DYLAN: THE BIOGRAPHY. Dennis McDougal. Turner Publishing Company.
There are a thousand doors that lead into the House of Dylan. Dennis McDougal has managed to open a new door. Applying a muckraking sensibility to Dylan’s life, McDougal has opened the door of snarky biography. His book is chock full of revealing and sometimes unflattering incidents, gossip, and well-researched facts. There are nuggets of juicy information on every page.
This constantly entertaining approach has, however, some built-in limitations. To focus so exclusively on Dylan’s life means McDougal has to strain out extended discussions of the lyrics and the music. It might be argued that such efforts already exist or that they are unhelpful since so many of Dylan’s best lyrics are private to the point of being inexplicable. McDougal inherently argues that the life is so jam-packed, so quivering with meaning, so curious with its parade of characters, so endlessly fascinating to legions of obsessed fans, that trying to decipher the lyrics is best left to the professors who like Dylan’s poetic looks. Still, some readers will be disappointed. All biographies of Dylan have the same big problem. We know a lot about Dylan, but we also don’t know a lot. Dylan’s life is marked by interiority. No one has access to his thought dreams. No one can unpack all the lies, all the deceptions. It should be noted that McDougal’s book is particularly valuable because he emphasizes Dylan’s many false identities, “borrowing” lines, and misleading stories.
With all the facts, it would have been interesting for McDougal to pause and reflect more. He has a very insightful understanding of Dylan’s audience, and I’d like to have read more of his thoughts about them. He writes in an eye-opening way about Dylan’s mother and her ability to make up stories or invent new lines for Mother Goose rhymes. I wonder to what extent Dylan’s linguistic skills, evident early to his Hibbing friends, were inherited. And do Dylan’s misdirections to everyone indicate a manipulative personalityor is there another explanation? Allen Ginsberg said of Dylan in 1976, "I don't know him because I don't think there is any him. I don't think he's got a self."
McDougal is a talented journalist, and he includes material not found elsewhere. I’m impressed, for example, at how intelligently he describes the privately-printed memoir of B.J. Rolfzen, Dylan’s influential high school English teacher. But the very inclusion of such interesting material brings up a wider question. What is amazing is that even with the heft of the book, even with McDougal’s impressive research, there are compelling stories that are not included. For example, Rolfzen told me that he used to go to a local cemetery jotting down epitaphs, connecting them together, and reading that list to Dylan’s class. For the effect of this, see “11 Outlined Epitaphs” in the liner notes to The Times They Are A-Changin’. In a way, McDougal’s book makes it abundantly clear that an artist like Dylan ultimately needs a very long multi-volume biography.
The writing, crisp and always readable, is untainted by jargon or unnecessarily dense prose. Still, McDougal does have an odd locution or two. For instance, he refers to Greenwich Village as “Greenwich” which no resident there does; they always call it the Village.
The book, though, is valuable for its unmatched approach to Dylan’s life and his providing an important corrective by focusing so much on Dylan’s later life bringing his story up-to-date and offering an appreciation of Dylan’s many later achievements.
Dylan: The Biography displays a jaw-dropping amount of tales told in admirable prose. The book is very suitable for Dylan fans and those who wonder why so many people keep knocking on one of Dylan’s doors.
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