THE DYLANOLOGISTS: Adventures in the Land of Bob. By David Kinney. Simon and Schuster. 241 pages. $25.
Bob Dylan once made a pilgrimage to Sun Studios in Memphis, Tenn., where tour guides reported that he bent down to kiss the spot where Elvis stood on July 5, 1954, while recording "That's All Right." Over the years, Dylan has been spotted touring the childhood homes of John Lennon and Neil Young.
"Chronicles: Volume One," Dylan's big-hearted memoir, is full of hymns to those he admires, including Woody Guthrie, Voltaire and Rousseau ("It was like I knew those guys ... like they'd been living in my backyard").
Yet his own fans have been more bane than boon to him. In a 2004 "60 Minutes" interview, Dylan described what it's like to be idolized: "It was like being in an Edgar Allan Poe story. You're just not that person everyone thinks you are, even though they call you that all the time. You're the prophet, you're the savior. I never wanted to be a prophet or a savior; Elvis, maybe, I could easily see myself becoming him, but a prophet? No."
David Kinney's "The Dylanologists" digs into the obsessive subculture of Dylan fanatics. While Kinney doesn't label himself a Dylanologist, he does use the pronoun "we" when introducing the Dylanologists ("We keep track of everything. ... We are preoccupied with facts and dates, as if cataloguing these things will solve the mysteries of his life and ours").
With Kinney in his Land of Bob adventures, we meet an avid, insatiable crowd. The owners of Zimmy's, a restaurant in his hometown of Hibbing, Minn., showcase a collection of Dylan relics that includes the door to his high school English classroom, bits of tile and the bathroom sink from his childhood home. Their dream is that one day Bob himself will show up. Bill Pagels, another Hibbing pilgrim, owns Bob's naugahyde-covered high chair and the house in Duluth where he lived as an infant.
Kinney speculates that the Dylanologists are compelled to crack the code of their hero because he plays head games and refuses to explain himself: "Dylan created personas and then demolished them, denied that they ever existed."
Alan Jules Weberman is the ultimate nightmare fan who, famously, went through Dylan's trash on Macdougal Street in New York. Among the artifacts he rescued were fan letters torn into bits. Eventually he formed the Bob Dylan Liberation Front and manufactured "free Bob Dylan" buttons. Weberman's foil is Mitch Blank, a legendary mensch among the Dylanologists. He is the man to call for help with disintegrating old reels of tape or other salvageable ephemera. (Dylan has this to say about the mania for outtakes: "I mean, they have stuff you do in a phone booth").
Kinney hasn't written a philosophy of fandom, but he has brought the Dylanologists to life, singly and as a group. By far the most interesting chapters of "The Dylanologists" deal with revelations during the last 10 years that Dylan was not "some lone genius from another planet," to quote one Dylanologist. Beginning with "Love and Theft," the 2001 album title that Dylan himself enclosed in quotation marks, it became clear that Dylan was repurposing ancient melodies and folk lyrics, but also that the borrowings went further, to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Virgil and even W.C. Fields. Dylan source-tracking got a charge in 2003 when Chris Johnson, an English teacher from Minnesota, happened upon a dozen or so allusions to an unlikely source, a book about Japanese mobsters.
Scott Warmuth blew the lid off Dylan scholarship by delving more deeply into the sorts of borrowings that Chris Johnson had found. For the next decade, he traced a widening net of allusions (check out Goon Talk, his Dylan blog). "Modern Times," the album after "Love and Death," even sampled Henry Timrod, Charleston native and poet laureate of the Confederacy. "Chronicles: Volume One" went even further. With the help of the Internet, Warmuth tracked down allusions to sources as disparate as Jack London's "Sea Wolf" and Joe Esterhazy's book about Monica Lewinsky.
His intent, and Kinney's as well, is not to expose Dylan but to better understand the playful, magpie quality of his genius. The "Love and Theft" song "Tweedledum and Tweedledee," for instance, is based on Lewis Carroll's copycats and cleverly embeds allusions to other twins and doubles, among them the Bible's Cain and Abel and Poe's double story "William Wilson."
By training his eye on a single artist, Kinney has written an interesting book about the origins and nature of creativity. He also has humane observations to make about the sometimes one-way love affair between fan and artist.
What does Bob Dylan or any artist owe us? Joni Mitchell had a simple answer to the questions raised by Kinney's book. She told Dylan: "I don't care where you get your bits and pieces. ... You still put them all together."
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.