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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 DylanBob Dylan

Bob Dylan

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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.

Three decades later, A.J., now fifty-five, his once-wild mane receded to silver fringe (but still talking very fast), recalls the incident, one of the more colorful in the often drearily hagio-graphic Dylanological chronicles: “I’d agreed not to hassle Dylan anymore, but I was a publicity-hungry motherfucker . . . I went to MacDougal Street, and Dylan’s wife comes out and starts screaming about me going through the garbage. Dylan said if I ever fucked with his wife, he’d beat the shit out of me. A couple of days later, I’m on Elizabeth Street and someone jumps me, starts punching me.

“I turn around and it’s like — Dylan. I’m thinking, ‘Can you believe this? I’m getting the crap beat out of me by Bob Dylan!’ I said, ‘Hey, man, how you doin’?’ But he keeps knocking my head against the sidewalk. He’s little, but he’s strong. He works out. I wouldn’t fight back, you know, because I knew I was wrong. He gets up, rips off my ‘Free Bob Dylan’ button and walks away. Never says a word.

“The Bowery bums were coming over, asking, ‘How much he get?’ Like I got rolled . . . I guess you got to hand it to Dylan, coming over himself, not sending some fucking lawyer. That was the last time I ever saw him, except once with one of his kids, maybe Jakob, and he said, ‘A.J. is so ashamed of his Jewishness, he got a nose job,’ which was true — at least in the fact that I got a nose job . . .”

It was all too bad, A.J. said now, remembering how Dylan reportedly offered him a series of jobs if he would stop his “Free Bob” campaign. “He said I could be his chauffeur, but I told him I don’t know how to drive. Then he said I could be his prompter. But I said, ‘Forget it! It’s not going to work! I’m the one person you can’t buy out.’ In retrospect, that was a sad mistake. I could have had a career as a rock critic or something, and not as a pot dealer, and not, you know, ended up where I’m going to end up.”

This was the news. Just the week before, A.J. had been in the Union County Correctional Facility, finally busted by the Feds for allegedly running a marijuana-delivery service. He was out on $100,000 bail, looking at a possible ten years in the joint. When I called to ask if he was going to be home, he shouted, “Of course I’m going to be home, moron! I’m under fucking house arrest!” And there he was, the supposed Anton LaVey of Dylanology, with a plastic monitoring device snapped to his ankle, on the terrace of his apartment overlooking Central Park that had once been home to Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of The Little Prince. It was a far cry from the old days at the Bleecker Street bunker, where A.J.’s famous Dylan Archives were zealously guarded by Dobermans.

“As fate would have it,” A.J. noted with bitter amusement, “the Feds watched my office and saw me throw away these big huge wrappers from the pot in the garbage, and they used that to get a search warrant. So the garbologist got caught with his own garbage.”

This irony was not missed by the current generation of Dylanologists, the postings of whom can be found on the popular Usenet site rec.music.dylan. Under the thread “Weberman in jail!! I bet Bob is laughing,” D fans rejoiced with comments like “not so instant karma but I’ll take it” and the inevitable “don’t need a Weberman to know which way the wind blows.”

Dismissing this, A.J. stood by his recent highly controversial claims, notably that Dylan is suffering from AIDS, supposedly contracted from a dirty needle. As always, the proof was in the song interpretation, A.J. contended, especially in “Disease of Conceit,” “Dignity” and the overall doomsday pall of the 1997 Time Out of Mind album. To show me what he meant, A.J. rang up his own Bob page, Dylanology.com. But there was a problem. The site, written by A.J. himself almost exclusively in JavaScript, uses so much memory it often crashes computers. A.J. never noticed this until the Feds seized his high-powered system in their raid on his office. Now, forced to make do with a less zippy older machine, he found that Dylanology.com kept getting blown off the screen.

“Fuck this!” A.J. screamed, smacking the computer; the whole thing was a disaster, especially since, along with everything else, the government had confiscated the Web site’s backup discs.

“Yeah, Dylan’s going to be glad I’m going to jail all right,” A.J. began to spritz, getting that look in his eye. “This is going to revitalize his career! He’s going to be so inspired by my downfall he’ll write five great songs by next week! Dylan’ll owe me for this!”

But then Weberman’s wife and kid came into the room. The idea that he might not see them for a long time stopped the old Dylanologist in his tracks.

After a moment, he said, “You know, I come from a people that, they looked at every word in the Bible, and they commented on it, then they commented on the comments. In the Torah, the Gemara, the Mishna. They know it so well, they look at a word on a page and tell you what word is behind it on the opposite page. They studied genes and interiors of things like maps of the heart. So it doesn’t matter what people think about me and Bob Dylan. Because he’s from the same place I’m from. And that’s the real Dylanology . . . and that never stops no matter what’s gonna happen to me.”

Rock is full of cults, but nothing — not collecting the Beatles, not documenting Elvis — rivals Dylanology. Back in his dark-sunglasses days, Dylan might have been the coolest, but Dylanology is not about cool. Neither is it a hobby, a fleeting affectation or indolent lord-it-over-you taste-making to get girls, like in High Fidelity. Dylanology is a risk, a gamble, a spiritual declaration, a life choice, and if you don’t believe it, ask those real Weathermen, erstwhile college students who took the drama of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” to heart, maybe too much. A year after Rubin Carter addressed the United Nations, several of those forgotten revolutionaries continue to rot in jail, so ask them which way that wind blows. But this is how it is with Dylanology. To be a Bobcat is to acknowledge the presence of the extraordinary in your midst, to open yourself to its workings, to act upon it. In a world of postmod ephemera, this is a solemn bond.

In turns, a real folkie, a real rocker, a real lover, a real father, a real doper, a real shit, a real Christian, a real Jew, a real American from a real small town come to a real big town with real dreams and little false modesty, Dylan, big-tent preacher of millennial concerns both sacred and profane, has never offered less than authenticity to his variegated flock, no matter what peculiar ax they might grind. With Bob, you may feel betrayed, bitterly disappointed, but you never think it’s a hustle. Because he has always been so willing to lay his heart on the line, so are we.

Nowadays it seems that without the Bible, McDonald’s jingles and Bob Dylan, there’d be gaping holes in half the world’s conversations. Couple of months ago I went with my mother to Romania. We were supposed to find our roots, but all we found were the vanished graves of murdered relatives, and dart-eyed Gypsy boys looking for someone’s pocket to pick in front the hideous palaces built by the dead Commie leader Nicolae Ceausescu. “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose,” a Gypsy boy said, standing beside a pile of red peppers in the market.

I see that Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones named their baby Dylan, which is very nice, but half the kids in my son’s class are named Dylan. There are even girl Dylans. Buy whatever apocryhpha you like about Bob taking the moniker from either Dylan Thomas or his gambling uncle Mr. Dillon — now it’s just one more name on the birth-announcement card, like Ashley or Justin.

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.

Amid the glut, a million legitimate Dylanological mysteries remained. Issues. Questions. Legends to either puncture or leave alone. For instance, even after all these years, no one seems to have conclusively ascertained exactly how hurt Dylan was after the 1966 motorcycle accident; whether, as some suggest, he exaggerated his injuries to derail the hectic schedule Albert Grossman had painted him into. Nor was it completely clear if Dylan is still a Christian. Clinton Heylin says yes — “Listen to the songs.” Paul Williams says Dylan’s current Christianity or Jewishness is secondary to his “overriding fundamentalism . . . He is someone who believes in the literalness of the Word. He will be a fundamentalist in whatever he believes.”

Whatever his current theology, I, for one, would like to know what ever happened to the Jewish jokes in Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan used to be as funny as Franz Kafka. “Motorpsycho Nightmare” (never performed live in concert) is one of the funniest songs ever written, a touchstone of surreal “dirt beneath my fingernails” shtetl humor. Maybe being born again beat the stand-up out of him, or maybe it was just the sheer weight of being Bob for so many years. But by the time Dylan got around to writing his “Lenny Bruce” song, as turgid a tune as he’d ever done, Bob had forgotten that Bruce, the old Jew junkie/First Amendment crusader, used to make people laugh for a living.

Still, when you came down to it, the biggest conundrum in Dylanology was Dylan himself. The Living Bob. How to deal with the fact that the most inspiring artist of the times still walks among us, after all these years. Written Dylanology breaks into three camps. Michael Gray’s monumental, endlessly illuminating Song and Dance Man III most successfully places Dylan in his cultural context. (With resourceful scholarship, Gray finds the line “When you live outside the law you have to eliminate dishonesty” in the little-known 1958 Don Siegel noir film The Lineup, noting the obvious connection to the much better “to live outside the law you must be honest.”) Gray ignores the Living Bob altogether. Referring almost exclusively to the fixed text of the “official” Columbia releases, he attempts no bridge to Bob the human, dealing only with the work, as if it were written by a poet in the thirteenth century.

Paul Williams, Clinton Heylin and others take the middle path, acknowledging the Living Bob’s presence while warily wishing not to unduly trespass on the artist’s personal space. This half-measure is a difficult tack, as Williams notes, describing the publishing of his well-known Dylan What Happened?, a book seeking to come to terms with Dylan’s mind-blowing born-again shows at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater in 1979. Dylan liked Williams’ book, reportedly buying 114 copies (114 happening to be the exact number of sayings of Christ to appear in Gnostic Gospel of St. Thomas found at Nag Hammadi). Dylan invited Williams backstage and even performed the famously unperformed “Caribbean Wind” at the writer’s request. However, Dylan was not much pleased with Williams’ follow-up article, reportedly saying, “It happens every time — when I meet someone who’s written something about me that I like, meeting me spoils them and the next thing they write doesn’t work.”

Williams, for his part, agrees with his subject. “After meeting him, I became very much aware that Bob Dylan would certainly read whatever I wrote. Maybe it took me away from what I usually do, which is only for fans. I think the idea that Bob Dylan might be looking over your shoulder damages a lot of writers.”

Then, of course, there is the other approach to the Living Bob, which is to go forward, to stand naked before him, demanding his attention. Such was the methodology employed by Larry (Ratso) Sloman in his now out-of-print account of the Rolling Thunder Tour, On the Road With Bob Dylan Rolling With the Thunder. Easily the most entertaining and strangely moving of Bob tomes, Sloman’s book contains many good quotes. There is Dylan’s mother, Beattie, saying, “He was born to us, but then he went away and did this on his own . . . Bob Dylan is the writer, Dylan, not Zimmerman.” And Bob himself, adding, “Well, I don’t understand music, you know. I understand Lightning Hopkins. I understand Leadbelly, John Lee Hooker, Woody Guthrie, Kinky Friedman. I never claimed to understand music . . . If you ever heard me play the guitar, you’d know that.” To which Ratso, the fan, replies, “But I like the way you play the guitar.”

But a key moment in all of Dylanology occurs when Sloman, in the midst of a book-wide freak-out about his inability to “get” the story, confronts Dylan in a hotel lobby.

“C’mere, schmuck,” Ratso reports himself as saying, demanding that Dylan listen to his plea.

Dylan addresses the distraught reporter: “Well, what is it that you want? Be specific. What do you need?”

Ratso searches for the word. His eyes suddenly light up. “I need access,” he screams at the superstar. “I need access . . .”

Dylan then reportedly “rolls his eyes in amazement” and says, “Ex-Lax? . . . Why do you need Ex-Lax? What you been eating?”

This was it: access.

Access. What A.J. Weberman, in his dementia, called “the Brain” of the Poet in the hands of “the People.” Access: a backstage pass to that no man’s land of Dylanological real estate between the artist and ourselves. Access: what we — the scholars, the fans, the lunatics — want.

What he, the Living Bob, will not give.

Access. Proximity to the Bobhead. It is a Dylanological obsession. Whole books, like Encounters With Bob Dylan: If You See Him Say Hello, offer chronicles of chance meetings and near-meetings between Dylan and cab drivers, secretaries, salesclerks. To see him is something not to be forgotten, a memory handled with care. For instance, considering how many bands Bob has had, Dylanology is surprisingly free of sideman stories. Possibly this owes to the scuttlebutt that Bob has very little to do with his fellow players — for years, supposedly, it was verboten to even make eye contact with Bob. There is also a notion of sacred time, that for a musician, playing with Bob Dylan is nothing to speak about idly. Guitarist Steve Ripley, who toured with Dylan in the Eighties, did, however, tell me this story: Apparently, Ripley arrived at the venue at the wrong time for a sound check and found no one around. He was about to go back to his hotel when he saw Dylan, sitting near the stage all by himself. Up to this point, Ripley had exchanged few words with his enigmatic boss. But there was no way to avoid talking now: It was just the two of them.

“I really didn’t know what to say to the guy,” Ripley recounted. “I mean: He’s Bob Dylan. What do you say to Bob Dylan?”

After a long pause, the guitarist finally blurted, “Hi, Bob, hey, how’s the family?” whereupon Dylan literally bounded toward the sideman and gave him a big hug.

“Great!” Dylan exclaimed, a giant smile spreading across his craggy face. “Thanks for asking!”


I suppose it was selfish of me, a typical invasion of hallowed Dylanological space, but I felt I had no choice. At least this is what I’d decided, from a Chevy Blazer, on the road again. I’d been on Bob’s tracks for a couple of weeks, trailing him through the Northeast, through Hartford, Connecticut; Mansfield, Massachusetts; Saratoga, New York; Scranton, Pennsylvania; Camden, New Jersey; Columbia, Maryland — everywhere Bob went, I was there, watching The Man in his short black coat and the pants with the honky-tonk stripe up the leg (the same outfit he sang for the Pope in, which was way better than the outpatient’s hooded sweat shirt he wore throughout the late Eighties). I was studying the strange half-smile, the playful Chaplin-cum-Elvis-impersonator guitar moves, the sawed-off duck walks, diffident roll of the rheumy eye, the drop of silver sweat poised at the end of his hooked nose, waiting for my chance.

The time had come to apologize, I thought — to apologize to Dylan for wishing he was dead.

I thought it was a memory buried forever in a trunk, but not deep enough, it seems, for there it was, in a 1999 New Yorker article about Bob, in the first paragraph, for chrissakes: “In 1978, after the fiasco of Renaldo and Clara, Dylan’s four-hour art film, Mark Jacobson wrote in the Village Voice, ‘I wish Bob Dylan died.’ “

It was true. There, in the very newspaper where I’d first read of this skinny Jew son of an appliance salesman who’d blown in from the North Country to turn my little Flushing, Queens, world upside down, I had written, “I wish Bob Dylan died. Then Channel 5 would piece together an instant documentary of his life and times, the way they did Hubert [Humphrey], Chaplin, Adolf Hitler. Just the immutable facts . . . seeing all those immutable facts about Elvis made his dying worthwhile . . .”

Geez, couldn’t I at least have left out Hitler? The idea, I guess, was that even Bob dying would have been better than sitting through Renaldo and Clara twice. Maybe in 1978 I thought this was some kind of joke.

The incident is well documented. In No Direction Home The Life and Music of Bob Dylan, former New York Times folk-music critic Robert Shelton says, “Dylan was most hurt by the reaction from his old neighborhood paper, the Village Voice.” Bob himself is quoted as saying, “Did you see the firing squad of critics they sent?” Worse yet is the notation in Clinton Heylin’s biography, Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades. In a chapter titled, “Someone’s Got It In for Me,” Faridi McFree, one of Dylan’s post-Sara girlfriends, reads the Renaldo and Clara reviews to Bob over the phone.

“It was horrible, absolutely horrible what they said about him, especially in the Village Voice.”

“Bob,” McFree tells Dylan, “they actually really wish you were dead.”

But it took the New Yorker piece to identify me by name. To point the finger, as Dylan used to say about his early protest songs, at the man in the lonely crowd who was to blame.

I had become Dylanology: I was the man who wished Bob Dylan was dead. What a nightmare. I mean: Bob Dylan was, and remains, my hero. For decades I held on to a letter, signed by Albert Grossman, Dylan’s manager, thanking me for my interest, but no, Bob would not be available to be interviewed for the Francis Lewis High School Patriot. Once, sometime in the late Sixties, I saw Bob coming out of Manny’s Music on 48th Street carrying a white paper bag. Half an hour later, I saw Muhammad Ali, my other lodestone, standing at the same exact spot where I’d seen Dylan. Ali shook my hand. Bob only nodded, but it was enough.

I was there, too, at Forest Hills in 1965, booing Dylan for going electric. Nowadays, there are 20 million ponytailed exhipsters claiming to have been at the old 15,000-seat tennis stadium heralding the Zeitgeist as “Tombstone Blues” serrated the late-summer air. But really, it was better to have booed. All the real Dylan fans booed. Booing was part of the Dylanological continuum — having expectations shattered, feeling rejected, and then realizing how better, way better, it was to live in this new, bigger world he’d thrust you into.

In retrospect, it seems the ultimate noncompliance that Dylan didn’t die taking his Triumph too quick around that curve on Zena Road in Woodstock back in ’66. If anyone ever fit the live fast/die young/beautiful corpse trope, it was Bob Dylan. Then, like Rimbaud and James Dean, Dylan could have been one more overromanticized Jim Morrison to sit around watching be a smart mouth in Don’t Look Back, ranking on poor Donovan and claiming he could hold his breath three times as long as Caruso. Indeed, it makes a good scene, like a Behind the Music tale from the crypt: the Bobster, in a steam room, playing rummy with the twin poles of his cross-race pollination-inspiration: Hank Williams (dead at twenty-nine) and Robert Johnson (dead at twenty-seven). Charlie Parker (dead at thirty-four) could sit in, too, if he was in town.

Except Bob Dylan wasn’t going for it; this was not his Fate. By whatever confluence of DNA and destiny, he has persisted far beyond the days of his own infallibility. Fifty-nine now, he’s had plenty of time to make a nutty movie like Renaldo and Clara, be charged with hitting his wife, get born again, make a bunch of intermittently inspired records, etc., etc., and have dick-heads like me wish he were dead.

He has lasted long enough for that old-time religion to return. Only yesterday, I was able to sit on the subway, listening to the 1994 version of Dylan creaking through the old folk song “Delia,” tears in my eyes at the harsh, ravaged beauty of it all. When he was twenty, he wanted to sound like an old whore singing “House of the Rising Sun,” one foot on the platform, the other on the train. Now he’d gotten there. In the end, this was Dylan’s true greatness, his spectacular humanity, the keep-on-keeping-on of it all, the adherence to the life cycle. At least this was the rap — my rap until that New Yorker came through the door.

I mention all this because everyone — everyone I know, anyway — has their own Dylanology. Their own little chazerei about how it is between Bob and them. And, like me, they want to tell you all about it.

Could be now or never. Since the 1997 histoplasmosis scare (noted by New York Post headline writers as “Bob Dylan Heart Mystery”), mortality issues have dominated Dylanological dialogue. How does Bob look, people ask; what’s his physical state, his mental state, think he’s been drinking? Now, for sure, was the time to be with the Bobster, to follow him around from show to show, to get unashamedly paternal about the guy, not to let the little fucker out of your sight.

It was also very convenient, now that Bob has become an opening act. In the beginning, this was a shock, watching Dylan blast out “Down in the Flood” before 60,000 empty seats at Giants Stadium in 1995, ignored by stray early-bird Grateful Dead fans. But now this seven o’clock starting time is one more Dylanological boon. This way the D fan can easily commandeer a spot in the still-empty first few rows, see Bob’s seventeen-song set, be back on the highway (or tucked in bed at the Marriott) by nine, and never hear note one of headliner Phil Lesh.

Bob is like Ali now, lighting the Olympic torch, a (usually) silent Buddha, acknowledging the sweet autumnalness of it all. In current Dylanology the set list is everything, and these days the poet offers mostly a greatest-hits, pre-motorcycle-accident package. You can sit behind where Pablo the sound man lights the candles and burns the sticks of Nag Chompa incense, “a Bob Dylan tradition for the past twenty years,” Pablo says, and wonder about it. Wonder if Dylan, the rebel morphed to Sunshine Boy/National Treasure/Beloved Entertainer, has decided to close his show with “Blowin’ in the Wind,” his corniest signature song, because he thinks we want this showbiz victory lap, this “Forever Young” schmaltz. Or whether he’s come to the (painful? joyous?) conclusion that these older tunes, the famous ones of his youth, like “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Don’t Think Twice” and “Stuck Inside of Memphis” — not the gospel, not Time out of Mind — are really his best, the things he really wants to play so we’ll remember him right.

Like Revelations, in seven shows, Bob played seven “Tangled Up in Blue”s, seven “Highway 61″s, seven “Like a Rolling Stone”s, seven “Blowin’ in the Wind”s. The Dylanologist, understanding that some around him have been waiting twenty years to hear “It Ain’t Me Babe” live, sits patiently, anticipating the “variable” slots, the ones reserved for the special items, the one-offs, the deep rarities. As always, they come: a speed-metal revise of “Drifter’s Escape”; a “Long Black Veil,” the ultimate murder ballad, never more high and lonesome; a two-night revival of “Tears of Rage”; “Maggie’s Farm” (played at Scranton, exactly thirty-five years to the day from the first electric version at Newport, a fact duly noted by attendant tapeheads); an old Stanley Brothers tune; and finally, “Every Grain of Sand.”

The “Every Grain of Sand” was especially excellent because that was what the seventy-eight-year-old blue-haired lady in Columbia, Maryland, said she wanted Dylan to play. Leaning on her cane, she said she’d gotten into Bob “about twenty years ago” when her son, who’d been living in the basement, “finally” moved out. Cleaning the place, she found dozens of scratched vinyls under the cigarette-scarred couch. “I always was afraid about what he was doing down there. When I heard this Bob Dylan, I felt a lot better about my son.” Then, looking around at the gathering tribes, the old lady smiled and said, “It’s so nice that he can draw such a crowd at his age.”

“Rainy Day Women #12 and 35” was her favorite Dylan song, the woman said, somewhat surprising for a “churchgoer.” But this being the anniversary of her husband’s death, she was really hoping Bob would do “Every Grain of Sand,” which contains the lyrics “I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea/Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me” and is described by Michael Gray, in his twenty-five-page chapter on the tune (complete with copious footnotes mentioning Edith Piaf, Frankie Laine, Cain, Abel, St. Matthew, St. Paul, Tony Bennett, William Blake, Allen Ginsberg, Bruno Bettelheim and the Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne, canon theologian of Liverpool), as a work that is “really about faith vs. doubt.”

And, of course, even though Dylan hadn’t done “Every Grain of Sand” a single time on the then-thirty-two-date-long tour, he did it that very night at the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland. Did it great, too — ethereal, elusive and pure, and not even that far off from the record.

This is how it is with Bob in these latter days, as he makes his fitful rounds of summertime music sheds and second-banana fall apple festivals. He is the gift that keeps on giving, a wish-fulfilling jukebox of high modernism, speaking, as always, in new ways beyond our knowing. Then again, Dylanology has always been a synchronicitous thing: the meaningful coincidence expressed via the mysterium of Bob.

How else to explain the message on the radio driving down the Jersey Turnpike, on the way to the Camden show? The announcer was talking about how then-Governor Christie Whitman was finally going to close Greystone Hospital due to “a series of patient suicides, assaults, unsanitary conditions and under-staffing at the 100-year-old facility.”

Now, any cub of a Bobcat knows the story of how the first place Dylan went when he came east from Hibbing in February of ’61 was Greystone Hospital in Jersey, to see Woody Guthrie. It says so right in the liner notes of the first album: Although Bob and Woody were “separated by thirty years and two generations, they were united by a love of music . . . and common view of the world.” So how do you figure that after 100 years of understaffing, patient suicides and who-knows-whatever botched operations, the Governor of New Jersey picked that exact day to close Greystone?

And how do you figure that Dylan picked that night to play “Song to Woody,” the 1961 tune in which D foretells to Guthrie a “funny ol’ world that’s a-comin’ along . . .” that is “sick and hungry, tired and torn, and looks like it’s dying hardly before it’s been born,” a heck of a bleak bouquet to lay at the hospital bed of a victim of Huntington’s chorea, even a canny hard traveler like Woody Guthrie. Quite a vision indeed to behold now, forty years and three generations on the other side of all that, especially when you’re stuck in traffic, and it’s Jersey, too.

Access. If I was going to apologize to Dylan, to somehow erase my insignificant notation in Dylanological history, “the formation” was my best chance. It was something new this tour, with Bob and the boys — Charlie Sexton, Larry Campbell and good ol’ Tony Garnier, in his purple suit, twelve years on the bass. When the set’s over, the band stands there for a minute or so and stares back at the audience. They don’t say anything, only peer off into the cold distance, like a spaghetti western. Bob keeps his hand on his hip, Bette Davis style.

“Bob!” I shouted from the edge of the stage. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry I said I wished you died!”

But unlike the cry of the “Judas!” screamer at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in July of ’66, my words did not pierce the din. Dylan did not turn and call me “a liar,” tell me “I don’t believe you!” In Hartford, Scranton, Saratoga, Camden and Columbia, not once did Bob look my way. Eventually, a friend of mine told me to stop. My friend, a Dylan hand who knows these things, said if I kept insisting on apologizing, I’d be on the verge of becoming “a profile,” which is what the “Dylan Office,” in its well-rumored paranoia (paranoia being a hardy perennial in all things Dylanological), calls those who try to get too close, those who too aggressively attempt to break the plane between Him and us, who want more access than they deserve.

“If Bob wants to forgive you, he probably already has,” said my friend.

And I thought of this a couple nights later, driving back toward New York with my wife. We’d thought we would be able to see Bob again that night, which would have made eight straight shows, but the holiday was over. So we headed home, reaching the Holland Tunnel a little after 7 P.M., about the time Dylan would have gone onstage.

“Get a Bob Dylan song on the radio,” I said to my wife. This was no doubt a fruitless gesture because maybe thirty-four years ago Murray the K, stone mellow and on FM by then, but with the grease of pastrami still seeping through his veins (but really hip pastrami), said that “Like a Rolling Stone,” seven minutes long, was Top Ten. But now there is almost never a Bob Dylan song on New York radio, if you don’t count movie tie-ins like “Hurricane” (unplayed live by Bob since 1976).

But then there it was, as we approached the toll plaza, dim at the edges of reception but unmistakable: “Desolation Row.” Dylan had revived the song on the current tour, performing it several nights in a row, third in the set list. There was a good chance he was playing the epic tune at that exact moment, on the muddy field of Waterloo Village in north Jersey. When Sinatra got old, he did “My Way”; when Elvis was near the end, he did “My Way,” too. Bob Dylan does “Desolation Row.”

The first time I heard the song was the first time he performed it, the night I booed him at Forest Hills. The New York Times, in a review I clipped, called it “a major new composition.” Now the “Titanic sails at dawn” verse was fading out as we entered the tunnel. Was there absolution in this Cocteau-like visitation? Was this Bob’s way of taking the curse off me? Who knew? In my time of Dylanology, it has always been like this. You forget about him for a decade or more, then he’s back in your head, suddenly a matter of life and death, again.

Mark Jacobson is the author of the novels “Gojiro” and “Everyone and No one.”

This story is from the April 12th, 2001 issue of Rolling Stone.

In This Article: Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, The Supremes


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