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Bob Dylan
1941 -

 


Master poet, caustic social critic and intrepid, guiding spirit of the counterculture generation
By JAY COCKS
 

 

He was born with a snake above his fist while a hurricane was blowing.

You must know that. Know the fact, or the music, or the truth inside the mythology, spun from roots by his rough magic into cloth of gold, into songs that are the shifting, stormy center of American popular music in the second part of the very century when the music was invented.

Bob Dylan couldn't wait for the music to change. He couldn't be only part of the change. He was the change itself. The snake and the hurricane. And you do know that. If you've been listening only in passing, you know, among other things, that the answer's blowin' in the wind, the times they are achangin', everybody must get stoned, they're selling postcards of the hanging, and that to live outside the law you must be honest. Later, listening more closely, you found out that we're goin' all the way till the wheels fall off and burn, that dignity's never been photographed, and that no one plays the blues like Blind Willie McTell.

Those are legends and home truths, passed along in song, that became part of a cultural vocabulary and an ongoing American myth. Hundreds of songs; more than 500 and counting. Forty-three albums; more than 57 million copies sold. A series of dreams about America as it once and never was. It was folk music, deep within its core, from the mountains and the delta and the blacktop of Highway 61. Rhythm and blues, too, and juke-joint rock 'n' roll, and hymns from backwoods churches and gospel shouts from riverside baptisms. He put all that together, and found words to match it.

Before him there was only Bobby Vinton. Well, no, not really. But at the time Dylan first arrived in New York City from the Midwest, rock music had lost its leader — Elvis, in a series of movie musicals. Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson — all those pioneers Dylan had loved and emulated in high school rock-'n'-roll bands — had been superseded by a series of well-scrubbed teen idols who had as much edge as a corsage.

It was a bland-out all across the bandwidth, a kind of musical hangover from the Eisenhower era. Rock 'n' roll had erupted dead in the heart of Ike's easeful America. In the Kennedy years, when the world started to shake and rattle, the music suddenly turned as thick and sweet as a malted. Jazz had the power, but jazz was for grownups, and its impact was largely instrumental. Anyone who wanted to listen to a song, and take something away from it that would last a little longer than a good-night kiss, turned on to folk.

So Bob Dylan, a rock-'n'-roll American kid who first heard Woody Guthrie while enrolled for a few months at the University of Minnesota, took up folk. Got a ride to New York. Settled in Greenwich Village. Took any gig he could get. Within two years — tops — turned folk inside out. And then abandoned it. Subsumed it, really, inside the raucous, unyielding, cataclysmic rock 'n' roll that he let loose on an audience that didn't like to be reminded how hidebound it was. What had been music of comment and protest became songs of unprecedented personal testament, delivered with a literal and savage electricity.

Dylan got booed when he showed up with rock musicians behind him, and the booing didn't let up until his great songs like Desolation Row and Like a Rolling Stone pierced the consciousness of a whole new generation, making everyone realize that rock music could be as direct, as personal and as vital as a novel or a poem. That popular music could be expression as well as recreation.

Dylan was suddenly a singer no longer. He was a shaman. A lot of people called him a prophet. In a way, it must have been scarier than being booed. Everything he sang, said, did or even wore took on a specific gravity that made it harder and harder for him to move. The music became so important to so many people, took on such awesome proportions, that Dylan could respond only with the ultimate sanity: silence.

After a motorcycle accident in 1966, he used the recovery time to retreat and cook up some new music that was mystical and playful, and so deliberately rough-edged that it seemed almost spontaneous. It wasn't, of course, but the music of those years — much of it heard in the song cycle that's known informally as the Basement Tapes — charted a more inward course. It was music that deflected any easy response.

A dizzying number of changes followed — from born-again Christian testifying to deep blues — but Dylan has been consistent only in one thing: he has never stopped making great music, or being cagey about it. And funny, when he feels like it. And hip, without peer or precedent. Accepting a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1991, he leaned into the mike and delivered himself of this reflection: "Well, my daddy, he didn't leave me much, you know he was a very simple man, but what he did tell me was this, he did say, 'Son,' he said, he say, 'you know it's possible to become so defiled in this world that your own father and mother will abandon you, and if that happens, God will always believe in your ability to mend your ways.'" Say amen, somebody. He gave us a great record last year. The album, Time Out of Mind, was greeted as a masterpiece, his greatest work since Blood on the Tracks more than 20 years before. In fact, it was much of a piece with the extraordinary albums he's been making for most of this decade, including Oh, Mercy, a kind of prelude and companion piece released in 1989, and two subsequent albums of folk music that seem to have been made in some secret, mysterious place where the past never stops.

Dylan had a brush with mortality just before the last album was released, and spent some serious time in the hospital, which brought everyone up short. It was a warning that time was passing, everywhere but in his music. So Time Out of Mind brought Dylan safely back home again to the hot center. It was as if everyone suddenly woke up and figured it was Dylan who had been asleep all these years. In fact, as always, he was the only one with his eyes open. To know that, all you had to do — still, and ever — is listen. And ask yourself the same question he flung at us.

How does it feel?
 


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Bob Dylan's influence on popular music is incalculable. As a songwriter, he pioneered several different schools of pop songwriting, from confessional singer/songwriter to winding, hallucinatory, stream-of-conscious narratives. As a vocalist, he broke down the notions that in order to perform, a singer had to have a conventionally good voice, thereby redefining the role of vocalist in popular music. As a musician, he sparked several genres of pop music, including electrified folk-rock and country-rock. And that just touches on the tip of his achievements. Dylan's force was evident during his height of popularity in the '60s -- the Beatles' shift toward introspective songwriting in the mid-'60s never would have happened without him -- but his influence echoed throughout several subsequent generations. Many of his songs became popular standards, and his best albums were undisputed classics of the rock & roll canon. Dylan's influence throughout folk music was equally powerful, and he marks a pivotal turning point in its 20th century evolution, signifying when the genre moved away from traditional songs and toward personal songwriting. Even when his sales declined in the '80s and '90s, Dylan's presence was calculable.

For a figure of such substantial influence, Dylan came from humble beginnings. Born in Duluth, MN, Bob Dylan (b. Robert Allen Zimmerman, May 24, 1941) was raised in Hibbing, MN, from the age of six. As a child he learned how to play guitar and harmonica, forming a rock & roll band called the Golden Chords when he was in high school. Following his graduation in 1959, he began studying art at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. While at college, he began performing folk songs at coffeehouses under the name Bob Dylan, taking his last name from the poet Dylan Thomas. Already inspired by Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie, Dylan began listening to blues while at college, and the genre weaved its way into his music. Dylan spent the summer of 1960 in Denver, where he met bluesman Jesse Fuller, the inspiration behind the songwriter's signature harmonica rack and guitar. By the time he returned to Minneapolis in the fall, he had grown substantially as a performer and was determined to become a professional musician.

Dylan made his way to New York City in January of 1961, immediately making a substantial impression on the folk community of Greenwich Village. He began visiting his idol Guthrie in the hospital, where he was slowly dying from Huntington's chorea. Dylan also began performing in coffeehouses, and his rough charisma won him a significant following. In April, he opened for John Lee Hooker at Gerde's Folk City. Five months later, Dylan performed another concert at the venue, which was reviewed positively by Robert Shelton in the New York Times. Columbia A&R man John Hammond sought out Dylan on the strength of the review, and signed the songwriter in the fall of 1961. Hammond produced Dylan's eponymous debut album (released in March 1962), a collection of folk and blues standards that boasted only two original songs. Over the course of 1962, Dylan began to write a large batch of original songs, many of which were political protest songs in the vein of his Greenwich contemporaries. These songs were showcased on his second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. Before its release, Freewheelin' went through several incarnations. Dylan had recorded a rock & roll single, "Mixed Up Confusion," at the end of 1962, but his manager, Albert Grossman, made sure the record was deleted because he wanted to present Dylan as an acoustic folky. Similarly, several tracks with a full backing band that were recorded for Freewheelin' were scrapped before the album's release. Furthermore, several tracks recorded for the album -- including "Talking John Birch Society Blues" -- were eliminated from the album before its release.

Comprised entirely of original songs, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan made a huge impact in the U.S. folk community, and many performers began covering songs from the album. Of these, the most significant were Peter, Paul & Mary, who made "Blowin' in the Wind" into a huge pop hit in the summer of 1963 and thereby made Bob Dylan into a recognizable household name. On the strength of Peter, Paul & Mary's cover and his opening gigs for popular folky Joan Baez, Freewheelin' became a hit in the fall of 1963, climbing to number 23 on the charts. By that point, Baez and Dylan had become romantically involved, and she was beginning to record his songs frequently. Dylan was writing just as fast.

By the time The Times They Are A-Changin' was released in early 1964, Dylan's songwriting had developed far beyond that of his New York peers. Heavily inspired by poets like Arthur Rimbaud and John Keats, his writing took on a more literate and evocative quality. Around the same time, he began to expand his musical boundaries, adding more blues and R&B influences to his songs. Released in the summer of 1964, Another Side of Bob Dylan made these changes evident. However, Dylan was moving faster than his records could indicate. By the end of 1964, he had ended his romantic relationship with Baez and had begun dating a former model named Sara Lowndes, whom he subsequently married. Simultaneously, he gave the Byrds "Mr. Tambourine Man" to record for their debut album. The Byrds gave the song a ringing, electric arrangement, but by the time the single became a hit, Dylan was already exploring his own brand of folk-rock. Inspired by the British Invasion, particularly the Animals' version of "House of the Rising Sun," Dylan recorded a set of original songs backed by a loud rock & roll band for his next album. While Bringing It All Back Home (March 1965) still had a side of acoustic material, it made clear that Dylan had turned his back on folk music. For the folk audience, the true breaking point arrived a few months after the album's release, when he played the Newport Folk Festival supported by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. The audience greeted him with vicious derision, but he had already been accepted by the growing rock & roll community. Dylan's spring tour of Britain was the basis for D.A. Pennebaker's documentary Don't Look Back, a film that captures the songwriter's edgy charisma and charm.

Dylan made his breakthrough to the pop audience in the summer of 1965, when "Like a Rolling Stone" became a number two hit. Driven by a circular organ riff and a steady beat, the six-minute single broke the barrier of the three-minute pop single. Dylan became the subject of innumerable articles, and his lyrics became the subject of literary analyses across the U.S. and U.K. Well over 100 artists covered his songs between 1964 and 1966; the Byrds and the Turtles, in particular, had big hits with his compositions. Highway 61 Revisited, his first full-fledged rock & roll album, became a Top Ten hit shortly after its summer 1965 release. "Positively 4th Street" and "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" became Top Ten hits in the fall of 1965 and spring of 1966, respectively. Following the May 1966 release of the double-album Blonde on Blonde, he had sold over ten million records around the world.

During the fall of 1965, Dylan hired the Hawks, formerly Ronnie Hawkins' backing group, as his touring band. The Hawks, who changed their name to the Band in 1968, would become Dylan's most famous backing band, primarily because of their intuitive chemistry and "wild, thin mercury sound," but also because of their British tour in the spring of 1966. The tour was the first time Britain had heard the electric Dylan, and their reaction was disagreeable and violent. At the Manchester concert (long mistakenly identified as the show from London's Royal Albert Hall), an audience member called Dylan "Judas," inspiring a positively vicious version of "Like a Rolling Stone" from Dylan and the band. The performance was immortalized on countless bootleg albums (an official release finally surfaced in 1998), and it indicates the intensity of Dylan in the middle of 1966. He had assumed control of Pennebaker's second Dylan documentary, Eat the Document, and was under deadline to complete his book Tarantula, as well as record a new record. Following the British tour, he returned to America.

On July 29, 1966, he was injured in a motorcycle accident outside of his home in Woodstock, NY, suffering injuries to his neck vertebrae and a concussion. Details of the accident remain elusive -- he was reportedly in critical condition for a week and had amnesia -- and some biographers have questioned its severity, but the event was a pivotal turning point in his career. After the accident, Dylan became a recluse, disappearing into his home in Woodstock and raising his family with his wife, Sara. After a few months, he retreated with the Band to a rented house, subsequently dubbed Big Pink, in West Saugerties to record a number of demos. For several months, Dylan and the Band recorded an enormous amount of material, ranging from old folk, country, and blues songs to newly written originals. The songs indicated that Dylan's songwriting had undergone a metamorphosis, becoming streamlined and more direct. Similarly, his music had changed, owing less to traditional rock & roll, and demonstrating heavy country, blues, and traditional folk influences. None of the Big Pink recordings were intended to be released, but tapes from the sessions were circulated by Dylan's music publisher with the intent of generating cover versions. Copies of these tapes, as well as other songs, were available on illegal bootleg albums by the end of the '60s; it was the first time that bootleg copies of unreleased recordings became widely circulated. Portions of the tapes were officially released in 1975 as the double-album The Basement Tapes.

While Dylan was in seclusion, rock & roll had become heavier and artier in the wake of the psychedelic revolution. When Dylan returned with John Wesley Harding in December of 1967, its quiet, country ambience was a surprise to the general public, but it was a significant hit, peaking at number two in the U.S. and number one in the U.K. Furthermore, the record arguably became the first significant country-rock record to be released, setting the stage for efforts by the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers later in 1969. Dylan followed his country inclinations on his next album, 1969's Nashville Skyline, which was recorded in Nashville with several of the country industry's top session men. While the album was a hit, spawning the Top Ten single "Lay Lady Lay," it was criticized in some quarters for uneven material. The mixed reception was the beginning of a full-blown backlash that arrived with the double-album Self Portrait. Released early in June of 1970, the album was a hodgepodge of covers, live tracks, re-interpretations, and new songs greeted with negative reviews from all quarters of the press. Dylan followed the album quickly with New Morning, which was hailed as a comeback.

Following the release of New Morning, Dylan began to wander restlessly. He moved back to Greenwich Village, he finally published Tarantula in November of 1970, and he performed at the Concert for Bangladesh in August 1971. During 1972, he began his acting career by playing Alias in Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which was released in 1973. He also wrote the soundtrack for the film, which featured "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," his biggest hit since "Lay Lady Lay." The Pat Garrett soundtrack was the final record released under his Columbia contract before he moved to David Geffen's fledgling Asylum Records. As retaliation, Columbia assembled Dylan, a collection of Self Portrait outtakes, for release at the end of 1973. Dylan only recorded two albums -- including 1974's Planet Waves, coincidentally his first number one album -- before he moved back to Columbia. The Band supported Dylan on Planet Waves and its accompanying tour, which became the most successful tour in rock & roll history; it was captured on 1974's double-live album Before the Flood.

Dylan's 1974 tour was the beginning of a comeback culminated by 1975's Blood on the Tracks. Largely inspired by the disintegration of his marriage, Blood on the Tracks was hailed as a return to form by critics and it became his second number one album. After jamming with folkies in Greenwich Village, Dylan decided to launch a gigantic tour, loosely based on traveling medicine shows. Lining up an extensive list of supporting musicians -- including Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Rambling Jack Elliott, Arlo Guthrie, Mick Ronson, Roger McGuinn, and poet Allen Ginsberg -- Dylan dubbed the tour the Rolling Thunder Revue and set out on the road in the fall of 1975. For the next year, the Rolling Thunder Revue toured on and off, with Dylan filming many of the concerts for a future film. During the tour, Desire was released to considerable acclaim and success, spending five weeks on the top of the charts. Throughout the Rolling Thunder Revue, Dylan showcased "Hurricane," a protest song he had written about boxer Rubin Carter, who had been unjustly imprisoned for murder. The live album Hard Rain was released at the end of the tour. Dylan released Renaldo and Clara, a four-hour film based on the Rolling Thunder tour, to poor reviews in early 1978.

Early in 1978, Dylan set out on another extensive tour, this time backed by a band that resembled a Las Vegas lounge band. The group was featured on the 1978 album Street Legal and the 1979 live album At Budokan. At the conclusion of the tour in late 1978, Dylan announced that he was a born-again Christian, and he launched a series of Christian albums that following summer with Slow Train Coming. Though the reviews were mixed, the album was a success, peaking at number three and going platinum. His supporting tour for Slow Train Coming featured only his new religious material, much to the bafflement of his long-term fans. Two other religious albums -- Saved (1980) and Shot of Love (1981) -- followed, both to poor reviews. In 1982, Dylan traveled to Israel, sparking rumors that his conversion to Christianity was short-lived. He returned to secular recording with 1983's Infidels, which was greeted with favorable reviews.

Dylan returned to performing in 1984, releasing the live album Real Live at the end of the year. Empire Burlesque followed in 1985, but its odd mix of dance tracks and rock & roll won few fans. However, the five-album/triple-disc retrospective box set Biograph appeared that same year to great acclaim. In 1986, Dylan hit the road with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers for a successful and acclaimed tour, but his album that year, Knocked Out Loaded, was received poorly. The following year, he toured with the Grateful Dead as his backing band; two years later, the souvenir album Dylan & the Dead appeared.

In 1988, Dylan embarked on what became known as "The Never-Ending Tour" -- a constant stream of shows that ran on and off into the late '90s. That same year, he released Down in the Groove, an album largely comprised of covers. The Never-Ending Tour received far stronger reviews than Down in the Groove, but 1989's Oh Mercy was his most acclaimed album since 1974's Blood on the Tracks. However, his 1990 follow-up, Under the Red Sky, was received poorly, especially when compared to the enthusiastic reception for the 1991 box set The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased), a collection of previously unreleased outtakes and rarities.

For the remainder of the '90s, Dylan divided his time between live concerts and painting. In 1992, he returned to recording with Good As I Been to You, an acoustic collection of traditional folk songs. It was followed in 1993 by another folk album, World Gone Wrong, which won the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album. After the release of World Gone Wrong, Dylan released a greatest-hits album and a live record.

Dylan released Time Out of Mind, his first album of original material in seven years, in the fall of 1997. Time Out of Mind received his strongest reviews in years and unexpectedly debuted in the Top Ten. Its success sparked a revival of interest in Dylan -- he appeared on the cover of Newsweek and his concerts became sell-outs. Early in 1998, Time Out of Mind received three Grammy Awards -- Album of the Year, Best Contemporary Folk Album and Best Male Rock Vocal. Another album of original material, Love and Theft, followed in 2001. Soon after its release, Dylan announced that he was making his own film, to star Jeff Bridges, Penelope Cruz, John Goodman, Val Kilmer, and many more. The accompanying soundtrack, Masked and Anonymous, was released in July 2003.

 

 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 09 December, 2008