To have your name go down in the annals of history as someone who combed and foraged through other people’s garbage would be an utterly horrific thought for most normal people. However, for AJ Weberman it is not only his one true claim to fame but also something which he seems to be still immensely proud of forty years after the event. As the most famous name connected with the lunatic extremes of Dylanology, and as the first proponent of the science of Garbology, Weberman is therefore an interesting subject matter for a documentary – even if only to answer the passing thoughts of saner Bob Dylan fans who wonder, “Whatever happened to that nut who used to go through people’s garbage?” Well, he’s still around, still up to his old tricks and still crazy after all these years.
Shown on BBC4 alongside the peerless Martin Scorsese documentary, No Direction Home, as part of a worldwide surge of interest in Dylan in the lead-up to his 70th birthday, this portrait of Weberman won the Raindance Award at the British Independent Film Awards back in 2006, a rather generous hand-out to a flawed production, in my opinion. While the film does an able job of following around the modern-day Weberman there’s very little effort to put any of his historical activities into context and, given that Weberman and his cronies were very much mere footnotes to the explosive cultural scene of the 1960s and 70s, such background is a necessity rather than an option, given that he will be unfamiliar to anyone other than dedicated Dylan fans or students of counterculture.
A member of the Yippie movement, founded in the late 60s, and also of various Jewish groups such as the Jewish Defense Organisation, Weberman became obsessed with the music – and particularly the lyrics – of Bob Dylan. To Weberman, however, Dylan was a sell-out, having forsaken his position as the “spokesman for a generation”, gained through his early protest songs, and having even abandoned the counterculture attitude of his momentous conversion to electric records and the memorable tour they spawned. AJ believed that instead of sticking it to “the man” Dylan had become “the man” himself so he set up a movement called The Dylan Liberation Front and took to wearing a badge with “Free Dylan” emblazoned on it, hoping to set Dylan free from himself and to take his rightful position at the head of an anti-establishment league – a position which everyone knows Dylan had never the slightest interest in being connected with. Oh, and according to Weberman Dylan was also a heroin addict.
This last point is suddenly relevant this week with the emergence of a taped interview between Dylan and his friend and biographer Robert Shelton revealing that Dylan had a heroin habit in the early 60s when he first came to New York. Whether this is true or not or just the ramblings of someone on a plane flight on a draining and stressful tour in 1966 while strung out on another drug (amphetamine abuse being to Dylan’s taste at this time) is open to speculation. One thing is for certain though and that is that Weberman’s allegations that the Dylan of 1971, taking it easy with his family away from touring and scaling down his recordings, being a heroin addict belong in the trash cans that he so loved to rummage through. The idea is ludicrous and yet it didn’t stop Weberman searching through Dylan’s lyrics for anything which he could twist to fit his crackpot theory, even resorting to playing the records backwards. You can obviously prove anything if you’re prepared to believe that every time someone says a certain word they actually mean something else entirely and this is what Weberman did and it was a road of madness which eventually led to his head being stuck in Dylan’s garbage as he searched for ever-more-outlandish clues.
Of course, such behaviour didn’t go down well with Dylan himself and even less so with Dylan’s first wife, Sara. Nowadays, a restraining order would be swiftly in operation forbidding Weberman to go anywhere near the Dylan family’s apartment and asking him to stop stalking his victims on pain of court proceedings and imprisonment. Even just nine years later, in the aftermath of John Lennon’s senseless slaying by a deranged fan in the same city, the cops would have been round in an instant. However, these were simpler and more naive times and Dylan and Weberman even had a channel of communication with each other until one day Dylan finally snapped and did what most normal people would do in the face of such provocation and attacked Weberman in the street!
So much for “then”, but what about “now”? Well, Weberman is now obviously an old man and he’s an old man with a slightly defeated air about him. He’s still fighting his unlikely fight against Dylan but you almost get the impression from the film that he’s going through the paces now, as if he’s come this far and can’t give up. I think it’s part of our human condition to naturally give sympathy to the elderly and Weberman, now minus the crazy professor hair and nasty attitude, has the appearance of a kindly senior citizen, albeit one with rather lunatic ideas. However, we don’t get many minutes into the documentary before being tugged in all sorts of different directions by one casual remark he makes, informing us that there is a restraining order out on him stopping him from visiting his estranged wife and daughter after he attacked said wife. He seems full of genuine regret for this crime throughout the proceedings so it’s easy to be sympathetic towards him and the depressing mess his life has descended into but, on the other hand, we can now judge him not just as someone with deranged ideas but as someone violent towards a partner and it makes for difficult viewing with this knowledge out in the open from very nearly the beginning of proceedings.
There are a few different strands to the narrative of the documentary: we see Weberman bumming around with some of his old friends, we hear anecdotes from Weberman and his friends about the good ol’ days of being a pest and nuisance to Dylan and, most interestingly and most entertainingly, we get to hear extracts from a phone conversation Weberman taped between himself and his ex-hero. This has been crudely animated with caricatures of the two speakers to give the screen some focus and it’s by far the most compelling element of the film. What it also demonstrates is that Dylan, now famously difficult to get hold of, actually had a bizarre line of communication with this most famous of his out-there fans and showed him more tolerance than anyone would expect. While it’s true that Dylan did eventually snap and biff this guy one it’s incredible to hear Dylan actually trying to reason with him, imploring him to put all his energies into something more positive for himself and the world than hoking through rubbish on the street.
As for Weberman’s friends, well, they do a good job of making him look normal. If you’re a lunatic these would be exactly the sort of people you would hang out with as you would look like a blazing beacon of sanity by comparison. David Peel is the first we meet, an old singer-songwriter who is obviously still having a party in what is left of his fried brain which started in about 1968. He probably thinks it’s maybe time to consider straightening himself out and that it might now be as late as 1976. Looking like he hasn’t washed for a month Peel is wide-eyed and eagerly recounts the old anecdotes as if they happened just yesterday and they’re still imbued with a newness to him. Maybe to him they did happen yesterday. He did actually, once upon a time, have a big claim to fame when John Lennon took him under his wing, signed him to Apple and produced an album for him. Now, though, he looks like some sort of tramp and he’s happy to play the rather awful song he released in the 70s called “AJ Weberman”.
The other Yippie refugees are an even weirder bunch. There’s the Pie Man, a grotesque figure in an old tie-dye shirt who has cockroaches running round inside his fridge. Then there’s the couple Weberman is currently living with. There’s Jay, a man with thick eyebrows drawn on with pencil for some reason who we see playing in a band in a local bar in a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in Phoenix Nights. And Paulette who’s a cross between an old hippy and a cackling old witch who might suddenly put you in a pot and cook you. These are all people you’d run away from.
As for the actual garbology, Weberman is fairly unrepentant seeming proud when he tells us that people now acknowledge that he is “the Father of Garbology” and that he invented the word, as if it’s something that you would actually want to be proud of. He’s still up to his old tricks though and he takes us to the pavement outside Woody Allen’s New York apartment, rifling through his garbage and then beating a hasty retreat when a neighbour comes out, leaving with a bag of Allen’s refuse. Why he bothers to continue to degrade himself is anyone’s guess though he’s certainly not short of crazy ideas to this day, informing us that Dylan is still a heroin addict and that Dylan has drawn pictures of him which have been released in books and that he still communicates to him via song, if not in person anymore. There is one moment of sanity though from this man who has also produced a book on the JFK conspiracy and who recently had a book about ex-New York mayor Rudy Giuliani pulled from Amazon, when he sadly admits that he probably deserved to be hit by Dylan on the pavement all those years ago and that for annoying Dylan’s wife it was justified.
The two highlights of the documentary come near the end with the first being Weberman taking us to his garbology archives at a secret location to show us Dylan’s preserved junk. At first Weberman can’t find the box it’s in and accuses Dylan of having his people infiltrate the house it’s being stored in! He soon finds it though and I must admit that it was highly interesting to see that this most famous collection of rubbish in history still exists somewhere to this day, including a letter to Johnny Cash and a fragment of an abandoned song that Dylan had been working on. It’s totally wrong that it should have been stolen in the first place but actually quite fascinating to see it forty years later.
The other highlight is the culmination of the animated Weberman/Dylan phone call. Things have descended into a bit of name calling with Dylan saying that he’s got a song about Weberman that he’s been writing and that it’s called “Pig”! There’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing of insults with Weberman telling Dylan that he has sold out and is past it and Dylan challenging Weberman to name him someone “who writes better songs than me” before dismissing a list put to him including Credence Clearwater and Mick Jagger. Eventually Dylan can’t be bothered with it anymore but instead of giving him one last verbal blast or just hanging up, he simply says, “Anyway, see you later man”. “Okay”, Weberman replies. “Monday?” Dylan asks. “What?” “Monday” “Yeah, Monday” “Awright, goodbye”. It’s remarkable to think that Dylan actually continued to have a dialogue with this man who was pestering him and that after having an expletive-ridden argument they could sign off so cordially.
Further research beyond the documentary took me to Weberman’s own website where he has found that technology allows him to get his absurd and demented messages out to the masses a lot quicker. While the Weberman of the documentary is an old man who seems slightly less mad than his friends, the Weberman of the website is howling at the moon twenty-four hours a day. His claims on the website include Dylan being a holocaust denier, that Dylan hates black people, that his famous protest song “Blowin’ in the Wind” wasn’t about peace but about how he wanted to see black people hanging from trees blowing in the wind, and that Dylan is HIV positive. Oh, and he has a new book coming out called “The Devil and Bob Dylan” about how Dylan sold his soul to Satan to get where he is today. He backs up the insanity of his claims by analysing Dylan’s lyrics and it makes for very disturbing reading, basically relying upon taking all the actual meaning away from songs and applying entirely new ones which only exist in Weberman’s outraged and unhinged mind.
Ultimately this is a failing of the documentary. Just as the filmmakers (James Bluemel and Oliver Ralfe) fail to question Weberman in any meaningful way about why he became so obsessed with Dylan, why he thought Dylan had sold out, or why he resorted to verbally attacking him and hunting through garbage, they also fail to question him on any of his latter-day madness such as the serious business of accusing a fellow Jew – completely without any sane foundation – of being a Holocaust denier. They rob the film of any historical context for Weberman’s actions and they also, and far more crucially, rob the film of any present day context to Weberman’s continuing obsession and psychotic state of mind. While I watched the film and had a degree of sympathy for a man who has some issues, the truth, which the film-makers will have been very much aware of, is that the man appears to be suffering from very deep mental illness and is actually quite dangerous, spilling out bile and slander and alleged racism. So, not the bumbling old eccentric portrayed in the movie but an alarmingly malignant and unstable maniac. Check out his rantings for yourself here to see if you agree.
So, interesting enough documentary? Yes. A good job on exploring the background of its subject matter? Very definitely no. Wilful and deliberate misrepresentation of a hate-filled and bitter sociopath to make a movie look more charming and get nominated for awards? Sadly, yes.