Saturday, July 11, 2015

“It's alright, Ma, if I can't please them” – Bob Dylan and the extremes of fandom

[Did this piece for The Daily O]

In the opening chapter of Stephen King’s new novel Finders Keepers, an old author is jeered at, rebuked, and finally shot dead, by a “fan” who can’t come to grips with what the writer did to his most famous character in his third book.
Here’s what I want to know – why in God’s name couldn’t you leave Jimmy Gold alone? Why did you have to push his face down in the dirt? […] Advertising? I mean, advertising? House in the suburbs? Ford car in the driveway? Wife and two little kiddies? Everybody sells out, is that what you were trying to say? Everybody eats the poison?
What the unhinged fan doesn’t know is that the author, Rothstein, has two further Jimmy Gold novels written out in his private notebooks – two books in which the character “becomes himself again”, turning his back on the conformity he had briefly embraced. But it might not have made a difference anyway. This reader is too far gone. His identification with Gold ran so deep that the change in arc amounted to a personal betrayal. And the only possible response is to confront and silence the treacherous artist.

I thought of this scene while reading David Kinney’s The Dylanologists: Adventures in the Land of Bob, especially a passage about an obsessive Bob Dylan fan named Peter playing a record in his therapist’s office, and telling the shrink by way of self-analysis: “This is how I feel. Everything I’m trying to tell you is on this record. It’s all there.”

The song he plays is “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” – you know, that collection of angry-sad aphorisms, some of which have now become platitudes through repetition and overuse. A song packed with lines like “He not busy being born is busy dying”, and “Money doesn’t talk, it swears”, and “Even the president of the United States / sometimes must have to stand naked”, all of them much less effective on paper than in the young Dylan’s sneering-yet-weary voice.

There is this stanza too – “Advertising signs that con you / Into thinking you’re the one / That can do what’s never been done / That can win what’s never been won.” Which begs the question: what would Peter think, decades later, watching the older version of Bob Dylan appear in ads for soft drinks, cars and lingerie? Is there material here for a new Stephen King short story?

Maybe, but for now we have The Dylanologists, which is about the long history of Dylan-obsession, and, by extension, about the complicated relationship between an artist and his audience. Including that age-old debate: does the former have some sort of responsibility to the latter?

For Dylan, the answer has been a clear no. (“I never asked for your crutch, now don’t ask for mine,” he sang in “Fourth Time Around” – to a lover, to John Lennon, or to a needy fan?) Kinney’s book has for its epigraph this amusing exchange: “You don’t know who I am, but I know who you are,” a fan says. “Let’s keep it that way,” the legendary songwriter replies. As Kinney observes, “Dylan created personas and then demolished them, denied they had ever existed, and scorned the people who still clung to them. Almost as soon as any one image was lodged in the public’s mind, he began to resist.”

This is not a new thought, of course: apart from being discussed in earlier books, it was a subtext of Martin Scorsese’s documentary No Direction Home,which includes scenes from Dylan’s famously uncooperative press conferences (Question: “What about the recurring motorcycle imagery in your songs?” Answer: “Um, I think we all like motorcycles to some degree”) – and directly addressed in the film I’m Not There, which was constructed entirely around the enigma of Bob, how he could be many things and many people at different times.

But what Kinney does is to shift the focus to those who became caught in obsession’s web, with results varying from the very scary to the very poignant: the Dylanologists, sniffing out and collecting memorabilia for years, sifting through hundreds of hours of audio footage in hope of finding a previously unknown 10-minute outtake, hiding recording gear in a loaf of bread and sneaking it into a concert. This book is about how these manias came into being, and what they led to; about how personality, life experience and chance can mingle in strange ways so that one person becomes deeply, even fatally affected by another’s work.

The chilling Eminem song “Stan” has a fan deciding that he and his idol are just alike, and that his hero consequently owes him his time and attention; eventually he drives himself and his girlfriend off a bridge just to get “even”. But that’s a dramatic ending, a clean break. The stories in The Dylanologists are about people who survive and lead an outwardly normal existence, even as they give over decades of their lives to Dylanology (and its many subsets, such as “garbology” – going through the singer’s trash bin to find scraps of paper that would unlock a hidden meaning).

In its pages you’ll meet people like the woman who was so mesmerized when she first saw Bob on stage that it ended her long-time love for opera – “they are trained animals compared to what Dylan does”. But there are other, more intense fandoms, revealed in an ever-broadening spiral of madness. One person writes a 536-page Dylan to English Dictionary to decode the layers of meaning behind lyrics – and then, after half a lifetime of Dylanologising, “realises” that “Blowing in the Wind” was really a veiled racist rant, and that he had wasted all these decades worshipping a bigot. Someone else asks for a single screw from a piano – owned by another collector – that Dylan used. (“What would the man do with it? Wear it on a necklace like a totem?”) There are those who don the accoutrements of a regular life – marriage, secure job, mortgage – but feel like charlatans (like Jimmy Gold in Stephen King’s novel?), never quite part of the world they have settled for. A high-schooler who thinks about killing himself, and when he racks his brain for reasons not to do it, this one makes the most sense: he doesn’t want to miss the next Dylan album when it comes out.

Through all this, Kinney keeps himself mostly in the background, though he claims, in his Introduction, to being an “unreformed obsessive” himself. Writing about his early encounters with Dylan’s work, he says: “There were songs about girls, and war, and politics. I didn’t know who all of the characters were: Johanna, Ma Rainey, Cecil B DeMille, Gypsy Davy. I couldn’t honestly say I knew what Dylan was saying half the time. But the lines were riveting.”

A personal aside: I can relate to some of this. In the mid-1990s I went through a phase when the lyrics of every song in Highway 61 Revisited, Bringing it all Back Home and Blonde on Blonde – the three great albums of Dylan’s controversial 1965-66 electric phase – were firmly implanted in my head, through months of listening to them on my player at home and on my car deck (and always in Dylan’s own voice – it was only later that I came to enjoy some of the cover versions, such as Eddie Vedder’s “Masters of War” and “Lou Reed’s “Foot of Pride”). And though it has been years since I heard those albums in full, I still sometimes find myself silently mouthing lines from “Tombstone Blues” or “Desolation Row” or “Stuck Inside of Memphis” (even when some of these numbers are musically repetitive or boring, the words just trip off your tongue).

In the internet’s early years, I read fan sites, pored over analyses of the more surreal, stream-of-consciousness lyrics; I particularly remember the interpretation of the “sword-swallower” stanza in “Ballad of a Thin Man” as a conservative homophobic being caught unawares in a homosexual experience (and the “one-eyed midget” in the same song being a euphemism for a penis). Other lines worked best when you didn’t try to pin down their exact meaning, when the associations and imagery they created in your mind – the vaguer the better – was what mattered. (Does “the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face” become more vivid when you see it as a description of Joan of Arc being burnt at the stake? Doubtful.)

It didn’t seem like a phase at the time; it felt like obsession. But now, reading The Dylanologists, I know better. For a short while in my teens, I probably convinced myself that I could write a long, line-by-line analysis of “Visions of Johanna”. But a man named John Stokes
– one of the many Dylanologists mentioned here – actually went ahead and did it, and did it on an epic scale, producing 65,000 words about that song: a labour of love, creativity and grand folly that might be said to exist almost independently of the verses that inspired it. One of the achievements of Kinney’s book is that it almost convinces you that Bob Dylan’s greatest legacy might be as a cipher, a pretext for the playing out of other people’s life-stories, forever disappearing through the smoke rings of their minds.

[An earlier Dylan post, about No Direction Home, is here]


  1. In Tamil cinema, male superstars do seem to think they have a responsibility towards their fans. It's horrible. Some great films (like Madras) have really sad endings where a normal-strength protagonist suddenly turns into a superman hero beating up hordes of men while partially injured. Also, apparently, Rajinikanth (who, if you watch his early movies, was a superb actor) turned down Papanasam because he felt that his fans wouldn't agree with the scene where he gets beaten up badly towards the end.

    Sometimes, I feel that fans turn artistes turn into caricatures of themselves.

    1. True, but I would say star-actors who work in mainstream cinema (or a writer of commercial fiction, be it John Grisham or Chetan Bhagat) are a different matter, and don't necessarily fit within the bounds of this discussion. And male Tamil stars aren't the only ones who feel they need to perpetuate the image for their audience - personality-driven performers have been doing that on screen since Chaplin onwards.

    2. (Not to confuse the conversation too much, but while I personally don't feel comfortable with the idea of a writer setting out to cater to a readership-base - ideally, you should just write what you need to get out of you and onto the page - the lines do get blurred. When Stephen King was asked the question "Why did you choose horror fiction?" in his early years, his stock reply was "What makes you think I had a choice?" But over the decades he certainly would have become aware of what his large cachet of readers expected of him, and set out to deliver - with occasional forays into newer territory. Same argument can apply to filmmakers or actors or singers, or anyone who hits it really big.)

  2. Slightly away from the post. Its strange that people like a person's work so much that they just can't differentiate between him/her and the work. In most cases, I'd like to keep the work separate but I am asked sometimes if I can still like Woody Allen's movies and Roman Polanski's movies knowing what they have been alleged for. In those cases, I am perfectly fine keeping their work in separate compartment. But, recently, read accusations made by Jackie Fox from The Runaways that Kim Fowley had raped her in a party in front of other people from the band and no one did anything. I thought if I had been a fan of Fowley or anyone present on the occasion, I'd have found it very difficult to hear their music anymore.

  3. Stephen King has become so terrible now, I wish he didn't write anymore. And he's proven all his critics right.

    1. Nope. The rambling and self-indulgence have definitely increased, but most of those critics were idiots in the general points they made, and the reflexive, unintelligent snobbery towards genre writing.

  4. The person who wrote this doesn't come across as an idiot to me:

    But of course, bhakts will be bhakts, Modi's or King's

    1. Um...did I say everyone who ever criticised SK is an idiot, or being idiotic about every point they make? (Hint: No, I didn't. Not even close.) This guy makes some of the points I made about King - the rambling, for instance. Elsewhere he basically admits to being snobbish towards genre fiction, or swathes of genre fiction - and while the admission is a good, creditable gesture, that doesn't change the implications of it.

      Btw, I couldn't disagree more with what he says about the first 300 pages of 11/22/63 being plodding. (To use his own formulation: no, they aren't. And he's wrong.) That book has other problems with it - again, being overlong is one of them, and it's the second half that bears that brunt - but anyone who thought the first 300 pages were plodding needs to stick to Proust's novels and Tarkovsky's films, and never attempt anything else.

    2. Also - "And he's proven all his critics right"?! Implying that they were right all along - including the kneejerk lit-snobs who were trashing not just him but an entire genre from the very start - and it has only now been "proved" because SK has sometimes been tedious and self-important in his later writing? That sounds like the very definition of "bhakt" (or more accurately, "anti-bhakt bhakt") to me.

      Now get back to Twitter so thousands of people - rather than just one lonesome blogger - can laugh at you simultaneously.