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.