Are You a Dylanologist?

Reading between the lines.
May 8 2014 1:52 PM

The Fan in Me

The world of Bob Dylan obsessives.

Illustration by Chip Zdarsky.

Illustration by Chip Zdarsky

Imagine liking a singer so much you travel across the country to see him. You invade his private spaces; commit his every song to memory; change the way you dress, walk, and talk to be more like him. When people ask about your past, you answer the way he might, instead of telling the truth. 

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.


This kind of behavior might make you a subject of David Kinney’s new book The Dylanologists. But it might make you Bob Dylan himself. 


When Bob Dylan arrived in New York on Jan. 24, 1961, he was a Woody Guthrie pilgrim. He talked like he came from Oklahoma instead of Minnesota and told stories of ramblin’ that would have fit in Bound for Glory. He sought out the folk singer, who was suffering from Huntington’s chorea. On the weekends Dylan would sit by Guthrie’s hospital bed and play him songs. 

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The Dylanologists are just as obsessive about Dylan. In the age before digital music, tape collectors strapped audio equipment to their bodies and pursued rare recordings like jewels from the Pharaoh's tomb. Bill Pagel purchased the ticket from Dylan’s prom, his high chair, and ultimately the home in Duluth where Dylan was born. Elizabeth Wolfson vacationed to California so she could drive by Dylan’s Malibu home. Security found her wandering the grounds and turned her away. The most famous of the Dylanologists, A.J. Weberman, was so consumed with trying to figure out the transcendental message behind Dylan’s music he was caught looking through the singer’s trash. 

Woody Guthrie gave shape to Bob Dylan’s life and gave him an identity. That's a powerful relationship, and it's what makes the Dylan fanatic such an interesting topic. From the 1960s, when Dylan was first called the “voice of a generation,” he and his music have shaped entire lives. He's not just the guy playing in the background at the deli. He’s soundtracking marriages and inspiring in listeners a deeper understanding of themselves. Dylanologists credit Bob for driving them to certain careers or relationships.

He doesn’t want the credit. Dylan’s career has been propelled by his effort to stay one step ahead of his fans. He shed the protest-singer label almost as fast as they gave it to him, and he’s ditched every category they've tried to put him in ever since. Wherever he is right now, he’s on the run.

After reading this series of profiles, it's hard not to share Bob Dylan’s feelings about his most devoted fans. “Get a life, please,” he told one interviewer about the devotees. “You're not serving your own life well. You're wasting your life." Kinney doesn't make this argument explicitly. His book is not unlike a Bob Dylan song—he paints a picture and then you've got to interpret it yourself—but the conclusion seems plain: The life of the Dylanologist is often a wasted one.

One woman who hitchhikes from show to show winds up the victim of a serial killer. Another superfan commits suicide. Others become disillusioned and wonder what they did with their lives. “Why am I such a mess?” asks Charlie Cicirella during a nervous breakdown in line for a Dylan show in December of 2005. “Why is my life such a mess?” Cicirella tells Kinney that listening to Dylan for the first time “was the first time he could ever remember not feeling alone.” But what did that inspire him to do? Based on the book, the answer is: Attend lots of Dylan concerts and fight for a spot in the front. Others can quote Dylan’s words but don’t have much to say on their own. A.J. Weberman's dumpster-diving search for the ultimate Dylan sends him off the deep end. He concludes that “Blowin’ in the Wind” is actually a racist screed: “I wasted my fucking life on this shit.”

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