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.
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.
Epstein leaves us with a 70-year-old Bob Dylan in 2011, the lion in winter who knows that, while it's not dark yet, it's getting there. So it's no surprise that the man wants to reconnect with his past, whether it's his own - seeking out old Greenwich Village friends Izzy Young and Mike Seeger - or his contemporaries (making news for showing up unannounced for tours at the boyhood homes of Neil Young and John Lennon). Dylan attended the latter with a group of regular tourists who, shockingly, did not recognize him.
But perhaps the most telling incident came recently, when a 24-year-old New Jersey policewoman responded to a call of a suspicious, grizzled-looking man peering into houses in a poor neighborhood in the heavy rain. When stopped, the officer - thinking the disheveled-looking senior citizen in hood, sweatpants and two raincoats was confused or perhaps a mental patient - asked the man's name.
"Bob Dylan," he replied. "I'm playing a show nearby with Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp."
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Not entirely convinced, the officer put Dylan in the back seat of her cruiser and drove him to where he said his tour bus was parked, and frantic assistants soon produced a passport to establish his identity, leading him back into a cocooned world where, indeed, everybody knew his name.
Epstein's masterful prose shows that Dylan's impromptu walkabouts at this stage in his life are simply an extension of his lifelong quest as a seeker of things and meaning. And from his $4 great seat in 1963 to his $80 general-admission ticket in 2009, Epstein is right along for the journey.