cover image The Ballad of Bob Dylan

The Ballad of Bob Dylan

Daniel Mark Epstein, Harper, $27.99 (496p) ISBN 978-0-06-180732-9

The aura that is the real masterpiece of a star dominates this raptly observant, occasionally besotted biography of folk-rock's troubador-prophet. Historian and poet Epstein (The Lincolns) structures his loose-jointed chronicle around exegeses of iconic Dylan concerts he attended, analyzing the songs and the shifting persona of the singer: in 1963, the visionary 22-year-old folkie; in 1974, the bristling 30-something rocker; in 2009, the hoarse old man growling at Fate. It's a canny approach, given that Dylan's mythmaking—the middle-class son of a Minnesota appliance-store owner, he romantically styled himself a wandering orphan—outran the prosaic reality. (Epstein sometimes bemoans the paucity of scandal in his subject's life and reveals that Dylan's storied motorcycle accident occurred when the vehicle simply tipped over as he was walking it down the road.) Unfortunately, Epstein's sharp-eyed evocations of Dylan's onstage presences often bog down in the longueurs of decades of perfunctory touring. Worse, his conviction that Dylan is a great poet whose lyrics "can stand alone on the printed page" is not entirely confirmed by the many stanzas he reprints and dutifully interprets. Epstein's wallow in the master's words and moods will entrance hardcore Dylanophiles, but casual readers may strain to hear the music. Photos. (May)