How to be forever young

Two more contributions to the volumes greeting Bob Dylan's 70th highlight the great man's genius for constant change


By John Belknap, June 20, 2011
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Uber-graphic designer Milton Glaser's iconic  1966 poster of Bob Dylan

Uber-graphic designer Milton Glaser's iconic 1966 poster of Bob Dylan

The Ballad of Bob Dylan
Daniel Mark Epstein
Souvenir Press, £20

The Mammoth Book of Bob Dylan
Edited by Sean Egan
Robinson, £7.99

The Ballad of Bob Dylan is an minutely detailed biography, written by a musician who was part of the original Greenwich Village folk scene. The book has an easy pace that weaves intricate detail with quotes from performers who knew and played with Dylan.

You may not really be bothered about which high D note Dylan adds to his G chord to make it chime, but the author's account of watching him sing The Times They Are A-changing in 1963 is intense and intimate. There is even a scene where Epstein's younger sister gets lost in the crowd trying to get Dylan's autograph and Dylan himself rescues her. This kind of personal perspective continues throughout.

Happily, the book is laced through with Dylan's lyrics. While many of these are now taken for granted as part of the vernacular, Epstein makes you appreciate anew just how many memorable words have flowed out of just one man. The words, both revealing and mysterious, are made magic by unexpected joinings, and made powerful when put to song.

Here's just one sample, from Mr Tambourine Man: "Then take me disappearin' through the smoke rings of my mind/Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves/The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach/Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow/Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free/Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands/With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves/Let me forget about today until tomorrow…"

Dylan's creative restlessness is as legendary as his songs. He never sings a song the same way twice, and he goes to great effort to keep all his musicians destabilised so they sound fresh. And Epstein shows why smashing preconceptions and exploding genres is as natural to Dylan as getting out of bed.

The book watches Dylan creating his own myth of growing up out west in a carnival and riding freight trains, whereas he really grew up as Bobby Zimmerman in a respectable middle-class Jewish home in the Midwest. Myth and reality converge when he goes to New York to visit his hero, the firebrand, leftist folk singer Woody Guthrie.

Epstein also shows that, while Dylan's image is always that of a loner, he has always been plugged into a larger community of musicians and mythmakers, starting with Woody Guthrie's family. His songs are taken from a magpie's collection of inspirations, from the 1930s blues of Reverend Gary Davis to American Civil War newspapers to Anglo-Saxon poetry. Dylan was ever hungry for the arts, and hoovered up every work in sight, from El Greco to Leroi Jones and Bertolt Brecht, soaking in more and more information from his mentors and muses.

He admires many musicians and keeps careful track of who's good at what. When he needs good bluegrass or gospel or country players, he knows who to call. He does have a cruel streak. He was tormenting his old friend, the blues player Dave Van Ronk in a bar one night until Van Ronk stood up and said, "Dylan, if you're so rich, why ain't you smart?" and left. But all is forgiven years later when Van Ronk and many others who weren't as successful as Dylan, including a disabled childhood friend, are invited to go on a long rock 'n' roll circus tour together.

As you ride through Dylan's decades of changes, lovers and bands, a satisfyingly clear portrait emerges from the shadows, ever sharpening the focus on the most cleverly elusive artist in the age of media saturation.

While Ballad is about the artist and how he created his art, The Mammoth Book of Bob Dylan is a collection of journalistic criticism, edited by Sean Egan. Egan's reviews are a little dry at times, but the book is saved by fascinating and hilarious anecdotes from fans, players and journalists who met Dylan, including entertaining interviews and funny tales about baffled reporters coming up against a man who could always keep 10 steps ahead of them.

John Belknap is the JC's art director and a practising musician

    Last updated: 10:04am, June 20 2011