Dylan Has the Answers

The New Yorker/September 4, 2013

By John Clarke

If you saw any Bob Dylan shows in New England or the Midwest recently, you may have spotted a group of overly friendly hippies swarming around a two-tone, double-decker bus called the Peacemaker. For much of the tour, which started in April, they have chatted up Dylan fans and handed out a twenty-four-page booklet titled “Dylan: What Are You Thinking?”

The Amish-style hippie group of about twenty people—men wearing beards, headbands, and ponytails, and plainly dressed women in ankle-length prairie frocks—are members of the Twelve Tribes, a quasi-Christian sect. Critics contend that the Twelve Tribes is a cult that actively recruits at concert venues by preying on the heavily inebriated and highly vulnerable—basically, stoned kids. Dylan concerts appear to be the group’s latest hunting grounds.

The Twelve Tribes member Aysh Harris told me that the effort to recruit fans of Dylan—who he calls a modern-day prophet (“A lot of things he said back then are coming true now”)—has been a good experience, a success even. “Most people we meet out there are pretty satisfied with the life they’re living,” Harris said. “But some have shown an interest in Twelve Tribes. There are definitely pockets of Dylan fans who are at least curious.” For the interested, joining Twelve Tribes requires forsaking all material goods, living communally, and working without pay in one of the group’s cafés, stores, farms, or construction companies scattered across the United States.

In “Dylan: What Are You Thinking?,” an anonymous Twelve Tribes author ruminates on the music legend’s religious beliefs before claiming that Dylan’s prophetic anthems “touch the complex and deep longing of the soul for a real answer, for a solution to the problems we all face, and for some deep change of heart that will fix everything that’s wrong.” Naturally, there are interpretations of Dylan songs. “Somehow you knew that if hope for a better life in a better world dies in the human heart, evil will reign forever over the human race,” writes a member to Dylan, about “Blowin’ In the Wind.” Evidently, “Mr. Tambourine Man” is about the shortcomings of the peace movement: “The more we followed our own individual ‘Tambourine Man,’ the more lost and alone we became. So you asked us this question: How does it feel?” (Cue “Like a Rolling Stone.”) Barely cloaked in each Dylan reference is a custom-built appeal for Dylan fans on their personal Desolation Row: Are you lost? Has politics and religion let you down? Are you disappointed with life? Is there a better way?

The most entertaining, and perhaps the most depressing, parts are the testimonials from members. “Bob” joined up because, as Dylan sings, “everybody has to serve somebody.” Another follower named “Thomas” discovered Dylan as a confused, pot-smoking teen-ager “going downhill fast.” He quotes from Dylan’s “My Life in a Stolen Moment” and “Masters of War,” and urges others to join: “You can come for a day or to stay. This is the answer that Dylan saw dimly. This is what he has wanted. Please come.”

Then there’s “Rose,” a lost teen who wandered around the country until she met and married a man who loved Dylan as much as she did. It was 1976, a year after “Blood on the Tracks” was released. “We clung to every word,” she writes. “The deep passion of our romance was radiated through every word Dylan uttered. It says in scripture that a cord of three strands is not easily broken. [Dylan] was our third strand.” At her first Dylan show, in Gainesville, Florida, she took LSD. “He had us in the palm of his hands,” she writes. “We were his.” Since that time, she has written to Dylan about the Twelve Tribes. At a show in Massachusetts, Rose managed to slip a note addressed to Dylan to someone in his entourage. That was in the late nineteen-eighties. She has yet to hear back. “We haven’t given up,” she writes.

The original mission of the Twelve Tribes dates back to 1987, when the group started following the Grateful Dead with a band of musicians, singers, and dancers, offering emergency medical care in venue parking lots. They also provided a place for lost friends to meet, and helped people coming down from bad acid trips. The author James McCallister ran into Twelve Tribes at a Grateful Dead show in 1990. “I viewed their seemingly predatory behavior as a vile cancer on the scene,” he said. “The operation seemed like a bear trap set in otherwise peaceful woods, a trap designed to ensnare those in vulnerable psychological states.”

In the nine years spent following the Grateful Dead, Phish, Widespread Panic, and the Grateful Dead spin-off bands RatDog and Furthur, the group claims to have logged more than five hundred thousand miles on the original Peacemaker bus. What’s puzzling, perhaps, is the Twelve Tribe’s jump from the relatively young audience of bands like the Grateful Dead to Dylan’s A.A.R.P. demographic. Rick Ross, a cult expert who has worked with law enforcement and knows the inner workings of Twelve Tribes, says that following Dylan actually makes a lot of sense. “If you join the Twelve Tribes, you have to forfeit all your assets to them,” he said. “It’s not a big deal if you’re a young person—you may have a car and a little bit of money. But if you are an older Bob Dylan fan, you may have an estate and a substantial amount of money.”

Dylan is scheduled to tour through October. The Twelve Tribes recently peeled off the tour and headed to the Great Lakes area. You can find the bus there. As always, a sign hangs outside the open door saying, “Welcome! Please Come In!” On the back of the bus, a message reads: “We know the way. We’ll bring you home.” But perhaps it’s best to heed the advice of Dylan himself: “All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie.”

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