He not busy being born is busy dying.
The answer is blowing in the wind.
Everybody must get stoned.
If you know who wrote these words, you’re probably a music fan of a certain age. If you’ve thought about them for any length of time, you’re a well-versed one.
If you know every printed and recorded variant of these words, every concert in which they’ve been sung, every cover band that’s ever essayed them, you’re a Dylanologist.
A Dylanologist—a student of Bob Dylan’s work, likely a collector of some sort—can be of any age. Whereas the words “Dungeons and Dragons fanatic” conjure up a certain physical type and psychological makeup, that doesn’t work with diehard students of His Bobness. Or so Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist David Kinney says. “I don’t buy into stereotypes,” he says of the subjects of his new book, The Dylanologists: Adventures in the Land of Bob. “The people I write about run the gamut. They’re a broad and diversified group who share a common interest, just as there are a lot of people out there who are obsessed by a lot of different things. These people just happen to be obsessed by Dylan.”
Some have seen 400 or 500 Dylan shows and have the ticket stubs to prove it. Some have assembled concordances to his lyrics. And some—fascinated by how Dylan puts songs together and performs them, never precisely in the same way twice—catalog concert performances, trade recordings, and cherish Dylan relics in the way of medieval monks.
“I came to Dylan at pretty much his lowest point, back in the late ’80s,” says Kinney, whose last book, The Big One, focused on the obsessive search for prize fish. “It was his voice that got me first. Then I started listening to the lyrics. I found Biograph, his compilation album, then started going through his other albums in whatever order I encountered them. Time went by, and I discovered the world of analysis that existed out there on Internet forums. It was then that I began to get a real sense of the people I call Dylanologists.”
People like Glen Dundas, for instance. A mild-mannered Canadian accountant in middle age, he traveled for years to all corners of the world to see Dylan shows by the hundreds—and, as Kinney writes, “illicitly recorded most of them.” The people of Thunder Bay may regard Dundas as one of them, but so do the people at the very heart of a worldwide tape-trading and Dylan-lore network. What attracts Dundas to Dylan, Kinney chronicles, isn’t just the music, but also an attitude of freedom, of doing what you want to do and not caring what people think—including, one presumes, whether people think one an oddball for being a Dylan fanatic. (For what it’s worth, Kinney tells Kirkus, his subjects are pretty ordinary: “Glen’s also an MLB fan, and he plays fantasy baseball with the best of them.”)
Will Dylanology outlast Dylan himself? And did Dylan have a point when, as Kinney recalls, he stole a line from William Shatner and told his fans to get a life? “I can understand his feeling that way,” says Kinney, who doesn’t consider himself a major-league Dylanologist but who can hold his own in any trivia contest touching on the erstwhile Bobby Zimmerman. “On the other hand, Dylan has encouraged this obsessive following with his unwillingness to be clear.”
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.