If you appreciate whimsical documentaries about eccentric or marginal types—much of Louis Theroux’s work, the Wild Man Fischer doc dErailRoaDed and Keith Allen’s deliriously insane Little Lady Fauntleroy would fall into this category—or if you are a Bob Dylan completest, then you might be interested in Tangled Up in Dylan: The Ballad of AJ Weberman directed by James Bluemel and Oliver Ralfe.
AJ Weberman is infamous, if he is known at all, among Dylan aficionados for being the obsessed stalker who Bob Dylan physically assaulted in 1971 because he had been harassing his family. Weberman picked through their trash (he calls his stinky style of sleuthing the science of “Garbology”) and staged demonstrations (with the “Dylan Liberation Front,” the students of his “Dylanology” classes) outside of Dylan’s MacDougal Street brownstone, apparently with the aim of convincing Dylan to, uh, join the revolution, man… but having the result of really pissing him off.
Bob Dylan vs. A.J. Weberman is the title of a much-sought after Dylan curio, a bootleg LP made from recordings of Weberman and Dylan talking on the telephone. It’s a fascinating conversation—indeed it’s what got the filmmakers interested in such an odd character in the first place—but it’s baffling why a superstar like Bob Dylan would have given such a freak his phone number in the first place (Weberman taught a class in “Dylanology” and had interviewed Dylan for the underground press before he got weird on him).
Here’s what Weberman told Rolling Stone’s Marc Jacobson, years later, about the time Dylan beat him up:
“I’d agreed not to hassle Dylan anymore, but I was a publicity-hungry motherfucker. . . . I went to MacDougal Street, and Dylan’s wife comes out and starts screaming about me going through the garbage. Dylan said if I ever fucked with his wife, he’d beat the shit out of me. A couple of days later, I’m on Elizabeth Street and someone jumps me, starts punching me.
“I turn around and it’s like—Dylan. I’m thinking, ‘Can you believe this? I’m getting the crap beat out of me by Bob Dylan!’ I said, ‘Hey, man, how you doin’?’ But he keeps knocking my head against the sidewalk. He’s little, but he’s strong. He works out. I wouldn’t fight back, you know, because I knew I was wrong. He gets up, rips off my ‘Free Bob Dylan’ button and walks away. Never says a word.
“The Bowery bums were coming over, asking, ‘How much he get?’ Like I got rolled. . . . I guess you got to hand it to Dylan, coming over himself, not sending some fucking lawyer. That was the last time I ever saw him, except once with one of his kids, maybe Jakob, and he said, ‘A.J. is so ashamed of his Jewishness, he got a nose job,’ which was true—at least in the fact that I got a nose job. . . .”
Weberman has written several books about Dylan (RightWing Bob: What the Liberal Media Doesn’t Want You To Know About Bob Dylan being one of them) and other subjects (such as HOMOTHUG: The Secret Life of Rudy Guiliani) and maintains to this day that Dylan sends him secret messages in song lyrics.
I’ve had my own (one-sided) run-ins with the notoriously prickly Weberman: In April of 1997, only a matter of a few months after Disinformation was launched on the Internet, I posted an innocuous enough item there about Aron Kay AKA “Pie Man,” another aging Yippie holdover like Weberman who was known for his habit of “pieing” people he thought deserved ridiculing like Anita Bryant, William F. Buckley, Phyllis Schlafly, G. Gordon Liddy, E. Howard Hunt and Andy Warhol.
Kay and Weberman are old cronies and I guess what happened is that he told Weberman about this counterculture website that had written about him and Weberman took a look, noticed a collection of links to various JFK assassination sites that I’d prepared, saw that his JFK assassination site wasn’t listed there and promptly started leaving long, hateful, spiteful messages (three in all) on my answering machine. Someone I’d never met was fucking furious at me, over something that I didn’t do. My sin was one of omission—I didn’t know about his website—but it seemed to leave the guy utterly unhinged.
I didn’t hear from him again for ten years until my wife signed me up for Facebook. One day soon afterwards she asked me: “Do you know some dude named AJ Weberman? He’s saying shitty things about you and trolling you on your Facebook wall.”
“Oh that guy. No, I don’t know him, but he’s done this before to me, just ban him, will you?”
That’s the end of my AJ Weberman story, although I suspect he’ll read this post and have something to say in the comments.
Via email, I asked the filmmakers, James Bluemel and Oliver Ralfeabout getting tangled up with Weberman:
I know that both of you are big Dylan fans. How did you stumble across AJ Weberman and decide to make a film about him?
We first came across Weberman in various biographies of Dylan. He was and probably always will be portrayed as a persistent nuisance in the extreme. The way people wrote about him was purely hateful which stuck out. We then heard the bootlegged phone call him made to Dylan which made for fascinating listening and we thought, ‘I wonder what this guy is doing now?’
What do you make of his “Dylanology”?
Weberman has an incredible analytical brain. His conclusions maybe off kilter but the ride is entertaining and sometimes illuminating. While many scholars interpret Dylan’s work within the vernacular of the blues or folk music traditions, it’s interesting to read Dylan from a street slang, streetwise level, which is where Weberman places him. And some of his insights, the way he sees those songs are fascinating. However, I feel Weberman has an agenda which often shapes his interpretations and distorts them. Some of his conclusions I disagree with, some anger me, some amuse me. It’s important to note for those that haven’t seen the film, that it’s not just a mouth piece for Weberman’s insights and wild fantasies about Dylan – there’s plenty of that you can read for yourselves on the web if you want to.
In the infamous recording of his phone conversation with Dylan, I couldn’t for the life of me understand Dylan’s own motivation in bothering to accommodate an asshole like Weberman. Most people, let alone someone as famous as Bob Dylan, would have told Weberman to go fuck himself or let the police deal with him, but Dylan, even after insulting him, continues to speak with him—albeit warily—and even agrees to a future call. Do you think Dylan was thinking “Well this guys a kook, but he’s a fan, so I owe him politeness” and just trying to deal with him on that level or WHAT? (My wife remarked during that part of your film “Why does Bob Dylan stay on the phone with this creep?” as well. It bothered her!)
I think perhaps Dylan was trying to work out how much of a nut Weberman was. This is a good few years before Lennon was shot but I bet part of Dylan’s receptiveness to Weberman was to try to work out if he was dangerous. By the time of the phone call however, Dylan had met Weberman a number of times and probably worked out that he wasn’t a psycho, so I think there was something else going on. I think in some way Dylan enjoyed the banter. Weberman does not kowtow to Dylan, he doesn’t let him get away with anything on that call, he challenges Dylan and when Dylan counter attacks these challenges, Weberman comes back at him with more. Perhaps Dylan found this refreshing to the hordes of people that fell over themselves to agree with him and praise him.
I’ve never had any personal interaction with Weberman, but he’s called my apartment in NYC and left abusive messages for me and some nasty posts on my Facebook wall. However, I must say, he doesn’t seem nearly as crazy in your film as I imagined he’d be in real life. Do you reckon he was on his best behavior because there was a camera on him?
Not really. Weberman has a nasty streak in him which I think you see in our film but it’s not the only aspect of his personality.
Near the start of the film he admits to getting physical with his wife resulting in a retraining order and also of spending some time in jail. How long was he actually incarcerated for dealing pot?
I forget now – I think the sentence was two years.
How does Weberman make a living these days?
It’s a good question. I believe he does a bit of work gathering information for the Jewish Defense League. He also writes books – the Dylan to Englishdictionary, his book on who really killed JFK and Homo Thug which was about Giuliani. I don’t know how much money he makes from these however.
How did he react to your film? Did he throw a tantrum and call your voice mail repeatedly? Nasty emails?
He never really commented on the film. In fact, he has never really asked us any personal questions about our lives at all. When we meet up with him these days, it’s just straight into whatever is on his mind. So no, he’s never let on what he thought about it. He probably would have preferred it if we used more of his Dylanology rants and kept in some of the more outrageous conclusions he comes up with. There was one point while shooting he said he would prefer it if we stopped filming, then he immediately changed his mind and said fuck it, lets keep it in the style of cinéma vérité. I liked that.
Have you ever heard if Bob Dylan saw your doc? I’d imagine that he’d get a real kick out of it.
I really hope he has seen it. I gave a copy to the producer of No Direction Home who promised he’d pass it on to Dylan. Who knows if that happened? If he has seen it, I hope he liked it.