Gotta Serve Somebody

On the Tracks publishers build a career on the relentless intensity of Bob Dylan's fan base

If you're a Dylan freak, the center of the universe is, of all places, Grand Junction, Colorado.

Mick and Laurie McCuistion reside there, operating an enormous business that encompasses damn near everything relating to America's unofficial poet laureate. In 1993, the couple began publishing the ultimate Dylan fanzine, the glossy On the Tracks, along with a monthly newsletter, Series of Dreams. Both grew out of The Bob Dylan Collector's Service, which they'd started 11 years earlier.

"There are over 10,000 people on the mailing list, contracting us from over 40 countries," Mick says of those who scarf up their new and out-of-print collectibles. "We've got over 5,000 different items in stock--books, magazines, songbooks, CDs, records, videos, radio shows, tee shirts, tour programs, posters, autographs and other stuff."

Oddly, the most highly sought articles are books about Dylan. There are more than 100 of them now, with the majority analyzing the meaning of his songs. Though the literary angle doesn't exactly jive with the rock 'n' roll persona, it's undeniably gonna take some lengthy tomes to untangle a career of obtuse spoutings like the opening lines of "Desolation Row": "They're selling postcards of the hanging/They're painting the passports brown." A thousand equally obscure lines truly torment Dylan fans intent on decoding his lyrical hieroglyphics. Chalk the difference up to Dylan fans generally having a higher level of education than, say, your average ABBA junkie.

"There are more doctors subscribing to On the Tracks than any other profession," Laurie says. A scan of each issue's table of contents reveals articles contributed by college professors and lawyers as well as some of rock's most celebrated writers (Greil Marcus, Paul Williams).

Bob's bibliophilic disciples are even more fanatical in Britain. "The British come the closest to the fan-club mentality," Laurie says. "Because they consider him a modern equivalent of Shakespeare, they hang on his every word and nuance, even tracking his concert clothing changes. They discuss every fact and rumor in such detail as to take it over the edge."

Dylan obsessives have had plenty of material to ponder recently, what with the 1997 release of Time Out of Mind, easily his most acclaimed album since 1983's Infidels. But even Dylan's seven-year dearth of new songs before Time Out of Mind's release did little to impede the fascination. It seems that no matter what the state of his career is at any given moment, he retains a godlike aura pretty much anywhere your finger might poke on the globe.

"Dylan conventions have been held in Hibbing, New York, Vegas, Seattle, Cleveland, Chicago, England, Germany, Australia, Austria and Holland," Mick says. "People travel around the world to these conventions. And most are well-organized, with as many as 750 fans attending."

Dylan addiction really kicked into overdrive 30 years ago, when hunger for his music resulted in the first rock bootleg, The Great White Wonder. The illegal release offered those dissatisfied with the country hokum element of the just-released Nashville Skyline the chance to hear unauthorized tapes of a more folky Dylan backed up by the Band. Fans went crazy, and Columbia Records eventually released much of the bootlegged material as The Basement Tapes. According to the McCuistions, the craving for more Dylan music has increased: As many as 10 new Dylan bootlegs surface every month, an absolutely astonishing rate of proliferation.

But even hard-core book and bootleg collectors pale in comparison to a small faction of seriously obsessive Dylanites. As would be expected of fanzine publishers, the McCuistions frequently encounter some whose devotion to Dylan is, shall we say, a bit intense. "We have completist collectors who spend tens of thousands of dollars on collectibles," Mick says. "One collector spent nearly $15,000 on one order from our last catalogue, while another purchased over 100 items in one order. One research librarian catalogues every Dylan-related copyright on a weekly basis, and many collectors we encounter have nearly every concert on tape. Some of them talk with other fans, often overseas, daily."

Dylanitis has turned some fans downright rabid. Scattered among his extreme devotees are a few creepy figures to whom Dylan could have been referring in "Mr. Tambourine Man" when he sang, "Play a song for me/I ain't sleepy and there ain't no place I'm going to." When asked to compile a list of neo-psychos, Mick and Laurie naturally lead off with Soy Bomb, the infamous Grammy guerrilla who interrupted Dylan's 1998 award-show performance. The rest they've encountered personally.

"There was one woman who claimed to have Dylan's baby, and then later phoned wanting to know how tall Dylan was," Laurie remembers. "Does that mean she only knew him lying down? Another caller told us that he searches for Dylan's cigarette butts in backstage alleys. And one collector only buys photos that support his belief that he looks like Dylan. He cuts his hair like him and wears those 1966-era pointed boots everywhere."

Them aside, there is one supreme Dylan freak, long despised by both Dylan and most of his fans: A.J. Weberman. The McCuistions agree that "Weberman is in a world of his own."

In September 1970, Weberman and a female friend passed Dylan's townhouse on the way to McDougal Street's Cafe Gaslight. Weberman had previously approached Dylan at home and had the door slammed in his face when attempting to query his hero regarding the symbolism in his lyrics. This trip through Dylan's neighborhood, though, resulted in Weberman spotting Dylan's trash can. Weberman just couldn't help himself. The first thing he dug out was an incomplete letter written to Johnny Cash and his wife, which began, "Dear John and June, we are not sure if we'll be traveling to Memphis this month."

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