By Tony Attwood
“Why are you so obsessed with Bob Dylan?” was, I suspect, just a throw away comment when it was made on this site, and not meant to open up a whole debate
But it did get me wondering. Am I obsessed with Dylan? Is it harmful? Should I stop the blog? Should I change? Should I get a life?
As a person who can get quite enthusiastic about what he does, I’ve often heard the criticism that my enthusiasms as being obsessive and therefore a bad thing. I’ve countered with the simple remark that it is better to be enthusiastic about something rather than just removed. Better to care than the shrug the shoulders and walk by.
And indeed in life in general I find myself much more drawn towards people who are committed than those who stand off, never getting involved.
So, I was interested in the question, and it really did make me think about myself and my work and my life, as well as the nature of the Bob Dylan fanbase, and the way people react to Bob’s music.
I am sure we all know people for whom a certain Dylan song has always been part of their lives. Indeed people for whom a single line of Bob’s writing is like a faithful companion, always there, never forgotten. As one who has had a few ups and downs in life, I can readily empathise with this. “Ain’t it just like the night…” has that relationship with me. “The river whispers in my ear…” likewise – both lines about about being alone and how one copes with that.
Thus at once the whole process of answering the questions that arise from a consideration of being “obsessive” about Bob Dylan took me on quite a journey. And because I am a writer by trade, I thought I’d share that journey with you, just in case you ever get accused of being an obsessive.
Now, having done a research degree I have learned to start with the definition. What is an obsession? So that’s where I begin.
There are quite a few definitions around, but generally they seem to include the notion of the obsessed person is under the influence of a persistent idea or impulse that continually forces its way into their consciousness.
But this for me isn’t quite enough, because obsessiveness is generally associated with there being something wrong. The obsessive person, as a result of the obsession, suffers from anxiety or some other form of mental illness. It is not that the idea just forces its way into their thinking – it has an effect on their behaviour and perhaps their ability to lead a “normal” life.
Often there is a persistent preoccupation within the obsessed person and it acts in a thoroughly negative way. And I think that is an important point because it allows us to distinguish the person who is obsessive, from the person who is, for example, writing a book on the subject, or indeed doing academic research for a doctorate.
Obsessiveness might be indicated by an idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on a person’s mind, and for anyone who has been working hard on a PhD or MPhil for a year or two, or has taken on the writing of a particularly problematic book, that could well be the case. But normally we don’t call this type type of research an obsession, perhaps because when the outside impetus is over (the doctorate is finished, the book goes for publication) the individual returns to a “norrmal” life.
Also if you suggest that someone has an obsession you are suggesting that the person is spending too much time thinking about the issue. Now I know that my ex-wife thought that as I reached the last month or two of working on each book that I worked on I would spend too much time thinking about it, working on it and talking about it. But I would argue that wasn’t an obsession – because there was a logical reason for the level of engagement with one particular thing. I earn money from writing, and the only way I ever finish a book is to focus on it completely at the end, not just to make sure there are no silly typing errors, but also to ensure that the whole thing flows, makes sense, doesn’t repeat itself and doesn’t contradict itself.
Now I have found this thought rather helpful – the obsession is a focus on a topic or person and which is all consuming. But I will now add the notion that it is also something that has no ultimate benefit: it just is. My interest in Dylan has resulted in running this blog, which I find enjoyable, and brought me a number of friends, whose company I enjoy. I’m turning the song reviews into a book. That seems to take it beyond obsession.
So in these various definitions of obsession the notion of persistence seems to exist alongside the notion of single mindedness and lack of ultimate benefit for the individual. My bedroom is not covered in Dylan pictures; I can and do talk of other things and indeed do other things. I don’t play Dylan music morning, noon and night.
But even here I don’t argue that collecting Dylan items is itself an obsession, unless other conditions are met, particularly that of the activity dominating one’s life.
Now in all this I am using myself as an example because I have no other examples to offer: I am not going to do a survey of people’s obsessions because that is not the area of psychology I studied, and I am not suitably qualified. Although I would be interested to know of other people’s relationship with Dylan and his music.
But for me, Dylan is just a part of my life. I don’t listen to his music every day, although through writing the reviews I have gone back to songs I’ve not heard in years, as well as discovering some I have never heard before. I enjoy Dylan’s music, but I play a lot of other music and I have several hobbies, of which this is one.
If one of my daughters phoned and asked me to come over as she had to take one of my grandchildren to hospital, I would be in the car like a shot, and I wouldn’t be playing Dylan songs on the car’s music system on the way over.
As I have intimated elsewhere my business life involves running an advertising agency, and for some years I ran a publishing company. But I also have hobbies. Bob Dylan’s music is one such, obviously, but others include dancing, watching football (soccer), running a football blog which gets between 4 million and 6 million page views a year, watching a particular type of drama on TV with a friend who shares my taste, going to the theatre, songwriting… And all this before I get to the issue of my three children and eight grandchildren.
These hobbies (and of course being with my friends) occupy my non-working time. But none of them intrude into my thinking, none of them contain ideas so persistent that they might be associated with anxiety or mental illness. I think about them, and indeed I write about them (because writing is what I do best) and I have a life beyond them.
Take songwriting: I write maybe two songs a month. I perfect the songs as best I can, I play them to a few select friends, and then after a while I record them, so that they remain for my daughters, once I have gone, should they ever wish to be reminded of my voice, my guitar playing and my piano playing. But primarily the process is something that is there for me. I get pleasure in writing songs. It helps me deal with issues and express my emotions.
Thus I say, I am not obsessed by Dylan. Which raisees the question, why would anyone accuse a person they don’t know of having an obsession?
One possible reason is the level of output. Untold Dylan has a new article almost every day, with just two writers producing most of the output. That doesn’t seem odd to me; I’ve always been productive. But maybe anyone who would say this is an obsession is frightened by this productivity. Frightened that someone else can find something they want to do, and can just do. My work isn’t great art, but by and large people find it readable. I would argue, doing what you find you can do, doesn’t make you obsessive.
But I do think some Dylan fans are obsessive, because Dylan seems to me to be all they have in their lives. They don’t seem to have other hobbies, they don’t have friends, they just have Dylan.
I know people who have the same sort of situation concerning dance. It’s not that they dance a lot, but rather that they don’t do anything else in their spare time, and don’t seem to have any deep or long term friendships that exist outside of their dancing. I’m getting to the view that it is good to have several interests or enthusiasms.
And now I think of it, I am starting to wonder if people who accuse others of being obsessive about something (be it Dylan or anything else) have actually never had the joy of finding something that really engages them, so that they want to explore it further.
But I am also left with the question: Is an obsession always bad? And my answer is no, I don’t think it is always bad, but often it is. Consider the doctor who is “obsessed” by finding a cure for a disease. He/she might devote every waking moment to the issue, and not have a life beyond the question of the cure, but at least there is a purpose and a benefit to others. And indeed although I would never put myself on the same pedestal as medical doctors my modest amount of work on Untold Dylan has some purpose and some people have occasionally been kind enough to say they either enjoyed a review, or found it helpful.
So overall I think there are people who are obsessed, but just joining a group that discusses Dylan is not a sign of obsession. Being truly obsessed is neither self-curable nor self-curing. It’s not like a cold which goes away, for obsession (from what I understand) is very difficult to eradicate from oneself.
And as I have also begun to think about the way in which “why are you so obsessed with Dylan?” is used, I also think there are people who are at the other extreme from those who are obsessed. The people who really have no deep interests which allow them to explore a world away from the humdrum everyday reality.
So I come back to the notion that people without enthusiasms and significant interests, the people who might say, “Why are you so obsessed…” are the ones who are lacking. The people who misunderstand an enthusiasm (with all the benefits this brings) for obsession, and often they are the ones who seem to lack enthusiasms and significant interests. They might be interested in certain things, but they don’t really get inside these issues. One might dance, but really to get the benefit of dance, one has to practice a lot. They might enjoy the theatre, but going once a year doesn’t really help bring a detailed understanding of the art form.
In short a real interest in a subject, which gets one inside it so that it can be fully explored, is no bad thing. Otherwise one risks being nothing but a dilettante – endlessly flitting around the edges, never really grasping the full meaning.
So overall, why am I so obsessed with Bob Dylan? I don’t think I am. I enjoy a lot of Dylan’s music, and I enjoy analysing it and writing about it. Just as I have enjoyed writing this little piece about obsession.
But tonight I am going to drive across middle England to join some friends at a dance, and we’ll bop around the floor for four hours getting hot, exhausted and to some degree staying fit and occasionally refining the art of dancing to contemporary music. When August comes around I shall start going to watch my football team again. Most weekends I drive and visit one of my daughters and her children.
Next February, all being well, I shall fly to Australia again and visit my youngest daughter. Last weekend I went with a good friend to look at the summer exhibition at the Royal Academy. It was great fun but I know that in art I am a dilettante. I see it as an outsider. I enjoy it, but I am not part of it.
But am I obsessed by Dylan? I don’t think so. But I am very curious about what goes on inside the minds of people who suggest I might be.
What is on the site
1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs. There is an index to these in alphabetical order below on this page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages. Also a list of the most read articles on this site.
2: The Chronology. We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums. The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site. We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year. The index to the chronologies is here.
3: Bob Dylan’s themes. We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions. There is an index here.
4: The Discussion Group We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link
5: Bob Dylan’s creativity. We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further. The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.
And please do note The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.