Happy Birthday to the Ever A-Changin' Bob Dylan!
Throughout his constantly veering trajectory, Bob Dylan often catches followers by surprise, testing the limits of their preconceptions and then shattering them entirely. And because there are so many sides to the former Robert Zimmerman (born May 24, 1941), New Times is pleased to provide a handy primer to help guide you through Bob's various phases and stages.
The early rock 'n' roller
While most of the world caught its first glimpse of Dylan as a shaggy-haired traditional troubadour on the streets of Greenwich Village, Dylan's first tentative steps toward finding his musical muse occurred before he left his hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota. His initial attempts at making songs were expressed with various local bands while he was still in high school -- among them the Shadow Blasters and the Golden Chords, both cover bands. In one of their first public performances at a high school talent show, the Golden Chords' rendition of "Rock 'n' Roll Is Here to Stay" was so loud, the school principal turned off their microphones. It wouldn't be the last time that a Dylan performance would stir his audience's umbrage.
The nascent folkie
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Taking the name Bob Dylan for the first time -- appropriating the name of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, whose poetry he admired -- he found himself drawn to the nascent folk scene of the late '50s and early '60s. He soon began performing at local coffeehouses with a repertoire of traditional tunes. However, his college career came to an abrupt halt at the end of his freshman year, when he decided to make the move to New York City. In October 1961, John Hammond signed him to Columbia Records after discovering him playing harmonica on a Carolyn Hester album that Hammond had produced. Consisting mainly of cover songs, his eponymous debut sold a meager 5,000 copies.
When Dylan's sophomore album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, was released in May 1963, Dylan's skills and reputation had advanced by leaps and bounds. He was immediately tagged as a protest singer, a title he would soon come to disdain. Many of the songs were original compositions inspired by the cataclysmic events that were summoned through the 1960s, sealing Dylan's reputation as an important emerging songwriter. The tracks included "Blowin' in the Wind," a song that would become his initial introduction to a wider audience via a recording by Peter, Paul, and Mary. It was readily adapted as the theme song for an emerging student movement that would soon form the vanguard of the new youth culture as the decade wore on.
Meanwhile, Dylan's activism was also increasing. He and Joan Baez became folk's first couple, and their commitment to the civil rights movement and allegiance to the growing antiwar protests were clearly established.
A new rock 'n' roll icon
By the time 1963 drew to a close, Dylan was beginning to feel constrained by the responsibilities heaped upon him by those who imagined him as some sort of musical messiah. He began traveling in pop circles. Now, embraced by the Beatles and other members of the British rock elite, he began adopting a hipper guise, one that gave full vent to a wild tangle of hair, shades, Beatle boots, and polka-dotted shirts. Asked how he would describe himself, he famously replied, "A song and dance man."
While that was an obvious exaggeration meant to deflate the cult of personality that had sprung up around him, it was also obvious that Dylan was ready to go more mainstream. Songs like "Positively 4th Street," "Just Like a Woman," "I Want You," and "Like a Rolling Stone" attracted increasing interest from the rock community and, with it, ample airplay. He was attracting notice from the cooler artists of the day, like the Byrds, Manfred Mann, the Turtles, Sonny and Cher, and the Association, all of whom helped make his songs more palatable to the masses. Their cover versions helped cement Dylan's reputation as a songwriter and a fertile source of material, a distinction he's held for his entire career.
In 1965, at the Newport Folk Festival, Dylan made his new intentions known and broke his ties with the folk purists once and for all. After performing his acoustic set, he then returned with an electric band in tow. The reaction was instantaneous. Facing a mixture of cheers and jeers, he abandoned the stage after only three songs. The scene was repeated on August 28, when he was heckled at a Forest Hills concert. However, the most stunning turn of events occurred during a subsequent U.K. tour the following May, when, toward the end of his performance at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, a disgruntled member of the audience shouted: "Judas!" That prompted Dylan to respond, "I don't believe you... You're a liar!" He then reportedly turned to his band and instructed, "Play it fucking loud!"
Just as Dylan's criticism from the folk community continued unabated, the critical kudos accorded his new electric recordings, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, were establishing him as one of the new kingpins in rock's higher order.
The future of rock 'n' roll had arrived. However, no sooner than he had reestablished his harder rock credentials than fate conspired to intercede. On July 29, 1966, Dylan crashed his 500cc Triumph Tiger 100 motorcycle on a road near his home in Woodstock, New York. Initial reports had him near death, saying he had broken several vertebrae. "I had been in a motorcycle accident, and I'd been hurt, but I recovered," he later recalled. "Truth was that I wanted to get out of the rat race."
The country gentleman
The break from his nonstop tour schedule allowed him to indulge in projects he had postponed, including a reunion with his former touring outfit, the Hawks -- now renamed the Band -- for their informal sessions nearby at Big Pink. More than 100 songs were recorded in the Band's basement, many of which were used as demos and distributed to other artists as cover prospects. The informal setting and the Band's penchant for Americana clearly weren't lost on Dylan. In October 1967, he returned to Nashville, site of the recording of Blonde on Blonde, to record one of the most obtuse albums of his career, John Wesley Harding. However, his next album surprised even those who had come to appreciate the bard's unexpected twists and turns. Nashville Skyline found him venturing unabashedly into the mainstream of country music, with a husky croon and backing by Nashville's prime crop of session men.
The comeback kid, part one
Over the next couple of years, Dylan would continue to confound his fans. He turned down an invitation to play Woodstock, an event that would have emphatically signaled his return. However, he made an appearance at Britain's Isle of Wight Festival, playing for an audience that included all four Beatles. He subsequently made an unexpected appearance at George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh, upstaging even his host.
With the dawn of the '70s, there was no doubt Dylan was back. Aside from a widely derided covers album, the unfortunate Self Portrait, and a hastily cobbled-together collection of outtakes, simply titled Dylan, he burst forth with a string of albums that combined elements of the various personae he had nurtured early on. The songs "Watching the River Flow" and "When I Paint My Masterpiece," added to his Greatest Hits Volume Two, demonstrated that his ability to craft engaging narratives remained intact. "George Jackson" -- written to mourn the killing of a member of the Black Panthers -- and the later "Hurricane" -- written in support of imprisoned boxing champion Ruben "Hurricane" Carter -- returned him to the realms of protest. His song "Forever Young," included in two versions on the album Planet Waves, demonstrated that he could still offer reassurance and consolation to his aging legions, which once looked to him for answers and advice.
A middle-aged man
The new realities of middle age had a marked effect on Dylan. His 1975 masterpiece, Blood on the Tracks, detailed the crumbling of his marriage to his wife, Sara, in stunningly bitter detail, while its studio follow-up, Street Legal, was both unassuming and oblique at the same time. He also reconvened the Band for the Planet Waves sessions, a tour, and a subsequent live album titled Before the Flood. His 1975 tour under the aegis of the Rolling Thunder Revue found him recruiting colleagues from his early days, among them Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Roger McGuinn, Allen Ginsburg, and his one-time paramour, Joan Baez.
Reborn and religious
Perhaps the most surprising shift of all came in the late '70s, when Dylan suddenly found religion. He even went so far as to attend Bible study, a rare commitment from a man who had always followed his own whims. Though born into a Jewish family, Dylan embraced Christianity so wholeheartedly that he released two gospel albums -- Slow Train Coming and Saved -- both of which were received with decidedly mixed reviews. Still, the album garnered Dylan a Grammy Award as Best Male Vocalist for the song "Gotta Serve Somebody." Eventually, Dylan would opt to return to his Jewish roots, even performing "Hava Nagila" on a Chabad television fundraiser wearing a yarmulke and playing harmonica.
A wandering Wilbury
By and large, the '80s showed little change in Dylan's trajectory, marked mainly by uneven albums with only an occasional song that showed off his brilliance. His two efforts with ad hoc supergroup the Traveling Wilburys (featuring Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne) showed promise, but it proved only a momentary detour and not an actual new direction. Likewise, his tours with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and the Grateful Dead were intriguing but hardly revelatory. Fortunately, that excursion didn't last long either. He managed to finish the decade on a high note with the Daniel Lanois-produced Oh Mercy. The album was heralded as his best work of the '80s, a fine compliment but one that seemed somewhat moot in light of the mostly lackluster efforts that came before.
A return to his roots
Oddly, then, and despite the many twists and turns in his trajectory, Dylan's wanderlust brought it all back home at the dawn of the '90s. Following up his superstar-laden but ultimately disappointing Under the Red Sky in 1990, Good As I Been to You (1992) and World Gone Wrong (1993) seemed unassuming by comparison. Dylan had returned to covering old folk and blues standards in much the same way as he had done 30 years before. In September 1997, Dylan released Time Out of Mind, his first collection of original material in seven years. Once again produced by Lanois, it recalled Blood on the Tracks in its bitter recriminations about betrayal and besotted love. Still, the album was widely hailed by critics, and it subsequently garnered him the first solo Album of the Year Grammy Award of his career, followed by his selection by President Bill Clinton for the Kennedy Center Honors.
The comeback kid, part two
Love and Theft, released in 2001, was hailed as another superb comeback. The album, which he self-produced under the pseudonym Jack Frost, showed him broadening his musical palette to include rockabilly, Western swing, jazz, and even lounge ballads.
The renewed critical kudos coincided with other reminders of Dylan's legacy: a three-disc anthology, simply titled Dylan, and further installments of his Bootleg series; the first installment of his sometimes-confounding autobiography, Chronicles Volume One (the number-two book on the New York Times' Non-Fiction Best Seller list and a nominee for a National Book Award), the Martin Scorsese documentary and soundtrack No Direction Home, and the fictional film biography and accompanying album I'm Not There. Taken in tandem, they offered the most complete summation of Dylan's life and career to date.
Two other albums would follow soon after, Modern Times in 2006 and Together Through Life in 2009, making this one of the most artistically satisfying decades for Dylan in quite some time. Both albums continued the momentum begun with Time Out of Mind, but Dylan's unfettered desire to cherry-pick traditional melodies seemed to indicate his composing prowess was no longer as incisive as it once was. Just when he seemed to be on a roll, he inexplicably reversed himself and released a Christmas album in October 2009, Christmas in the Heart, composed of such Christmas standards as "Little Drummer Boy," "Winter Wonderland," and "Here Comes Santa Claus." While the proceeds went to charity, it demonstrated that Dylan wasn't above befuddling his audiences yet again.
Mister DJ and unlikely endorser
Still, the strangest twists were yet to come. By the middle of the first decade of the new millennium, Dylan was venturing out in yet another unexpected direction, this time as host of his own radio show, Theme Time Radio Hour, for Sirius XM satellite radio. However, his strangest move came soon after when, in 2004, Dylan appeared in a TV advertisement for Victoria's Secret lingerie. Three years later, he took part in a multimedia campaign for the 2008 Cadillac Escalade. Then, in 2009, he gave the highest-profile endorsement of his career, appearing with rapper Will.i.am in a Pepsi ad that aired during Super Bowl XLIII. The commercial, broadcast to a record audience of 98 million viewers, opened with Dylan singing the first verse of "Forever Young" followed by Will.i.am chiming in with a hip-hop version of the song's final verse.
The times are indeed a-changin'!
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