Books

UI professor shares how Bob Dylan and his music impacted his life

Taking on an icon

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Even after a brief conversation with author and professor David Gaines, it’s clear he’s always been the cool professor or, “more of a vernacular guy,” as he puts it: the one to take a student out for pie and to talk about life, the one who wasn’t afraid to teach Dylan in his English classes back when his colleagues were just teaching old tomes out of the canon.

And Gaines’ debut work, “In Dylan Town,” a collection of essays about how Dylan has influenced him as a scholar, husband and friend, reads like attending four immensely pleasurable lectures with an expert who isn’t afraid to toss in personal stories and memories to get his point across.

In fact, it was largely Gaines’ unconventional approach that drew University of Iowa Press Editor Catherine Cocks to his work. Gaines was to give an academic paper on Dylan at a conference, and, “Catherine said she was going to come. I said, ‘It’s not a conventional academic paper — there’s a lot of white space, interviews, research and autobiographical riffs and teaching philosophy.’ But she came anyway and afterward said she really liked my voice.

“She asked for what the book was about in one line — my elevator pitch — and I said it’s a series of love and thank you notes to all who sailed the River Dylan with me.”

Gaines sent in a draft and was surprised when Cocks and her team kept encouraging him to include more personal stories; small touchstones like a favorite peaceful spot at summer camp or the view from inside a cafe soon found their way into the pages.

“This book is the most sustained thing I’ve ever done. Once that wheel starts going, all this stuff starts coming back — memories, lyrics, quotes.”

Gaines’ musings are organized in four parts: first, a reflection on fandom — naturally, as Gaines is certainly thankful for his dedicated community of fellow Dylan fans.

“People coming together around their passions is important. I think it’s that whole thing about finding family and tribes ... It’s a way for me and people I know to connect to something larger than ourselves, than our little units.”

This point comes through in the second chapter devoted to the history of Dylan being taught in the classroom — including his own, as including pop music in his curriculum was a way for Gaines to connect with his students on a different level.

“It gives them ownership and makes them more active ... It’s walking that Dylan thing: ‘I’ll let you be in my dreams if you let me be in yours.’ I’m not trying to prepare people for grad school. I’m trying to help them make stronger arguments about the things they care about. And just trying to get us all talking to each other.”

In addition to a chapter dedicated to an ethnographic study of Dylan fans at a Dylan Days celebration in Minnesota, there also is a more personal chapter that focuses entirely on Gainese’s personal journey with Dylan, from discovering him in Texas to rediscovering him in California in the late ’60s to how those same songs and lyrics resonated differently, with a different ache, as he started a career and family of his own.

“The book isn’t so much about Dylan but how people respond to him,” Gaines explains.

That may be the reason why the Estate of Bob Dylan allowed Gaines the rights to quote 68 Dylan songs for just $400.

“Dylan’s people did me a huge solid,” he says.

So have Gainese’s family and friends, who have showered him with support throughout the writing process. Perhaps Gaines sums it up best with an old quote from Dylan:

“The interviewer asked Dylan if he was happy. ‘That’s a strange word,’” Gaines recalls Dylan saying. “And he said the real question is whether you’re blessed, and he said yes. So I feel like the most blessed person. I’m having such a good time.”

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