Dylan, Bob (originally, Zimmerman, Robert)

views updated

Dylan, Bob (originally, Zimmerman, Robert)

Dylan, Bob (originally, Zimmerman, Robert), the single most important figure in contemporary music during the 1960s, comparable in impact to Elvis Presley in the 1950s. Bob Dylan was the first and most significant singer-songwriter to emerge from the folk music scene, inspiring a whole generation of folk (and later rock) artists to explore the vast potential of song-writing in matters socially conscious, personal, spiritual, philosophical and intellectual; b. Duluth, Minn., May 24, 1941.

Robert Zimmerman moved with his family to Hibbing, Minn., when he was six. Taking up guitar and harmonica at the age of 12, he later formed several rock bands, including The Golden Chords, while still in high school. After graduation, he attended the Univ. of Minn, for several months, dropping out to concentrate on his music. Adopting the name Bob Dylan, he traveled to N.Y. at the beginning of 1961 to visit his early idol Woody Guthrie, who was hospitalized with Huntington’s disease. Dylan debuted that April in the Greenwich Village folk club Gerde’s Folk City, where he first met Joan Baez, who would become one of the first artists to record his songs. Playing harmonica on recording sessions for Harry Belafonte and Carolyn Hester, Dylan received his first public recognition from N.Y. Times critic Robert Shelton that September. Signed to Columbia Records by John Hammond in October, Dylan’s first album featured traditional folk and blues songs such as “Man of Constant Sorrow” and “House of the Rising Sun,” as well as Eric Von Schmidt’s “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” and his own “Song to Woody.” His first single, the rock ’n’ roll-styled “Mixed Up Confusion,” backed with “Corrina, Corrina,” failed to sell.

Dylan’s second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, was dominated by his own material and effectively established him as a leader in the burgeoning folk singer-songwriter and youth protest movements. Displaying an astonishing range of material, the album included a number of potent protest songs such as “Masters of War,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” and “Blowin’ in the Wind,” as well as “Girl from the North Country” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” His triumphant appearance at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival with Joan Baez and the subsequent success of his “Blowin’ in the Wind” (a major British hit) and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” as performed by Peter, Paul and Mary, launched him into international prominence.

The Times They Are A-Changin featured the powerful protest songs “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” and “With God on Our Side,” and the anthemic title song, as well as the gentler “One Too Many Mornings” and “Boots of Spanish Leather.” The more personal Another Side of Bob Dylan, his last entirely acoustic album, included a number of songs later recorded by others in the folk-rock style: “It Ain’t Me Babe” (The Turtles), “All I Really Want to Do” (The Byrds and Cher), and “Chimes of Freedom” and “My Back Pages” (The Byrds).

Bob Dylan left the folk and protest movements behind with 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home album. Half acoustic and half electric, the album contained a number of songs written in a stream-of-consciousness style, pervaded with incisive, evocative, and surreal images, such as “Gates of Eden” and “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” his first, albeit moderate, American hit and a near-smash British hit. Other inclusions were the provocative “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” the caustic “Maggie’s Farm,” the underrated love songs “She Belongs to Me” and “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” The Byrds soon recorded “Mr. Tambourine Man,” a top American and British hit, as the first folk-rock song. Dylan’s brief May 1965 tour of Great Britain was documented by filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker and released as the film Don’t Look Back in May 1967. By now an international celebrity, Dylan was being hailed by critics as the spokesman of his disillusioned and alienated generation.

Already dismayed by the electric rock sound of “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” folk fans and critics were positively outraged by the Highway 61 Revisited album; “Like a Rolling Stone,” a smash American and British hit single; and Dylan’s performance at the New-port Folk Festival in June 1965 backed by keyboardist Al Kooper and members of the electrified Paul Butterfield Blues Band. The album, recorded with Kooper and electric guitarist Mike Bloomfield, showcased an unmistakable sound and featured some of Dylan’s most startling songwriting efforts. Filled with surreal images, stimulating existential observations, and evocative song-poetry, the album contained a number of classics of 1960s songwriting: “Ballad of a Thin Man,” “Queen Jane Approximately,” and the masterpiece “Desolation Row.” Indeed, the album was remarkably consistent in its high level of songwriting and performance, and effectively made the entire album the unit of Dylan’s expression. The quintessential “Like a Rolling Stone,” arguably his finest composition, became Dylan’s first smash American (as well as British) hit single and established his credibility with a new rock audience. “Positively 4th Street” soon became a smash American and British hit, followed by the minor hit “Please Crawl Out Your Window.”

During the summer of 1965, Bob Dylan contacted a Canadian group known as Levon and The Hawks, then touring the United States’ East Coast. Between the fall of 1965 and the summer of 1966, the group (Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and Levon Helm), later known simply as The Band, toured internationally with Dylan, although Helm left mid-tour. Dylan’s infamous “Royal Albert Hall” concert, actually recorded in Manchester, England, on May 17, 1966, became perhaps the most famous bootleg record of all time and was eventually released in its entirety by Columbia in 1998. In the summer of 1966, Columbia issued Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde as one of the first non-anthology double-record sets in rock history. Another masterpiece, the album was recorded with outstanding Nashville sessions musicians such as Wayne Moss, Charlie McCoy, Kenny Buttrey, and Hargus “Pig” Robbins, as well as Al Kooper and The Band’s Robbie Robertson. An immensely wide-ranging album in terms of the song-writing, Blonde on Blonde yielded four hits with “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” (a smash American and British hit), “I Want You,” “Just Like a Woman,” and “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.” Another strikingly consistent set in terms of musical performance and lyrical invention, the album included “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” the desolate “Visions of Joanna,” the vituperative “Most Likely You’ II Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine,” and the side-long “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” ostensibly composed in the studio as the musicians waited.

In late July 1966, Bob Dylan was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident. He subsequently retreated to recuperate amidst a variety of wild and irresponsible rumors. He summoned the members of The Band and rehearsed and recorded with them during his public absence. The recordings, made between June and September of 1967, were somehow pirated and released on so-called “bootleg” albums, most notably Great White Wonder, one of the first such records to sell in significant quantities. The material included a number of previously unrecorded Dylan songs such as “Million Dollar Bash,” “Lo and Behold!” and “Please, Mrs. Henry.” Several of the songs were later recorded by other groups: “Too Much of Nothing” by Peter, Paul and Mary; “The Mighty Quinn” by Manfred Mann; “Million Dollar Bash” by Fairport Convention; and “You Ain’t Coin’ Nowhere” and “Nothing Was Delivered” by The Byrds on their landmark Sweetheart of the Rodeo album. The Band’s debut album featured “Tears of Rage,” written with Richard Manuel, and “This Wheel’s on Fire,” written with Rick Danko. The recordings were eventually released in 1975 as The Basement Tapes.

Bob Dylan reemerged in January 1968 with an appearance at the Woody Guthrie memorial concert at Carnegie Hall and the release of John Wesley Harding, yet another album that befuddled many of his fans. The harsh strident voice was replaced by one that was mellow and pleasing, and the songs contained little of the vituperation and anger of his previous albums. Instead, the songs were concerned with resignation, regeneration, and resurrection, and an almost religious wariness. Moreover, the songs exhibited little of the rock ’n’ roll raunch evident earlier. Recorded with Charlie McCoy on bass, Kenny Buttrey on drums, and the assistance of steel guitarist Pete Drake, the album yielded no hit singles, yet featured a number of profoundly moving existential pieces, including “Dear Landlord,” “Drifter’s Escape,” “The Wicked Messenger,” and “All Along the Watchtower,” later recorded in its definitive version by Jimi Hendrix. The album’s final two songs, “Down Along the Cove” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” introduced another stylistic shift fully realized with 1969’s Nashville Skyline—a decisive move toward country music.

Recorded with the same basic personnel as used earlier (Buttrey, McCoy, and Drake as well as Charlie Daniels), Nashville Skyline once again turned critics and fans’ heads in confused dismay. Attacked as sentimental and simplistic, the album included a duet with Johnny Cash on “Girl from the North Country” and a number of songs written in a country-pop style. “Lay Lady Lay” became a near-smash American and British hit from the album, which also contained “”I Threw It All Away,” “To Be Alone with You,” and “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You.” In June, Dylan appeared in an ABC-TV special recorded at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville with Johnny Cash. Foregoing the Woodstock Festival, he and The Band headlined late August’s Isle of Wight Festival.

The disjointed Self Portrait contained a variety of different material, including live recordings from the Isle of Wight with The Band (“Like a Rolling Stone” and “The Mighty Quinn”) and cover versions of songs by Paul Simon and Gordon Lightfoot. Universally panned, the album was hastily followed by New Morning, which contained ditties such as “If Dogs Run Free,” “Time Passes Slowly” and “If Not for You.” For several years after New Morning, Dylan was largely out of the public eye. Macmillan published his novel Tarantula in late 1970, and he appeared at George Harrison’s August 1971 Concert for Bangladesh. His only recordings of the period were five songs for Greatest Hits, Vol. II and the singles “Watching the River Flow” and “George Jackson,” both moderate hits. In 1973, he appeared in a minor role in the Sam Peckinpah-directed film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, for which he wrote and performed the soundtrack music. The album yielded a major hit with the plaintive “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” but his next album, Dylan, consisted of outtakes from the Self Portrait sessions such as Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” and Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.”

After his Columbia contract expired in September 1973, Bob Dylan signed with Asylum Records in November. Bob Dylan was soon back, first with Planet Waves, recorded with The Band. Again, Dylan received a critical drubbing, although some of the songs, such as “Going, Going, Gone,” “Something There Is about You,” and “Forever Young,” were finely crafted. In January and February 1974, he toured for the first time in eight years, again with The Band. The tour was an instant sell-out and yielded the double-record set Before the Flood.

Resigning with Columbia in August 1974, Bob Dylan convincingly reestablished himself as a powerful song-writer with Blood on the Tracks. The album included diverse material, from the vituperative “Idiot Wind” to moving songs such as “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Simple Twist of Fate,” and “Shelter from the Storm,” as well as the epic Western tale “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.” In an effort to reestablish himself as a per-former, Dylan assembled the Rolling Thunder Revue for engagements in the Northeast in late 1975. Participants varied greatly, with appearances by Roger McGuinn, Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Ronnie Hawkins, Mick Ronson, and others. The tour culminated in the Dec. 8, 1975, benefit performance at Madison Square Garden for ex-boxer Rubin “Hurricane’’ Carter, who was alleged to have been unjustly convicted of three N.J. murders in 1974. The companion single, “Hurricane,” became a moderate hit, and the tour resumed in the spring of 1976, yielding Hard Rain.

Recorded with the assistance of harmony vocalist Emmylou Harris and violinist Scarlet Rivera, Bob Dylan’s next album, Desire, largely a collaborative effort with Jacques Levy, featured “Romance in Durango” and “Black Diamond Bay.” Dylan appeared at The Band’s “Last Waltz” at San Francisco’s Winter land in November 1976 and released the three-hour, 52-minute movie Renaldo and Clara, shot during the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, in early 1978. Written, produced, directed, and coedited by Dylan, the film assembled 56 songs from the tour within a series of confusing and widely careening parables revolving around Renaldo (Dylan), Clara (then-wife Sara), The Woman in White (Joan Baez) and Dylan (Ronnie Hawkins). Greeted by disparaging reviews, the film was later withdrawn for reediting.

Beginning in February 1978, Bob Dylan made his first appearances outside the U.S. in more than 11 years at concerts in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe. The tour produced Bob Dylan at Budokan, recorded in March. At mid-year, the erratic Street Legal, with “Changing of the Guard” and “Is Your Love in Vain,” was issued to mixed reviews and his subsequent three-month North American tour was the subject of negative criticism.

Bob Dylan next recorded three overtly religious albums that reflected his conversion to Christianity. The best-selling Slow Train Coming, recorded with Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler, yielded a major hit with “Gotta Serve Somebody” while containing “When You Gonna Wake Up,” “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” and “When He Returns.” Saved sold less well, but included two intriguing secular songs, “What Can I Do for You” and “Solid Rock.” Shot of Love featured “Every Grain of Sand.”

Bob Dylan did not record for two years. Infidels, released in 1983, was greeted by mixed reviews, hailed by some as a powerful comeback and his best album since Blood on the Tracks. Coproduced by Dylan and Mark Knopfler, the album included pointed songs such as “Man of Peace” and “Neighborhood Bully,” as well as the gentle “Don’t Fall Apart on Me” and the rousing “Sweetheart Like You,” his last, albeit minor, hit. His 1984 European tour with Santana yielded Real Live. During 1985, he appeared at the Live Aid and inaugural Farm Aid benefits and joined in the recording of the benefit singles “We Are the World” and “Sun City.” Empire Burlesque, recorded with members of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, was received equivocally, again acclaimed by some as his strongest album since Blood on the Tracks. The album included the ballad “Dark Eyes” and “Emotionally Yours,” covered by The O’Jays in 1991. The retrospective boxed-set Biograph was greeted enthusiastically, especially by Dylan collectors. The album contained 53 songs recorded between 1962 and 1981, including 18 previously unreleased tracks and three hard-to-find singles, plus a fascinating 36-page booklet written by Cameron Crowe.

In 1986, Dylan conducted his first major American tour in seven years, backed by Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, the most skilled band he had played with since The Band. Petty and The Heartbreakers also helped record his Knocked Out Loaded album, which contained a number of collaborative efforts, including “Got My Mind Made Up” (with Petty), “Under Your Spell” (with Carole Bayer Sager), and “Brownsville Girl” (with playwright Sam Shepard). In the later part of the year, Dylan acted in the movie Hearts of Fire, but the film was released in Europe only in 1987 and panned upon U.S. release in 1990. During June 1987, he played six stadium shows with The Grateful Dead that yielded Dylan and The Dead in 1989. His 1988 tour was neither well attended nor well received, and Down in the Groove failed to sell, despite the assistance of Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, and Jerry Garcia and the inclusion of two songs cowritten by Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter.

Bob Dylan contributed to Folkways: A Vision SharedA Tribute to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. He also recorded with George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, and Roy Orbison as The Traveling Wilburys, contributing “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” and “Congratulations.” A second Traveling Wilburys set, without Orbison, was released in 1990. His well-received Oh Mercy album, produced by Daniel Lanois and recorded in New Orleans with backing by the Neville Brothers, included “Shooting Star” and “Most of the Time.” Lanois also produced 1990’s disappointing Under the Red Sky, recorded with David Crosby, George Harrison, Al Kooper, and the Vaughan Brothers.

In an effort to thwart long-active bootleggers, Columbia issued The Bootleg SeriesVols. 1–3 in 1991. The three-CD set contained 58 songs never before officially released, including “Quit Your Lowdown Ways,” “She’s Your Lover Now,” and “Seven Days.” Later in the year, Rhino released I Shall Be Unreleased: The Songs of Bob Dylan, with selections by Rod Stewart, Joan Baez, Rick Nelson, and Roger McGuinn, among others. In October 1992, “Columbia Records Celebrates the Music of Bob Dylan” was staged at N.Y.’s Madison Square Garden. Musicians who played one or more Dylan songs included Neil Young, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Tom Petty, Willie Nelson, and Tracy Chapman.

Bob Dylan next recorded two albums of folk and blues material performed solo and acoustically, Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong. He appeared at the Woodstock II concert-festival in Saugerties, N.Y., in August 1994, and recorded a performance with his current band—guitarist John Jackson, multi-instrumentalist Bucky Baxter, bassist Tony Gamier, and drummer Winston Watson—for the MTV cable network series Unplugged aired in December. Recordings from the show were released as an album in 1995. In February 1995, Bob Dylan was the subject of the CD-ROM Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Interactive, which included several rare early recordings and a brief clip from his 1965 Newport Folk Festival performance.

By late 1995, Bob Dylan was enjoying an amazing revitilization of his career owing, in part, to performing more than 100 engagements a year with his exceptional band. He formed his own record label, Egyptian Records, in 1996 and played before 200,000 fans and Pope John Paul II in Bologna, Italy, in September 1997. That same month, Columbia issued Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, recorded with Baxter, Gamier, Winston, organist Augie Meyer, blues guitarist Duke Robillard, and guitarist-producer Daniel Lanois. Unequivocally his most engaging work since Blood on the Tracks, the album featured a number of incisive, intense, and demanding reflections on the limits of faith, love, and patience in face of life’s inevitable failures and disappointments. Outstanding songs included “Standing in the Doorway/’ “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven/7 “Til I Fell in Love with You/’ and “Not Dark Yet.” After more than 35 years of recording, including at least four classic albums, Dylan finally won his first Grammy Award for the album. Winner of awards and honors too numerous to list, Dylan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995 and was a Kennedy Center Honoree in December 1997.


Tarantula (1971); Writings and Drawings (1973); Lyrics, 1962–1985 (1985).


BOB DYLAN: B. D. (1962); The Freewheelin’ B. D. (1963); The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964); Another Side of B.D. (1964); Bringing It All Back Home (1965); Highway 61 Revisited (1965); Blonde on Blonde (1966); Greatest Hits (1967); John Wesley Harding (1968); Nashville Skyline (1969); Self Portrait (1970); New Morning (1970); Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 (1971); Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (soundtrack; 1973); Dylan (1973); Blood on the Tracks (1975) Desire (1976); Hard Rain (1976); Street Legal (1978); B. D. at Budokan (1979); Slow Train Coming (1979); Saved (1980); Shot of Love (1981); Infidels (1983); Real Live (1984) Empire Burlesque (1985); Biograph (1961–1981) (1985); B. D./The Times They Are a Changin’ (1986); Knocked Out Loaded (1986); Hearts of Fire (soundtrack; 1987); Down in the Groove (1988); Oh, Mercy! (1989); Under the Red Sky (1990); The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1–3 (Rare and Unreleased) 1961–1991 (1991); Good as I Been to You (1992); World Gone Wrong (1993); Greatest Hits, Vol. 3 (1994); MTV Unplugged (1995); Highway 61 Interactive (1995); Time Out of Mind (1997); The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4: Live 1966 The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert (1998). BOB DYLAN AND THE BAND: The Basement Tapes (recorded 1967; 1975); Planet Waves (1974); Before the Flood (1974). BOB DYLAN AND THE GRATEFUL DEAD: Dylan and The Dead (recorded 1987; 1989). THE TRAVELIN G WILBURYS : Volume One (1988); Volume Three (1990).


D. Kramer, B. D. (1967); D. A. Pennebaker, B. D.: Don’t Look Back (1968); S. Pickering (ed.), Dylan: A Commemoration (1971); A. Scaduto, B. D.: An Intimate Biography (1971); T. Thompson, Positively Main Street: An Unorthodox View of B. D. (1971); M. Gray, Song and Dance Man: The Art of Bob Dylan (1972); C. McGregor, B. D.: A Retrospective (1972); Rolling Stone, Knockin’ on Dylan’s Door: On the Road in 1974 (1974); S. Pickering, B. D. Approximately (1975); S. Shepard, Rolling Thunder Logbook (1977); P. Cable, B. D.: His Unreleased Works (1978); P. Marchbank (ed.), B. D. in His Own Words (1978); A. Rinzler, B.D.: An Illustrated Record (1978); L. Sloman, On the Road with B. D. (1978); B. Bowden, Performed Literature: Words and Music by B. D. (1982); T. Dowley and B. Dunnage, B. D.: From a Hard Rain to a Slow Train (1982); J. Herdman, Voice without Restraint: A Study of B. D/s Lyrics and Their Background (1982); J. Cott, Dylan (1984);W. Mellers, A Darker Shade of Pale: A Backdrop to B. D. (1984); D.

Williams, B. D.: The Man, the Music, the Message (1985); W. Hampton, Guerilla Minstrels: John Lennon, Joe Hill, Woody Guthrie, and B. D. (1986); R. Shelton No Direction Home: The Life and Music of B. D. (1986); B. Spitz, Dylan: A Biography (1989); E. M. Thompson and D. Gurman, The Dylan Companion (1990); J. Bauldie (ed.), Wanted Man: In Search of B. D. (1991); C. Heylin, Dylan—Behind the Shades: A Biography (1991); P. Humphries, Oh No! Not Another Dylan Book (1991); T. Riley, Hard Rain: A Dylan Commentary (1992); P. Williams, B. D.: Performing Artist: The Middle Years, 1974–1986 (1992); W McKeen, B. D.: A Bio-Bibliography (1993); C. Heylin, B. D.: The Recording Sessions (1960–1994) (1996); C. Heylin, B. D.: A Life in Stolen Moments: Day by Day 1941–1995 (1996); G. Marcus, Invisible Republic: B. D/s Basement Tapes (1997); C. Benson (ed.), The B. D. Companion (1998).

—Brock Helander