One man regularly combed through Bob Dylan’s garbage. A woman vacationed in Los Angeles so she could drive by Dylan’s mansion. Another man bought Dylan’s childhood high chair and the house next to his family’s former home in Hibbing.
These are among the obsessives chronicled in “The Dylanologists: Adventures in the Land of Bob,” David Kinney’s curious and compelling new book about hardcore fans of Minnesota’s most revered music icon.
It turns out that Kinney, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter from New Jersey, is almost as fanatical as the folks he profiles. If most of the people in “The Dylanologists” rate at least a 12 on a 10-point scale of fandom, Kinney says he’d “probably be a 12 or 13.”
“I saw [Dylan in concert] like 20 times over the course of a year or so,” said Kinney, 41, a Dylan fan since high school. “I think the obsession kind of lasts because he wasn’t a flash in the pan in the ’60s and just disappeared. He’s continued to do different things and continued to surprise people and do work that rewards close listening.”
Hibbing is where the book starts and where Kinney will be Friday for the annual Dylan Days celebration. He’ll also sign books Thursday at Common Good Books in St. Paul.
There are some far-out — far-gone? — folks featured in “The Dylanologists,” like the woman who tried to pass herself off as Bob’s sister, stalking him for years and eventually becoming the victim of a serial killer.
But Kinney met perhaps the oddest Dylan duck in the Iron Range town where the bard spent his formative years: Bill Pagel, a 71-year-old pharmacist who runs the popular website Boblinks.com.
In 2006, Pagel moved to Hibbing, hoping to buy Dylan’s childhood home. He’s had to settle for the house next door plus a ticket from Bob’s prom, Hibbing phone directories from the years Dylan lived there and a ceramic candy bowl that once belonged to Bob’s grandmother, among other things. Pagel has many of his artifacts in climate-controlled storage units in Arizona, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
He wouldn’t talk to Kinney, but the author finally encountered him on a visit to Dylan Days.
“When I introduced myself, I thought he was going to give me a fake name or dash out the door or something. He was weary. His collection is seen as over the top. Maybe it is; maybe it’s not,” but Kinney views Pagel in a positive light because the collector wants to see his artifacts eventually end up in some kind of museum.
Some Dylanologists take a serious or scholarly approach, including Mitch Blank, who houses the Blank Archives — recordings, articles, concert programs, business cards, letters, drafts of lyrics and manuscripts related to Dylan — in his New York City apartment. Martin Scorsese consulted with Blank for his acclaimed 2005 Dylan PBS documentary “No Direction Home.” Kinney visited the Blank Archives at least 10 times while researching his book.
The author didn’t land an interview with Dylan. But he does quote a 2001 interview in which the Rock Hall of Famer talked about his fans:
“These so-called connoisseurs of Bob Dylan music … I don’t feel they know a thing or have any inkling of who I am, and what I’m about. I know they think they do, and yet it’s ludicrous, it’s humorous and sad. That such people have spent so much of their time thinking about who? Me? Get a life, please.”
Loners or community builders?
Kinney compares the Dylanologists to the obsessive striped bass fishermen on Martha’s Vineyard, chronicled in his last book, 2010’s “The Big One.”
He is not judgmental. He respects their passion and lets readers decide if they have crossed the line.
“I go back to the sports analogy,” he said. “With baseball, you have the opportunity to see 80 [home] games or performances a year. You’ve got that memorabilia thing and you’ve got box scores or set lists. Where does it become you’re wasting your life on this stuff?”
The conventional thinking is that fanatics who obsess over something, whether it’s a baseball team or a rock star, are potentially dangerous loners. Kinney said research indicates that fandom is actually a social thing — especially among those he encountered on the Dylan trail.
“You see that through the community building, whether it’s meet-ups or fanzines or online forums,” he said. “I’m not sure it would be as rich if it was just you sitting in your house with the music.”
Kinney concludes that there needs to be a Dylan museum for all this invaluable stuff, from handwritten lyrics to bootlegged performances to the high chair that Pagel owns. Where should the museum be? In Duluth, where Dylan was born? Hibbing, where he grew up?
“It ought to be in Minneapolis,” the author said. “That’s probably the only financially viable place to do it.”