Four concerts viewed over more than four decades frame a new study of the musician.
Historian and poet Epstein (Lincoln’s Men: The President and His Private Secretaries, 2009, etc.) employs a quartet of Dylan gigs he attended—a 1963 solo acoustic date, a 1974 show with The Band, and 1997 and 2009 stops on the so-called Never Ending Tour—as pivots in his overview of the singer-songwriter’s 50-year musical journey. The results are a mixed bag. The ’63 performance in Washington, D.C., coincided with Dylan’s rise to folk-music stardom, and the ’74 Madison Square Garden stand was part of a trek that returned him to the stage after an eight-year layoff, but Epstein never integrates his observations into the flow of his biographical narrative. The latter two shows were merely stops on a long road, and the author parses them indifferently. Epstein is at his best dealing with his subject’s Minnesota boyhood, embrace of folk music and meteoric early-’60s ascent; fresh recollections from Nora Guthrie, daughter of Dylan’s role model Woody Guthrie, highlight the early going. Likewise, later chapters on the making of the important albums Time Out of Mind (1997) and Love and Theft (2001) benefit from revealing interviews with session men like drummer David Kemper and the late keyboardist-raconteur Jim Dickinson. Yet Epstein fails to penetrate the artist’s multitudinous masks at other crucial junctures. He offers nothing new about Dylan’s mid-’60s rock stardom, and his crucial relationship with first wife Sara Lownds is as mysterious here as it is in other accounts. The author has no patience with Dylan’s conversion to Christianity in the late ’70s, and the music that followed receives little consideration. Epstein takes in Dylan’s creatively manic later years as a touring and recording artist, writer, painter and radio host with an obsessive’s eye, but all the detail feels unsorted and second-hand.
Despite occasionally graceful writing and input from hitherto untapped expert witnesses, this is not top-shelf Dylanology.