David Gaines, In Dylan Town: A Fan’s Life
Publisher: University of Iowa Press
2015, 168 pages, paperback, $17
CONFESSION: I WAS one of those people who said that they loved Bob Dylan’s lyrics but hated his voice. That lasted for the first 25 years of my life, right up until I took a class from David Gaines and then, to borrow from another Americana icon, I saw the light. Now, I can freely discuss the pros and cons of Self Portrait versus Another Self Portrait, or the effect of smoking on Dylan’s voice.
Which is to say that I’m a fan of Dylan, and that’s part of the reason that I loved In Dylan Town. But this book, a hybrid between a memoir and a cursory study of Dylan’s fandom, is much more than just homage to the song and dance man. For the reader who is only vaguely familiar with the oscillating arc of Dylan’s career, Gaines gives a brief rundown early on (worry not—it’s long enough to position the unfamiliar, but short enough to not bog down someone who will set this on an entire shelf of Dylan-related literature), then launches into an examination of the world of people writing and talking about Dylan on websites, in books, and through scholarly work.
Gaines then examines his own life to see how he ended up in his current position: an academic whose main area of study is Bob Dylan. Gaines provides an apt metaphor for the situation, saying “I have no choice but to introduce some of my fellow travelers and acknowledge how they were tributaries into the River Dylan that has run through my life.” There, he’s talking about people, but it also applies to situations. His father, a liberal doctor in a Dallas suburb, had young Gaines spend an afternoon picking cotton so that he’d “know how some people get by.” This echoed forward into Gaines listening to Dylan sing “Only a Pawn in Their Game.”
The book ends with Gaines taking part in Dylan Days, a celebration of Bob Dylan’s birthday in Hibbing and Duluth, Minnesota. The reader tags along as Gaines interviews young fans attending for the party, people who live in the area and have been doing the festival for years, and VIPs of the Dylan fandom that Gaines has been reading about for decades. One of the last lines of dialogue in the book, issued by a woman who owns a bookstore in Hibbing, sums up the atmosphere Gaines paints perfectly: “If Bob walked into the store today I would say, ‘Because of you, Bob, I have met the nicest people in the world.’” Gaines echoes this sentiment while steeping himself in the company of kindred Dylanheads, writing, “Dylan was the excuse for our being together.”
In Dylan Town moves between some fairly academic analysis of fan studies, a very personal memoir section, and a journalistic look at the Dylan Days festival. Despite the wildly different narrative needs of these three sections, the book works as a cohesive whole because of Gaines’ visibly warm, conversational tone. Gaines’ voice comes across as someone who is generally interested in everyone he encounters, but is also skeptical about some of the lengths his fellow fans go to in order to learn about Dylan. The song quotes come fast and often, and Gaines is wonderful at making these quietly brilliant little comparisons, like putting the eight million annual visitors to expectingrain.com next to the four million annual tourists that show up at the Grand Canyon.
There are points where Gaines gets a little too intimate with his voice, mainly when he sometimes rushes through a lot of names of people who influenced his transition from a grad student who saw Dylan as a “guilty pleasure” away from his true studies to pitching an entire class just about Dylan. The book moves quickly though, so these litanous moments never last long. The work is a fast read, and only runs about 120 pages without the back matter. In a couple of other narrative points, Gaines rushes a little too quickly, to the point where I think I’ve missed something. “Both my political heroes, Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, had been killed,” Gaines writes, “A month after Kennedy died, Fath did as well.” I did a double take, thinking I had missed something, wanting more, but only hints of the impact of the death come later.
One really smart thing this book does is make Dylan himself appear only briefly, only in the margins. To be clear, this is not a book about the man born Robert Allen Zimmerman. Gaines mentions the Hitler and Elvis scholars found in DeLillo’s White Noise and Didion’s “John Wayne: A Love Song,” and I think this work echoes the essence of both of those creations: the idea that the line between fandom and obsession is porous and is a fascinating lens through which to look at a life. That’s exactly what In Dylan Town does. Bob Dylan is the occasion for a meaningful reflection on a life inextricably linked to that baby-faced singer who made the trek from Minnesota to New York City fifty-five years ago, a sort of personal Never-Ending Tour starring Dylan as the metaphorical brother, father, and guiding star who is all but physically present.
David Gaines fancies himself a bit of what Bob Dylan once called “a song and dance man.” He grew up in Grand Prairie, Texas; went to California in the sixties and law school in the seventies; and has been in the groves of academe ever since. He has taught American literature, film, and music in Harlem, at The University of Texas at Austin, and now at Southwestern University. He and his wife, Norma, have four children. He views In Dylan Town as, among other things, a series of love notes to all who have traveled with him. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.