Fans At Dylan Fest Not Legion, But Loyal

The Ninth International Bob Dylan Convention in the Vasa Park Ballroom on the shores of Lake Sammamish was a sad but noble affair, too empty of fans to generate excitement but too heart-felt to ridicule.

It was about the persistence of a musician who has performed 33 years and the community of graying boomers and '60s fans that persist with him.

"I've liked a lot of other things in my life but I always come back to Dylan," said Denise Mueller, 52. During the Gulf War she played his "Masters of War" over and over.

Dylan, also 52, rarely gives interviews and wouldn't be caught dead at a fan gathering. But then he had no real need to be: There were a hundred books on him, three major Dylan magazines, collector's albums on sale for up to $1,000, photographs, artwork, T-shirts and, oh, yes, impersonators.

It's easier than impersonating Elvis. All you need is a guitar and a hat.

At its best Dylan's ragged voice is hypnotic, but at its worst it's like a pump someone forgot to oil. The loyalists present noted he is disconcertingly short and unprepossessing on first appearance, can be as scruffy looking as Yasser Arafat, is frequently a clumsy guitarist and occasionally an indifferent performer while on stage.

But the sometimes brilliant song writer has recorded more than 500 songs that touch people, including such standards as "Blowin' In the Wind," "Like a Rolling Stone," "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "The Times They Are A Changin' ". He is on hundreds of official albums worldwide and thousands of bootleg concert tapes.

"One of the reasons he's lasted so long is because he's lasted so long," said Stephen Scobie, a professor of English at the University of Victoria who has written a book analyzing the folk-singer's lyrics.

Dylan has so many songs he has gone back to performing, some after letting them lapse a decade or more, and there is a "Bob Dylan Concordance" that cross-references his lyrics and songs like a guide to the Bible.

Yet even Bob Dylan has lost some of his magnetism after so much time. Instead of the expected 200 attendees just two dozen fans browsed and chatted in the rambling old wooden dance hall Saturday night. The location, picked as convenient and affordable by Seattle organizer Steve Farowich, no doubt handicapped attendance compared to earlier conventions in New York, Las Vegas and England that drew up to 600.

Before impersonators Bradical and Gary Hurst strummed Dylan tunes and their own work on stage, there were talks trying to analyze the significance of all this. Scobie and Dylan author Paul Williams, founder in 1966 of Crawdaddy, the nation's first rock magazine, explored the symbiotic relationship between artist and fan, singer and listener.

There were televised tapes of Dylan concerts and cultural footnotes such as a recorded Larry King interview with a "garbologist" who had clawed through Dylan's trash.

And there was the commercial world that has grown up around rock souvenirs, where Kirkland dealer Ron Nigretto recently sold a Grateful Dead poster for $850 and Colorado's Mick McCuastion employs himself and two others selling Dylan books and pictures by mail.

Fans were irreverent about Dylan, the difficult human being, Williams calling him a "canny iconoclast" and regaling the audience by recounting the story of the musician's date with Raquel Welch. He reportedly wore a hooded coat that covered almost his entire face, stuffed food through its tiny opening, barely spoke a word, and then later called asking for a second date. "That's vintage Bob Dylan," Scobie explained.

But they were respectful of Dylan, the entertainer, the musician who became a superstar when he captured the mood of the early 1960s and then, as the world moved on, quietly went ahead "making his art," as Farowich put it.

His work has been something a community of fans could organize around, sharing their pleasure in the music.

Williams noted the songs and singers we hear during the troubled teen years often impress us for life. He became so fascinated with Dylan he followed him to 17 straight shows. "He isn't doing it for the money," Williams said. "He's doing it because it's the only thing that really satisfies him."

Marty Nelson of Aberdeen, Scotland, heard his first Dylan album in 1964, became a fan, finally saw him in concert in 1984, and has since become a collector and print maker, making friends with other fans all of Europe, North America and Australia.

He was bored by the convention's analytic criticism. The secret of Dylan, he said, is that he's fun.

"The guy has been giving me 30 years of enjoyment," Nelson said. "It will probably never happen, but I'd like to be able to thank him for that."

Night and Day appears every Monday on page 2 of the Scene section. In it, we'll tell you some unusual, sometimes usual, things that happened over the weekend around here. If you've got some ideas of where we ought to go, send them to Night and Day, c/o Scene, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111.