. He'd graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Middlebury, after all. He didn't want to seem like some nut. It was a theme, skirting the edges of lunacy in service to the Bob Muse; this much was apparent upon visiting Mitch Blank, an old-time Village guy.

"Looking at this place, you'd think a normal person lives here," said Mitch, standing in the doorway of his remarkably neat (considering) walk-up apartment. Mitch's self-diagnosed mania is his Dylan collection, which includes: a magical set of sliding wall cabinets capable of handling more than 20,000 tapes of Bob Dylan concerts, a collection of every Bob interview dating back to the 1960s, the cover of each magazine on which Bob Dylan has ever appeared, nearly every Bob Dylan poster or show announcement (the November 11, 1961 playbill from Carnegie Chapter Hall says "All Seats — $2.00"), a xerox of the cover of Bob Dylan's copy of Woody Guthrie's Bound for Glory, a full collection of Bob Dylan postage stamps from Gambia and Tanzania (some of which Mitch arranged to have canceled by the Hibbing, Minnesota, post office on Dylan's 52nd birthday, May 24th, 1993), a Highway 61 sign from Minnesota DOT, a piece of the Big Pink piano, a Bob Dylan-signed baseball, a copy of a lease for an apartment Dylan moved into at 21336 Pacific Coast Highway that allows for "5" children and "1" dog. Also present is Mitch's typically complete database, which, among much else, catalogs covers of Dylan songs ("I Shall be Released" was done by Marjoe Gortner, Coven, Telly Savalas and Big Mama Thornton; "Blowin' in the Wind" by Sebastian Cabot, Marlene Dietrich, Brian Hyland and the U.S. Navy Steel Band).

"It's just the tip of the iceberg," announced Mitch, who works as a photo researcher by day and is on the advisory board of the Museum of Folk Music in Greenwich Village, as he graciously copied a documentary on collectors of 8-track tapes so I'd see what "the really sick are like." Yet there is a line even Mitch will not cross, such as when a good friend called up saying he had several Marlboro butts freshly smoked by Dylan.

"'What do I want Bob's cigarette butts for?' I asked this degenerate," Mitch recalled. "And he said, 'Don't you see? Dylan's DNA is on those butts. Sometime in the future we'll be able to clone a whole new Bob Dylan. The ultimate collectible.' I told him he was disgusting. You know, even for me, there's a limit."

The limit. I was looking for the limit. I mean, it was fine thumbing through the hundreds of interviews Bob has given over the years, learning that on June 13th, 1984, Dylan told Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times that he didn't think he'd be "perceived properly till 100 years after I'm gone." It was amusing to hear stories told by old Villagers about going shopping with Suze Rotolo, Bob's most mythic pre-Sara girlfriend (who was remembered as "quiet, pigeon-toed and very fond of the color green"), the day she bought those famous Boots of Spanish Leather. It was interesting also to read through many of the D novels written over the years, from Diane Di Prima's Olympia Press porno scenes about fucking along with "Highway 61" to Don DeLillo's Great Jones Street, onward to The Dylanist, a recent, well-received novel of (lefty) upper-middle-class manners, which, outrageously, does not even mention Bob until page 83, and then, on page 139, manages to have the main character quote Dylan's line: "He's an artist, he don't look back." He?

There was even a satisfying touch of terror, walking by the Morgan Library on East 36th Street in Manhattan, knowing the Red Notebook was almost certainly behind those stone walls. The Red Notebook: the fifty-nine-cent spiral pad in which Bob wrote, in his crabbed handwriting, the lyrics for the Blood on the Tracks songs. The Red Notebook: a document of the poet's most consummate pain, legendarily stolen from Bob's house, passed along on the black market, every collector's forbidden grail, then, by dint of the Dylan Office's demand, donated to the Morgan. The Red Notebook: the Maltese Falcon of Dylanology, the stuff dreams and nightmares were made of. To hold even a xerox in your hands was to risk any kind of karma.

I knew I was in too deep when I got a call from a friend in L.A. who said he knew the chauffeur who drove Michael Bolton to Dylan's Malibu house the day the two pop stars co-authored "Steel Bars." I had a head full of Dylanology that was driving me insane, and I hadn't even called on the academics yet, people like Christopher Ricks, the Boston University poetry professor, to grok his axial analysis of Dylan's pentameters. I hadn't listened to the complete works of the Wilburys, avoiding the whole Tom Petty period like the plague. Nor had I re-memorized the "11 Outlined Epitaphs," Bob's liner notes ("for I do not care to be made an oddball bouncin' past reporters' pens") on the back of my old vinyl of The Times They Are A-Changin', which I retain, my high school girlfriend's phone number still visible in the upper-left-hand corner. I hadn't seen Mel Prussack's homemade "Dylclocks," each one marked with a Bob quote denoting the passage of "Dyltime." I hadn't even established if "Quinn the Eskimo" was really written as Dylan watched Nicholas Ray's 1959 picture The Savage Innocents, in which Anthony Quinn played an Eskimo.

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