It's a cliché of sports and music writing to point out that the word "fan," as used to describe avid enthusiasts, comes from the word "fanatic." Some clichés are overused for a reason. Some Rams fans, with bulging bellies painted blue and beer-scented bellows, can make you question Reagan's decision to deregulate the mental-healthcare industry back in the '80s. But even these dedicated citizens of the football nation can rarely compete, for sheer fanaticism, with folks who have fixated on a musical act. Sure, they might follow their team across the country on Sundays, but they normally find time to wash between shows. The same can't be said for Phish fans. And you have to wonder about anyone who would describe himself in mixed company as a "Parrothead," as Jimmy Buffett fans willingly do.
Bruce Springsteen seems to inspire some secondhand delusions of grandeur in his followers: The title alone of Robert Cole's Bruce Springsteen's America: The People Listening, a Poet Singing is enough of a giveaway (and trust me, you don't want to go past the title page). But nobody, not even Neil Diamond acolytes or people who refer to Dave Matthews as "Dave," holds a candle to the fans of ol' Minnesota Mudthroat, Mr. Bob Dylan.
I know, for I have walked among them. Specifically, I hung around in front of the Pageant last Wednesday, the last day of Dylan's three-night St. Louis stand. (Quite a coup for the venue, especially considering the rumors that some of the club's higher-ups belong to a secret cabal of fans known as the Bob Dylan Polite Conversation Society.) I understand being a superfan: I once drove eight hours to watch an opening band play and left before the headliners came onstage. But I was amazed by the Dylan fans who lined up hours before the Halo Bar opened up to shelter them pre-concert.
Wednesday was a cruddy, wet day. The Pageant is a spacious venue where it's more difficult to find a bad seat than a good one. And yet here was a string, a long string, of folks waiting in the middle of the afternoon for their chance to get in. Walking up the line, I met folks from West Texas, California and even Italy who'd come to St. Louis to see all three shows. In fact, among the first twenty folks in line, not a single one was from the Lou.
At the very head of the line, I met Robin and Lex (paranoia still strikes deep for Dylan's fan base, and very few people in line were willing to give their full name to a man with a tape recorder in his hand), two fortysomethings from Wichita whom I sincerely hope are the two biggest Bob Dylan fans on Earth. They'd been in line since 4:30 in the morning (!), three nights running (!!).
"Didn't want nobody else in front of us," explains Lex, who, along with Robin, estimates he's seen Dylan well over 100 times. They needed to be front and center, touching the barricade, inhaling Dylan's skin cells, and that's all there was to it.
Robin gestured to the three ladies from West Texas who stood in line behind the dedicated duo. "These are my Dylan friends. I see them all the time, all over the place. I don't have no regular friends where I'm from, just Dylan friends. I don't get to see them as much as I'd like to."
I knew I'd regret it, but I had to ask. Why Bob Dylan?
"Who else is there? There is nobody else," Robin was quick to respond. "I don't even listen to any other music but Bob. I don't listen to the radio, I don't watch MTV or VR-1, or whatever. I just watch Bob Dylan. Only. Only Bob. There is nobody else for me."
And Robin wasn't done.
"He's a miracle worker. Jesus touched him and his job is to share it with us."
Interestingly enough, I found a competing theory for Dylan's gifts: alien abduction. At www.seancasteel.com/dylan.htm, Sean Casteel argues that it wasn't Jesus, but gray-skinned aliens, who taught Bob everything he knows. Summary won't do it justice, but allow me to quote the final sentence: "And if it is true that the aliens behind the UFO phenomenon are here on Earth seeking a 'Chosen Few,' who could begrudge them their choice of Bob Dylan as a human specimen deserving of their special care and attention?"
Finally, something Robin, Sean and I can agree on.