An Empty Bob Dylan Biography

New Profile of Bard Is Scattershot Waste of Time

getty images

By Joshua Furst

Published June 27, 2014, issue of July 04, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Dylan: The Biography
By Dennis McDougal
Turner Publishing Company, 540 pages, $35

‘What is this sh–?” Greil Marcus famously asked in his Rolling Stone review of Bob Dylan’s most reviled album, “Self Portrait.” Throughout my reading of “Dylan: The Biography,” by Dennis McDougal, I’ve been asking myself the same question.

It purports to be “the ultimate biography of the musical icon,” the one that will reveal “the real story behind the myths,” the book we’ve all been waiting for, in which the riddles will all be answered and the texture of the man’s life will be made as visible as his legendary illusions and feints.

But what is it really?

It’s a book that tracks Bob Dylan’s peripatetic life from his childhood in Hibbing, Minnesota, through his ongoing Never Ending Tour, which has taken him around the world from gig to gig for much of the past 20 years. We hear about his high school bands, his dalliance on the fringes of the Minneapolis folk scene, his move to Greenwich Village (which McDougal annoyingly calls “Greenwich” throughout the book, though anyone with even a casual knowledge of New York City knows it’s commonly referred to as the Village), and his explosion onto the national scene. We hear about how he went electric at the Newport Folk Festival and hid out in Woodstock after what may or may not have been a faked motorcycle accident. We hear about how his obsessive fans stalked him and how crazy A. J. Weberman dug through his trash. We hear about the circus that was the Rolling Thunder Revue tour and about his conversion to born-again Christianity. The story continues on and on, through his teaming up to tour with the Grateful Dead to his return in recent years to the folky roots music that started his career, which produced a string of albums that rank with his very best. All of this without telling even the least attentive Dylan fan much of anything he or she doesn’t already know.

It’s a book that gets bogged down in the facts of his career while ignoring the animating force behind it. This album, the book tells us, was recorded in that studio; this tour consisted of x number of gigs; here’s a list of the other pop stars who appeared with Dylan on “We Are the World.” For hundreds of pages, it informs the reader of every last detail of Dylan’s business transactions as though the meaning of a life could be reduced to a spreadsheet.

The book knows no middle ground. When it’s not breathlessly claiming that Dylan’s the voice of his generation, a prophet, a poet worthy of the Nobel Prize, it’s dismissing him as a plagiarist and condemning his drug addictions as though an artist can’t possess contradictions.

It’s a book that’s happy to leer over the details of Dylan’s sometimes girlfriend Ruth Tyrangiel’s palimony suit against him — presenting accusation as fact and burying the crucial information that she lost the case — as it is to legitimize William DeVogue’s claims of being Dylan’s son, despite a near total lack of evidence.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  •'s Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.