26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
Author Daniel Mark Epstein has set his goals high. How else can you explain the brave desire to assemble a new biography about someone for whom many others have already produced thousands of pages? About an individual who has already published the first volume of his own autobiography? To additionally spend time analyzing many of the tunes and lyrics created during this 50+-year musical career, knowing full well that myriad liberal arts students dissect those same lines and melodies in countless classrooms across this globe every day? What could possibly be said here and now that hasn't already been made public and well known?
Well, Mr. Epstein's got a hook. He's a fan. He has seen Bob Dylan four times in concert, with more than a decade separating each event. By anchoring his approach with those evenings (in 1963, 1974, 1997, & 2009), the author plants himself in that narrow aisle between his iconic subject matter and the rest of us in the audience. Epstein becomes Everyman, and it's easy for us to identify with his experiences and his viewpoints. We've sat in similar theaters and arenas. We know the music. The four gigs serve as the stanzas to the Dylan life ballad. Epstein's text could be sketched as a quadrupled Venn diagram. The concert hours are the overlapping slivers of time; and that which falls into the wide outside spaces represents the lives lived away from the stage, both for the performer and for the listener.
You might think, Great, four concerts. This won't take long. Wrong! The author fills in the gap of those intervening years with the kinds of details we crave from in-depth celebrity portrayals. He catches us up on what Bob Dylan was doing musically at those times and what aspects of his personal life affected his creativity, his lifestyle, and his performances. Epstein comes this close (pressed fingertips) to meeting the man in person. He interviews people close to Dylan at various points in his career. He does not dwell a lot on the topic of substance abuse; but he does document the letdown when Dylan abandoned his previous work for born-again religion at the beginning of the 1980s. We can relate. Somehow we expect our heroes (esp. our musical ones, it seems) to remain the same or to sustain a good level of predictability, even while we grow older and move in and out of relationships with people, ideas, places, etc. It doesn't occur to us that those icons are (mostly) human too, and that the same waves that change us might change them. Here we can tag along to the venues and share in Epstein's struggles to understand the varying musical styles, images and dimensions of one particularly gifted and knowledgeable singer/songwriter/painter/poet.
I saw Bob Dylan in concert in Amherst MA in November 2004. Admittedly, I'm not much of a fan. I don't own any Dylan albums, and I'm familiar only with his most popular and radio-friendly songs. But I am a huge follower of folk and rock music and I am a veteran concertgoer / reviewer. I went to the arena that night because I thought I had to see Dylan at least once in my life. And I can well remember the chills I got when he ended the evening with "Like a Rolling Stone" and came back with the encore of "All Along the Watchtower." I'm quite glad I was able to witness it. I guess journalist Ed Bradley must have been in the house that night too, because he later met Dylan at a local hotel in order to conduct his interview for "60 Minutes." Watching that TV show made the outing, in retrospect, much more memorable and real for me. That was my own little snippet of the circle: one that I kept in my mind as I was reading about Mr. Epstein's own concert memories. The lines blurred, and our encounters mingled. Anyone who has seen Dylan in person will find something to identify with here.
Cresting the 440-page mark, "The Ballad of Bob Dylan" is hardly a superficial treatment. It requires just as much dedication to read and to turn the pages as it must have taken to write them. Readers should know the generalities of the Dylan chronology before venturing into this volume, since it does not follow a typically stale biographical format. This narrative is aimed at an intelligent and thoughtful audience that wants to dive into history, musicianship, composition analysis, and critical performance -- or who just wants to hear a darn good story told well. It makes for an interesting and enlightening read for any Baby Boomer, any avid concertgoer of any ilk, and any student of popular music of the 20th and 21st centuries. And it arrives just as Bob Dylan turns 70 (!) on May 24, 2011. (... while unfortunately, his first muse and "Freewheelin'" album cover mate, Suze Rotolo, recently passed away at the age of 67.)
[This review was based on seeing an uncorrected proof of the publication.]
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on April 9, 2011
No one who thinks about Bob Dylan thinks about him as if he were a normal human being, much less a regular guy. I can't think of one person who's written about Dylan who has cast him as anything approaching normal. If Dylan is a genius - and he is - he must be a tortured genius, otherwise there's no story. So biographers find evidence of torture in relationships gone bad, friendships betrayed, substances abused, lyrics plagiarized, until Dylan seems not only tortured but down right nasty. Interesting, though, that no one has been able to dig up any dirt on Dylan in relationship to his children and grandchildren. Now that's telling because if Dylan were half as nuts as we've been led to believe, surely one of his kids would have written a tell-all by now. I find it hard to believe they're silent under pain of excommunication, or whatever sword Dylan wields.
"The Ballad of Bob Dylan: A Portrait," is a view of Bob Dylan that shows us a hard working entertainer, a brilliant song-writer, a mediocre painter, a crappy film maker - and a decent guy, protective of his family and generous to his friends. Eccentric? Of course. Anyone who's spent over 40 years in the music business, and half his life in the public eye is bound to be eccentric. Alcoholic, drug-crazed, serial womanizer subject to fits of madness? Not so much.
Daniel Mark Epstein is a practiced poet, essayist, and playwright - and a prize winning biographer; he's also a fan, and not un-critical. My god, he's reasonable about his subject matter - not the usual modus operandi for someone writing about Dylan. He takes a look at Dylan's life through the prism of four concerts that seem to delineate four periods in the man's life - his as well as Dylan's. What he's come up with is a good story, well told - entertaining, non-pedantic, easy on the lyric analyses, but strong on the art and craft of Dylan's writing, recording, and performing. Epstein has mined the sources, and opened up some new information through interviews of Dylan's friends and band-mates.
When I finished this book I counted the Dylan tomes on my groaning bookshelf. Forty-three books by or about Bob Dylan. That's ridiculous, but what can I say, I'm up there with Christopher Ricks (I think it was) who feels that being alive while Dylan is writing and performing is akin to having been alive when Shakespeare was working. Anyway, this book 44 has been the most pleasurable read, due in no little part to Epstein's humanizing of the troubadour.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Daniel Mark Epstein was a young folk singer in the early 1960s when the enigmatic new artist Bob Dylan burst forth. Epstein has closely followed Dylan's long, varied career ever since.
Epstein anchors his account with detailed pictures of four Dylan concerts he has attended in 1963, 1974, 1997, and 2009. I am in no way a musician, so some of Epstein's comments regarding such technical matters as key changes and such largely escape me, but in no way did this lessen my enjoyment and appreciation of the book. The author amply demonstrates that Dylan is not only a poet but a formidable musician as well, a man much more centered on the stage than in the studio.
Epstein's book is not hagiography, but neither is it a mud-raking exercise in celebrity biography. Instead, it is a serious, thoughtful analysis of an artist who very much reflected (and formed) his times. Dylan is a very privated man, and some aspects of his personality remain elusive even after five decades in the public eye. Epstein has interviewed numerous associates of the singer, however, to illuminate Dylan's professional and private lives.
I have to run now, and listen to Dylan's early albums again, when such songs as "Blowin' in the Wind", "Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall", and "Times They Are A-Changing" remade the soul of America.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on March 17, 2011
This is a difficult book for me to review. I first started buying Bob Dylan albums with "John Wesley Harding" and consider his career peak to be from "Bringing It All Back Home" through "Desire" - or basically the twelve years 1965-1976 with some excellent work before and after. But to me as a reviewer - those are the years I was most interested in reading about.
The book is split up into sections which correspond to concerts the author witnessed (I would have enjoyed being at the first two) spread out from 1963 until 2009. The book is in excess of 400 pages and full of information I was not aware of (for example: didn't know much about his wife Sara - now I know more, didn't know about some of the singing issues which intersect with his touring with the Grateful Dead in the late 80s, didn't know much about the recently deceased Suze Rotolo etc. etc.).
I don't like the gimmick around the concerts which is the premise of the book. I believe the years from 67-76, which to me contain some of his greatest work, sorely lacks substance that the preceeding part of the book does not (that part is excellent).
The author made one comment which resonates with me: At some point in the book (in the 80s) Dylan mentions that people will pay to see a legend once, but after that the songs have to deliver and have a life (paraphrasing). I took my eldest daughter to see him within the past ten years and I was VERY disappointed. The songs didn't have life (maybe it was an off night but I don't think so) and there was no desire on our parts to go again.
All in all - this would not be the first book I'd start with. It is GREAT in spots, but gets lost in the middle (in my opinion - and sometimes with the "deep" interpretations the author makes). I'm glad I read it, will keep it in my library - but I don't in anyway view this as a definitive biography. For the devoted fan only.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on May 22, 2011
The Ballad of Bob Dylan by Daniel Mark Epstein
If I could give this book 6 stars I would!
This is a totally engrossing, personal and intimate recounting of Dylan's career and life.
Told through the eyes of the author, his own reaction and relationship to Dylan's career form 1963 to 2009. Epstein tracks Dylan's life in music and his more private moments. Drawing on his own knowledge of music and how Dylan affected his own life and how Epstein shared this love with his sister and son.
Bob Dylan is the poet of our lifetime and much, much more. We learn about him as father, a grandfather, a painter, bandleader, radio dj, recluse and philosopher. Humble and great all at once this book captures so many aspects of Dylan from his childhood beginnings to his performances with the Never Ending Tour Band with whom he has continuously toured since 1997.
Epstein uses 4 concerts as touch stones through which he describes the arc of Dylan's career and life. From the 1963 Lisner Auditorium in Washington DC, 1974 Madison Square Garden (after having disappeared for several years) to Tanglewood in 1997 accompanied by his son to Aberdeen MD when he chooses to go alone Epstein shares his own perspective. In addition the exhaustive research through a wealth of source materials Epstein has offered us a unique and thorough summation of Dylan at this stage of his life.
Dylan's inspirations from Woody Guthrie to Allen Ginsberg, Dave Von Ronk, Muddy Waters, Jerry Garcia and Norman Raeben (his painting teacher and the son of the great Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem) the depth and sources of his art is appreciated anew.
As he enters his 7th decade Dylan is still vibrant and miraculous. Knowing that an end is in site for his Never Ending tour: when a listener to his Theme Time Radio Hour calls in and says that Dylan can never stop playing Dylan responds: "well, you gotta get over that or else everything else in your life will be half finished". Bob Dylan is aware of his own mortality as he juggles his time dedicated to his family, music and art, he is the greatest!
Nora Guthrie, daughter of Dylan's artistic father (Woody) says it all: "there are people who have brought a new spirit to the world. They've really added a spiritual spice to the mix that changes everybody. Even if you don't know it you've been affected by these people; their essence trickles through the culture... [after he dies] once that flow stops that's when you'll realize that there's not that energy that's going to write those songs anymore...but once that energy stops, then you'll realize what you had in the time you had it".
If you love Bob Dylan, and he has changed your life this is a book you must read.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on May 13, 2011
Just finished Daniel Mark Epstein's "The Ballad of Bob Dylan" and I've been trying to think how I would describe it - it is unique among the Dylan books. Easier to say what it is NOT:
it's not an overly factual namedropping compendium of Dylan's "career"; it's not a gossipy Enquirerlike speculation about his private life; it's not a line by line sucking-all-life-out dissection/analysis of his lyrics; it's not a blathering lovefest by a worshipping bobhead; it's not a socio-political historical overview pretzeled into an author's narrow niche thesis....
IT IS - a story about Dylan's creative process (i.e. his life), a narrative framed by four specific events, places in time and space, to anchor Epstein's wide ranging, beautiful, sensitive, lush layering of the well known, the little known and the new insights his long view brings to Dylan's over-examined lifestory. The pacing is cinematic with close-ups, still-lifes, flashbacks, panoramic views and snippets of ugly reality peppering the dreamscape created by Dylan's aura. Epstein's writing is seamless, with very little intrusions of "I" yet the whole book is actually Epstein's ballad, his tale of how Dylan inspired and influenced and I can't think of the right word - - infused?? a particular aesthetic lens on his view of the musical and poetic landscape.
On page 445, Nora Guthrie's quote beginning with "What more do you want?" beautifully positions core truths..."There are people who have brought a new spirit to the world. They've really added a spiritual spice to the mix that changes everybody....But once that energy stops, then you'll realize what you had in the time you had it".
I listen to Dylan songs almost every day, the lyrics run through my head pretty regularly (I always say there's a Dylan lyric for every situation) and I go to every Dylan concert I can - to witness, to be in the presence of his energy and to pay tribute, to show respect and appreciation for him and for his work. As an artist I so totally "get" why he keeps doing what he's doing and the fact that he is constantly changing, creating new work is quite an inspiration.
Epstein's book is a lovely, engaging and timely reminder of why Dylan is Dylan.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
I just finished reading The Ballad of Bob Dylan: A Portrait. The book really left me questioning - without being maudlin - what the morning after Bob's gone will be like (assuming I'm around). I'm not even a hard-core fan - I have a lot of the early stuff, a little of the midland stuff, and all of the later stuff. Anyway, I was left feeling a little bit of that tremendous sense of loss that I think many are going to feel. One of the key things Epstein delivers here - without hitting the reader over the head - is the concept that Dylan's art succeeds so supremely because really he is just pulling out what is already present within each one of us. I think about those songs and realize, damn... That guy is a part of me. I'm infected. And it's a good infection though often bittersweet. Epstein's book was a reminder that the participant is as much a part of the creative event and of course this has always been so, not just in the case of Dylan. I don't think people think about that point enough.
I read this book in four marathon sessions and found it had a distinctive rhythm to it. Just as I found that perhaps my interest was starting to wane a little, Epstein presented another interesting bit of information that brought Dylan's humanity into yet sharper focus. Overall I felt the presence of an arc of sorts in this work and what I mean by that is that I found the book started slowly for me and just when I wondered whether I really wanted to stick this it sucked me in and consumed me. After we got past Love and Theft I found pull wasn't nearly as strong.
I do appreciate the amount of information delivered on Time Out of Mind though I wish the author had discussed the song "Highlands" with greater depth. I find that particular tune so haunting.
I also enjoyed the insight the writer shared by comparing Bob Dylan to Miles Davis - I've made this comparison myself many times. Bob wasn't nearly the musician of course, he advanced his art in songs. But both men were very similar in that they were able to find the right people to put around them and then give them the freedom to make great music and still get the sound they wanted. I'm no fan or believer in astrology but it is curious that both Miles Davis and Bob Dylan were Gemini and both relentlessly pursued change and re-invention of their approach to their art. Interesting both men were mainstays of the Columbia label (though Miles did leave Columbia less than a decade before he died), probably passing one another coming to and from the studio in the early sixties. Good catch Epstein!
I also was glad to read that I am not the only person in the world who feels that the use of music in retail outlets and public areas is an abomination. Epstein includes comments Dylan made in an interview that I've thought about many times - if I'm in a supermarket grabbing "my stuff" and I hear Otis Redding or Smokey or whoever coming across the sound system it just makes me sick to my stomach, all these people walking around grabbing their stuff and they aren't even paying attention to that sound in the background. It's so wrong. And yet somehow Dylan did the Victoria Secret thing and it seemed tasteful. Weird.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
You might ask why we need another biography of one of the most iconic songwriters and lyricists of our time. And you'd be within your right to ask it. After all, there are currently dozens of well-written books already published about (some even by) Bob Dylan. Here's the short answer as to why I feel this one is necessary - should, in fact, be near the top of the list. Simply put, I found The Ballad of Bob Dylan (A Portrait) unlike most personal accounts of Dylan's life because it is written not by a commentator per se but by an obvious fan of both Dylan and the folk genre in general. Whereas a biographer researches and collects the most important facts of a subject's life and delivers what he's found Mr. Epstein takes that concept twenty steps further. He disseminates four important concerts and reports back to us as if he were Elizabeth Barrett Browning writing, "... let me count the ways..." He takes us back stage behind the scenes and revisits the honky-tonks and dives of the 60's and 70's forging a nostalgia that even the youngest reader will appreciate. He interviews many of the most influential stars that have ever practiced the art of folk music and writes with such intuitive attention to detail that you can feel the historic longing of those he's consulted. Most importantly, Daniel Mark Epstein knows and loves his subject matter.
This book is divided by four significant concerts from various stages of Dylan's career spanning more than forty-five years - all of which Epstein attended. The first, held at the small venue of the Lisner Auditorium in Washington, D.C. on December 14th, 1963 was Epstein's first Dylan concert. He was thirteen years old. The second, Dylan's (with The Band) Madison Square Garden appearance on January 31st, 1974, was, by all accounts, a cultural phenomenon. In some cases the U.S. Post Office had to set up extra mailboxes for ticket orders in many major cities. Over five million paid mail orders were reportedly sent in for the 650,000 tickets available over the course of the tour, making them the most in-demand ticket in the history of rock music. The third concert, part of "The Never- Ending Tour," was held at the Tanglewood Music Shed, Lenox, Massachusetts on August 4th, 1997 with special guest Ani DiFranco. The fourth concert was held at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, Maryland on July 24th, 2009. Special guest stars were Willie Nelson and John Mellancamp. Through these rare live experiences the author delivers a song by song and decade to decade analysis of Dylan's live shows and on-stage behavior. Epstein's familiarity with Bob Dylan, the music, the lyrics, and the core personalities who performed them is glaringly evident. This author is no poser. Epstein really knows his folk history!
Along with the concert attendance and resulting personal notes the biography is built on comprehensive examination of the roots of folk music and its lyrics, a lifelong study of the subject, and personal interviews with a wide range of legendary folk notables including: Eric Andersen (folk celebrity and Dylan contemporary), Tom Paxton (legendary folk singer/songwriter), Nora Guthrie (Woody Guthrie's daughter), Ramblin' Jack Elliott (noted American folk singer), Pete Seeger (iconic folk musician and storyteller), Maria Muldaur (folk-blues singer), and John P. Hammond (blues singer/guitarist).
Interestingly enough the only real flaw I could find with the book actually occurs on the front cover. Mr. Epstein sub-titled this biography "A Portrait." As you know a portrait can be interpreted as simply a snapshot, static image, or vision frozen in time. The Ballad of Bob Dylan: A Portrait, on the other hand, is far from singular. It does not focus on a single event or a stationary moment but envelops many of the most important moments in the life of one of the most influential song-writers the world has ever seen. The Ballad of Bob Dylan is, in short, a fluid, brilliant, and astute portrayal of one of the most prolific and significant artists of our time and well worth the price of admission.
4 out of 5 stars
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
This biography is a very entertaining read, as it draws on other music artists to help paint the picture. I am a Dylan fan, but not a rabid foaming at the mouth type. But I appreciate his lyrics in particular and it seems as though every other page of this book included a lyric passage as it related to a particular place and time of writing.
About half of the book covers his life after 1980, which makes this book a little different than the bios that focus on the 1960's portion of his career. It is rather interesting to read about his post 9/11 work, including Love and Theft.
All in all this is not quite the same as reading his autobiographical works, but for the modern Dylan fan this book is an informative and entertaining read. I would recommend this volume to a reader interested in a readable, and entertaining update on a rock legend.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Written beautifully and interestingly, I became absorbed in the life of Bob Dylan. A legend I have always admired and liked, I admit, never knew too much about him. This biography tells me the good, the bad and the ugly. Author, Daniel Mark Epstein is a poet and biographer and both gifts show in the writing of this book. Dylan comes to life, not as a celebrity, but as a person and I find this fulfilling and fascinating.
Epstein discusses various lyrics of Dylan's work - the how and why of them - and this makes Dylan's music more important and personal for me as a reader.
I enjoyed reading this and I'm sure I will return to certain passages just to experience the beauty of the words again. I was fortunate enough to have lived during the times this book embraces, makes it even more important and interesting. Certainly a worthy read.