My 8-year-old daughter loves story songs. As the gatekeeper for the Spotify playlists, I like to sneak in a personal favorite from time to time, which is how we ended up listening to Bob Dylan’s haunting song "John Brown" on the way to Dairy Queen.
Sadly, my daughter couldn’t get past Dylan’s nasal yowling enough to appreciate the song about a boy returning home from war.
"Who is this?" she asked.
It’s a question that writers, fans and philosophers the world over have been wrestling with since Robert Zimmerman left the isolation of his home in Minnesota for New York City in the 1960s, where he was anointed the "voice of a generation" with anti-establishment protest songs like "Masters of War," "Blowin’ in the Wind" and "A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall."
Only Jesus Christ and Adolf Hitler have had more books written about them. Dylan is every bit as enigmatic, although unlike Christ or Hitler, he created his own mythology.
Into this literary ocean Andrew McCarron tosses "Light Come Shining: The Transformations of Bob Dylan." McCarron, who runs the religion, philosophy and ethics department at Trinity School in New York City, drew upon his Ph.D. in social/personality psychology to write a "psycho-biography" on the newly minted Nobel Prize-winning musician.
What exactly is a "psycho-biography?" Good question.
Per McCarron, a psycho-biography "asks why someone is the way he or she is — then draws on the psychological theory and experimental research to address the question."
Obviously, "Light Come Shining" isn’t for the novice Dylan fan. Rather, it’s a self-indulgent exercise and only for those who’ve read absolutely every other book written about Dylan.
It’s for the obsessive fans — like those sad sacks documented in David Kinney’s "The Dylanologists" — who have spent their lives trying to understand Dylan’s cryptic, apocalyptic lyrics and uncover the "real" Bob Dylan.
Except there’s no such thing as the "real" Bob Dylan. He has created — made up — so much of his life story that there’s no way of removing all the masks and personas he has projected out to his fans and biographers over his five decades of invention, reinvention and re-reinvention.
Even Dylan’s actual autobiography is largely an exaggerated narrative. Joni Mitchell put it more succinctly in 2010, telling the Los Angeles Times, "Everything about Bob Dylan is fake."
That’s part of what makes Dylan such a fascinating character — which is exactly what he is. There’s no way of knowing where Robert Zimmerman ends and the Bob Dylan self-mythologizing begins.
It’s a very tempting rabbit hole to dive in, but others have done it better than McCarron. When it comes to over-analysis of Dylan, my personal choice is "Who is This Man?" by David Dalton.
If all of McCarron’s psycho-babble is removed from "Light Come Shining" — for example, statements like "the proteanism of Bob Dylan is linked to the ways he has engaged and subsumed musical and textual traditions into his sound and his sense of self"— what remains is a very engaging and insightful biography of an iconoclast.
But it still can’t answer my daughter’s question: "Who is this?"
Contact Brett Buckner at firstname.lastname@example.org.