Friday, 20 May 2016

Challenges of Participatory Culture conference, 12-13 May, Moscow, Russia

Last week, following a kind invitation from pop culture researchers Alexandra Kolesnik and Natalia Samutina, I visited the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow for a special interdisciplinary conference called Challenges of Participatory Culture: Methodologies and Perspectives of Research.

The event was staged by the university’s Research Centre for Contemporary Culture, a unit based at the Poletayev Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies.

Challenges of Participatory Culture drew together a truly international range of scholars to discuss popular media cultures, post-Soviet society, and creative re-workings of the city. After Abigail De Kosnik of UC Berkeley presented a first paper on traces of re-use in analogue and digital media, the two day conference covered a variety of topics, including fanfic, graffiti, music cultures, fashion blogging, Soviet sci-fi, shared experiences of riding on urban transport, and various kinds of community protest.

Photo: Alexander Makhov

My own contribution considered how soul fans used their passion for Curtis Mayfield to encourage widespread protests following the August 2014 shooting in Ferguson of the black teenager Michael Brown. Although the paper was about racism in the USA, I knew that it had parallels with attitudes that are, unfortunately, held in many other places. 

Photo: Alexander Makhov

Natalia told me to treat the event just like one held in any other big European city, so I did. I had come on a humanitarian visa to talk in one of the most liberal spaces of the Russian academy and my hosts could not have been more welcoming. After the event they took us on a tour of the Kremlin and Red Square.

All in all, it was a fascinating trip. I’d highly recommend Moscow to anyone who gets the chance to visit. The city is marked by a unique history that has seen through changes wrought by both communism and capitalism. It is larger than London and plays host to a rich array of world class arts and culture, including the famous Bolshoi ballet. 

Moscow's academic contribution to cultural studies is now emerging on a global stage. It was super to see how enthusiastically and insightfully our colleagues in Russia are embracing debates about fandom, adding their voices to the international discussion. 

We still know too little about the experiences of popular music fans in both the Soviet and post-Soviet era. Given that connections have now been made, perhaps the time is right to start investigating.

... Thanks again to Natalia, Alexandra, Boris, Oksana, other colleagues and students in Moscow, to the Higher School of Economics, and to fellow conference participants. One day I hope we get the chance to do it again.

Friday, 5 February 2016

In Dylan Town: Interview with David Gaines (Part 2)

David Gaines completed a PhD on American writers in Paris called ‘The Sun Also Sets’ back in 1980. Since then he has lectured at The University of Texas at Austin and is now an Associate Professor of English at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. As well as teaching courses on American culture for the past thirty years, for seven of those years he directed the Paideia Program, a university-wide project that helps students pursue interdisciplinary and intercultural pathways. He is now Director of National Fellowships and Scholarships and continues to teach American literature, film, popular culture, and an occasional class that focuses upon Bob Dylan’s art and life. His University of Iowa Press book, In Dylan Town (2015), is subtitled ‘A Fan’s Life.’ It combines a personal account of his fandom with an ethnographic survey of Dylan’s fan community. Dr. Gaines contacted me for a preliminary discussion about Dylan fandom when he started writing the book. I am pleased to see it released and that he has agreed to an interview.


Your book in some ways reminded me of a number of fan memoirs in that it is very much written in a personal voice. In Dylan Town is different in that it comes from a literary scholar and includes some ethnography too. What ‘writerly’ and scholarly concerns did you have, if any, about using a first person approach?

Prior to my presentation of the paper that turned into In Dylan Town I told an interested acquisitions editor, “It’s not a conventional academic paper. It has a lot of white space and first person.” In other words, I was concerned that my take might be too personal and not have the scholarly distance or gravitas that most academic presses wanted. That editor, Catherine Cocks at the University of Iowa Press, told me that she “liked the idea of a Dylan book with a distinctive voice.” Happily, they generously ended up supporting mine. I think of In Dylan Town, like myself, as one and a half parts “writerly” for every one part “scholarly.”   When the Press turned me loose, I found the “writerly” parts pure joy. My only recurrent concern was that I might be letting the shaggy dog stories get too shaggy or, even worse, that I might be drifting too far off point.

As far as my “scholarly” concerns went, I have never thought of myself as the peer of Dylan encyclopedist Michael Gray, cultural expeditionary Greil Marcus, literary critic Christopher Ricks, or many of the other fans who have written so knowledgeably of Dylan’s art. Nor could I in good conscience claim to be more than an enthused newcomer, and increasingly aware of how much I do not know, to fan studies discourse. So I stayed on the path I have been on most of my teaching and writing career: seeing some connections between scholars, translating a bit for an audience of my fellow interested generalists, cherry picking those scholars’ “writerly” moments that I particularly enjoyed, acknowledging those moments, and—on my best days—turning it all into a story.

In Dylan Town reminded me that fandom is not simply a matter of fascination (or as most folk say, “obsession”). It is also something people use as a vehicle. I’m convinced that you view your connection with Bob as a blessing rather than a curse. What has it done for you?

It has most definitely been and continues to be a blessing, one that has erased distinctions between “work” and “play” in my life as a teacher, writer, and scholar. But that’s just the professional tip of the big iceberg. When I talk or write about Dylan, I’m examining the largest and longest running theme through many of the best things in my life. Through Dylan I have thought about the power and beauty of language, the importance of politics, the power of humor, the kaleidoscopic varieties of love, and so much else under the suns and moons. So many great stories of collateral joy have come out of and led to my Dylan friends. In short, no vehicle has been with me longer or run better.

You have followed Dylan for over four decades. What have been the biggest changes in that time? Do you think his fan following has met the challenge of keeping up with him as a person and an artist?

I want to break a huge question down into three parts in order to try to do it justice. The first part that jumps out at me asks what has changed in the landscape Dylan and his fans have shared. The next one grows out of my desire to put the word “which” in front of “fan following.” And, finally, there is the “as a person and an artist” kicker. First, let me offer a few very broad strokes regarding the biggest changes in the landscape. Along with wars, identity politics, and shifting demographics there has also been a sea change in how we all, Dylan included, get and hear our music. To massively understate the point (and to reference Dylan) there’s been a lot of water under the bridge, a lot of other stuff too. As far as how Dylan’s fans have responded to those changes and his changes, I first have to say that Dylan probably has picked up and shed and had more return fans than most artists. Part of that is no doubt a function of longevity. But more of it, I believe, is wrapped up in his willingness, maybe it’s even more a need, to change. Some folks jumped ship at Newport in 1965 when he went electric. But others got on board. It happened again, for a while, with Nashville Skyline and the so-called “turn to country music” that album represented. The biggest challenge that I and other fans had was when he took his art in a Born-Again direction in 1978. Some of us left for a while. But we came back, as all true fans always do. Just last week I had a conversation with Michael Gray, the dean of Dylan Studies. Michael has major qualms about the Sinatra covers on Shadows in the Night. I love them. That kind of conversation keeps on happening. I think such family feuds are actually one of the constants of fandom. Finally, I’m not really sure “keeping up” gets at it as much as “agreeing with” or “liking” does.

Fandom often begins with a connection in the form of a kind of entanglement that we have to spend time figuring out. Sometimes, like any relationship, we are not quite ‘in tune’ with our heroes. In several decades of fandom when did you feel most and least in tune with Dylan, and why? Was it what was happening to you, what he was doing, or both?

The short, easy answer—if I have to pick one—is both because being in tune implies mutuality, reciprocity, and the preposition with. I’m very fond of those Venn diagrams that we worked on back in the day. From early on, I imagined that the most romantic and exciting of them would completely and perfectly overlap, like a total eclipse of the sun or all colors becoming one. As we all know, those constantly shifting discs don’t align very often. The trick about being in tune with Dylan is that the 1968 me might be in tune with the 1965 Dylan. How doe we draw that Venn diagram? To be more concrete, Dylan wrote “Like a Rolling Stone” in 1965 and I felt like I really got it in the summer 1968 after my father, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy had all died. And I got it many times thereafter, in different contexts and at various performances. That song and I, not necessarily Dylan and I, were in tune but with some serious lag time and all that water under the bridge. I haven’t ever gotten totally in tune, as it were, with Slow Train Coming and what I took (on very partial and biased information, I might add) to be Dylan’s evangelical phase. But I have come to appreciate many of those songs and what I think they grow out of and speak to. So, now, there is some overlap on even that Venn diagram. But evangelism, except my own about Dylan and baseball, just isn’t a register that I’m comfortable with. I loved Blood on the Tracks (1975) from the moment I heard it because I was, at that point in my life, a bit tangled up in blue. Untangled today, I still love it for very different reasons. But does Dylan, who once said he could not imagine anyone enjoying that much pain, still connect with it? If not, does that make us out of tune? So yes, it was what was happening to me and what he was doing. Most importantly, thanks to Dylan and many others, I have learned that it’s very difficult to stay in tune with anyone for long periods of time, particularly with our heroes as we expect so much.

You talk quite a lot in the book about your pilgrimage to Hibbing, Minnesota. How did the experience of visiting Dylan’s hometown change your understanding of his fan phenomenon?

First of all, it was like landing in another country where, as different as we looked and talked, we all shared a code that broke all kinds of ice. That code was rich in humor, longing, empathy, outrage, generosity, and wisdom. I think we all went to Hibbing as pilgrims choosing to spend a holiday with kindred spirits. It was the concert or festival or ballgame experience multiplied several fold. The magnitude of Dylan’s life work became clear to me over the course of three days in ways it never would at the best possible Dylan concerts. And being with fellow fans over meals, on buses, at bars, and on dance floors only underscored that. I was among people who had made journeys from as far away as Paris and as nearby as Hibbing’s Howard Street. Being there may not quite have been the most important thing in our lives outside of our families. But it was something akin to being with that hypothetical family of choice. Hearing the variety of Dylan covers performed by regional musicians and responded to so warmly and knowledgeably underscored my sense of how deeply his art has touched so many people.

I was intrigued by your idea of having a personal Mount Rushmore featuring Errol Flynn, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, J.J. Gittes (from Chinatown) and the Fantastic Mr. Fox. I’m going to suggest the term ‘fantheon’ for this set of heroes. They’re all male and all outlaws. What have you learned about yourself by thinking about their similarities?

Hah! I love “fantheon.” I think we should copyright it and urge all ages to construct their own personal Mount Rushmores for [cue the carnival barker’s voice] “a mere $9.95 a virtual mountainside! Biodegradable icons interchangeable and upgradeable every ten years for only $4.95 per icon! Mountainside replaced free of charge!”

Ha ha, yes -

But back to the question: what have I learned from my fantheon? First, although they are all male, they share relatively high degrees of androgyny (except for Nicholson, who will probably soon be replaced by Jeffrey Lebowski aka The Dude). All of them are major smart-alecks, have a big place in their hearts for underdogs, and don’t show much respect for pompous authority figures.  As I wrote in In Dylan Town, it began with Flynn’s swagger and gallantry. My fondness for that kind of hero has reared its head most recently around Mr. Fox, or at least Wes Anderson’s version of him, who is hilarious, very good with words, and a self-acknowledged “wild animal.” (When I recently read the poet Mary Oliver write “I would like to be like the fox, earnest in devotion and humor both,” I thought, “Yes, Mary! You go, Girl!”) Dylan came shortly after Flynn and long before Fox. I think that I saw in him, and all the rest, a way to be that made sense to my own personal definitions of justice and style. I could never have been the strong, silent type like all the cowboys, athletes and astronauts who were the mainstream heroes of my wonder years. Nor was I the angry, young Brando who rode motorcycles. No, I was always a words and clothes guy. And, yes, I was very taken with women—Olivia de Havilland, Joan Baez, Meryl Streep’s Mrs. Fox—who were drawn to outlaws of that ilk. Just between you and me, I guess I still am.

On page 62 you describe how music taste played a significant role in your family life. Can you explain more about how your and your father’s respective tastes allowed you to negotiate your mutual identities?

My father, who floats above my fantheon as the best man I have ever known, was born the same year as Sinatra, spent his residency and met my mother in New York, and felt a special connection to Tin Pan Alley, Frank, and the journey of that (so-called) “greatest generation.” It was his generation, and Frank was their guy. My father wasn’t a drinker, but he clearly understood drinkers and their songs. He always had a cigarette in his right hand and the tunes of his guys playing on his car radio or our record player at home. I didn’t write about this in my book, but your question just brought it to mind. We didn’t have much of a television when I was growing up, just an old, funky black and white DuMont with a built-in turntable. But we always had a good sound system to supplement that turntable. One of my first semi-grown up presents was a Sony reel-to-reel tape recorder that I used to make baby bootlegs of albums we checked out of the Dallas public library. Fath, as I called my dad, would steer me to Tony Bennett, Louis Armstrong, Dean Martin, Ella Fitzgerald, and Vera Lynne. I now think that for Fath they were the sound track of the autobiographical movie he was showing me. It was a movie about city guys who grew up without much, went to sea and won the war, got married, had 3.2 kids, read The New Yorker, and hummed along to “Strangers in the Night” and “My Way.” Fath died too early for me to share much of my Dylan thing and my developing tastes with him. But I do recall his sweet interest in my offering up some early Dylan and his gentle, “Yes, but…” It was a lot like our running sports bets when he would take the opposite side of any wager I wanted to make. I lost $10 to him on my seventeenth birthday when he picked the Green Bay Packers because, as he put it, “[Packers coach] Vince Lombardi is clearly a Sinatra guy.” Over the years, I have come to know what that meant to my father and to be thankful for having had that. I guess you could say Fath and I used our fandoms similar to the way we played catch after he came home from work. It was a way to connect by sharing the things we loved with those of our kind. By the way, that’s a paraphrase of Steely Dan, who I think Fath would have liked almost as much for their jazz influences as for my delight in them.

What are the benefits and problems to fans of adopting the label ‘Dylanologist’?

I have been called worse things. But it’s a label and, like all labels, it reduces the many to one group. I recognize this as a convenient necessity of sorts, an exercise in definition and a form of media shorthand. But it has always seemed reductive and connotatively dismissive of my particular fan family, like we are somehow related to Existentialists, Scientologists, and other gangs. Or, even worse, that we are all fans, but fans with academic pretensions, sifting through every grain of Dylan’s sand as we put him on our shared Procrustean bed.  I prefer the British writer Roy Kelly’s less felicitous but more aspirational term “discerning Dylan fans.” But, then again, to paraphrase Dylan once more, I might be too sensitive or getting soft. I’m interested to know what you think about this one. Do you see benefits that I might be missing?

The label focuses on fans as researchers or experts; something that might sound refreshing in relation to ideas of fannish ‘irrationality,’ but can still smack of autodicticism and/or obsession, and perhaps a sense of fandom, not for its own sake, but for the sake of proving oneself more knowledgeable than others.

Absolutely. I hear you and wholeheartedly agree

You talk about Dylan fandom as a process in which individuals, to borrow Peter Coviello’s eloquent phrase, forge a kind of idiolect. You have also successfully used your fandom as part of your teaching. In brief, what are the benefits and problems of making your fandom central to your university teaching?

I do think I have had relative success, if teaching awards and evaluations are a valid gauge. Long before I began teaching I realized that I, and many others, found enthusiasm truly contagious. It is, in most cases, harmless and, in all cases, part of what fandom is about. Early in my journey I got the message that it is a great blessing to be able to spend time doing and sharing what one most loves. It’s a short step from there to “us[ing] your fandom” wherever you may be. In my case, professionally it has been in the classroom and on the page. I have never asked directly but I’m guessing that students enjoy my enthusiasm and Dylan’s work in about equal parts. He is an easier sell these days than some of my other passions like Melville and baseball. Then again, film and travel are easier sells than Dylan. What this tells me is that not all enthusiasms and all fandoms translate to all audiences.  But that hardly makes those enthusiasms and fandoms somehow unworthy of our attention. Hardly a remarkable insight, right? I keep working on my skills to translate whatever I’m teaching and writing about to as many people as possible. Of course, not all of my professional colleagues share my views of popular culture in general, Dylan in particular, or even the virtues of enthusiasm. But isn’t that what makes universities and the academic profession, among other things, marketplaces of ideas?


In the book’s preface you distinguish between ‘ideal’ and ‘monster’ fans. The latter includes people who break community protocols or become highly intrusive. The infamous AJ Weberman springs to mind as a ‘fan’ who, as you say on page 10, “managed to rummage through Dylan’s garbage searching for evidence to support his theory that Dylan was a heroin addict.” Society wants to frame “extreme fandom” as pathological, but I think “monster” fans are people with pre-existing pathologies who use dedication to their fandom as an excuse. To what extent do you agree?

I agree totally, although I have no clinical data to support so doing. Analogies that come to mind are the early studies of comics making kids criminals and the ongoing attempts to link films or television or rap to acts of violence. As I read them, most studies and courts of law have agreed with us. To oversimplify: the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” didn’t create the Manson family’s behavior. I’m willing to start with the notion that some are born monsters, some achieve monster status, and some have monstrosity thrust upon them. But I would bet the farm, as we say where I live, that at least nine out of ten are born that way.

You confess in the preface that “In Dylan Town is one more example of another fan unwilling to let the mysteries of fandom be.” I am always a bit suspicious when I hear people talking about stars as blank slates, infinitely open to the projected desires of their audiences. I was interested in your comment on page 12 that all fans are, in some sense, “looking for something that is invisible.” What did you mean by that? Is it the same as the idea that Dylan is an ‘unknowable cipher’ for his fans?

When I read Sam Shephard’s account of his time with Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue he planted the seed about fans looking for the invisible. For Shepard, because of when he wrote and who he is, the invisible sounded pretty sinister. I, on the other hand, took the word to mean a number of things, none of them particularly sinister. It could be the desire for a community of kindred spirits; the search for answers to questions, some of which are personal and others of which are universal; or the discovery of rich and lasting texts. How that all comes together in communities and over time was one of the mysteries I set out to explore in my book. I’m not sure I solved that one, but I did pick up some promising and enjoyable clues.

I once had a friend who became a Dylan fan by investing the record collection of a close relative who passed away. Did you come across any similar instances of bereavement fandom?

I did not. It’s an interesting term. It makes me think of other potential fan categories and how much fun it would be discovering and naming them. The most unusual case I came across was a major fan who came to Dylan through Dylan’s memoir rather than through his music. That strikes me as a fandom-naming opportunity. Should we call it 'side door' fandom?


On a related front, so-called bandwagon fans come immediately to mind. I read a terrific baseball blog by the New Yorker’s David Sax in which he wrote, “One person may get more out of following the fortunes of a team over the long haul….But the bandwagon fans are no less immersed in the short run.” I want to think about that a bit more. It always bothered me that some of my contemporaries didn’t want to see Springsteen or the Talking Heads become “too popular” because it would take something away from the nature of their fandoms if they were too widely shared. I always felt those exclusionary fans (you know, the vinyl snobs in High Fidelity) were a different kind of monster. Perhaps Sax does as well.

I noticed you quote lyrics quite a few times when Dylan’s wisdom has come into focus at key moments on your personal journey. There’s something interesting going on there in terms of cognitive associations; how each fan can use his or her star’s creative output as a kind of mirror and archive. It reminded me of the way in which others might quote, say, the bible, or perhaps Shakespeare. What are your thoughts on this process?

It seems to me that people who read books or listen to music or watch movies inevitably store up images that resonate for them, putting them away during some metaphorical winter and drawing on them when nothing could serve better. It’s about some form of both personal and cultural capital and about how easily it is retrieved and how well it is repurposed. For some people, their most accessible retrieval points are the Bible or Shakespeare. I am always amazed when I teach the Puritans and then later Melville how they knew their Bibles (Melville knew his Shakespeare as well). The closest I can come to that kind of familiarity is with Dylan’s lyrics, and I don’t think I’m alone in that regard. In the case of “Dylan’s wisdom,” as you nicely put it, he has given us so many memorable phrases that it’s no accident he frequently comes to mind for everyone from judges writing legal opinions (Dylan is the most frequently quoted “literary source” in the Supreme and federal court decisions of the past twenty years) to sports announcers like the one I heard three nights ago describing, with some self satisfaction, a baseball pop fly as “blowin’ in the wind.” It’s really quite remarkable.

On page 109 you mention the resonance of Natalie Goldberg’s closing words in the documentary Tangled Up in Bob (Feidt, 2011): “You’re not going to find Bob Dylan in Hibbing. You are maybe going to find yourself or something that you want.” This presents a rather solipsistic take on fandom—a bit like saying that all research is also ultimately, only autobiographical. As you note yourself, however, Dylan fandom is also a mode of sociability for Dylan followers. I can’t help thinking that perhaps fandom is more like a unique and continuous encounter, like an interview. It’s not so much that we only find ourselves, but rather that what we are doing is piecing together the traces of another person and trying to locate how much we can empathize with them. What are your thoughts?

The interview comparison is a nice one, particularly if we expand it beyond the ongoing conversation with Dylan (and whoever or whatever another person’s Dylan might be). It does seem to me that a town meeting with Dylan’s art and life being the primary agenda item would describe Hibbing 2013 for me. I no doubt learned even more about the depth of my admiration for Dylan and my enjoyment of kindred spirits. However, “find[ing] myself” would not really describe the experience because I already basically knew what I felt about Dylan. One thing I did find was that I had underestimated the magnitude of it all.  Let’s call it a difference in degree rather than one in kind. And although I know I didn’t “find Dylan” there either, I have to say that, after having seen his high school, his house, the swing in his girlfriend’s yard, and the proximity of Highway 61, I felt like I understood his art a bit more. I felt some of the same one-more-layer-of-information way when I saw Twain’s house in Hartford and the chapel in New Bedford that Melville wrote of in Moby-Dick. It’s part of the joy of travel, time and otherwise, that sometimes the reality not only solidifies but also outstrips what’s imagined.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

In Dylan Town: Interview with David Gaines (Part 1)

David Gaines completed a PhD on American writers in Paris called ‘The Sun Also Sets’ back in 1980. Since then he has lectured at The University of Texas at Austin and is now an Associate Professor of English at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. As well as teaching courses on American culture for the past thirty years, for seven of those years he directed the Paideia Program, a university-wide project that helps students pursue interdisciplinary and intercultural pathways. He is now Director of National Fellowships and Scholarships and continues to teach American literature, film, popular culture, and an occasional class that focuses upon Bob Dylan’s art and life. His University of Iowa Press book, In Dylan Town (2015), is subtitled ‘A Fan’s Life.’ It combines a personal account of his fandom with an ethnographic survey of Dylan’s fan community. Dr. Gaines contacted me for a preliminary discussion about Dylan fandom when he started writing the book. I am pleased to see it released and that he has agreed to an interview.


Are there forces at work attempting to reduce Dylan to his myth? If so, to what extent has he eluded them? What makes Dylan fans more than just fantasists or myth-makers?

Do you remember that great quote from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962): “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”? If you take myth to be close enough to legend, as I do, I would say that journalists, critics, and many fans have been trying to define Dylan’s legend for over fifty years. He used to say that he wasn’t a folk singer but rather “a song and dance man.” Now he doesn’t say much at all beyond his songs, none of which he ever plays quite the same way twice. Trite as it is to say, one of the few constants over those years has been change, his seeming unwillingness to settle into one persona or to be reduced to a single myth. That’s why Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There (2007) with six different actors, an African American child and Cate Blanchett among them, playing Dylan seems to me as close as we’re going to get to the myth, the legend. I do think this elusiveness is part of the array of appeals that Dylan has for his fans. He has repeatedly urged us to figure it out for ourselves and to distrust so-called leaders. Perhaps that’s one more form of myth-making, but at least it is potentially more interactive, organic, and open-ended than most.

Dylan is often painted as a rebel and an outsider. I can remember once hearing that he loved reading his own hate mail. Since fandom is often characterized as mutual love or sharing values, why are his fans not troubled by his consistent tendency to buck adherence to one set of values? Or am I reading him wrong?

I’ve never come across the hate mail story, but it sounds like it should be true, even if it’s not. Have you heard the one about Dylan going fishing in the early Seventies with his good friend Johnny Cash and the two of them sitting in a boat together for three hours not saying a word? What an image! It’s another story that feels strangely true even if it never happened. A large part of his appeal has always been his contrariness, occasionally wrapped up in some poignant tenderness. We know that when he first came to Greenwich Village people put up with his fabrications because he was such an entertaining fabricator. I do think his fans, me included, have given him a bit wider berth than they/we would give anyone outside our families and closest friends. But that’s part of the point: he’s not family or friend but rather, among other things, one of our great contrarians. Part of our unspoken contract with him is that he can “be Bob” and we smile and say, “That’s just Bob being Bob.” That large part of his painted persona speaks to that small part of many of us. Part of his brilliance is that he does give us so many ways to read him.

In your account, Dylan often seems like a mad genius who delights in setting puzzles for his fans—is that a fair summary of is persona?

That’s not really how I think I see him. And if that’s how he came across in my book it’s no wonder I haven’t gotten that thank you note I’ve been awaiting. No, I would say that if he’s “mad,” or crazy, it’s like my totem the fox. Instead I would prefer to say that he’s insanely gifted, yes some type of “genius,” in terms of language, musical ability, powers of observation, longevity, and—most of all—courage. There may have been a time when he enjoyed playing games with or, as you put it, “setting puzzles for” his fans. But it looks to me like he’s long past that and basically doing exactly what he wants to do, fans take it or leave it. I love the current IBM commercial in which he, with that ageless Dylan smirk and eyes bluer than robin’s eggs, discusses his music with a computer named Watson. Many fans are outraged that he’s “sold out again.” To me, it’s not that but rather this season’s version of Bob doing whatever he wants to do. And getting paid handsomely for it, I’m guessing. If puzzle solving comes with that territory for some fans I imagine he’s alright with that too.

Dylan is widely known for his wordplay and wisdom. You suggest that Dylan’s humour is underappreciated. What difference do you think it makes that his medium, both in terms of its form and his stardom, is popular music, and not, say, written prose or poetry?

Technically, he has written prose and poetry, as well as worked in film. I believe that Chronicles, Volume One (2004) is really wonderful and in no small part because of so much good, wry humor along the way. His novel Tarantula (1970), on the other hand, is supposed to be hilarious in a very postmodern kind of way but never worked for me. I am not as enthusiastic about his poetry or films and defer to others about his painting. All that said, he and popular music and the times seem to have aligned perfectly. Since the 1950s and Elvis (Fath would tell me it went back ten years earlier to Crosby and Sinatra), no medium - and I’m including film - has given its stars so much opportunity to be seen and heard. Dylan and the Beatles managed to blur and redefine many artistic boundaries through what they wrote and how they performed. Dylan’s albums of the Sixties were more discussed and tell us more about that time in history than the most celebrated books, poems, or movies of the era. For a while, he was the brightest star in the biggest galaxy. He could experiment with prose but why would he continue to do so when he could write—and sing—“Mr. Tambourine Man”?

To what extent is Dylan’s ever-changing art an attempt to teach that presupposition is a poor means of understanding humanity? If so, how do you think that relates to his fan following?

Although I am not sure that Dylan attempted or intended to teach us much, I am sure that many of us have been broadened by his art. That art has time and again kept fans off balance in terms of what to expect and hope for and how to respond to what we get. That alone sends a message about not taking anyone or anything for granted. Beyond that, I do believe that Dylan’s shifting fan bases have been more favorably disposed to that, as you put it elsewhere in this interview, “ongoing conversation” with him. In his study of Dylan fans, our colleague Barry Williams quoted a fan who described Dylan fans “reminiscing about the worst Dylan shows” they had attended. That comment suggests to me both the sense of humour Dylan fans share and their relative comfort with his releases and performances keeping them off balance. One of the many things Dylan was quoted as saying in his whirlwind days was, “I accept chaos, I’m not sure whether it accepts me.” It became a poster that many of his fans bought and framed, as did I.

Dylan has been shaped by his Jewish descent and has an interesting relationship to religion, both in his musical output (themes, allusions, rhetoric) and in his personal life. Academics often compare fandom to religion. Can you shed any light on the complex cultural resonances at work in relation to Dylan and his phenomenon, precisely, on this topic—at least as you see them?

For complexity, this rivals the “what have been the biggest changes” question early in our conversation. That is no doubt why several books with a variety of lenses have been written about Dylan’s relationship to religion. I connect most with “What Happened?” written by the late Paul Williams very much in the moment of Dylan’s conversion to Christianity and Steven Heine’s Bargainin’ for Salvation (2009), which examines Dylan from a Buddhist perspective. At the risk of sounding glib, I offer that spiritual questions have been as long running in Dylan’s art (and I can only guess in his personal life) as any theme. He wrote the amazingly beautiful song “Every Grain of Sand.” Fifteen years earlier he joked about not being Jesus. Same guy, different days. It’s always been there and been complicated, like it is for most of us. As far as the comparisons of fandom to religion go, I do think, and with all due respect, that such comparisons come more easily to people who do not see the difference in kind that I see. To me, the nature, magnitude and longevity of the questions being asked by religious pilgrims are basically different from those being asked by most of us who go to Hibbing, Hartford or New Bedford.

I agree.

I recognize that it is all much more complex than I make it sound and that many fans in the late Sixties showed up at Dylan’s Hudson River Valley farm asking him for the answers. But those strike me as another strain of the “monster” fans we discussed earlier. I do feel for them and for the people they target. And I think Dylan is a deeply spiritual being who is entitled to the privacy of his beliefs.

I’ve read before that Dylan admired Elvis. Have you found quotes where he talks about his own music fandom? Do you think he is comfortable with the concept? Also, to what extent is he a kind of reluctant totem?

He very much admired Elvis. He was also a fan of Little Richard who he wanted to join, if we are to believe what he wrote in his Hibbing High School annual. He also talked about seeing Buddy Holly a few nights before Holly’s plane crashed and listening to Hank Williams on the radio. And we know that he listened to all the old blues men and made a pilgrimage to Woody Guthrie’s hospital bedside. He has praised Bing Crosby and devoted his latest album to covering lesser-known songs covered by Sinatra. In Hibbing I saw a great photo of him with Springsteen and Sinatra after one of Sinatra’s last birthday parties. There is no doubt that he is a tremendous and incredibly discerning fan of a wide range of Americana. His radio program Theme Time Radio Hour that ran from 2006 to 2009 and consisted of 101 episodes could be viewed as his fan’s notes to an incredible range of musicians, writers, and performers. On that show he’s the best possible kind of fan—deeply informed, very generous, and open to it all. I’m not sure that he thinks of his fandom as a “concept.” It just doesn’t seem like the kind of word he would use. That said, I can’t imagine that he would deny being a fan with any real conviction (he used the word repeatedly on his first radio program about baseball songs). Nor can I imagine that he’s reluctant about his iconic status. According to all who have known him as far back as we want to go, he always wanted to be on a par with his heroes. When journalist Mikal Gilmore asked Dylan, on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday, if he was “happy” Dylan reworded the question and suggested that the more important question was whether he felt “blessed.” He then smiled and told Gilmore he definitely felt blessed. It’s been almost twenty-five years since that interview. But when I look at Dylan talking to a computer between innings of a World Series game I choose to see a man who would say he feels blessed.

Dylan embodies the notion of the true American as an outsider, and yet his fans are, by definition insiders. Discuss.

I’m not sure that he’s ever really been as much of an outsider as the myth, much of it fed by his early manager and a willing press, would have him be. After all, he grew up Robert Zimmerman in a middle-class family in Hibbing, Minnesota and had a contract with Columbia Records before he was twenty-two years old. It has long been clear that he is interested in what he wears and what it signifies. He owns multiple properties and does commercials for Chrysler, Victoria’s Secret, and IBM. Like many of my Rushmore icons, he has cultivated and prospered from being a particularly stylish voice questioning some majority values in a way that people find entertaining. He is what the late literary critic Leslie Fiedler called “a good bad boy,” more Tom Sawyer than Huck Finn. He is also a great and very brave writer and, I choose to believe, as honest as the next guy. But he’s not (one of his literary heroes) Jack Kerouac or Kurt Cobain, who were real outsiders and never fit in for very long no matter how much money or attention came their way. I think most of his fans are definitely insiders in terms of playing by the rules and amending but not overturning the status quo. I think there’s more overlap in that particular Venn Diagram than initially meets the eye. Where would we put presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on that diagram?


Bob Dylan is often taken as the ultimate musical auteur, insofar that his music is understood as a creation that expresses the star himself and his changing journey of understanding. How has he represented this phenomenon and relationships with his fans in that creative commentary, and what have fans made of that?

As we have come to know it, popular music auteurship did, I think, begin with him. That said, the so-called confessional songwriters who followed Bob—Joni Mitchell and Neil Young in particular—probably took that journey further and did so much more personally at that. I would go another step and hypothesize that women were more comfortable with being auteurs sharing their journeys of understanding than Dylan was, at least most of the time. But that’s another matter. What I know Dylan has consistently done is show his fans many masks and give them a few particularly powerful and widely discussed flash points where he seemed to be tackling his relationship with them head on. The most famous was when he played an acoustic “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” at Newport in 1965 as part of an encore to his controversial electric set. If Elijah Wald, whose wonderful recent book regarding all that led up to and rippled from that moment, is to be believed many of his fans viewed it as his farewell address to them while just as many of them embraced the whole evening as the next step in the journey. That was the same night that he turned his back on his audience and played looking at the band, something he has done more often than not in his career. He also famously preached to his San Francisco audiences at the beginning of his Slow Train Coming tour (this is part of what Paul Williams was responding to in “What Happened?”). Many fans walked out those nights and more did so over the next few years. When he began the so-called Never Ending Tour in 1988 he vowed to play small venues as well as large ones and to connect with new audiences. He has averaged around one hundred shows a year over those three decades and as often as not sells out the venues.

In brief, if possible, what do you think makes Dylan fandom similar to and different from fan interests in other popular music icons (eg. Elvis, the Beatles)?

In brief, Dylan fans are more likely to view themselves as contrarians, literary, ironic, hip, and urban. I also would venture a guess that there might be more males than females in the red-hot center of Dylan fandom. Elvis most definitely appealed to a broader band of fans—and still does, if my first trip to Graceland this spring was any indication. As urban as Dylan fans tend to be, at least in many of their identifications, Elvis fans are more rural, more female, more clearly Gospel, and I think comfortable with the daily realities of life with African Americans. It was how Elvis grew up and it was what Dylan imagined. I think you can hear it in their music and you can see it in their fans. The Beatles are an entirely different kettle of fish, the biggest kettle but at the same time not as interesting a one to me as either Dylan or Elvis. As much as I love their music—and, yes, fashion—I think of them still as an extended spot of time whereas I think of Dylan and Elvis as eras. And while I’m making that brief, from the hip comparison, I can’t imagine any American icon ever exceeding what Elvis and Graceland represent. Not even my beloved Dylan.

Dylan’s voice is often a stumbling block for non-fans. You mention preferring more melodic artists in the 1960s and how Dylan’s singing sounded too fast, too slow or too angry. Do his fans actually like Dylan’s ‘nasal whine’? If not, what allows them to listen beyond it?

My answer now, fifty years into the gumbo, is “which voice?” He’s trying to sound like Woody Guthrie in 1962, a soul singer in 1970, a Vegas entertainer fronting backup singers in 1978, and on and on. As the Official Bootlegs, a great ironic Bobbish term, come out we can repeatedly hear him singing clearly and with quite a bit of range. I offer the Original Basement Tapes of 1970 as evidence. So, what we can infer is that his ‘nasal whine’ was one more affectation, one more taste that one had to acquire—as I did—to be on that particular bus. When I first heard Dylan the notion of “authenticity” had never crossed my mind. I wanted melodic, gentle, sweet, occasionally wistful songs delivered in a clear, nonthreatening way. I was very fond of, say, Robert Goulet singing “The Impossible Dream” or Andy Williams doing “Moon River.” With the help of some guides and spirits along the way, I had to break the code of Dylan’s incredibly protracted vowels and his dropping of g’s from the end of words. Then I could get hear what those words were saying. I came to love not only the words but also the voices. I think the most oft-parodied voice became some kind of badge of honor. David Yaffe has a wonderful chapter in which he convinced me that Dylan is very much a singer, not just the kind everyone is used to.

When we first made contact, I suggested that Dylan’s audience might have had qualms about being described as ‘fans.’ To what extent has that been validated by your fieldwork, and, if so, how have you negotiated the issue? I mean, it might seem a bit disrespectful to say they were in denial!

Over the course of In Dylan Town I did both fieldwork, as it might be called, and research. In the field—which consisted primarily of my classrooms, my dinner table, and Hibbing—no one seemed to take issue with being called a fan. That struck almost everyone I listened to or talked with as a given rather than a complicated concept. In fact, the only people who quibbled were those who didn’t really get why anyone cared about Dylan as much as I did. In other words, they didn’t like Dylan’s art enough to get to denying fandom. My research, in which discourse often tended to be about defining terms or drawing on implicit assumptions, there was a bit more reluctance to give up one’s individual plot of ground to be part of a group. But I didn’t really find as much of that as I expected to or feared I would. I negotiated the issue by invoking Dylan’s idea of always feeling the same but seeing it from a different point of view. Although I knew I was begging the question, I also didn’t hear anyone calling for that particular question.

I was interested in reading about Harold Weiner finding Dylan by way of the Grateful Dead. It exemplifies the complex personal and collective media consumption journeys that Matt Hills has described as examples of ‘inter-fandom.’ What seem to be the most common routes into ‘Dylan Town’ and why?

For younger fans, the most direct, and probably most predictable, was from parents and sometimes even grandparents. People repeatedly described remembering hearing certain songs when they were growing up and being hooked from the outset or coming back to them years later. Many, whether they were 64 or 24, found Dylan in college either through classmates or those outlying English courses. I also met a few people who either came to Dylan through movie sound tracks (a path I find even more amazing than reading Chronicles, Volume One) or through other bands, like Old Crow Medicine Show, either covering his work or acknowledging him as an influence. It’s no surprise that the latter group had a large number of musicians.

At one point you mention what I would call feeling a moment of ‘audience shock’ when you discovered active Dylan fans were mainly Baby Boomers and twenty-somethings. Why do you think the ‘Dylan gene’ skipped Generations X and Y?

I’m not sure I want to leap from that moment to claiming the gene skipped. Let me explain why. The moment you refer to was on the train in Duluth on the night that kicked off the annual celebration of Dylan’s birthday. Being the armchair anthropologist I copped to in the first question, I didn’t count heads or ask ages. It just looked like a crowd with no middle. I think I can explain that by arguing that those of us in the acoustic car were the hard-core old school Dylan fans and those in the electric car were the kids who knew their Dylan but were there as much for the party. Likewise, in the following two days of birthday saluting the same pattern held: that is, young musicians performing, older people with the time and money to make the pilgrimage and visit their and Bob’s back pages traveling. A better place to look might be at Dylan’s live shows where I have noticed a broader spectrum of age groups. But my eyes still see a lot of grey hair and not a symmetrical division of fans. Maybe those X and Y people are home with their kids and listening to Dylan on Pandora. I guess this is one more place where I wish I had a few more quantitative genes and realize there’s still good, interesting work to be done.