Bob Dylan said it best, in a 2012 Rolling Stone interview timed to the release of his Tempest album: “Why is it when people talk about me, they have to go crazy?”
More than 50 years after he first started attracting fanatical followers, Dylan was facing down a more brutal and dangerous species of devotee. The fans had social media, and the scholars had computers; en masse, they could track every move he made and every word he wrote, said or sang. ‘Dylanologist’, once a derisive term for the self-styled expert who sifted through the Dylan family’s garbage cans, was now a word with wide colloquial meaning, if not yet a dictionary definition.
Now the world of Dylan worship has a book to call its own. David Kinney, author of The Dylanologists, is a cultist himself, but the book’s opening epigraph promises a reasonable perspective. (“Fan: You don’t know who I am, but I know who you are. Bob Dylan: Let’s keep it that way.”) And he starts with the innocent spectacle of pilgrims visiting Hibbing, Minnesota, the town Robert Zimmerman, soon to be Bob Dylan, fled in 1959 to reinvent himself as something other than a middle-class Jewish kid whose father had a furniture store. They happen to get there on the day Dylan comes home for his brother’s mother-in-law’s funeral.
What happens? Not much. But Kinney has a chance to describe several different strata of Dylan admirers, from those who’ll eat cherry pie because he did, to those who know the first name of his maternal great-grandmother to the man who bought two early Zimmerman family houses and little Bobby’s high chair.
Then Kinney makes the case for hero worship by citing instances when Bob Dylan practised it himself. He was seen touring John Lennon’s childhood home, Mendips, in Liverpool, England, and asking for directions to Strawberry Fields. He is also said to have kissed the spot in Sun Studios where Elvis Presley stood while recording That’s all right on July 5, 1954. So we all have musical idols.
But the Dylanologists found in this slender book are the most obsessive ones Kinney could find. And too often, he allows the depth of their devotion to be an end in itself. One 12-year-old boy named Peter discovers Dylan in the summer of 1963, when he plunges “into Dylan’s deep well of words”. The same person is now “almost an old man, into his