Another Bio Of Bob Dylan: Not Dark Yet, But Getting There

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The Ballad of Bob Dylan: A Portrait
By Daniel Mark Epstein
Harper Books, 512 pp., $27.99

Another biography of Bob Dylan? Does even the most rabid fan at this point need another rehash of Hibbing, Woody Guthrie, folksinger-goes-electric, that "wild, mercury sound," Nashville, Blood on the Tracks, Jesus, the crappy '80s, Time Out of Mind redemption, and senior citizendom?

With The Ballad of Bob Dylan, it turns out, yes. For while it can indeed be classified as a "biography," author Daniel Mark Epstein's wonderfully written prose and insightful glimpse into Dylan's mind and music is quite unlike any book to come before it. That's at least partially due to Epstein's background as a poet, or his unique structure tentpoling the story around four different Dylan shows he attended in 1963, '74, '97 and 2009.

Epstein is not so concerned with the facts and chronology of Dylan's career, although there are plenty of those here. Instead, his aim is to illustrate how Dylan has evolved as a person, and how the songs he writes at any given time reflected that over the course of almost half a century.

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It's a risky move. Who would claim to know or predict what really goes on inside another person's mind, much less Bob Dylan's? But it pays off handsomely. In fact, it could be the most easily readable of the Dylan bios - no offense to the great works of Scaduto, Shelton, Spitz, Sounes, Heylin, et. al.

Houston appears three times in the text. Once for the disastrous 1976 fundraising "Night of the Hurricane II" Rolling Thunder Revue at the Astrodome, where poor sound and poor sales (even with the additions of Stephen Stills and Stevie Wonder to the bill) marked it for failure.

"It was not successful by and standard - financial, artistic, or moral... egos clashed, out of control, and everybody played too long," Epstein writes.

That the political plight of an imprisoned black boxer in the Northeast might not be catnip to a Houston audience, no one apparently thought of. Another RT show later that year failed to even nearly fill the 11,000-seat Hofheinz Pavilion, even with Willie Nelson as an added guest.

An April 23, 2003 show at Verizon Wireless Theatre also gets mentioned, mainly for Dylan's onstage annoyance with new guitarist Freddy Koella. Epstein also quotes Houston theater/music impresario Jason Nodler, who was in attendance and posted a review to a fan forum.


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3 comments
david desmond
david desmond

Interesting. But I think what you'll find as you get closer to Robert Zimmerman ( Bob Dylan is only an act I've concluded } is that he is a pretty regular guy. I've met him and talked with him alone. He was quiet but receptive. He doesn't act like a "star". It's normal to take walks and wonder around cities. He vividly describes that in "Highland" with the ecounter with a waitress in a cafe. There are hundreds of stories of him encountering people. Trouble is, if someone such as Dylan does normal  things like visiting Lennon's boyhood home, people make a big deal out of it. You have to rememeber those two had also been friends. If Dylan does normal things and he is "discovered" it's eccentric. I think it's baloney. But Zimmerman likes his space and time to himself. He's always maintained he's just like everyone  else. And I think that's how  you can start to see into his mind.

GW
GW

Nicely written review. Think I'll have to get this one.

Jason Nodler
Jason Nodler

Or, in other words David: "Ain't no use in talkin to me; it's just the same as talkin to you."

I'm tickled that I was quoted in a book on Dylan.  I don't even remember writing that fan review.

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