An academic and poet gamely attempts to unravel Bob Dylan’s cryptic psyche.
This slim, occasionally dense study could easily be retitled “Bob’s Three Crises,” framed as it is by a trio of what McCarron (Religion, Philosophy, and Ethics/Trinity School, New York City; Mysterium: Poems, 2015, etc.) deems major turning points in the songwriter’s life and career: his 1966 motorcycle accident, his mid-1970s conversion to Christianity, and his newfound creative spark in the late 1980s. All three, argues the author, are manifestations of a consistent “script” in which Dylan confronts his fear of death, becomes transfigured, and channels that transfiguration in new ways into his music. In coming to these conclusions, McCarron had no assistance from Dylan himself or those close to him; this work of “psychobiography” is based solely on a close study of Dylan’s interviews, writing, and performances. Though the author’s discussion of psychobiology is often leaden, overall the book is an insightful and often persuasive work, particularly in how spiritual themes (especially apocalyptic ones) persist in Dylan’s music. (Counter to the assumption that Dylan cast off his Christianity sometime in the early 1980s, McCarron finds plenty of evidence that the faith still matters to him.) Beyond Dylan’s music career, McCarron also explores the influence of his Jewish background, his growing up during the Cold War, and his upbringing in rural Minnesota as playing essential roles in his story. Themes of escape and despair keep pushing him to write his own story, oftentimes making up pieces of his biography. Though McCarron isn’t prone to rhapsodizing about Dylan’s music, his critical remove has an upside: rather than focusing on the touchstones that fans would highlight, he explores less-appreciated works that Dylan himself was passionate about—e.g., the film flop Renaldo and Clara or his much-performed song “In the Garden.” In the process, he suggests an alternate history that feels closer to reality than mythology.
McCarron successfully makes a mysterious figure a touch less mysterious.