Dylan's birthday present: Free Bob from the Bobolator cult.

Scrutinizing culture.
May 16 2011 10:31 AM

Dylan's Birthday Present

Free Bob from the Bobolator cult.

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Bob Dylan. Click image to expand.
Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan has a big birthday coming up (70), and it occurred to me that one of the best presents we could give him would be to extricate Bob from the treacly, reductive, crushing embrace of the Bobolators. (My name for those writers and cultists who still make Dylan into a plaster saint, incapable of imperfection, the way Shakespeare's indiscriminate "bardolators"—one of my targets in The Shakespeare Wars —refuse to believe it possible The Bard ever wrote a flawed line or a poorly chosen word.)

Similarly, the Bobolators diminish The Bob's genuine achievements by putting everything he's done on the same transcendentally elevated plane. With their embarrassing obeisance, their demand for reverence, their indiscriminate flattery, they obscure the electrifying musical—and cultural—impact he's actually had.

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The book and blog Bobolators, with few exceptions, cumulatively give one the impression of a cult of scriveners all eager for a few favors from the Dylan Industrial Complex—a liner-notes commission here, a super-impressive title ("Historian in Residence" at the official Bob Dylan website) there. All you have to do is suspend your critical faculties and never express anything negative.

Of course it's not an easy job being a Bobolator. You have be prepared to praise the purportedly profound inner complexities of Masked and Anonymous—that botched Dylan movie by that Seinfeld writer—arguably the most turgid and clichéd production with the Dylan name attached to it ever. You have to chirp in wonder at "Little Drummer Boy" on the cringe-making Christmas album. You have to, in other words, make Dylan not only unsurpassable as a musician but guru-like in the ineffable brilliance of his life choices (give it up for Jesus, then give up Jesus), and a source of all wisdom whether he's mocking those who claimed to have "God on their side" or claiming to have God on his side (and Jesus in his pocket) himself.

To see him perfect in all aspects, as the Bobolators do, is to deny Dylan the respect he deserves as an artist who takes risks and fearlessly goes out on limbs that sometimes don't sustain his weight. The Bobolators abandon any pretense of aesthetic discrimination and in doing so reduce Dylan's often superb choices ("going electric," writing Chronicles) to the level of his occasional dismal ones (the Christmas album, serenading the torturers of Beijing). Let's just say their sycophancy does him no favors.

The odes that are produced by this mindset do more harm to Dylan's stature—make him seem merely the object of the worship of deluded fanboys, the idol of a not very discerning cult. Like the cultists who were upset at my Billy Joel put-down (still get hate mail; and fan mail, too.), the Bobolators put off many from his music altogether by making it seem some hermetic little boys club populated by Steve Buscemi Ghost World-types where you have to know which songs on Blood on the Tracks were recorded in New York and which in Minnesota to get into the clubhouse.

I say this as someone who has written about Dylan's work in both rhapsodic and occasionally scathing terms. Someone who, yes, is known among the Bobolators, for an interview with Dylan in which he uttered his resonant description of the sound he was seeking ("That thin, that wild mercury sound.") I guess for a time I was a Bobolator. (Jesus saved me.) But, in writing a book about him now (for Yale University Press), I'm seeking to peer through the haze of hagiography and discover what really makes Dylan Dylan—what makes him unique, and not just another great singer-songwriter. What accounts for his impact on our culture, on me. Why people continue to respond to his work. Why the cult.

In any case, if you needed any convincing it was a cult, you only had to read the outpourings of rage from his acolytes, who were on full, groveling display in the recent fracas over Dylan's tour of that secret-police torture state otherwise known as the People's Republic of China.

If you're coming late to this controversy, Dylan was invited to play Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong this year so long, Reuters reported, citing an official Chinese source, as he performed with "approved content." The widespread impression was that Dylan allowed the Chinese to vet his set list presumably for songs that might refer to, if not protest, the vicious crackdown on dissidents that was going on during the time Dylan played the People's Republic.

Not true, Dylan protested (see he still is a protest singer) in a rare personal statement on the official Bob Dylan website issued on May 13, more than a month after his appearance had provoked controversy.

It was particularly notable since Dylan rarely responds to media attention. (One had the feeling this statement was meant to pre-empt birthday articles that made this an issue. Notable as well because that month had been marked by a profusion of defenses of Dylan from the Bobolators who indignantly denied there was anything wrong with anything Dylan did in "engaging" with China while it was jailing dissenters and had "disappeared" the artist Ai Weiwei, the iconic dissident.

Curiously, none of the Bobolators suggested Dylan follow the courageous example of Björk, who capped her 2008 Chinese concert by crying out "Tibet! Tibet!" (What happened to the spirit of "Ain't Gonna Play Sun City"?) Dylan's not a protest singer, the Bobolators maintained, and he was only faking it when he sung protest songs in the past.

Dylan's story is that the Chinese didn't vet his set list: "As far as censorship goes," he wrote on his site, "the Chinese government had asked for the names of the songs that I would be playing. There's no logical answer to that, so we sent them the set lists from the previous 3 months."

"There's no logical answer to that"? I think what that means in Bobspeak is that he never knows what he's going to sing on any given night; it's all dictated by his unpredictable Muse.