For over 40 years, Bob Dylan has remained the most influential American musician rock has ever produced and unquestionably the most important of the ‘60’s. Inscrutable and unpredictable, Dylan has been both deified and denounced for every shift of interest, while whole schools of musicians took up his ideas. His lyrics – the first in rock to be seriously regarded as literature – became so well known that the politicians from Jimmy Carter to Václav Havel have cited them as an influence. By personalizing folk songs, Dylan re-invented the singer/songwriter genre; by performing his allusive, poetic songs in his nasal, spontaneous vocal style with an electric band, he enlarged pop’s range and vocabulary while creating a widely imitated sound. By recording with Nashville veterans, he reconnected rock and country, hinting at the country rock of the ‘70s. In the ‘80’s and ‘90s, although he has at times seemed to flounder, he still has the ability to challenge, infuriate and surprise listeners.
Robert Zimmerman’s family moved to Hibbing, Minnesota from Duluth when he was six. After taking up guitar and harmonica, he formed the Golden Chords while he was a freshman in high school. He enrolled at the arts college of the University of Minnesota in 1959; during his three semesters there, he began to perform solo at coffee houses as Bob Dylan (after Dylan Thomas; he legally changed his name in August 1962).
Dylan moved to New York City in January 1961, saying he wanted to meet Woody Guthrie, who was by then hospitalized with Huntington’s chorea. Dylan visited his idol frequently. That April he played New York’s Gerdes’ Folk City as the opener for bluesman John Lee Hooker, with a set of Guthrie-style ballads and his own lyrics set to traditional tunes. A New York Times review by Robert Shelton alerted A&R man John Hammond, who signed Dylan to Columbia and produced his first album.
Although “Bob Dylan” included only two originals (“Talking New York” and “Song to Woody”), Dylan stirred up the Greenwich Village folk scene with his caustic humor and gift for writing deeply resonant topical songs. “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” (#22, 1963) included the soon-to-be-folk standard “Blowin’ in the Wind” (a hit for Peter, Paul and Mary). “A Hard Rain’s a–Gonna Fall”, and “Masters of War”, protest songs on a par with Guthrie’s and Pete Seeger’s. Joan Baez, already established as a protest singer, recorded Dylan’s songs and brought him on tour; in summer 1963 they became lovers.
By 1964 Dylan was playing 200 concerts a year. “The Times They Are a-Changin’” (#20, 1964) mixed protest songs (“With God on Our Side”) and more personal lyrics (“One Too Many Mornings”). He met the Beatles
at Kennedy Airport and reportedly introduced them to marijuana. “Another Side of Bob Dylan” (#43, 1964), recorded in summer 1964, concentrated on personal songs and imagistic free associations such as “Chimes of Freedom”; Dylan repudiated his protest phase with “My Back Pages”. In late 1964 Columbia A&R man Jim Dickson introduced Dylan to Jim (later Roger) McGuinn, to whom Dylan gave “Mr. Tambourine Man”, which became the Byrds’ first hit in 1965, kicking off folk rock. Meanwhile, the Dylan-Baez liaison fell apart and Dylan met 25 year old ex-model Shirley Noznisky, a.k.a. Sara Lowndes, whom he married in 1965.
With “Bringing It All Back Home” (#6), released early in 1965, Dylan surprised listeners for the first of many times by turning his back on folk purism; for half the album he was backed by a rock & roll band. On July 25, 1965, he played the Newport Folk Festival (where two years earlier he had been the cynosure of the folksingers) backed by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and was booed. The next month, he played the Forest Hills (Queens, New York) tennis stadium with a band that included Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson
, which accompanied him on a tour and later became the Band. “Like a Rolling Stone” (#2, 1965), “Blonde on Blonde” (#9, 1966) – were a revelation. His lyrics were analyzed, debated and quoted like no pop before them. With rage and slangy playfulness, Dylan chewed up and spat out literary and folk traditions in a wild, inspired doggerel. He didn’t explain; he gave off-the-wall interviews and press conferences in which he’d spin contradictory fables about his background and intentions. D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary of Dylan’s British tour, “Don’t Look Back”, shows some of the hysteria that came to surround him and the cool detachment with which he would always regard his celebrity. As “Rainy Day Women” (#12 & 35) went to #2 in April 1966, Dylan’s worldwide record sales topped 10 million and more than 150 other groups or artists across a wide range of genres had recorded at least one of his songs.
On July 29, 1966, Dylan smashed up his Triumph 55 motorcycle while riding near his Woodstock, New York home. With several broken neck vertebrae, a concussion and lacerations of the face and scalp, he was reportedly in critical condition for a week and bedridden for a month, with after effects including amnesia and mild paralysis. Though the extent of Dylan’s injuries was later questioned by biographers, he did spend nine months in seclusion. As he recovered, he and the Band recorded the songs that were widely bootlegged – and legitimately released in 1975 – as “The Basement Tapes “ (#7), whose droll, enigmatic, steeped-in-Americana sound would be continued by the Band on their own.
In 1968 Dylan made his public re-entry with the quiet “John Wesley Harding” (#2), which ignored the baroque psychedelia in vogue since the Beatles’ 1967 “Sgt. Pepper”; Dylan wrote new enigmas into such folkish ballads as “All Along the Watchtower”. On January 20, 1968, he returned to the stage, performing three songs at a Woody Guthrie memorial concert, and in May 1969 he released the overtly countryish “Nashville Skyline” (#3), featuring “Lay Lady Lay” (#7, 1969) and “Girl From the North Country”, with a guest vocal by Johnny Cash
and a new, mellower voice.
Dylan’s early ‘70s acts seemed less portentous. His 1970 “Self Portrait” (#4) included songs by other writers and live takes from a 1969 Isle of Wight concert with the Band. Widely criticized, Dylan went back into the studio and rush released the mild, countryish “New Morning” (#7, 1970). By mid-1970 Dylan had moved to 94 MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village; on June 9, he received an honorary doctorate in music from Princeton.
George Harrison, with whom Dylan co-wrote “I’d Have You Anytime”, “If Not for You” and a few other songs that summer, persuaded Dylan to appear at the benefit Concert for Bangladesh; Leon Russell, who also performed, produced Dylan’s single “Watching the River Flow”. That year he also released his first protest song since the mid-‘60s, “George Jackson”. In 1971 “Tarantula”, a collection of writings from the mid-‘60s, was published to an unenthusiastic reception.
Dylan sang at the Band concert that resulted in “Rock of Ages” (1972) but didn’t appear on the album; he sat in on albums by Doug Sahm, Steve Goodman, McGuinn and others. Late in 1972 he played Alias and wrote a score for Sam Peckinpah
’s “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid” (#16, 1973). “Writings and Drawings by Bob Dylan”, a collection of lyrics and liner notes up to “New Morning”, was published in 1973. Between Columbia contracts, Dylan moved to Malibu in 1973 and made a handshake deal with David Geffen’s Asylum label, which released “Planet Waves” (#1, 1974); Columbia retaliated with “Dylan” (#17, 1973), a collection of embarrassing outtakes from “Self Portrait”. Dylan and the Band played 39 shows in 21 cities, selling out 561,000 seats for a 1974 tour; the last three dates in L.A. were recorded for “Before the Flood” (#3, 1974).
Dylan scrapped an early version of “Blood on the Tracks”, re-cut the songs with local Minneapolis players, and the result hit #1 in 1975. He co-wrote some of the songs on the platinum “Desire” (#1, 1976) with producer Jacques Levy; before making that LP, Dylan had returned to some Greenwich Village hangouts. A series of jams at the Other End led to the notion of a communal tour, and in October bassist Rob Stoner began rehearsing the large, shifting entourage (including Baez and such Village regulars as Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Bobby Neuwirth) that became the Rolling Thunder Revue, which toured on and off – with guests including Allen Ginsberg, Joni Mitchell, Mick Ronson, McGuinn, and Arlo Guthrie – until spring 1976. The Revue started with surprise concerts at small halls (the first in Plymouth, Massachusetts, for an audience of 200) and worked up to outdoor stadiums like the one in Fort Collins, Colorado, where NBC-TV filmed “Hard Rain”. The troupe played two benefits for convicted murderer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter (subject of Dylan’s “Hurricane”), which, after expenses, raised no money. Dylan’s efforts helped Carter get a re-trial, but he was convicted and one of the witnesses, Patty Valentine, sued Dylan over his use of her name in “Hurricane”.
In 1976 Dylan appeared in the Band’s farewell concert, “The Last Waltz”, which was filmed by Martin Scorsese
. His wife, Sara Lowndes, filed for divorce in March 1977. She received custody of their five children: Maria (Sara’s daughter by a previous marriage whom Dylan had adopted), Jesse, Anna, Samuel and Jakob. (It was revealed in 2001 that in 1986 Dylan had secretly married backup singer Carolyn Dennis, six months after she gave birth to the couple’s daughter, Desiree Gabrielle Dennis-Dylan. The couple divorced in 1992).
In 1978 Dylan took a $2 million loss on “Renaldo and Clara”, a four-hour film including footage of the Rolling Thunder tour starring himself and Joan Baez. He embarked on an extensive tour (New Zealand, Australia, Europe, the U.S. and Japan, where he recorded “Live at Budokan”), redoing his old songs with some of the trappings of a Las Vegas lounge act.
In 1979 Dylan announced that he was a born-again Christian, having been introduced to its fundamentalist teachings by McGuinn, the Alpha Band (an outgrowth of Rolling Thunder) and Debby Boone. The platinum “Slow Train Coming”, overtly God-fearing, rose to #3. “You Gotta Serve Somebody” (#24, 1979) netted Dylan his first Grammy
(for Best Rock Vocal Performance, Male). His West Coast tour late in 1979 featured only his born-again material; “Saved” (#24, 1980) and “Shot of Love” (#33, 1981) continued that message. In late 1981 he embarked on a 22 city U.S. tour; in 1982 amid rumors he had repudiated his born-again Christianity, Dylan traveled to Israel. “Infidels” (#20, 1983), recorded with a band that included Mark Knopfler, Mick Taylor, and reggae greats Sly and Robbie, answered no questions. Despite its title, the album was more churlish than religious, although Dylan did admit that “Neighborhood Bully” was about Arab-Israeli relations.
“Biograph” (#33, 1985), a five-disc retrospective with 18 previously unreleased tracks, helped put Dylan’s long career in perspective, but “Empire Burlesque” (#33), released the same year, puzzled listeners with its backup singers and cluttered production by dance music specialist Arthur Baker. A tour with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in 1986 supported the sloppy, cryptic “Knocked Out Loaded” (#53). Dylan then toured in 1987 with the Grateful Dead
as his backup band, yielding the concert album, “Dylan & the Dead” (#37, 1989). Dylan delayed release of “Down in the Groove” (#61, 1988) twice in six months. The final product, with guests including Eric Clapton
, Steve Jones (Sex Pistols), rappers Full Force and members of the Dead sounded tentative and unfocused. But as “Lucky”, one-fifth of the Traveling Wilburys, Dylan appeared to genuinely enjoy participating in a group project.
Dylan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989 and later that year released his best received album of the ‘80s, “Oh Mercy” (#30). Produced by Daniel Lanois (U2, Robbie Robertson) in New Orleans, it was a coherent collection of songs, and Dylan sounded re-energized and engaged. But as he had throughout his career, Dylan defied expectations. On his Never Ending Tour started in 1988, Dylan re-cast his songs, at times throwing them away with offhand performances. His appearance on the “L’Chain – To Life” telethon led to rumors he had joined a Hasidic sect. “Under the Red Sky” (#38, 1990) the follow-up to “Oh Mercy, was almost universally panned.
In 1990 Dylan was named a “Commandeur dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres”, France’s highest cultural honor. At the 1991 Grammy ceremony, where he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award, Dylan’s whimsical acceptance speech and sloppy, almost unintelligible performance of “Masters of War” (the Gulf War had recently raged), left some fans scratching their heads, while others applauded his pugnacious attitude. Dylan opened up the vaults for “The Bootleg Series, vols. 1-3 (Rare * Unreleased)” (#39, 1991), its 58 outtakes, live tracks and demos, which proved his prolific virtuosity.
On October 16, 1992, Columbia marked the 30th anniversary of Dylan’s first album with Bobfest, an all-star concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden featuring more than 30 artists, including Neil Young
, Pearl Jam
’s Eddie Vedder, Tom Petty
, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Johnny Cash, Lou Reed and Dylan himself. Broadcast live on pay-per-view, it was released as an album and video the next year. As if to bring his career full circle, Dylan then recorded two folkish solo guitar and vocal albums: “Good As I Been to You” (#51, 1992) and “World Gone Wrong” (#70, 1993).
In the mid-‘90s Dylan revived his live concerts by assembling one of the best bands of his career – he stopped throwing away his songs, instead playing both countryish rock and acoustic string band versions of his best compositions. He made a triumphant appearance at Woodstock ’94, though he had snubbed the 1969 festival. In late 1994 Dylan performed on MTV’s “Unplugged”, with his new band augmented by Pearl Jam’s producer Brendan O’Brien on keyboards (highlights were released on the 1995 “Unplugged” album (#23).
Hooking up again with producer Lanois, Dylan recorded Delta deep-blues songs for 1997’s “Time Out of Mind”, which debuted (and peaked) on the Billboard chart at #10, becoming his highest charting release in nearly 20 years. The same year, Dylan found himself on the road touring and crossing paths with his son Jakob Dylan’s band the Wallflowers.
Other highlights of the year for Dylan included performing before Pope John Paul II in Bologna, Italy, the inaugural release on his Egyptian Records label (The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers – A Tribute), and receiving the Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement Award from President Bill Clinton at the White House. That year he had a brush with death when he suffered a serious heart infection that landed him in the hospital for a few tense days. In 1998 he picked up three Grammy’s for “Time Out of Mind” ( Album of the Year, Best contemporary Folk Album and Best Male Rock Vocal Performance for the track “Cold Irons Bound”), and released “The Bootleg Series”, “vol. 4: Bob Dylan LIVE 1966: The Royal Albert Hall” concert. His “Time Out of Mind” song “To Make You Feel My Love” turned into a #1 country smash by Garth Brooks
. In 2000 Dylan received the prestigious Polar Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Music. He also wrote and performed a new song, “Things Have Changed”, for the soundtrack of “Wonder Boys” (it was also included on “The Essential Bob Dylan” double-disc anthology later that year). The song went on to receive a Grammy Award and his first ever Oscar