Bob Dylan and the three mysteries of ‘Dylanology’

Dylan skipped the formal presentation of his Nobel.

Dylan skipped the formal presentation of his Nobel. Photo: AAP

It’s a sure bet Bob Dylan will open his latest Australian tour in Perth on Wednesday night with the Oscar-winning song Things Have Changed, to be followed almost immediately by whinging from some concertgoers that they didn’t recognise the tune.

But instead of considering it just another mangled offering from a 77-year-old past his peak, think of it as the first step towards understanding the mysterious allure of Bob Dylan – musical chameleon, Nobel laureate and spruiker of home brand whiskey.

Indeed, the more Dylan changes the more he stays the same.

In a life chronicled in minute detail, the man himself has made a habit of defying expectations and wrong-footing fans and critics alike.

It’s why the hardcore continue to turn out to see His Bobness warble covers of Frank Sinatra B-sides, while others are left to recount horror stories of their one “terrible” Dylan concert.

So as the so-called Never Ending Tour rolls into town, here are the answers to three of the most often asked questions about this living legend.

Can Dylan still sing? Could he ever?

Let’s face it, even at Peak Bob the young Dylan’s voice divided opinion. The most often heard criticism is that people prefer the cover versions of Dylan songs to the originals.

So be warned, if you’re going to see Dylan thinking you’ll hear an album-perfect version of that track you liked off Blonde on Blonde you’re clearly setting yourself up for disappointment.

The good news for fans is that Dylan actually sounds like what you’d expect an elderly Bob Dylan to sound like – rough, hoarse, occasionally out of tune, but with that patent-pending nasal twang.

Oh, and he won’t speak to or acknowledge the audience until the show’s over either, so don’t expect any pampering as the eclectic set list of more recent songs, American songbook standards and only the occasional classic unfolds.

It was ever thus. Dylan has had a famously antagonistic relationship with concert goers over the years, with former partner Joan Baez telling the Martin Scorsese documentary No Direction Home that “Bob seemed to ignore whatever was coming towards him”.

“He could literally, and I’ve seen him do it, turn his back and play a whole song, play two songs, fiddling around with the equipment on the stage and never even looking at the public. It doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference in the magnetic draw,” Baez said.

I now see it that it’s very unique and it’s admirable and it’s a pain in the ass if you are trying to work with him. Or it is a pain in the ass if you were expecting something else from him.”

As for why people still turn out to see Dylan live, perhaps the last word should go to former Sydney Morning Herald journalist Craig McGregor, who struck up a friendship with the singer during his first visit to Australia in 1966.

“I go along as an act of homage … really,” McGregor told the ABC when contemplating Dylan’s last tour in 2014. “We go along as an act of homage to him as a songwriter, not to be transformed by his performance, by the concert itself.

“We go along to see what he’s like these days and offer our admiration for him. That’s about it.”

What is Dylanology?

Today we’d call it stalking, but like many annals in the Bob Dylan story at the time it was an entirely new phenomenon.

Played out on the streets of New York city in the late 1960s and early 1970s, local writer and oddball AJ Weberman started going through Dylan’s garbage and documenting his findings. He called it “garbology” or “Dylanology”.

With Dylan moving away from his overt social justice-inspired music,  Weberman claimed the musician was being controlled by dark forces and needed to be saved.

Weberman covertly recorded several hilarious encounters with an increasingly frustrated Dylan as the pair exchanged both pleasantries and barbs.

On one of these tapes, Dylan even provides his fans with an insight into how he spends the weekends, offering an excuse for being unable to meet Weberman to review an article.

“No no no I’m tied up on the weekend,” Dylan pleads. “I’m working man, like I’m building some sh–t and I really got get it built. Just some tables and shelves and some stuff and I gotta get it done man. I’ve put it way off.”

Shelved by Dylan, or not, Weberman was among the first and the most famous of the modern obsessive fan, but he was by no means the last.

Almost 40 years on, the fascination with Dylan’s life even includes an annual analysis of the Christmas lights outside his California estate which have – arguably – served as predictors of the state of the economy and other major news events.

Did Dylan take his Nobel prize seriously?

Dylan’s acceptance of the Nobel Prize in Literature was marked with an outcry from some literary circles, while at the same time offering a bounty of new material for the Dylanologists.

Not the least of the controversies was Dylan’s apparent reluctance to accept the prize in person, ultimately attending a private handover in Stockholm five months after the official ceremony.

To accept the award Dylan was required to deliver a Nobel lecture, which he eventually provided in a recorded format.

The lecture was immediately criticised for its references to Moby Dick, which some ‘Dylanologists’ claimed were copied from SparkNotes, an online study guide for school students.

It seemed a typical Dylan subversion, particularly given the debate about ‘songwriting as literature’ that had followed the announcement of the Nobel.

At the time Dylan had answered these critiques with a statement read at the 2016 Nobel Banquet, which pondered whether William Shakespeare’s work would have been considered literature at the time of writing.

“His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. ‘Is the financing in place?’ ‘Are there enough good seats for my patrons?’ ‘Where am I going to get a human skull?’, Dylan wrote.

“I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question ‘Is this literature?’.”


Aug 8: Perth Arena, WA

Aug 11: Bonython Park, Adelaide, SA

Aug 13, 14: Margaret Court Arena, Melbourne, VIC

Aug 18: ICC Sydney Theatre, NSW

Aug 19: Enmore Theatre, Sydney, NSW

Aug 20: Wollongong WIN Entertainment Centre, NSW

Aug 22: Newcastle Entertainment Centre, NSW

Aug 24:  Brisbane Entertainment Centre, QLD

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