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.