A New, Irreverent Biography of Bob Dylan


Among Baby Boomers, Bob Dylan occupies a position not unlike that of Ronald Reagan with conservatives. The singer is not only admired by his original fan base, but revered, to the point where his defects, artistic and personal, are either dismissed or ignored. This attitude brings to mind the millions of Reagan lovers of all ages who conveniently forget that their political hero increased taxes and grew the deficit.

Dennis McDougal, author of the hefty new book titled simply “Dylan,” does not explicitly state that his intent is to counter the prevailing myth. But it’s clear from the outset that McDougal, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times who has written biographies of Jack Nicholson and Lew Wasserman, is alternately appalled, disappointed, and mystified that the near-pristine image of his subject has largely remained intact, against a heap of available evidence.

Though Mc Dougal’s prose is well above the standards for the genre, “Dylan” fits the strict definition of a celebrity biography. The work is subordinate to the gossipy details of the life. Only on occasion does the author discuss albums and songs, and even in these cases, it’s mostly a means to mark time.

But you can get a discussion of Dylan’s extensive catalogue in hundreds of other publications. What McDougal wants to know is how Dylan pulled off one of the great frauds in the history of American popular culture.
Even more, why a generation that did and still does take such pride in having exposed the lies of the Vietnam War and the hypocrisy of middle class mores fell for the fictional portrayal. Dylan accomplished what his contemporaries Johnson and Nixon could only hope for.

I don’t know McDougal’s politics, but this is the kind of thesis you would expect to emerge from a neocon publishing house. In prose that is both irreverent and smart-alecky, the book revels in tearing down a ‘60s icon and his adoring fans. For that reason alone, it stands out in an extremely crowded field.

Whether you agree or disagree with the author, you will likely never read a book as purely entertaining about Dylan.

In his preface, McDougal, who is not an implacable foe, poses the question that drives his book: “With all his imperfections, Bob Dylan remains trenchant, relevant, and touched with grace. By his own hand, he is still a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, and the question remains: How did a feckless, foolish poseur, a middle-class schnorrer from the Minnesota outback, become the Bard of his generation? How indeed?”

Over the next 490 pages, McDougal offers numerous examples of Dylan’s deceptions along with his drinking, womanizing, and acts of unkindness, if not outright cruelty. Away from the stage and recording studio, he behaves in this portrait like one of the entitled, obnoxious males from “Mad Men,” albeit in a leather jacket and cool shades. I don’t know whether McDougal has conducted much original research, but surely no book or lengthy article about Dylan has ever assembled this many damning anecdotes in one place. At times, you almost feel sorry for the guy.

McDougal even goes after some of the “untouchable” songs in the Dylan cannon. Here he is on one of the classic early compositions: “‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” is less an enduring testament to amore than it is a callous kiss-off from a jilted lover.’” The song “became every bit the adolescent anthem of the early ‘60s as ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’: “one tapped into Baby Boom outrage over racial iniquity and Cold War brinkmanship while the other spoke to every teenaged boy trying to maintain his dignity after his heart has been drop kicked to the side of the road.”

Note the use of the words “adolescent” and “teenaged.” The acoustic and folkie Dylan, in this account, was not making music for mature adults.

The best-known deception, but not the first, was the name change in and around 1960, from Robert Zimmerman to Bob Dylan. McDougal wisely refrains from making too much of it; plenty of pop and rock stars have ditched part or all of their birth names, including a certain drummer for the Beatles.

Still, in this case, we are left wondering why, especially because this former Zimmerman claims to have picked “Dylan” at random. If the motivator was fear of being revealed as Jewish, one notes that Phil Spector, Paul Simon, and Art Garfunkel did just fine in the 1960s.

As any biographer of criminals and tyrants knows, you don’t have to love your subject to spend thousands of hours with him or her. In fact, McDougal positively relishes attacking Dylan, as if each slam is another blow against the Baby Boomer Empire. We get this in an interview in the early 1960s conducted by the writer Nat Henoff: “During breaks, Dylan huddled with Hentoff, lying with utter sincerity about his [Dylan’s] fake biography. While the cat was out of the bag and halfway around the world about his Hibbing (Minnesota) upbringing, Bob still floated lie after self-serving lie.” Hentoff was the 1950s version of a hip journalist, friend of back-alley blues and jazz men, yet not even he was spared the Dylan spin. It seems as if anyone who dared to pursue the “real” Bobby was sent down a wrong path.

photo 1

There is no doubt that in the main, McDougal is a fan of the work. He writes that “Blood on the Tracks,” Dylan’s 1975 “comeback” album, “both met and surpassed the test of enduring art.” For the reader, such praise means more coming from McDougal than from the writers and publications fully invested in the idea of Dylan as a genius and, more important, The Voice of Our Generation.

Among the latter are Rolling Stone Magazine and its founder, Jann Wenner. In 1969, Wenner landed a coveted sit-down interview with Dylan, who had largely disappeared from view following his 1966 motorcycle accident. The world, or at least the portion 35 and under, was eager to hear what its favorite folk-rock star had to say about anything and everything. Huge newsstand sales were assured.

But the result, in McDougal’s view, represented one of the great missed opportunities in 60s counterculture journalism. The combination of an evasive, intimidating subject and a fawning interviewer who treaded ever so lightly made for a disappointing read. From the perspective of 45 years later, the author offers a stinging indictment of the finished product: “From the outset, Dylan answered questions with questions, committing to minimal answers or none at all. Some 7,000 words later, readers knew nothing of Sara (Dylan’s wife), his children, his parents, his brother, his renewed passion for painting, or the philandering, drugs, and alcohol that would both plague and pleasure him for the rest of his life.”

For all of McDougal’s convincing anecdotes and persuasive analysis, at the end of “Dylan,” we are not entirely sure why this performer chose to peddle a consistently unreliable version of his own life. Perhaps the answer lies in the nature of rock and roll, especially the dilemma faced by those who fueled its second wave in the 1960s.

White, middle-class, college-bound teens like Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger had decided to forge a career in a field previously dominated by poor southern whites, including true hell-raisers such as Jerry Lee Lewis, and brilliant black performers who could only hope to go so far in a country in which segregation and casual racism still predominated. These were the guys Dylan and Jagger emulated and idolized.

Disguising their humdrum origins and changing their biographies—many people thought Jagger was black when they first heard him sing on record—was a way for these two and many others like them to establish artistic authenticity. It’s a paradox that a poet could appreciate.