Bringing It All Back Home
Grand Junction, on Colorado's Western Slope, has numerous claims to fame. It's the largest community between Denver and Salt Lake City and, thanks to uranium tailings that once were sprinkled across the area, the most radioactive, too. Additionally, the city boasts the state's only surviving Wienerschnitzel drive-through -- a point of pride if there ever was one. But for serious fans of poetic folk rock the world over, it's best remembered as the location of Rolling Tomes, a publishing house and one-stop online shopping place for anything and everything having to do with a graying Minnesotan named Bob Dylan.
On the surface, the connection between Dylan and this smallish metropolis makes little sense. The city holds no special significance in his career and has never been a bastion for Dylan zealots; the Charlie Daniels Band is more Grand Junction's speed. No wonder, then, that Dylan, who's performed in practically every nook and cranny of these United States during his four decades or so in the public eye, is only now getting around to playing this particular burg. He and his band are slated to plug in at the local fairground on August 31 -- three days before Daniels headlines at the same venue.
Mick McCuistion, who runs Rolling Tomes with his wife, Laurie, admits that he had nothing to do with persuading the former Robert Zimmerman to visit his adopted hometown. Because his company produces a quarterly magazine (On the Tracks), a newsletter (Series of Dreams) and an annual merchandise catalogue, as well as issuing Bob-related books, he's had regular dealings with Dylan's office over the years -- but he has never met the object of his affection. As a result, he says, "we didn't know anything about the concert until someone called us on the phone" shortly before the date was officially confirmed. And while McCuistion is pleased by the tour's routing, he's equally happy that Dylan is appearing anywhere these days, especially given a 1997 medical crisis that might have silenced him for good.
"It's great that he's still going on and on," McCuistion declares. "And we don't want him to stop."
If McCuistion were more interested in profits than music, he might sing a different tune, since Dylan's demise would likely increase the value of his jaw-dropping array of oddities. The Rolling Tomes Web site, www.b-dylan.com, lists a cross section of his memorabilia, much of it exceedingly rare. Consider a ticket for an April 1962 concert emblazoned with the name "Bob Dillon" that McCuistion stumbled upon: "We're getting offers of close to $1,000 for it," he notes. The price is potentially even higher for an original U.S. pressing of 1963's The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan: The LP features four songs that aren't listed on the cover or the label, the sort of factory error that makes collectors salivate. McCuistion, who's accepting bids on this baby as well, points out that other copies of the album have been priced as high as $12,000.
Fortunately, many of his curiosities sport more reasonable tags. They include:
A Bob Dylan shopping bag from 1995, issued as part of a promotion for Highway 61 Interactive, a Dylan-oriented CD-ROM that was shipped with a subscription card to On the Tracks: $20.
Paul Silhan's The Lippo Tiptoe, a CD featuring four Dylan parodies heard on Rush Limbaugh's radio show: $15.95.
A mobile promoting the release of Dylan's 1975 masterwork Blood on the Tracks: $90.
A U.S. Postal Service display that hypes a new Babe Ruth stamp with the Dylanesque slogan "Collect Our Stamps, Babe": $75.
A postcard-size photo of the auditorium at Minnesota's Hibbing High School, which Dylan attended: $3.
In all, McCuistion estimates that he has over 9,000 items in stock, most of which he has squirreled away in his nondescript abode on the Redlands, a modestly upscale area just outside Grand Junction proper. He and Laurie moved to the area in 1985 after deciding to sell an auto body shop they owned in California, where they'd met and married. Their original destination was Colorado Springs, but they stopped in Grand Junction on the way and decided it was as good a place as any to put down roots.
In the beginning, Mick, who's in his forties, had no specific plans beyond living off the body shop profits for as long as he could. But he soon was spending much of his time trading and selling Dylan ephemera under the Rolling Tomes handle, as he'd already been doing on the side.
According to McCuistion, his mania for all things Dylan struck him during his late teens. "I was in college, and I was heavily into Neil Young -- I still like him a lot," McCuistion recalls. "And I liked Dylan, too; I had the Greatest Hits album and stuff like that. But then I saw this TV special of the Hard Rain tour, and that was it. The next day, I went out and bought a whole bunch of eight-track tapes, and once I sat down and listened to the lyrics, it just took over."
No kidding. Before long, he was spending most of his waking hours on his Dylan pursuits -- and after he came down with a partially debilitating ailment called Guillain-Barré syndrome in 1989, his commitment to Rolling Tomes only increased. Right now, he and Laurie have approximately 10,000 folks on their mailing list, a bit under half of whom subscribe to On the Tracks, which they began publishing in 1993. "Most of the subscribers are overseas -- all through Europe and Japan and Australia," McCuistion reveals. "He's really big over there."
For the cost of their subscription, Tracks readers get a chance to view Dylan's work under an electron microscope. The current issue, subtitled "Bob Dylan's Love and Theft Revisited," contains several scholarly essays about the latest Dylan CD, including one by writer Cedric Speyer that examines the influence that author Eric Lott's Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class had upon the disc, plus a remembrance of Larry Kegan, a Dylan pal who died last year. Also on tap are a series of interviews with subjects such as Paul Colby, owner of the Bitter End, a nightclub where Dylan performed, and Regina Havis McCrary, one of his former background singers -- although not the one whom he reportedly wed and then divorced in secret (Carolyn Dennis).
This eclectic blend of interview subjects is typical of those who've spoken to On the Tracks in its nine years of existence. Plenty of celebrities are on the list: singer-actor Kris Kristofferson, who appeared with Dylan in the 1973 film Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid; Rick Danko, bassist for the Band; bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley; and like-minded musicians such as Billy Bragg, Patti Smith, Jackson Browne and Aimee Mann. Others will at least be familiar to people who peruse liner notes: Bob Johnston, who produced six Dylan albums, and sidemen Spooner Oldham and David Mansfield. But just as much attention is lavished on those whose links to Dylan will ring a bell with only the most devotional boosters: Elizabeth Blohm, a friend of Dylan's father's; David Whitaker, a buddy who encouraged young Bob to read Woody Guthrie's Bound for Glory; and Larry Myers, a pastor who was among several ministers at the Vineyard Christian Fellowship credited with guiding Dylan into the loving arms of Jesus Christ. Myers's highly detailed letter to author Mac Linscott Ricketts forms the basis of "Setting the Record Straight," an article about Dylan's controversial late-'70s/early-'80s Christian phase; the issue in which the piece appears is sold out and has itself become something of a collector's item.
"We're always putting things into the magazine about that period," McCuistion says. "Some people think Dylan's best work was in the '60s, around the time of Blonde on Blonde, and other people think it was the '70s, and there are people who think he's doing his best work now. I definitely think a lot of it is right up there with his best. But there's also a big group that feels the Christian and gospel songs were the best."
If anything, the books Rolling Tomes has published to date are even more obsessive than the magazine. Take 1992's The Bob Dylan Concordance, in which author Steve Michel cross-references every single word in Lyrics, 1962-1985, a book credited to the songwriter himself, as well as those that turn up in every Dylan album through 1990's Under the Red Sky. Think of a noun, and Michel will reveal if it ever turned up in a Dylan ditty -- and how many times.
At present, McCuistion says he has "five or six more" Dylan books lined up and ready for publication, but he's ready to share information about only one of them -- a work that may be even quirkier than Michel's opus. Tentatively titled The Dylan Song Companion: A Commentary With Annotations, Volume One, it's based on the scholarship of the late Bert Cartwright, whose previous Dylan exploration is called The Bible in the Lyrics of Bob Dylan.
"He was a pastor down in Texas," McCuistion says, "and he passed away several years ago. But two days before he died, he contacted me and told me about his lifelong work on this project. He'd started at the beginning of Dylan's albums and went through them song by song, just giving some commentary on them. It's not as religious as his other book; it told more factual things about where particular words or phrases come from and where Dylan possibly or actually got them from."
At the time of his death, Cartwright was only at the halfway point of Dylan's oeuvre: Blood on the Tracks. But McCuistion was fascinated anyway, and with the help of Cartwright's wife, he gathered together a slew of computer files and presented them to Jonathan Lauer, the director of Murray Library at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania, and a well-regarded Dylan scholar. "The files were completely messed up," McCuistion says. "It's unbelievable how much work went into this book. It was probably just as hard for Jonathan to complete it as it was for Bert to write it in the first place."
Marketing such a tome will be quite a chore, but fortunately, the McCuistions won't have to do so alone. They employ four full-time staffers, hire additional bodies on a temporary basis and get regular assists from their children, Rachel and Jacob. McCuistion swears he didn't name his son after Jakob Dylan, the Bob spawn who fronts the Wallflowers, "but no one believes me."
Despite the international reputation of his company, its activities aren't well-known to his fellow Grand Junctionites. Many of them are either fairly ignorant about Dylan or don't understand why documenting his every move is important -- but McCuistion does.
"With most pop artists, one generation is really into them, but once that generation passes, they're not seen as so important," he says. "But Dylan is different. Because of his lyrics, I think he'll be a really important person long after he's gone. And I hope what we're doing will help that happen."
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