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BOOKS: Q&A With Pulitzer Prize-Winning Journalist David Kinney, Author Of The Dylanologists

EDITOR’S NOTE: This originally posted on July 17th 2014

BY JONATHAN VALANIA Sometimes I think Dylanology — the obsessive study and consumption of all things Bob — is the new (and improved) Scientology. Think about it: Both are non-denominational pop cults formed in the latter half of the 20th Century that rally around a charismatic leader and rake in boatloads of believer money. Both have celebrity acolytes and promise extraordinary insight. But there is one vast and crucial difference, as vast and crucial as the difference between The Old Testament and The New Testament: L. Ron Hubbard wrote Battlefield Earth and Bob Dylan wrote “Like A Rolling Stone.” And that, kids, is why your mother and I are not Scientologists. That, and Tom Cruise. Besides, as L. Ron Hubbards go, you could do a lot worse than Bob Dylan. Plus, the music’s better. To prove my point I got Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Kinney, author of The Dylanologists: Adventures In The Land Of Bob, on the horn. It went something like this:

PHAWKER: So where did the idea to write about Dylan obsessives come from?

DAVID KINNEY: I’ve been a Dylan fan for like 25 years and it grew a little bit out of that fishing book in that both of them are about this subculture that I was maybe on the fringes of. I’ve been a fisherman for a long time but not at any level near these guys at Martha’s Vineyard. So, to go up there and fish wish them and watch them and to go see how the professionals do it. With Dylan it was kind of the same thing. I would listen to him for a long time and I think my wife and my friends would have said I was a hardcore Dylan fan. I had all the records and I’ve seen him a bunch of times in concert. I still felt like a piker, I guess. So, I had at some point started searching for some of his unreleased recordings. I think it was maybe like 10 or 15 years ago when I discovered I had everything already and that there was other stuff out there that I heard like the ’66 concerts and that sort of thing. Searching for those recordings I kind of realized that there was this whole world out there of people who took it far more seriously than I did. So I found a ramp for another book idea. I thought it would be fun to write about them. And also for selfish reasons I wanted to go deeper into Dylan than I had before. So, I spent all this time — I could have locked myself in my attic I guess with all the CDs and a library of Dylan books and done it that way, but I wanted to go out and meet these people and immerse myself in this world to see what other people who are smarter than me had to say about Dylan. That was the fun of it. That was the genesis of the idea.

PHAWKER: You spend a lot of time following these people around while they followed Dylan, kind of like Deadheads. You’re married — to former Inquirer columnist Monica Yant-Kinney —  with children. I’m curious how ‘Honey, I have to go sleep out for Bob Dylan tickets at Madison Square Gardens’ or ‘Honey, I can’t go to your mothers I need to go to Big Pink’ went over at home.

DAVID KINNEY: Well, I call this ‘work.’ Quote unquote. It was a little less crazy than the fishing tournament. That lasted for five weeks straight. So I went to Martha’s Vineyard for six straight weeks while Monica was working at the Inquirer. We had a three-year-old at that point at home. So she was sort of a single mom for six weeks. This time, even though the book project took a lot longer, I was away for shorter periods of time. Probably if you added it all up I was gone for a couple of months traveling all over the place. I did a week of following Dylan through the Great Plains from Austin, Oklahoma City, Kansas City, all the way to Sturgis in South Dakota where he played that biker rally. I went up to New York more times than I could count. I went to England for a week and hung out with the fanzine writers there and editors. [Monica] did come with me to Vienna. There was a Dylan academic conference one year that we went out to together. She didn’t go to any of the Dylan-related stuff. She sort of saw the city while I went and geeked out on Dylan.

PHAWKER: Is she a Dylan fan?

DAVID KINNEY: No. I don’t think she would count herself as a fan. She has probably seen him six or seven times and come away shaking her head each time. It’s funny.

PHAWKER: In the book you allude the fact that you are in your own way one of these people. Tell me how you became a believer in the Church Of Bob? What was your come-to-Jesus moment?

DAVID KINNEY: As I described in the book, I was a teenager. That’s when a lot of people start to pick of these sicknesses. At some point, I was going through the records in our basement and my brother was 10 years older than me and he left behind all kinds of stuff. I think he had moved into the CD era, so he had left some of his Dylan stuff behind and one of them was Biograph, which was one of the early box sets. It was 5 records. It covered everything from the first 20 years of Dylan’s career. It was a little eccentric, it was all out of order. It wasn’t in chronological order which was kind of a cool way to come to it. I was listening to everything out of order anyway. I didn’t grow up in the ’60s. I wasn’t steeped in that stuff. So, I just liked the music. The voice gripped me pretty early on. I mean, if you have a taste for eccentricity, it hooks you. It hooks you somehow. I love the words and how it makes sense. That’s why I became a writer. I love the way he used the words and his sense of humor and all that stuff. I was hooked pretty quickly and I became that kid toward the end of my high school years who was walking around talking about how Dylan was God. I would write his lyrics in my notebook and tried to get other people to listen to him. This was like ’80s and nobody like him at all. I remember I tried to play ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ on this bus trip. Everybody just started screaming at me.

PHAWKER: What’s your Desert Island Dylan disc?.

DAVID KINNEY: My go-to is still like Highway 61 but I would probably get sick of it after a while. I love Highway 61 and I love Blonde on Blonde. The other stuff that I go to is actually the newer stuff. The stuff that’s been out in the last 10-15 years. I think Love and Theft is great, and I love that Tell Tale Signs that was just like a bunch of outtakes from the stuff he’s done since the late 80’s.

PHAWKER: See, I am one of those people who think it was over after The Great Motorcycle Accident.

DAVID KINNEY: I was going to say that 66’ show, the Royal Albert Hall Show, that was actually in Manchester Free Trade Hall. I think the second disc of that record is just unbelievable. I could listen to that for a long time, for sure.

PHAWKER: Yeah, that is really unbelievable. Dylan and The Band were, like, supernatural that night.

DAVID KINNEY: It’s really the high point. It’s hard for anybody to argue that. I am sure there was a lot of great stuff that came after it and I wouldn’t have wanted him to die in a motorcycle wreck in 1966 because I mean you can fill up record after record with this stuff. Even from the 80’s, even the albums that are kind of reviled, I could put together a double disk of great stuff from the 80’s.

PHAWKER: Okay, so I know that you’ve spent the course of writing this whole book answering this question but what’s the short answer to ‘What makes these Dylan obsessives tick?’ Is it the same desire for belonging and understanding that characterizes most religious or spiritual impulses or is there something more unique to this form of fanaticism.

DAVID KINNEY: Well, I came to the conclusion that a lot of these people were like me,  just hard-core music fans who at one point had gotten hooked on Dylan and it didn’t really let .go. I think people approach it from a gazillion different directions and some of that is where they came from or where they are coming from so they might be really interested in the religious angles, whether it’s the evangelical Christian period or the biblical references, they might get into that sort of end of it. They might be interested in the literary references or digging into the allusions. Some of them are just into it for the live show, they really by into that and that’s where there is really that community building where after a while you’ve seen Dylan, 20, 30, 40, 50 times it becomes for and about the road trip and the people you see and maybe you’ve gotten to know members of the band and that sort of thing. Overall, it’s like anything else that people do to try to add meaning to their life beyond their family and beyond their work. I mean, does it replace religion? Not for most people. It’s something that enriches their life and one thing that I argued that is different about Dylan vs. perhaps other forms of collecting and other forms of obsession is he can be used as sort of a gateway into American culture. So if you want to dig deep into Dylan’s songs and sort of see where they’re coming from or where they go you can do that and that’s pretty interesting for a lot of people. I mean, I know that Scott Warmuth, they guy who has been annotating Chronicles for the past few years, I know that’s what appeals to him. You have this text and you have these songs but you can go deeper and see where the text leads you and you learn all kinds of things and you go into all kinds of corners of Americana.

PHAWKER: Most of these people don’t come across as sympathetic. They seem kind of sad or lost and to be honest, hiding from life. To be honest, I think Dylan comes across as kind of an asshole. 

DAVID KINNEY: It’s tough. I mean I worry about this with a fair amount of empathy because I feel like there’s sort of that knee-jerk reaction that Dylan is this folk singer from the ’60s and the story kind of ends there. There’s also, on the other side, there’s this idea that all his fans are like A.J. Weberman. People who want to meet him, who are crazed and they think there’s the meaning of life in every song. Both of those are exaggerations and they’re limited. I just feel like there’s a lot of different things that people do, as I said, to find meaning in their life and it’s hard to be judgmental about what people choose. I can tell you when I think somebody has crossed the line. I think somebody has crossed the line when they think that Dylan actually cares about them. When they think that they need to meet him and that he would really be interested in what they have to say about his music. When it sort of crowds out other things in their life. But most of these people that I’ve met are, I don’t know, they have families. They have other things that they are interested in. This is just one aspect of their personality. It’s a little bit unfair to trash these people because they have this interest.

PHAWKER: If you were granted a private audience with Dylan and you could ask just one question, what would it be?

DAVID KINNEY: Oh man. You’re not the first person who has asked that.

PHAWKER: I bet.

DAVID KINNEY: You know, I don’t know what question it would be. The thing about meeting Dylan, I talked to a few people who’ve interviewed him, met him, in one way or another, it .seems that the ones that go well are the ones that sort of find some common ground to talk to him about and it’s usually music. I mean the guy is an obsessive music fan himself. That’s the way to have a normal conversation with him. It’s difficult because he’s spent his whole life, since his 20’s, knowing that everybody he meets wants something from him even if they don’t say they want something, maybe they want a story. I would be reluctant to want to be in that situation.

PHAWKER: I hate to keep coming off as the guy who’s dissing Dylan because I’m a really big Bob Dylan fan. I guess I’m playing devil’s advocate for the purposes of this interview but another thing that’s irked me is just what you’re talking about — this expectation from his early 20’s on that everybody wants something from him. I just think sometimes that he doth protest too much. It seems to me that he spent all of his time and energy for years and years and years to get to the place where people were calling him ‘the voice of generation’ and the moment that happened, he rejected it. He wanted no part of it.

DAVID KINNEY: Right. There’s an easy way to get out of that and that is sort of to just open up and act normal and let everybody see behind the curtain. He has never been willing to do that. I mean, he’s never been willing to answer those questions and that explains this interest more than anything else, I think. Because he has left those questions unanswered. That story that was in Esquire a couple months ago when they were talking about Dylan on tour with other bands and the other bands aren’t in any better position, they are backing Dylan, they’re opening for Dylan. They don’t really get to hang with him. There’s a whole thing when he said, in the late ’60s when he tried to get people to forget about him- try to get the media to forget about him, all that stuff, but I think there’s probably an element of disingenuousness.

PHAWKER: Why do you think he’s stayed on the road constantly for the last 25 years. I mean, it can’t be for the money by this point. He seems to take no demonstrable pleasure from the audience.

DAVID KINNEY: You know, I would need to know more about his personal life from the past 30 years to really have a sense of why. I take him at his word when he says this is what you do. This is what a musician does. He goes and he plays for audiences and he continues to make music and all that stuff. It’s hard to argue that he should stop. I mean, what else is he going to do. Maybe it’s sort of a Joe Paterno approach that you know if I get off the road what am I going to do? I don’t fish. I don’t golf. So, this is my life. I doesn’t strike me as being terribly demanding. Yeah, he does 80-90 shows a year, but it’s compressed within 4 or 5 months. He’s been doing it so long and he’s got everything down to like a science. He kept the same band. They don’t have to rehearse. The last year he hasn’t changed the song list at all. They have been playing the same 17, 18 songs. So, I could think of worse lives than traveling around the US and Europe. If you’re a .restless soul you can see how that would be an attractive way to spend you’re 70’s.

PHAWKER: Are you working on another book?

DAVID KINNEY: I am. I’m working on a book with Bob Wittman who wrote Priceless. Do you know John Shiffman from the Inquirer? John Shiffman wrote the first book with Wittman about his career as the FBI’s art crime, agent essentially. He retired a few years ago and he’s been doing consulting and that sort of thing. The Holocaust museum hired him to help track down this nazi diary that they have been searching for for some years. He found it and so we are working on a book about the diary and about where it went. It’s a guy named Alfred Rosenberg, who was regarded as the chief philosopher of the nazi party. He was pretty influential, very early on like 1919 right when Hitler was arriving on the scene and formulating his ideas. Rosenberg at that time was seen as the guy who was very influential. Later, he was involved in the art theft stuff and was involved in the occupation of the Soviet Union. So this diary had been found after the war but then it disappeared before scholars got a chance to copy and study it. It was used at Nuremberg but not fully translated and not fully made available. It disappeared for like 60 years.

BOB DYLAN // LIKE A ROLLING STONE from Alessio Ruta on Vimeo.

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