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."

Future siftings through Dylan's garbage uncovered Gainsburgers and Ken-L-Ration wrappers, balled-up aluminum foil, copies of Rolling Stone and other rock magazines, bills from the vet and the Book-of-the-Month Club, a birthday card sent by Dylan's parents to one of his children, ripped-up fan mail, a shopping list for cookie mix, liverwurst and granola, and lots of used, disposable diapers.

Weberman's archaeological approach--he coined the term "garbology" to define his unique type of hero analysis--was soon thwarted. One morning, Dylan left his townhouse to walk his child to school prior to the trash pickup. While throwing away a wine bottle someone had left on the street, he noticed his garbage was missing. Someone informed him that Weberman was the culprit, and from that time on, Dylan's refuse was no longer left in the trash can. According to Weberman, Dylan later rode up behind him on a bicycle, choked him and repeatedly punched him in the head. Weberman grabbed yet another discarded wine bottle, intending to clobber Dylan, but dropped the potential weapon, having second thoughts about conking his idol.

Soon after, Weberman wrote a piece for the East Village Other called "Dylan's Garbage's Greatest Hits." Articles on Weberman's bizarre obsession also appeared in Newsday, Time, Rolling Stone, Ingenue, Newsweek, Esquire and Glamour. In order to get Weberman off his back, a frustrated Dylan offered to boost his career as a music journalist. Weberman squandered the offer when, as a requirement of the bargain, he insisted that Dylan quit using heroin. Weberman claims he was rebuked.

The self-proclaimed garbologist eventually moved from digging through Dylan's trash to unraveling the singer's dense lyrics. In some cases, he conjured up themes that the average Dylan fan would never unearth. For instance, Weberman believes that "Just Like a Woman" (widely viewed as an homage to Warhol superstar Edie Sedgwick) is about Dylan's move away from his folk music roots with 1965's Bringing It All Back Home.

Other interpretations were more damaging. "Subterranean Homesick Blues" was supposedly Dylan's admission that he was a serious drug addict. "Johnny's in the basement/Mixing up the medicine" is, according to Weberman, a reference that suggests the extraction of codeine from cough syrup. "God knows when/But you're doing it again" is supposedly stating how "the use of codeine and other opiates causes addiction." Even the goofy "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" is, in Weberman's dubious estimation, about Dylan's heroin use.

Weberman's accusations have only escalated over the years. The garbologist is convinced that Dylan's 1997 contraction of histoplasmosis proves that he has AIDS. Weberman also has diagnosed Dylan as having cytomegalovirus retinitus (a vision impairment common among those who are HIV-positive), based on Dylan having supposedly stumbled when meeting Pope John Paul II a year and a half ago.

On his Web site, Weberman openly wonders if Dylan contracted AIDS from shooting up with Jerry Garcia and the Dead when they toured together in 1987. For those needing further "proof" of Dylan's ongoing junkie lifestyle, if one looks hard enough, Weberman claims a vial of Dylan's medication can be seen on the inner sleeve photo accompanying Time Out of Mind. Others conclude that it's only a bottle of mineral water. Weberman now claims that Dylan's son Jakob, leader of the multiplatinum Wallflowers, is also a heroin addict.

"A.J. has been proven wrong so many times, but he still persists," says Mick with disgust. "Our guess is that he is not so much an admirer, but is obsessed by the attention he receives when saying such outlandish things about Dylan. We haven't heard of another person that agrees with him.

"Still, we interviewed him in On the Tracks several years ago, and at that time he actually apologized to Dylan for all the trouble he had caused him, as well as stating that his earlier claims about Dylan were erroneous. But he now has a Web site that resurfaces his early ramblings about Dylan, as well as creating a few new harmful rumors. We figure Weberman thought Dylan would respond to his apology in On the Tracks, and when Dylan didn't, Weberman reverted to his old ways."

The couple has absolutely no interest in Dylan's trash--or trash about Dylan, for that matter. For a couple who warehouses 5,000 items of Dylan memorabilia, they're surprisingly devoid of the wacko factor.

"We have an extremely enjoyable job that deals with one of the most interesting people in the world," Laurie says. "But we're not groupies to any degree, and we don't follow him from concert to concert trying to get close to him. In fact, we've never made any attempt to meet him, even though we've had a couple chances. What would we say? 'We're your biggest fans'? We bet he can't wait to hear that line again."

Bob Dylan and Paul Simon are scheduled to perform on Sunday, June 27, at Desert Sky Pavilion. Showtime is 8 p.m.

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