Are you obsessed with Bob Dylan? And if so, does it matter?

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.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines

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.

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12 Responses to Are you obsessed with Bob Dylan? And if so, does it matter?

  1. Babette says:

    You are too polite mr. Tony Attwood
    Cruella would answer:
    Yes in fact I have to admit, I dont find YOU very interesting.

    Conclusion:
    No you dont have a mental disease.
    You have an interest and you are so happy, that it is also your job
    What more can you ask for?

    I am happy for your reviews and I dont mind if somebody calls it an obscession.
    You see – it is not my problem – – – :-))

  2. Babette says:

    Take your daily dose of Bob Dylan:
    Here is the song for today:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FVUearAnwso

  3. Mike says:

    An Italian man asked me whilst watching Bob in Italy why had come all the way from England to see Dylan?
    My reply was, “there’s your parents, your school teachers, the Holy Roman Catholic Church and then Bob Dylan”
    I suspect I’m not the only one!!!

  4. Don says:

    People who are passionate about music, poetry, art, nature are usually well grounded interesting people. It’s the cretins that spend their waking hours minding their neighbours business and personal affairs that are the abomination, they have few virtues of their own and once the authorities have seen through them they peddle their lies to the vigilantes in the sad hope of justification and validity for their pitiful existence, gossips and liars, thugs and bullies.
    So to be interested in a great artist is a virtue, so much musical history, his compass points you in the direction of the poets, writers, musicians, visionaries and painters. The guy is a trip. Preferable to discussing some persons business as they pass you on the street.

  5. Ejler Svendsen says:

    Thank you for your work – I really enjoy reading about Dylan lyrics.
    Please go on. Ejler

  6. Terence says:

    Thanks

  7. Anthony Rizzo says:

    I also share your love of Dylan and I have since I was 14 yrs old. I also love football (soccer) and have 2 daughters. I am grateful that I have had Bob to lean on my whole life. I don’t write a blog or review songs. I just listen and feel. I go see him whenever I can, It seems every time I go I think it’s the last time but when he comes to town again whoever I know that wants to go gets me a ticket without even asking. I am 55 yrs old and going through some changes in life and I am glad and thankful I have his music to help me through tough times. There are people who have nothing now that is sad. I don’t call it an obsession rather an enjoyment. How fortunate are we to be obsessed with someone with such a large body of work. It could have ended 25 yrs ago and that would have been fine too. Thank you for sharing all that you do.

  8. tom emlyn says:

    keep up the reviews and thoughts!
    always enjoy reading.

  9. Jean says:

    Well, for those people who only have Dylan in their lives I say, thank goodness for Dylan. Because if you are going to have very little, it’s not such a bad thing for that little thing to be Bob Dylan and his music. People today have all kinds of obsessions.
    My own experience has been a kind of roller coaster of obsession and hobby, but a person sometimes needs a place to hide, and I think Dylan’s music and all the people and places it can take you is a great solution to that.
    I think there’s Dylan line about that……
    Eventually you can emerge like out of a cacoon with wings of steel and an arsenal of poetry in your head, well armed for living in a place of truth and possibilities all your own. Being obsessed with Dylan could be one of the healthiest obsession there is!

  10. Sally says:

    We live in an era, at least in the United States, where almost everyone, at any given time, is labeling or diagnosing others with some psychiatric disorder. I cringe each time I hear someone casually mentions “he’s bipolar”, “she’s OCD”, “she’s depressive”. Those words, unfortunately, are losing their clinical significance. When one actually studies these matters, one is taught emotional issues arise to level of a clinical malady when emotions or behaviors interfere with one’s occupational or personal lives.

    As long is one’s Dylan’s fandom is not putting oneself in the poor house, jeopardizing one’s interpersonal relationships or frightening Dylan and his family, how bad is it really? Vive la Dylan!

  11. Lothar says:

    As for me, there quiet some poeple call me obsessed of Dylan, but I can only answer with the words of Prof. Heinrich Detering, the president for the society for german language and Poetry, wich was called Dylan obsessed as well, and he said : no, I am not a Dylangolist, nor am I an Dylanist, I am just a person respecting his words and his music, analysing it as a teacher for lyrics.
    For me, Bob Dylan is somewhat my best friend, the one you not allways agree with, but he is, no doubt my best friend and I will defend him whenever needed.
    It was 1964 i bought my first LP, 1969 I saw live for the fisrt time, 1978 the first time live in germany at the legendary Nuremberg Concert, and ever since I attended all of his concerts whenever it was possible, I might have missed one or two over the years.
    But . . . . I am a fan of Dylans words, he influenced me on my attitude towards lyrics, even though I dindn’t understand a word of what he was singing till 1970, when I worked for some time in London GB.
    When I felt down, he was there with “Desolation Row”, when I got into a more bright mood I was listening to some of his Love-songs.
    In every situation you are in, there was a Dylan song that just reflected my inner feelings, never the mind what it was about, I just trusted him and what I took out his songs.
    Call me, what you want . . . Dylan-obsessed or Dylangolist, beyond all that it is just me and his songs.
    Thanks for it, they enriched my life.

  12. EDLIS Café says:

    https://youtu.be/2JCrx3LP78I

    Oxford English Dictionary:

    The control, actuation, or tormenting of a person from without by an evil spirit.
    1607 B. Jonson Volpone v. xii. 10 Graue Fathers, he is possest..nay, if there be possession, And obsession, he has both.
    a1641 R. Montagu Acts & Monuments (1642) 190 To give them up to the power of Satan..to possesse, and really inhabite them, or by obsession to move, actuate and enspire them.
    1696 J. Aubrey Misc. 156 Her fits and obsessions seem to be greater, for she Scrieches in a most Hellish tone.
    a1847 A. R. Vinet Pastoral Theol. (1853) 295 Some cases may suggest the idea of possession or obsession as the cause, and I am not sure that this idea should be repelled.
    1875 C. Nordhoff Communistic Societies U.S. 134 We are thoroughly convinced of spirit communication and interpositions, spirit guidance and obsession.
    1908 Catholic Encycl. at Demonical possession The very fact of obsession or possession produced these diseases as a natural consequence.
    1924 J. Riviere et al. tr. S. Freud Coll. Papers I. vii. 129 Two components are found in every obsession: (1) an idea that forces itself upon the patient: (2) an associated emotional state.
    2000 Psychiatry & Clin. Neurosci. 54 203 We diagnosed the complaint of hearing music as a symptom of obsession.

    EDLIS Café

    http://www.edlis.org/cafe

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