Reviews

With Daniel Mark Epstein's 'The Ballad of Bob Dylan', Dylan Gets the Poet He Deserves

Somewhere along the way, Robert Zimmerman disappeared and became Bob Dylan the rock/folk star. Then Dylan disappeared and became a loving and thievin' fiction.


The Ballad of Bob Dylan: A Portrait

Publisher: HarperCollins
Length: 512 pages
Author: Daniel Mark Epstein
Price: $27.99
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2011-05
Amazon

Bob Dylan needs a poet, not a biographer. Indeed, the construct “Bob Dylan”, psychopomp for American culture, is itself a kind of poetry rather than a person and performer. Maybe there's still an aging Robert Zimmerman wandering around in Minneapolis and this new identity is just something that was born out of all the suppressions and repressions of a modern America that wanted to ignore its past and the bard who refused to let it.

Daniel Mark Epstein’s The Ballad of Bob Dylan paints an impressionistic biography of Dylan that draws its inspiration from the numerous other impressionistic images of Dylan in American popular culture. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back plays a significant role here, as does Dylan’s own Chronicles . The book is in every way aptly titled, as it often works as a meta-narrative about Dylan, truly a ballad of Bob Dylan but also a ballad about the many ballads composed about him before.

You may be thinking that the last thing the world needs is a meta-narrative about Dylan. A flood of works have followed 2007's I’m Not There, itself building on an army of previous writers and artists attempting to come to grips with the America Dylan invoked, an America transubstantiated into beat poems meet blues songs meets every genre that ever issued forth from a plantation field, railroad stop, cowboy camp or textile village.

Epstein does do something a bit different than most, combining the creation of a solid biographical exploration of the human being bundled up with the cultural myth. His previous work as a historian of figures as diverse as Nat King Cole and Abraham Lincoln serves him well.

The Ballad of Bob Dylan is built around four concerts Epstein has seen over Dylan’s 46 year (!) career. These chapters ground the book in Epstein’s own poetic rendering of the American songster, and provide signposts that keep us following Dylan’s rambling road that took him from Jewish kid in Minnesota obsessed with roots music to the international star who fused rock and folk. Further down the road, Epstein introduces us to the born again Christian, the singer who found continued commercial success in the '80s by touring with the Grateful Dead and Tom Petty and finally, the prophet on “the never-ending tour” putting out albums in his sixties like Love and Theft that manage to summon the ghosts of Charley Patton and Abraham Lincoln and to put us in mind of Woody Guthrie and Walt Whitman.

Plenty of good works explore Dylan’s massive musical corpus but Epstein surpasses them in exploring Dylan’s personal relationships. This at times becomes a withering look at Dylan’s treatment of the people in his life; friends, lovers and family members. Epstein looks unflinchingly and it shatters some of the well-worn images we have of Dylan and his times.

The author’s look at the Dylan’s rapid rise to international superstardom in the mid-'60s is a good example. The death of his relationship to Suze Rotolo, the young woman in the now “Grecian Urn” seeming image on the front of the Freewheelin’ album, is unpacked in relation to a period in which youthful arrogance turned Dylan into a something of a monster. His treatment of fellow folk singers was atrocious, as was his infamous ugliness to sometime paramour Joan Baez on his 1965 English tour.

Epstein refuses to look away from this side of his hero and this allows him to ably explore and explain Dylan’s transition from folk singer to rock star without reverting to simplistic renderings of the tale. Too many heroic tellings of this story focus on Dylan plugging in his guitar and giving those square hipster folkies in sweater vests a rock 'n' roll show they would never forget or forgive. Epstein shows that the change was more complex than this and examines the story in relation to the end of Dylan’s affair with Baez. Fans will be glad to see that this is no easy hack job on Dylan either, but rather a compassionate exploration of a stumbling artist who knew a hard rain was a-gonna fall even in the midst of his youth and fame.

Some readers will feel that the book suffers a bit from the way Epstein uses his primary sources. There's a lot of raw material here, interviews and sources that feel unprocessed, materials that it would have been good to hear Epstein transubstantiate into his own poet’s voice. At the same time, the book serves as a good introduction for those who want to know more about the mountain of reflections (music, film and memoir) that have tried to come to grips with Dylan’s meaning.

One bit of good work this book will do, hopefully, is encourage more people to see the 2003 Larry Charles film Masked and Anonymous. Epstein writes appreciatively of the failed film calling it “a picture of the world as Dylan sees it, slightly exaggerated.” Set in a post-apocalyptic America, Epstein points out that its populated by the same characters who appear in Dylan’s music and tells a story of musician Jack Fate (Dylan) transforming despair and emptiness into art.

Panned by critics as “incoherent”, the film includes some outstanding musical performances and an extraordinary soundtrack every Dylan fans needs in their collection. The Magokoro Brothers do a cover of “My Back Pages” in Japanese and Shirley Caesar belts out “Gotta Serve Somebody” and what more do you need to know?

Epstein’s fine work is far from the last word on Dylan or on Dylan’s America. (It is, in fact, the second great Dylan book I’ve reviewed this year for PopMatters. See also Sean Wilentz's Bob Dylan in America review, here). This is in part because, somewhere along the way, Robert Zimmerman disappeared forever and Bob Dylan was born. And then Bob Dylan passed from folk to rock singer to hierophant of American culture, a loving and thieving fiction who tells us more truth than we can usually hear or feel or bear. Epstein is the poet Dylan deserves.

9
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Books

Ivy Mix's 'Spirits of Latin America' Evokes the Ancestors

A common thread unites Ivy Mix's engaging Spirits of Latin America; "the chaotic intermixture between indigenous and European traditions" is still an inextricable facet of life for everyone who inhabits the "New World".

Film

Contemporary Urbanity and Blackness in 'New Jack City'

Hood films are a jarring eviction notice for traditional Civil Rights rhetoric and, possibly, leadership -- in other words, "What has the Civil Rights movement done for me lately?"

Books

'How to Handle a Crowd' Goes to the Moderators

Anika Gupta's How to Handle a Crowd casts a long-overdue spotlight on the work that goes into making online communities enjoyable and rewarding.

Music

Regis' New LP Reaffirms His Gift for Grinding Industrial Terror

Regis' music often feels so distorted, so twisted out of shape, even the most human moments feel modular. Voices become indistinguishable from machines on Hidden in This Is the Light That You Miss.

Reviews

DMA's Go for BritElectroPop on 'The Glow'

Aussie Britpoppers the DMA's enlist Stuart Price to try their hand at electropop on The Glow. It's not their best look.

Film

On Infinity in Miranda July's 'Me and You and Everyone We Know'

In a strange kind of way, Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know is about two competing notions of "forever" in relation to love.

Music

Considering the Legacy of Deerhoof with Greg Saunier

Working in different cities, recording parts as MP3s, and stitching them together, Deerhoof once again show total disregard for the very concept of genre with their latest, Future Teenage Cave Artists.

Music

Joshua Ray Walker Is 'Glad You Made It'

Texas' Joshua Ray Walker creates songs on Glad You Made It that could have been on a rural roadhouse jukebox back in the 1950s. Their quotidian concerns sound as true now as they would have back then.

Music

100 gecs Remix Debut with Help From Fall Out Boy, Charli XCX and More

100 gecs' follow up their debut with a "remix album" stuffed with features, remixes, covers, and a couple of new recordings. But don't worry, it's just as blissfully difficult as their debut.

Television

What 'Avatar: The Last Airbender' Taught Me About Unlearning Toxic Masculinity

When I first came out as trans, I desperately wanted acceptance and validation into the "male gender", and espoused negative beliefs toward my femininity. Avatar: The Last Airbender helped me transcend that.

Interviews

Nu Deco Ensemble and Kishi Bashi Remake "I Am the Antichrist to You" (premiere + interview)

Nu Deco Ensemble and Kishi Bashi team up for a gorgeous live performance of "I Am the Antichrist to You", which has been given an orchestral renovation.

Playlists

Rock 'n' Roll with Chinese Characteristics: Nirvana Behind the Great Wall

Like pretty much everywhere else in the pop music universe, China's developing rock scene changed after Nirvana. It's just that China's rockers didn't get the memo in 1991, nor would've known what to do with it, then.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.