The biographer of Lew Wasserman, Jack Nicholson and Otis Chandler returns with a sometimes-scholarly, sometimes-snarky life of the songwriting and singing legend.
McDougal leaves few doubts about his seriousness in this long account of Robert Zimmerman, who grew up in the small town of Hibbing, Minn. Many pages feature footnotes, some of which are substantial, others adding but a dollop of color. The author’s admiration for Dylan’s artistic accomplishments is patent—in the preface, he compares him with Shakespeare, Twain and Dickens—though he does not hesitate to blast Dylan for shoddy performances, weak records, personal coldness (even cruelty), drug and alcohol abuse, and a serial sex life that would make Casanova’s grave glow green. McDougal’s work is starkly traditional: He begins with family background and marches steadily forward in 4/4 time, showing how this small-town kid went to New York City and eventually owned it to the core. It was “Blowin’ in the Wind,” writes the author, that shot him to fame, distancing him from the many other wannabes in Greenwich Village, but Dylan later abandoned protest songs (and, soon, his acoustic guitar) and spent the next decades in a continual reinvention—of his music and his persona. But patterns emerged: He eventually wore out even the most indulgent of wives; he abruptly dropped business acquaintances and fellow musicians; he wished always to have the spotlight on him; he “borrowed” lyrics and images for his paintings; and he remained intensely private, probably realizing that too much exposure would remove the “mystery.” McDougal offers engaging details about the major records, as well as Dylan’s books and films. He even finds some good things to say about Dylan’s dreadful performance in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
Richly detailed, though the author places Dylan on a higher shelf in the cultural library than history may permit.