Daniel Mark Epstein. The Ballad of Bob Dylan. New York: Harper, 2011. E-book.
The Ballad of Bob Dylan is a biography of our recent Nobel laureate focusing on his works, but done in a manner of an appreciation. It notes a few different stages or reinventions in Dylan’s career and includes the author’s own experiences at concerts and with a production company that Dylan considered hiring.
The author describes four concerts he attended and much of the book focuses on the significance in Dylan’s career of each of those concerts. This becomes a cultural retrospective for many readers.
The first concert was in 1963 in Washington DC. The author was a teenager and interested in the guitar and folk music. Dylan was still in his folk and protest music stage then. Epstein noted that the audience tended to be primarily people of his parents’ age, though more artsy than the average Joe of 1963. Many were familiar with folk tunes that had been popularized by the Lomax recordings and such older folkies as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and even the Weavers.
While introducing us to Dylan through his music (I have to admit limited knowledge of the guitar chords and musical techniques the book sometimes refers to), we get Dylan’s backstory. First, there is the “legend” he tried to created by telling reporters how he rambled around the country as an orphan picking up jobs and learning the guitar. Of course, this contrasts with his actual middle class background from northern Minnesota.
I am a few years younger than the author, but this does bring memories. I cannot say I totally followed folk music in the early sixties, but I was not unfamiliar with it. Everyone knew who Peter, Paul, and Mary were, and they sang some Dylan songs. I had a friend whose older sister was a big fan of the Smothers Brothers and the Kingston Trio. Later I would latch onto Dave Van Ronk, who was apparently an early mentor of Dylan’s. Many other names drop: Tom Paxton, Eric Andersen, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Maria Muldaur, and on and on.
A friend once told me that popular musicians have to reinvent themselves about every four years to keep on top, otherwise they will mostly be known for their “oldies.” He said, for example, the Beatles did that in 1967 with Sgt. Pepper and left their Beatlemania ballads behind.
Dylan did that in 1964 when he went electric. For the author it was a surprise. I guess I was younger enough that I really liked rock better. For example, the Byrds turned Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn” and Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” into hits because they electrified them. I suspect that may be one reason Dylan switched.
What is interesting to me is the audience reactions described by Epstein. When Dylan began touring with his “plugged in” band, audiences booed. Perhaps at first this is understandable—people had paid money to see an acoustic folk singer. But certainly once news got out, people could have decided not to attend or sell their tickets to someone who liked the rockier stuff. But nearly everywhere he went in 1964 and 1965, Dylan was booed.
Of course, Dylan had first become famous for so-called protest tunes like “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and “Masters of War.” He attracted likeminded people in his audiences. On the other hand, he admired Seeger and especially Guthrie who were often criticized for their protest songs and political leanings. Dylan was having a similar experience, but for his music.
Though Epstein does not emphasize it, I am certain that regardless of audience reactions, Dylan was selling more “folk rock” albums than he ever did with his acoustic albums. That is when this writer, for one, started finding Dylan appealing. I heard the Byrds do “Mr. Tambourine Man” on the radio, but when I heard all the verses in a Dylan recording, I recognized that this was poetry.
Once back in the nineties a couple of students asked me about my favorite albums. (Now many students do not even know what those are.) Yes, I said, I listened to the Beatles and the Doors and Jimi Hendrix like most of my contemporaries, but I had to admit that I think my favorite album of that era was Blonde on Blonde. Some of it seemed nonsense, yes, but the best was rich. “Sad Eyed-Lady of the Lowlands” was a gem about a city that had seen better days. It reminded me a little of Phil Ochs’ “Pleasures of the Harbor,” but much richer and poignant.
Even Dylan’s songs about love and relationships had an edge that most pop songs did not have: “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right,” or “Like a Rolling Stone.” Even here Dylan was his own person.
From here we go into Dylan’s marriage and family life in upstate New York. Epstein gets a lot of information from Robbie Robertson of The Band. During this time Don McLean’s “American Pie” reminds us that Dylan was the Joker. Not the Batman nemesis, but the wild card, you never knew what he was going to do. The sojourn in New York reminded me of the line from the song “the joker on the sideline in a cast.”
The ostensible reason Dylan did not perform publicly or put out a new album for a long time was because of his motorcycle accident. The image I always had was Dylan “flying free” like a Brando Wild One singing “Born to Be Wild” and taking one too many turns or bumps too hard. (That is how I broke my leg when I was 22).
Epstein reports that the accident was actually kind of humorous. There had been an old motorcycle abandoned in the barn of the farmhouse where he was living. He decided to get it fixed. The tires were flat. He was simply wheeling the motorcycle, walking next to it, and he slipped on some wet pavement and the bike fell on him and broke his leg!
Epstein suggests that this “time out” for Dylan may have been some of the happiest of his life. He married, had a family, and lived out of the limelight until word began to get around that Dylan was in Woodstock and Saugerties, New York. He escaped by moving back to Greenwich Village, but then people camped out by his apartment building night and day, some with bullhorns.
I recall when the first album by The Band came out. It was the closest thing to a new Dylan album. He wrote some of the songs, and most of The Band had toured with Dylan before. The style was a little more blues and country, but it did sound a lot like Dylan’s style. When he finally came out with a new album, it was called Nashville Skyline and was very much country. Still, it was popular with many of his fans. Perhaps he had reinvented himself again?
Epstein does not mention another Dylan album that came out shortly after that, one that I enjoyed a lot, called Self-Portrait. It was eclectic, including country and more blues (I was a fan of the blues), but it did not sell well. It was revealing Dylan in a relatively contented state.
The next concert Epstein describes in detail is in 1974. This was in Madison Square Garden, New York, during his first real tour in eight years. The author’s sister came with him and pointed out about a dozen celebrities in the audience. This was a big deal. The sound system was elaborate—nothing acoustical here. Epstein notes that even in 1966 Dylan was a “niche act,” but by the time he started touring again, his fame was acknowledged.
Epstein says a “second generation” were becoming fans. If that first generation consisted of the folkies who first followed him, then that was clearly true. His music and his lyrics had a greater impact than any other songwriter of the era.
Epstein notes that John Sebastian, lead singer and songwriter of the Lovin’ Spoonful, turned down an offer to tour with Dylan. It might have kept Sebastian more in the limelight, but he said, “You can’t get too close to Dylan. He burns with such a bright flame you can get burned.” (2068)
Epstein suggests that is why ultimately his marriages would end in divorce, and even the most talented musicians could only tour with him for so long. Still, Dylan attracted many of the best for his musicians and his producers. Sometimes he was impulsive. A fiddler joined his tour for a while when Dylan saw her walking along a city sidewalk carrying a violin case.
Unfortunately, Epstein pretty much passes over Dylan’s next reinvention. He does tell us:
In January 1979 Bob Dylan accepted the Lord Jesus Christ into his life as his personal savior. He met with the pastors of the Vineyard Fellowship in West Los Angeles and “prayed that day and received the Lord.” He began attending Bible study classes at the School of Discipleship, studying the life of Jesus four days a week for the rest of the winter. (4226-4228)
Epstein largely dismisses Dylan’s next few albums because they are Christian. He says they were “preachy.” If by preachy, he means “religious,” then that is true. But, frankly, even Dylan admits that his early folk songs (“Blowin’ in the Wind” or “Hard Rain,” for example) were much more didactic attempts to persuade. They were sometimes downright lectures. In his song “My Back Pages” he calls his singing “the instant that I preach.” Most of his Christian songs were still ballads or perhaps hymn-like, rather than rants.
I would submit that Dylan had musical reasons as well as personal ones for looking into Christianity at the time. Even Epstein admits that the popular music scene was bland or unmusical at the time. He mentions the disco Bee Gees and Christopher Cross as examples. On the other hand, the Christian music scene—ironically tolerated on mainstream radio in Europe but ignored except on religious stations and networks in the USA—was flourishing. Artists like Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill, Annie Herring, and Keith Green were writing original music. Christian music festivals and the so-called Jesus movement were peaking. It is no wonder that Dylan became a part of it.
If I were to add an chapter to The Ballad of Bob Dylan, it would be introduced by the one time this reviewer saw Dylan in concert. That was in 1980. He had just come out with his Saved album, and the songs were nearly all from his last two albums. Although not like the way Epstein describes the audiences in 1964 after he went electric, there were some audience members who acted disgruntled and gave a few catcalls. By then, of course, everyone knew what to expect. And because of his experience with his post-folk audiences, he did not appear upset at all over any hisses he might have received. It had been a lot worse in ’64 and ’65.
I still recall when I first heard Slow Train Coming, the first album out after his conversion. A friend had said that Dylan had come to the Lord. By then many Christians were skeptical of celebrity conversions, though I had to admit that, whatever one could say about Dylan, it was hard to imagine him as a phony. He would not be doing it for the money. Within a day or two another friend had bought a copy of the album and came to our house to play it on our stereo. Tears came to my eyes as he sang “I believe in you…” I especially liked “Precious Angel,”
Sister, lemme tell you about a vision that I saw:
You were drawing water for your husband,
You were suffering under the law.
You were telling him about Buddha,
You were telling him about Mohammed in the same breath.
You never mentioned one time the Man who came
And died a criminal’s death.
The third concert Epstein attended was at Tanglewood, the famous summer outdoor concert series in western Massachusetts, in 1997. Here Epstein describes Dylan’s so-called Neverending Tour. He has to a great degree been touring 100 or more days a year for the last twenty-five years. He has teamed up with many different artists. At times Dylan changes enough that he gets rid of some musicians and hires others.
This section is as much about Epstein as Dylan. He brings his teenage son to the concert to try to get him to see this important and significant figure.
Now it dawns on me with some sadness that there was no Bob Dylan in my son’s life, as there had been in mine. Dylan had been a giant in my world, a poet and something of a prophet, someone you could trust to tell the truth of his perceptions. He saw deeply into history and the human heart. The poet was a reliable moral quantity—incorruptible, in this sense. (4318,4319)
The single song that really excited both father and son from this time period was “Jokerman.” That was Dylan, the “real Dylan” to Epstein. Epstein also realized or believed that his son’s generation had no songwriter like that.
As strange as it seems, when I was growing up there were a dozen poets writing such profuse song lyrics. Now perhaps there was only one, or two if the Canadian poet Leonard Cohen had emerged from the monastery and taken up his pencil. (4638,4639) [Cohen did come out of the monastery and do some touring, but, I guess, now there is just one poet since Leonard is no longer with us.]
One curious note. Epstein tells us that Dylan was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature first in 1999 by a professor in Virginia. I guess persistence paid off. It seems also during this time Dylan won several awards and was happy to pick them up. On the other hand, he rarely broke concert dates.
It is also interesting to note that after the mid-eighties, we hear little of the new songs Dylan writes and performs. By then, Dylan already had an oeuvre. This part is mostly biographical.
The Ballad of Bob Dylan also briefly tells about the songwriter’s forays into film, including a few that he produced himself. Epstein is a Hollywood writer and tells about the time his agency was consulted about working on a Dylan idea. It apparently never got off the ground.
Epstein’s final section takes up to nearly the time the book was published: 2009. The author is back home in the Baltimore area, and Dylan is playing at nearby Aberdeen. Mostly Epstein tells about the old songs he plays, such as “My Back Pages.” It is a kind of retrospective to conclude the story.
Any fan of folk, the sixties, or Dylan will appreciate this book. We do learn a lot about Dylan. He is a writer. But even today he is still putting on a show. As soon the book mentions many of the songs or lines from the songs, I can hear them. Dylan really has been a part of the lives of many of us.
Don’t let me change my heart
Keep me set apart
From all the plans they do pursue
And I, I don’t mind the pain
Don’t mind the driving rain
I know I will sustain
‘Cause I believe in you.