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The Genius of an Era

by Webster Younce

The Ballad of Bob Dylan: A Portrait, by Daniel Mark Epstein (Harper, 512 pp., $27.99)

How did Bob Dylan happen? How did a skinny kid from the Iron Range of Minnesota, the grandson of refugees from pogroms in Odessa, become not only the most influential figure in popular culture’s dominant form but also, if you believe former Oxford professor of poetry Christopher Ricks, the author of work that stands alongside that of Milton, Tennyson, and Frost? How did a Woody Guthrie acolyte, still in his teens, arrive alone in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s and, in a startlingly brief Rimbaud-like burst, pen songs that not only “defined a generation” (a phrase he himself loathed), but forever altered what songwriting could be? And how, into his sixth decade as a performer, has he been able to do more than a hundred shows a year, write a bestseller, host a weekly radio show, take home multiple Grammys, receive a National Medal of Arts, and see his paintings exhibited at Denmark’s National Gallery? Oh, and also win an Oscar? (Note to multi-tasker du jour James Franco: Keep trying, kid.)

Attempts to account for Dylan are legion, yielding scores upon scores of biographies and textual analyses, as well as documentaries, doctoral dissertations, and much eye-rolling by college students confronted with professors demonstrating their “hipness” — though, by 2011, these profs have moved on to Lady Gaga (the eye-rolling by students, one assumes, abides). Add Daniel Mark Epstein’s Ballad of Bob Dylan to the flood of reckonings with the man and his meaning.

Epstein, a poet and biographer who has written on subjects ranging from Nat “King” Cole to Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman, takes an unconventional approach here, structuring his account of Dylan’s life and career around four concerts that he himself attended in four different decades: in 1963, 1974, 1997, and 2009. The performances are ostensibly representative moments in Dylan’s career, but one suspects that Epstein is merely making a virtue of contingency, and that the importance of these concerts lies primarily in the happenstance of the author’s attendance. As a “portrait,” then, the book takes an approach more like that of an old master like Velázquez in Las Meninas, with the artist prominently inserting himself in the frame, than that of portraitists like Dylan’s near-contemporary, and occasional photographer, Richard Avedon. Nevertheless, the concerts do provide Epstein a framework within which he wanders easily and congenially through the chronology of Dylan’s biography and discography.

The contours of that biography are well known, especially to anyone preoccupied enough with Dylan to pick up this latest volume, but Epstein is not primarily interested in breaking new biographical ground. His concern is instead with capturing the multifarious, often baffling complexity of the musician he believes to be a “poet and something of a prophet . . . [who] saw deeply into history and the human heart.” Dylan fans are congenitally incapable of refraining from such lofty approbation (see the Rimbaud comparison above), and Epstein is no exception: He invokes, in a single 100-page stretch, the Book of Job, Alfred Hitchcock, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, Robert Browning, Petrarch, Dante, Yeats, the Cubists, Brecht, Shakespeare, and (presumably for the first time in Dylanology) George Burns. Such name-checking notwithstanding, Epstein is not essentially a hagiographer, and — at least until the book’s end, with its rather sepia-toned valediction — he remains essentially clear-eyed about his subject’s achievements and failings.

The Dylan that emerges in these pages is by turns ambitious, seductive, single-minded, generous, cruel, witty, kind, gnomic, blunt, and charismatic. That last characteristic is evident from the moment in 1961 when he arrived in New York from Minneapolis. As Epstein notes, “To say that young Bob Dylan was charming hardly does justice to [his] strange magnetism.” Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, one of the luminaries of the Village scene, said that only James Dean had possessed a similar charisma.

Perhaps it was from Dean that Dylan took his lessons in the power of image. One of the surprises in Martin Scorsese’s documentary No Direction Home was the sheer number of artfully posed, near-curated photographs of the young, supposedly naïve Dylan in the Village. Epstein quotes the folksinger Happy Traum, an early friend of Dylan in New York, saying that after running into Dylan on the street, “you had the feeling he was thinking about his image: What am I going to look like, what is my appearance. How do people see me?” The boy who, as Epstein tells us, struck poses before the mirror in Hibbing became the young songwriter who tried on a succession of personas in the Village, all in pursuit of fulfilling the promise Epstein says he made to his grandmother: “Grandma, someday I’m going to be very famous.” Dylan’s rise may have been, as Epstein writes, “unlike any ascent in the annals of American entertainment,” but it was by no means unconsidered or unselfconscious.

Epstein’s reconstruction of Dylan’s relatively brief folk period — only three and a half years lay between his arrival in New York and his notorious “electric” performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival — is crisply rendered, if necessarily shorter and less fully immersive than David Hajdu’s definitive Positively 4th Street. Epstein’s is also more subjective, in that the evocation of the period is framed and shaped by his recollection of a 1963 Dylan solo show at the Lisner Auditorium in Washington, D.C., that the teenage Epstein attended with his mother, his best friend, and his younger sister.

He reconstructs this and the three later performances with precise, occasionally fanatical, detail: stage-dress, set lists, song tempos, and chord structures; Dylan’s demeanor and facial expressions and the author’s own emotional responses; and minutiae of audience behavior. A three-sentence selection from the Lisner-concert account, chosen nearly at random, is representative: “After the final notes on the mouth harp and the firm triple-time strum that ended most of his flat-picked songs, came the ovation. Dylan quickly returned to the moderate 3/4 time of ‘Lay Down Your Weary Tune’ and the same dreamy mood. Someone behind us stifled a cough.”

While the appetite for such precision will vary from reader to reader, or simply wane over the course of 500 pages, the accumulation of detail gives texture to Epstein’s depiction of Dylan as a performer, which in turn buttresses his often perceptive analysis of the songs, both as texts and as performed works. His extensive exegesis — permission seems to have been granted to quote from approximately 100 songs — allows Epstein to segue without undue strain from his concert descriptions to biography. For Epstein, life and career, biography and discography, are inseparable in Dylan: “His songs were a graphic record of his development, and they had a rare power to influence people who listened to them.” But not, it seems, every song or every person, even when that person is his biographer: Epstein gives a scant three pages to Dylan’s gospel phase of the late 1970s and early 1980s. He is refreshingly forthright about the reason for his lack of interest then and, presumably, now: “I did not want to be preached to by Bob Dylan or anybody else in 1979.” Fair enough, though one would hope for at least some reckoning with this still-surprising radical turn in Dylan’s life. Fortunately for Epstein and for his book, Dylan soon returned to non-gospel recordings, freeing Epstein to rekindle his passion and resume his otherwise detailed account of the musician’s ever-evolving identity.

Epstein has a knack for sharp, indelibly etched character sketches. Here he is on Albert Grossman, Dylan’s Rabelaisian manager: “He was the fat kid in school who ate your lunch. His face was an Attic mask of carnality.” And he can pack a wallop in a single phrase, as in his description of the soporific king of Top 40 music in the early 1980s: “the sedative, forgettable crooner Christopher Cross — a name that erases itself.”

Epstein’s skills as an interviewer serve up a few unforgettable passages, too. In a heartbreaking paragraph, he paraphrases D. A. Pennebaker’s account of a visit he received from Abram Zimmerman, Dylan’s father, shortly after the release of Dont Look Back, Pennebaker’s documentary of Dylan’s 1965 tour of England. The elderly midwesterner appeared on the filmmaker’s doorstep, humbly to make a request. He had been informed that his son had been filmed using swear words, and he asked that the offensive language please be removed. Pennebaker explained to the concerned father that this was not possible, but assured him that no one seeing the film would take offense.

The frequency of such moments diminishes in the last third of the book, as Epstein appears to be reaching for material. He recounts lengthy tales of Dylan’s personal reunions with long-lost Village-era comrades, descriptions that veer dishearteningly close to This Is Your Life territory. And an ever-increasing portion of the book becomes devoted to prolonged accounts of how one backing musician came to replace another on Dylan’s “Never Ending Tour.” But among these longueurs one finds cannily selected comments from Dylan himself that, set within the context of Epstein’s portrait, yield flashes of insight. Epstein quotes Dylan in a 1997 interview with the New York Times: “My songs, what makes them different is that there’s a foundation to them. That’s why they’re still around.” That foundation, Dylan makes clear, is the long history of songs that preceded his — that is, Tradition, as T.S. Eliot once defined it. And this gets us as close to an answer as we’re likely to find to the question of “whence Bob Dylan.” As Epstein notes, many of Dylan’s lines — the times they are a-changin’; he not busy being born is busy dying; money doesn’t talk, it swears — have become “American proverbs” that have appeared “like fugitive lines from Shakespeare or Pope” in newspaper editorials, political speeches, and sermons. They do so “because they expressed, in distilled language, a human truth.”

Dylan was not the first to formulate these truths, but he possessed the genius to make them new in our time.

– Mr. Younce is an editor living in Berlin.

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