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Dylan Dirt: Dennis McDougal’s Dylan: The Biography

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D.H. Lawrence once wrote, “Never trust the teller, trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.”

Writers should always remember Lawrence’s words when they tackle the enigma that is Bob Dylan.

The best writers on Bob Dylan—for example, Greil Marcus, Christopher Ricks, and Paul Williams—have observed Lawrence’s dictum by focusing on Dylan’s songs and performances. Marcus’ equally brilliant Invisible Republic; Bob Dylan: Writings 1968-2010; and Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads include exegeses of the songs themselves, as well as thorough commentaries on their position in American cultural history. Ricks takes the same close-reading tack in Dylan’s Vision of Sin, citing the singer as a great poet and comparing him to Keats. And Williams in his Bob Dylan: Performing Artist series finds meaning in Dylan’s transformative and evolutionary performances of his greatest songs.

Dylan’s biographers—from Robert Shelton, in his hagiography No Direction Home, to Dennis McDougal, in his new and sour Dylan: The Biography—want to get at who Clinton Heylin, another Dylan biographer, calls the man “behind the shades.” That is, they ignore Lawrence and attempt to reveal the personality of an artist whose reclusiveness and ever-changing nature make him an enigma.

And this enigma, as McDougal points out in Dylan, is “Bob Dylan” himself. For McDougal, “Bob Dylan” is a character, the construction of a man—Robert Zimmerman—who would stop at nothing to sell himself. In so doing, according to McDougal, Zimmerman would plagiarize, lie, cheat, steal—in short, do anything for financial gain and popularity.

This isn’t to say that McDougal doesn’t appreciate some of the music that Zimmerman has released as “Bob Dylan.” But McDougal’s praise is always brief and unconvincing because it lacks any analysis or indication of the music’s aesthetic, historical, and cultural import. McDougal—an entertainment writer whose previous tomes were on folks like Lew Wasserman and Jack Nicholson—obviously isn’t a music critic or lover. Dylan, therefore, reads more like the exposé of a Hollywood bad guy than it does a biography of one of the most undeniably significant and influential American artists of the last 50 years.

So Dylan teaches us that Dylan is a womanizer, drug addict, booze fiend, and bad friend. Now, this material could be interesting if—and only if—McDougal could offer a perceptive analysis of how Dylan’s terrible antics inform albums as tender as Blood on the Tracks and Time Out of Mind. Sure, he acknowledges (in the most generic of all possible ways) that they’re “classic” records or some such. But he’s really out of his depth because he simply isn’t interested or doesn’t know how to think even for one second that Dylan’s—yes, Dylan’s and not Zimmerman’s—songs are the only reason we care about him in the first place.

Dylan’s work—in its breadth, mystery, and passion—reveals him to be the consummate artist and, again, one of the most important artists of the last 50 years. For some reason, McDougal seems to think that to admit this simple fact and delve into the man’s life in terms of his art would be a lie. By establishing a Zimmerman-Dylan binary—seeing Dylan as Zimmerman’s creature—McDougal uses a simple-minded rhetorical device (the binary opposition) in a flawed attempt to pull back the curtain and display Dylan as a charlatan.

This device is unfair to Dylan and shows a lack of knowledge of the way many musicians work. Prince, David Bowie, and Madonna have all been celebrated for their changes—for making us think about the inherent instability and forever-changing nature of identity. Why doesn’t Dylan deserve to be celebrated, according to McDougal?

I have an answer. It’s because Dylan’s music—in all its changes, phases, successes, and failures— is so pure that it smacks of the genius of an utter artistic authenticity that, with a few possible exceptions, is unparalleled. In giving us hundreds of pages of Dylan dirt, McDougal looks under every rock imaginable to damn the man as an inauthentic manipulator, thereby transforming his songs into lies.

Let’s get back to Lawrence. Who are you going to trust? All of Dylan’s great songs and the way in which they conjure truths about your soul that you didn’t know were there in the first place? Just think about the first time you heard “Chimes of Freedom,” “If You See Her, Say Hello,” “Desolation Row,” “Most of the Time,” “It’s Not Dark Yet,” and all the others songs that touched you at your core. Even if Dylan were the biggest rapscallion on the planet (and he’s not), he would still have tales for you to trust.

I want to close by posing McDougal a question, which I’ve appropriated from Dylan’s “Masters of War”: “Let me ask you one question: / Is your money that good? / Will it buy you forgiveness? / Do you think that it could?”

McDougal revels in the dirt just as much as his Dylan does. The ironic thing is that in writing about Dylan as a sleaze, he’s showing how much he enjoys the stuff—or, at least, writing about the stuff—that he finds so problematic in his subject.

I hope McDougal’s money is good for him. His inauthentic and logically compromised Dylan definitely isn’t good enough for us.