In 1986, Bob Dylan sat in his trailer, his face worn and his nose running. It was early evening, just bright enough to inspire the singer to pick up a pen and start a scratchy portrait of his latest media adversary – a BBC interviewer called Christopher Sykes. “I’m not going to say anything you’re gonna get any revelations about,” he warned, his attention divided between doodle and interlocutor. Sykes, undeterred, asked Dylan about his fans’ conviction that he had all the answers – that he was “some kind of shaman”. A withering glance. “Shaman? I don’t know,” Dylan replied. “I don’t like that scene.”
By the mid-1980s, Dylan had long been playing down the notion that he was the “voice of a generation”; as early as 1965, he was exhausted by the “fancy labels” the media would place on him. “They got all these preconceived ideas about me,” he moaned. His often desperate attempts to shed that burden ranged from expressing identification with Lee Harvey Oswald while accepting a civil liberties award, weeks after JFK’s assassination, to releasing a deliberately patchy album “to get people off my back”. “The reason [1970’s Self Portrait] was put out [was] so people would . . . stop buying my records,” he later confessed.
Such strategies failed in the long run. “Don’t follow leaders,” he snarled in one lyric. “Trust yourself,” he exhorted in another. But as David Kinney confirms in his new book, The Dylanologists, the singer’s biggest fans are only too willing to be led. Collectors would search out relics, from school yearbooks featuring the young Robert Zimmerman to Baby Bobby’s high chair; the “Dylan pilgrim” Bill Pagel bought his childhood home in Duluth. A woman who masqueraded as Dylan’s sister led an itinerant life, following her idol on tour, and one day vanished, seemingly the victim of a serial killer operating in California.
Dylan has been unkind to his most loyal fans – having concert queues reversed, for instance, so that those who have waited longest get in after the stragglers. In his 2004 autobiography Chronicles, he dismissed his old audience as “past its prime”. But he, too, has always been a fan – of Woody Guthrie, of Elvis, of contemporaries such as John Lennon (whom he eulogised in the 2012 song “Roll On John”).
This month, Dylan released his version of a 1945 Sinatra tune, “Full Moon and Empty Arms” – a swoon of a recording that is unabashed about its indebtedness to Frank, to the extent that he even struggles to get his pitching right at the same tricky note (“The moon is there . . .”) that confounded Sinatra. It’s a beautiful performance that has had Bobcats in a flutter, speculating about a possible album that may or may not be due this August. And it will have them thinking: “He’s one of us!” For, as every Blonde on Blonde-quoting waistcoat-wearer in shades knows, emulation is the surest sign of fandom.