In a review of a Sean Wilentz's Bob Dylan biography in 2010, John Hudson of The Atlantic groaned, “Do we really need another Bob Dylan biography?” With a dozen new Dylan books released that year to join the more than 60-some already in print, he had a great point. What can anybody possibly say about Dylan that hasn't already been said? But maybe the problem isn't so much what's being said as opposed to how it's being said. Daniel Mark Epstein's forthcoming The Ballad of Bob Dylan: A Portrait (May 3, 2011) demystifies Bob Dylan the over-hyped icon, giving readers Bob Dylan the human being.
The Last Dylan Biography to be Written
Who do you trust? When it comes to Bob Dylan, the facts have grossly evolved into a larger-than-life mythology. Some events have been so overly revised and twisted that for Dylan fans and readers it's nearly impossible to pinpoint exactly what happened. Memories change, and many of the people who witnessed occurrences in Dylan's life are unreliable, often adding little flourishes and wild embellishments to their accounts. Did Pete Seeger really run around backstage at Newport 1965 with an ax, threatening to cut the cords? And what about this motorcycle accident?
For a perfectionist like Daniel Mark Epstein, from page one it's obvious that historical and factual accuracy are paramount, and he's very careful about using only the most reliable sources and cross-checking his facts. (Typically, big Bob Dylan books like this are riddled with dozens, if not hundreds of factual errors. In Epstein's 496-page book I found a total of three).
Epstein has this uncanny ability to remain completely focused on his subject while impregnating the pages with his own personality. He's one of those authors that, by the time you're halfway through the book, you trust him inherently. Unlike so many Dylan biographers, he's not out to prove he has the world's most encyclopedic knowledge of his subject. There's no ax to grind because Bob wouldn't grant him the interview. Nor does he sugar-coat it so Dylan will like what he's written. If there's a seeming mission at all here, it's to set the record straight, knock out the silly icon worship, and get the essence of an extraordinary life on the page.
Dylan Through the Years
Opening each section of the book with a photograph of a ticket stub, Epstein frames the biography around the four times over the course of his life that he attended a Bob Dylan concert. His first show was in 1963 when, for the cost of $3, a 15-year-old Epstein and his younger sister attended a solo acoustic performance at Lisner Auditorium in Washington, D.C.
The other performances include Dylan with The Band at Madison Square Garden in January 1974 when Dylan is 32, followed by a 1997 show at Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, Massachusetts, when the middle-aged author brings along his 14-year-old son to see a 56-year-old Dylan. And finally, in 2009, Epstein goes alone to see Dylan, who is now 68, during a double bill performance with Willie Nelson in Aberdeen, Maryland.
Describing the performances and his impressions of Dylan at each phase of his career, the author segues from personal essay to journalism using songs and printed lyrics as transitional anchors. Quoting from books, magazine interviews, and his own interviews with those who knew Dylan closely during various epochs throughout his life, the author portrays a constantly evolving musician, from the high school talent show rocker through the aging senior statesman of American roots music. From Woody Guthrie's daughter Nora, to Dylan's one-time folksinging friend Happy Traum, filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker, and Dylan's Never Ending Tour stage mates, drummer David Kemper and guitarist Larry Campbell, the people Epstein interviews are intelligent, articulate, and balanced.
Dylan the Giver and Taker
In the early 1960s when the young protege visits his musical idol Woody Guthrie, who is suffering from Huntington's Chorea in a New Jersey Hospital, we discover a very humiliated Bob Dylan, playing songs at the bedside of his dying idol. In a touching scene, shaking uncontrollably, Guthrie tries to light a cigarette. When guests hold out their lighters, as Nora Guthrie relates, “Dylan kind of smacked them all down and said, 'No he wants to do it himself.' And they just let him. And then he did. And he looked at them all with satisfaction, as if to say, You see! I can still light my cigarette!”
Even at the tender age of 20, Dylan understood the cost of dignity. But the innocence didn't last. Of the 1964-65 epoch, Epstein relates a story of Rolling Stone guitarist Brian Jones, who worshiped Dylan. Overjoyed at seeing his idol at a club, Jones broke into tears when Dylan told him that the Rolling Stones were a joke. On another occasion, a successful Dylan tells his friend, folksinger Phil Ochs—whose career was on the skids—“You oughtta find a new line of work, Ochs. You're not doing very much in this one.”
In many biographies, Dylan's laundry is often contrived, thrown in for a forced objectivity factor. Exploring Dylan's cruel period, his substance abuse, his infidelities, etc., Epstein doesn't go out of his way to focus on Dylan's flaws, nor does he avoid them. They are merely part of a larger story that includes as many moments of kindness. But by incorporating both, the author offers a balanced portrait of Dylan's very human foibles.
And Then Some...
Among other things, Epstein explores Dylan's Sirius/XM radio show, Theme Time Radio Hour, as well as his work with producer Daniel Lanois on the albums Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind, describing the tensions between the two visionaries that resulted in two of Dylan's most popular albums. As Dylan enters his senior years, and as old comrades fall, he makes public statements on everyone from Johnny Cash to George Harrison, realizing his own mortality.
One of Dylan's favorite things to do on tour, we learn, is to visit the childhood homes of popular musicians like Neil Young or Bruce Springsteen and look out through their bedroom windows, imagining what they saw when they were growing up and making music. Did they look out this window while they played guitar? he wonders. After decades without contact, Dylan visits old friends like Izzy Young and Mike Seeger, his now-elderly mentors from the early Village days. They reminisce about old times, taking stock in the value of life.
Throughout the book, we see Dylan's insecurities, his kindness and patience. We see Dylan the loving father, the distraught husband and tormented artist, the frustrated celebrity struggling for privacy, the broken musician who rediscovers his reasons, and finally, the aging trickster who has survived it all. Written for any level of fan, by capturing Dylan's humanity and humanness, and by demystifying the icon, Epstein has succeeded where most Bob Dylan biographies fail. Rather than perpetuate them, he has rubbed out the fantasies and squashed the nostalgia, framing Dylan as one of us.