Positively Fourth Rate


"If you look through what has

been written about Bob Dylan in

the past thirty-odd years, you

notice a desire for him to die

off," writes Alex Ross in a long

disquisition on the Maestro and

"the informal discipline of

Dylanology" in the 10 May issue

of The New Yorker.

While The New Yorker famously

(and falsely) prides itself on

fact checking, it once again got

it all wrong: If you look

through what has been written

about Bob Dylan in the past

30-odd years—including, and

perhaps especially, the very

piece you are now reading—you

nurture a desire for

Dylanologists to die off.

Preferably by being thrown into

a lake of fire, or some other

torment of hell that calls to

mind Dylan's late, lamented

fundamentalist phase.

Let's make sure that the blame is

properly directed. It may be too

much to ask that the artist formerly

known as Robert Zimmerman

publicly apologize for dropping

such tuneless turds as Self-Portrait,

Saved, Shot of Love, and all the

pre-electric LPs into the punch

bowl of popular music. Perhaps

it's even too much to ask that

he wear a hair leisure suit and

walk six crooked highways to pay

penance for participating in the

Traveling Dingleberrys and,

hence, extending the half-life

of Electric Light Orchestra

leader Jeff Lynne's career

beyond the sonic nuclear

cataclysm that was the Xanadu

soundtrack (to be fair, any

movie that climaxes with

hoofer Gene Kelly reciting a

Samuel T. Coleridge poem

while roller skating deserves

an ELO soundtrack).

But certainly we can hope that

Dylan, who on his only

indisputably great LP—1979's

Slow Train Coming—asked "his

so-called friends … to imagine

the darkness that will fall from

on high / when they will beg God

to kill them and they won't be

able to die," might at least

feel really bad about the

critical demimonde he has

inspired. In a world where

a gun manufacturer can be

held liable even for crimes

committed with another company's

weapon, that doesn't seem to

be an extravagant request.

The two worst tendencies of

Dylanologists are on full

display in the latest flapping

of critical gums on the subject:

to wit, Ross' New Yorker article

and, in the May issue of The

Atlantic Monthly, a collection

of natterings by Francis Davis,

recent recipient of "an

ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award"—and

possible winner of $10 million

in the latest Publisher's

Clearinghouse Sweepstakes.

The first of these is that

Dylanological analysis—like

the return of the savior Dylan

once apparently believed in –

comes like a thief in the night,

without warning or apparent

provocation. Neither Ross' nor

Davis' offerings have or stress

any particular relevance to

contemporary events (not even

Dylan's summer tour with Mr.

Edie Brickell). Davis hangs his

article only on the peg of

listening "last fall to Live

1966 … the first authorized

edition of a performance in

Manchester, England, that has

been obtainable on one bootleg

or another almost continuously

since at least 1971." Ross,

filling the "Reporter at Large"

slug in The New Yorker, notes

vaguely that he's been to "ten

Dylan concerts in the past year,

including a six-day, six-show

stretch that took three thousand

miles off the life of a rental

car" and allowed the writer to

supplement his salary by selling

Rainforest Crunch and

commemorative Jerry T-shirts in

concert-hall parking lots.

Because there is no clear

indicator of when Dylanology may

appear, there is simply

no way to avoid it other than

to stop consuming all media

(a choice, to be sure, not without

certain virtues, particularly

when it comes to middlebrow fish

wraps like The New Yorker

and The Atlantic).

The other, far more ominous

trait of Dylanology is that,

despite its putative focus on

the man who once wrote a song

about how "Man Gave Names to All

the Animals," it really acts as

a cheap cover for

autobiographical musings about

the inevitably uninteresting

life of the critic. In essence,

then, Dylanology is always

already dishonest even as it

seeks to explicate the work of

the one rock-star-cum-poet who

is himself supposedly

incorruptible. (Certainly

Dylan's discography suggests a

performer either uninterested in

or incapable of pandering to

audiences, though songs such as

"Wiggle Wiggle," the lead track

on 1990's Under the Red Sky—a

disc rumored to have been

shipped directly to

America's cutout bins –

hint at a certain contempt

for anyone with hearing).

Davis gets right to his own

story. Or at least he does so

after he drags in the

vision-impaired poet Robert

Creeley for a bit of gratuitous,

pretentious name-dropping

(another recurring motif of

Dylanology). "As a college

student," writes Davis, "I was

one of those who stayed up late

debating the meaning of Dylan's

lyrics…. I remember that when

John Wesley Harding was

released, an agitated fellow

English major spotted me in a

classroom and barged right in,

interrupting the lecture to ask

me what symbolism I found in the

trees behind Dylan on the

cover." Davis' appraisal of

Dylan's oeuvre—BD's "creative

peak lasted only three years,

roughly from the Mississippi

Freedom Summer to the Summer of

Love, or from Bringing It All

Back Home to John Wesley

Harding"—pretty much gives

away Davis' latent message:

Dylan was greatest when

I was young. And so

were the Lemon Pipers.

Ross is a bit more subtle on

this score. He spends most of

his article making fun of

professional and amateur

Dylanologists, only affecting

respect for the insufferable

Boston University professor

Christopher Ricks, "a legendary

close reader of canonical

English poetry" whose comments

are about as interesting and

insightful as Bob's own liner

notes to the At Budokan album.

"The more I think about it,"

wrote Dylan back in 1978, "the

more I realize what I left

behind in Japan—my soul, my

music, and that sweet girl in

the geisha house." "How many

times can you tell somebody not

to think twice?" Ricks asks Ross.

"You can say 'It's all right'

over and over. That's comforting –

but not 'Don't think twice.'

I'd start to think."

It's not until the last page of

his long, relievedly

cartoon-heavy piece that Ross

announces that what he really wants

to talk about are his own back pages.

"I'd been a fan, I suppose,

since Dylan's music first hit

me, a few years ago, while I was

staying in a friend's apartment

in Berlin. Highway 61 Revisited

was one of the few records my

friend owned, and after a couple

of days I'd fallen for it….

I've since found that my belated

conversion to Dylan matches up

all too well with the latest

research into rock fandom

[fasten your hard hats—we're

entering a gratuitous,

pretentious name-dropping zone]:

Daniel Cavicchi, in a

disquieting new study, divides

fans into categories out of

William James's Varieties of

Religious Experience, noting

that one kind of fan undergoes a

sudden conversion, or

'self-surrender,' often in a

state of isolation or in a

foreign land." Should we care

about his Damascus Road

experience, especially in an

article claiming (boldly!

shockingly! originally!) that

"Decades of Dylanology have

missed the point—the music is

the message" (even as he grants

that "this is not to say the

music is everything").

It is perhaps Ross' reticence to

cop to the fact that he, too, is

just another jerk-off

Dylanologist that explains his

contempt for the acknowledged

founder of the field: A. J.

Weberman, whom Ross dismisses

simply as a "creep … [who]

fished through Dylan's trash on

MacDougal Street." To be sure,

Weberman did literally explore

Dylan's Greenwich Village

garbage and enjoyed a

high-profile stint as

"garbologist" to the stars. By

1968, Weberman was publishing

his explications of Dylan's lyrics in

Broadside (the same folk mag

that first published Dylan in

the early '60s); by the early

'70s, he was teaching college

courses on the subject. It's

also true that Ross is not alone

in his disdain for the very man

who coined the term "Dylanology."

Weberman is similarly reviled by

all other Dylan critics

(biographer Bob Spitz, in a

relatively tender treatment,

calls him a "parasite," "a

likely straitjacket candidate,"

and a "nutcase").

Such contempt, however, stems

not from Weberman's apparent

insanity, which is on glorious,

Java-appleted display at his Web

site. The site is dedicated to

deep—and deeply disturbed –

explanations of the secret

meanings of Dylan's songs, most

of which turn out to be about

Dylan's purported heroin

addiction, hidden HIV infection,

and highly ambivalent—and

largely imaginary—relationship

with none other than A. J.

Weberman. "I know one dude who

is not happy about the

proliferation of the internet,"

writes Weberman, already

sounding far more interesting

than Professor Ricks. "It is a

dude who, despite the fact that

he has contracted AIDS from IV

drug use, continues to shoot up,

it is a dude who bares his

innermost thoughts in his poetry

then blames me for interpreting

it…. It is a dude who will

never come to peace with me

because he refuses to negotiate,

it is the object of my never

ending obsession, it's Dylan.

Dylan should ask himself—'Was

it worth shooting up even though

I got AIDS from doing so?' Who

tried to stop me from shooting

up? Who wouldn't take a bribe?

Who will be there if the flesh

falls off my face? Ah fuck it."

No, the contempt for Weberman

flows from the fact that in his

most eccentric, solipsistic

moments—especially in his most

eccentric, solipsistic moments –

he remains the absolute

apotheosis of a Dylanologist. To

him, Dylan is always newsworthy;

indeed he is at the very center

of meaning and significance.

And to discuss Dylan is nothing

more than a patently transparent

way of talking about one A. J.

Weberman. And in sharp contrast

to the lesser Dylan explicators,

Weberman's invented autobiography

at least offers the entertainment

value of stark, raving insanity.

Ah fuck it, indeed. Weberman

brings it all back home. No

wonder the other Dylanologists

want to look away.

Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief of reason. This story originally appeared in Suck, and can be viewed in that format here.