Bob Dylan

 Bob Dylan

 Bob Dylan – circa 1962

“How much do I know to speak out of turn? / You might say that I’m young / You might say I’m unlearned / But there’s one thing I know / Though I’m younger than you / That even Jesus would never forgive what you do” – ‘Masters Of War’ (Bob Dylan)

Famous singer dies in road mishap!  No, wait…Folk music legend breaks his neck in motorcycle crash!  Or maybe…Rock star in traffic accident!  As with many aspects of enigmatic American singer and songwriter Bob Dylan the truth is hard to know.  The most likely version is that, on 29 July 1966, Bob Dylan crashes his Triumph 55 motorcycle on a road near Woodstock, New York.  He is admitted to Middletown Hospital with several broken vertebrae in his neck, a concussion and lacerations of the face and scalp.  He remains in a serious condition for a week, confined to bed, suffering mild amnesia, minor paralysis and internal injuries.  Dylan’s hospital stay lasts a month.  Colourful rumours circulate in the meantime that he is (a) dead; (b) a vegetable; (c) in a coma; (d) will never perform again; (e) has lost his mind due to drug use; or (f) is dodging the military draft for the Vietnam war.  Due to the desultory way information leaks out, there are those who believe the whole thing is a fabrication.  Perhaps the most accurate observation is ‘that if Dylan has not had a motorcycle accident it would have been necessary to invent one’ because ‘the pace at which he is living’ requires him to take some time out.

Robert Allan Zimmerman is born on 24 May 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota, U.S.A.  The family moves to Hibbing, Minnesota, when he is 6.  This is ‘a dying town’ on the Midwestern iron range.  His father is a hardware store owner and theirs is one of the few Jewish families in the community.  Between the ages of 10 and 18, young Bobby Zimmerman runs away from home over seven times due to his ‘restless spirit’.  He grows up listening to country music on late night radio.  At the age of 12, the youngster learns to play guitar.  Taking up harmonica as well, he forms a group called The Golden Chords while at high school.  This schoolboy outfit emulates raucous rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Little Richard.  During one of his unauthorised departures from home, Bobby Zimmerman shows up backstage at a concert by pop singer Bobby Vee.  The teenage runaway claims his name is Elston Gunn and, telling a tall tale about having recently completed a stint with country music star Conway Twitty, he talks his way into a spot in Bobby Vee’s backing group.  He only holds the job for a few nights.

On 5 June 1959 Bob Zimmerman graduates from Hibbing High School.  His classmates characterise him as a ‘greaser’ because of his long hair, sideburns, leather jacket and motorcycle.  He leaves all this behind to become ‘a serious student’ at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.  Over the next six months, he begins performing alone with an acoustic guitar at coffee houses, using the stage name Bob Dillan, after Sheriff Matt Dillon of the television western, ‘Gunsmoke’.  The music Bob Dillan plays is a mixture of the styles of country star Hank Williams and folk music hero Woody Guthrie.

At this point, it is necessary to digress for a while to explain about folk music.  In the United Kingdom, folk music is, largely, traditional melodies passed down from the Middle Ages.  It encompasses airs from the Welsh, Irish and Scots peoples.  All these strains are also present in the U.S. version of folk music.  However, America is a younger country, without hundreds of years of its own history to draw upon.  In the U.S., folk music also borrows from the work songs and spirituals of slave labourers brought from Africa.  More commonly, these varieties crystallise as, respectively, gospel and blues, but traces of them are also present in folk.  At this time in music history, the first wave of rock stars (Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, etc.) are beginning to decline and the second wave (The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, etc.) are yet to arrive.  Folk music partially fills the vacuum.  The bearded, grubby beatniks are folk music fans, but their loyalty to jazz music is just as strong.  Clean-cut, serious-minded college students are the main audience for folk music.  The Kingston Trio’s biggest hit, ‘Tom Dooley’ (US no. 1), sells to these kids in 1958.  Television programs like ‘Hootenanny’ cater to folk music devotees.  To the avid ‘folkies’, perhaps the most important artist is the dustbowl balladeer, Woody Guthrie.  In the 1930s and 1940s, Guthrie championed the common man and the dispossessed.  Folk music always has a distinctly left-wing political agenda, particularly in the U.S. where it is the domain of liberal attitudes beloved by the better educated college students.  This is the milieu in which Bob Dillan finds himself and in which he rises to public notice.

In summer 1960 Bob Dillan goes to Denver, Colorado.  There, he meets blues singer Jesse Fuller.  Copying his new acquaintance, the younger musician begins wearing a harmonica rack around his neck on stage so he can simultaneously play his acoustic guitar with his hands while also blowing on the harmonica for accompaniment.  When he returns to Minneapolis in the fall, Bob Dillan is determined to become a professional musician.  In September, he reads ‘Bound For Glory’ (1943), Woody Guthrie’s autobiographical novel.  Playing the coffee houses in nearby Dinkytown, Dillan invents a past for himself as a ‘runaway with Okie [Oklahoma] roots’.

Yet it is with the ‘blessing – and fare’ from his parents, that the aspiring musician relocates to New York City in December 1960.  In January 1961 he gets the opportunity to play at the Café Wha? in New York’s Greenwich Village.  The next month, he journeys to Woody Guthrie’s New York home.  Suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, the singer is in hospital.  While a baffled babysitter seeks instructions, the visitor teaches Woody’s son, 13 year old Arlo (a future folk rock star himself), a new way to play harmonica.  A few days later, Guthrie Senior is allowed home for a weekend and that kid from Minnesota is one of the visitors who pays his respects to the ill man.  On the way back to his New York abode, the disciple composes ‘Song To Woody’.

Continuing to play in Greenwich Village, Bob Dillan adjusts his name to Bob Dylan, after the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas.  He plays at Gerde’s Folk City club on 11 April 1961.  Dylan makes his recording debut on 24 April 1961 playing harmonica on the title track of Harry Belafonte’s album, ‘Midnight Special’ (1961).  Dylan is supposed to play on sessions for the whole album, but quits prematurely after appearing on just one song.  Dylan is paid the princely sum of fifty dollars.  A review written by Robert Sheldon of Bob Dylan’s shows at Gerde’s appears in The New York Times.  This article draws the attention of Columbia Records talent scout and record producer John Hammond, who signs Dylan to a recording contract in October 1961.  At this juncture, Albert Grossman begins acting as the young singer’s manager.

The debut album, ‘Bob Dylan’ (1961), is recorded in one day, 21 October 1961, with John Hammond acting as producer.  The disc costs four hundred dollars to make and features Dylan accompanied only by his own acoustic guitar and harmonica.  The liner notes for the album point out that Dylan’s guitar is fretted with the lipstick holder of his girlfriend, Suze Rotolo.  Most of the album consists of folk and blues standards.  Among them are ‘The House Of The Rising Sun’ and ‘Baby Let Me Follow You Down’.  There are only two original compositions, one of which is ‘Song To Woody’.  The 20 year old author sings, “Hey, hey, Woody Guthrie / I wrote you a song / ‘Bout a funny old world that’s a-comin’ along / Seems it’s sick and it’s hungry, it’s tired and it’s torn / It looks la-ahk [like] / It’s a-dyin’ / And it’s hardly bin [been] born,” before acknowledging, “Hey, hey, Woody Guthrie / But I know that you know / All that I’m sayin’ and many times more.”

Bob Dylan’s voice is highly distinctive.  It is a flat, nasal drawl that sounds permanently stuck in a sneer.  Dylan draws on incomprehensibly vast reservoirs of anger in many of his songs.  In these early albums, he uses many of the styles and idioms of folk music for his own purposes.  Dylan’s lyrics take on additional dimensions in the way he sings them.  Things that on paper may provoke head-scratching seem to make sense through the authority and belief of Dylan’s vocal delivery.  His guitar playing is serviceable and competent rather than impressive.  With only his wheezing mouth-organ for contrast, any listener who searches for instrumental colour on Dylan’s early albums will be disappointed.  They are works of stark black and white.

Albert Grossman is ‘not overly impressed’ with John Hammond’s production job on Dylan’s debut album.  He hires Tom Wilson, a young, black, record producer, to replace him for the next four Bob Dylan albums.

On 4 November 1961 Bob Dylan makes his concert hall debut at the Carnegie Chapter Hall in New York City.  Fifty people, most of them friends of Dylan, pay two dollars each to attend.  After expenses, Dylan takes home twenty dollars for the night.  Columbia Records tapes Dylan’s show at New York’s Town Hall on 12 April 1962, eventually releasing ‘Tomorrow Is A Long Tme’ from the evening.

On 27 May, ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’ (1962) (US no. 22), is released.  The cover shows Suze Rotolo clinging to Dylan’s arm as the couple trudge through the cold and slush on 4th Street in Greenwich Village.  In contrast to the debut album, this effort consists entirely of Bob Dylan originals.  Chief amongst them, and still standing as Dylan’s greatest song, is ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’.  It is astonishing to hear a 21 year old (as Dylan is at the time) deliver such sagacious lines as these: “How many roads must a man walk down / Before you call him a man? / How many seas must a white dove sail / Before she sleeps in the sand? / Yes and how many times must the cannonballs fly / Before they are forever banned? / The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind”.  In short, there are no simple solutions to such philosophical quandaries.  “I wrote that in ten minutes,” claims Dylan.  Peter, Paul And Mary, another folk music act managed by Albert Grossman, record a sweeter, slicker version of ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ and score a top ten hit.  ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ deploys a folk-style framing device, asking, “Oh where have you been my blue-eyed son / And where have you been my darling young one?”  With each subsequent verse, the question alters, changing from “What did you see?” to “What did you hear?”, “Who did you meet?” and “What will you do now?”  Playing both the questioner and the respondent, Dylan’s replies are filled with vibrant images.   For instance, he sees “a black branch with blood that kept dripping”, hears “the song of a poet who died in the gutter”, meets “a young woman whose body was burning” and will now “Know my song well before I start singing.”  At the end of each verse, he prophesies a biblical torrent – “A hard rain” – that will wash it all away.  ‘Masters Of War’ is a scathing attack on munitions manufacturers and war profiteers.  It ends with perhaps Dylan’s most vitriolic attack:  “And I hope that you die / And your death it comes soon / I’ll follow your casket / On a pale afternoon / And I’ll watch as you’re lowered / Down to your deathbed / And I’ll stand at your graveside / ‘Till I’m sure that you’re dead”.  Scarcely more generous is ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’, which targets an ex-lover: “I ain’t sayin’ you treated me unkind / You coulda done better / But I don’t mind / You just kinda wasted my precious time / But don’t think twice, it’s all right.”  This last song is also conveyed to a wider audience through a cover version by Peter, Paul And Mary.  It may be Suze Rotolo on the cover of the album, but Dylan celebrates the release in the arms of his new lover, Hispanic folk singer Joan Baez.

In August 1962, Robert Zimmerman legally changes his name to Bob Dylan.

At the end of 1962, a single, ‘Mixed Up Confusion’ backed with ‘Corrina Corrina’, is released that is of interest mainly because it features Dylan with a rock band, albeit a rather rough and ragged combo.  The single is ‘withdrawn almost immediately at Albert Grossman’s insistence because he wants to present Dylan purely as an acoustic folkie’.

On 29 July 1963 Bob Dylan appears for the first time at the prestigious Newport Folk Festival at Newport, Rhode Island.  As well as Joan Baez and Peter, Paul And Mary, other acts on the bill include Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.  Although folk music fans may be conscious of the enormity of Dylan’s talent, it is important to remember that he is largely unknown to the general public.  Other recording artists may be having hits with his songs, but Dylan’s own record sales are comparatively modest.

In early 1964 Bob Dylan releases his third album, ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’ (1964) (US no. 20).  The articulate title track becomes a counter culture anthem: “Come gather ‘round people, wherever you roam / And admit that the waters around you have grown / And accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone / If your time to you is worth saving / Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone / For the times they are a-changin’.”  Thematically, the album functions almost like a newspaper, with accounts of murder on an impoverished farm (‘Ballad Of Hollis Brown’), the racist slaying of a black woman (‘The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll’) and a tale of a destitute mining town (‘North Country Blues’).  It also finds space for wry observations on the manipulation of the masses by those in power (‘With God On Our Side’ and ‘Only A Pawn In Their Game’).  This is Bob Dylan at the height of his finger-pointin’ period.

In July 1964, British group The Animals has a hit with an electric version of ‘The House Of The Rising Sun’, the traditional number they first heard on the ‘Bob Dylan’ album.  For good measure, they also rework another tune from that album, ‘Baby Let Me Follow You Down’ as ‘Baby Let Me Take You Home’.  Hearing these electric rock versions is food for thought for the acoustic folk minstrel Bob Dylan.

On 28 August 1964 Dylan meets British rock sensations The Beatles during their U.S. tour.  He introduces the quartet to marijuana.

‘Another Side Of Bob Dylan’ (1964) (US no. 43) emphasises personal politics rather than social issues.  The lyrics of songs like ‘All I Really Want To Do’ and ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’ are ‘self-pitying and cruel, but vividly powerful’.  Recorded in one twelve-hour session, this album also includes ‘Spanish Harlem Incident’, ‘Chimes of Freedom’ and ‘My Back Pages’.  The change in focus results in the set being ‘greeted by the American left-wing folk movement with disapproval’.

If ‘Another Side Of Bob Dylan’ troubles some fans, ‘Bringing It All Back Home’ (1965) (US no. 6), released in March, is even more revolutionary.  On one side of the disc, Dylan performs alone with his acoustic guitar, but, on the other, he is backed by an electric rock band.  In a typical show of perversity, the conciliatory acoustic half is side two, after purists have already been shocked.  “It’s very complicated to play with electricity,” muses Dylan.  “You’re dealing with other people…Most people who don’t like rock ‘n’ roll can’t relate to other people.”  ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ (US no. 39) finds Dylan almost word-drunk, warning “Look out, kid / It’s somethin’ you did / God knows when / But you’re doin’ it again.”  He proceeds to babble on, spilling out such utterances as “Must bust in early May / Orders from the D.A. [District Attorney],” and “Don’t follow leaders / Watch the parking meters,” before concluding “Don’t wear sandals / Can’t afford the scandals / The pump don’t work / ‘Cos the vandals took the handle.”  One couplet from this song has a darker legacy.  “You don’t need a weatherman / To know which way the wind blows,” provides the name for The Weathermen, a domestic terrorist group of radicals active in the late 1960s – early 1970s.  ‘Maggie’s Farm’ is ‘caustic and funny as hell’, while ‘Love Minus Zero – No Limit’ is surprisingly warm-hearted.  On the acoustic side is ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, a song Dylan earlier gave to folk rock band The Byrds.  Their electric reworking of that song is part of the author’s own motivation for going electric.  The lyrics weave a hypnotic portrait: “Hey Mr Tambourine Man / Play a song for me / I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to / Hey Mr Tambourine Man / Play a song for me / In the jingle jangle morning, I’ll come followin’ you.”  The album closes with ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ which is ‘arguably his finest, most affectionate song of dismissal’.

When Bob Dylan begins performing with an electric group, the sound is typified by a fondly ramshackle quality.  It sounds very loose, almost haphazard.  There is little room for any shows of instrumental prowess in this wayward carnival.  Dylan’s lyrics are also changing.  The folk idioms are largely phased out, as is semi-journalistic reportage.  In their place are hallucinatory incantations whose poetry can be admired, but their actual meanings are often as subjective as the ink blot interpretations offered up to psychiatrists.  Of course, these changes in style alienate some of Bob Dylan’s followers, but those who remain tend to attribute him with almost messianic powers as the spokesman of his generation.

On 30 April 1965, Bob Dylan begins a tour of Britain, where he is ‘received more as a pop star – a teen idol – than as a writer and singer of protest songs’.  His backing group on stage is a Canadian outfit known as The Hawks, but later rechristened, simply, The Band.  Their sole American member, drummer Levon Helm, sits out the tour with Mickey Jones taking his place.  The Band are probably the musicians most associated with Bob Dylan.  Their line-up is: Levon Helm (vocals, drums, mandolin), Robbie Robertson (guitar), Richard Manuel (vocals, piano), Rick Danko (vocals, bass) and Garth Hudson (organ).  Dylan describes Robbie Robertson as “the only mathematical guitar genius I’ve ever run into who does not offend my intestinal nervousness with his rear-guard sound”.

The British tour is not all smooth-sailing.  Don Pennebaker’s film crew is following Dylan to make a documentary.  Bob Dylan’s love affair with Joan Baez ends.  The cameras are present when ‘she walks out on him in a scene recorded’ for the film.

On 15 June 1965, at Columbia Studio A in New York City, Bob Dylan records ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ (US no. 2, UK no. 4).  The piece starts out as a ten page poem that Dylan has no intention of recording, but it winds up as a six minute song.  Although others have had hits with Dylan compositions, ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ is the first time the artist himself has a significant commercial success on the singles chart.  “Once upon a time / You dressed so fine / Threw the bums a dime in your prime / Didn’t you?” sneers Dylan, before crowing, “Now you don’t talk so loud / Now you don’t act so proud / About having to be scrounging around / Scrounging around for your next meal / How does it feel? / How does it feel? / To be without a home / With no direction home / Like a complete unknown / Just like a rolling stone.”  The song is alleged to be about Edie Sedgwick, a blonde girl associated with pop art painter Andy Warhol.  Dylan reportedly had an affair with Sedgwick.  Mike Bloomfield and Bob Dylan both play electric guitar on the song.  Another guitarist, Al Kooper, is also booked for the session.  Finding himself surplus to requirements, Kooper talks his way into playing an organ, an instrument he’d never played before.  Dylan likes the sound Kooper squeezes out of the Hammond in the studio and its throaty trill is the most dominant sound on the record.  ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ also marks the last time Tom Wilson will produce Dylan.

On 25 July 1965 Bob Dylan again appears at the Newport Folk Festival.  On this occasion, he is backed by members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.  To the astonishment of much of the audience, Dylan plugs in an electric guitar.  Dylan is booed offstage for daring to perform with an electric band.  There are also sound problems and these contribute to the unhappiness in the crowd.  Dylan is persuaded to return for an acoustic encore.

Bob Dylan’s next album, ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ (1965) (US no. 3, UK no. 4), is his first full-fledged work of electric rock music.  ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ is included, but the balance of the album is produced by Bob Johnston.  The album is named for the road that connects Dylan’s native Minnesota and the Mississippi delta.  The toy whistle on the title track is played by Al Kooper, who explains, “If anyone started using drugs anywhere, I’d walk into the opposite corner of the room and just go whooooooooo.”  The counter culture experience is enshrined in ‘Ballad Of A Thin Man’.  Dylan mocks, “You know something is happening / But you don’t know what it is / Do you, Mr Jones?”  As a psycho circus unfurls about the luckless square, Mr Jones is assailed by a “one-eyed midget” who “screams back ‘You’re a cow! / Give me some milk or else go home’.”  Elsewhere there are blues rock pieces like ‘Tombstone Blues’ and ‘From A Buick 6’.  Dylan himself plays keyboards frequently as an alternative to guitar.  He also supplies oodles of ‘vomitific’ lyrics – to use his own term for the apparently improvised, rambling wordplays.  In customary contradictory fashion, Bob Dylan concludes his finest album with an acoustic guitar song, the epic (11:18) ‘Desolation Row’.

On 27 August 1965, the day ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ is released, Bob Dylan plays a show with The Hawks at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in Queens, New York.  Like the Newport Folk Festival the previous month, this is an electric rock band gig.  Though there are still some in the audience who heckle and boo, this time Dylan holds his ground and, generally, gets a better reception from the crowd.

The 1965 single ‘Positively 4th Street’ (US no. 7, UK no. 8) features a cheery organ motif that is undercut by its venomous lyrics (“When you know as well as me / You’d rather see me paralysed / Why don’t you just come out once / And scream it?”).  It is described as the ‘most vicious song ever to reach the hit parade’.

Bob Dylan marries Sara Lowndes on 22 November 1965.  A divorcee, Sara Lowndes (born Shirley Noznisky) is a former model.  The couple marry in a small civil ceremony.  Dylan does not publicly acknowledge he is married until February 1966.  Dylan adopts Maria (born 21 October 1961), the child of his bride’s first marriage.  Bob and Sara go on to have four children of their own: Jessie (born 1 January 1966), Anna (born 1 July 1967), Samuel (born 30 July 1968) and Jakob (born 9 December 1969).

On 16 May 1966 Bob Dylan releases ‘Blonde On Blonde’ (1966) (US no. 9, UK no. 3, AUS no. 4), the first studio double album released by a major rock artist.  The fourteen tracks are, with one exception, recorded in a single take each.  Bob Johnston again mans the production desk.  ‘The pace of recording echoes the amphetamine velocity of Dylan’s songwriting and touring schedule at the time’.  Dylan himself describes this set as “the closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my head…that thin, that wild mercury sound.”  On the opening track, a woozy trombone duels Dylan’s harmonica while the singer, taking the part of master of ceremonies, insists, “I would not feel so all alone / Everybody must get stoned!”  For reasons incomprehensible to anyone else, Dylan titles this concoction ‘Rainy Day Women # 12 and 35’ (US no. 2, UK no. 7).  The skipping rhythm of ‘I Want You’ (US no. 20, UK no. 16) barely conceals its raw lust.  ‘Just Like A Woman’ (US no. 33) is more world-weary, while ‘Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat’ (US no. 81) takes a lighter tone.  The mammoth (10:45) closing track, ‘Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands’, is an ode to the singer’s new bride.  Lines like “My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums” are unfathomable.  Still, the album is praised for its ‘manic brilliance’.

A world tour with The Hawks publicises the album.  Although in Manchester, England, one fan condemns Dylan as a ‘Judas’ during the show, for the most part crowds are growing more accustomed to the sight of their idol with an electric guitar.

On 29 July 1966, Bob Dylan suffers a motorcycle accident that halts the hectic pace of his career.

D.A. Pennebaker’s ‘Don’t Look Back’ (1967), the documentary made during Bob Dylan’s 1965 U.K. tour, is released on 17 May 1967.  The subject himself denounces the film and files a court injunction against it being shown any more.

During his recuperation after his cycle crash, Dylan workshops new compositions with The Hawks near Woodstock, New York, during June 1967.  He has retreated to this rural setting to spend time with his family.  Some of the songs from this period turn up on ‘Music From Big Pink’ (1968), the debut album by The Band (the name The Hawks adopt from 1968).  Others are semi-officially leaked and are quickly covered by other artists.  Examples include ‘The Mighty Quinn’ (by Manfred Mann), ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’ [co-written by Rick Danko] (Brian Auger And Julie Driscoll And Trinity, The Band, and The Byrds), ‘Tears Of Rage’ [co-written by Richard Manuel] (The Band), ‘You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere’ (The Byrds) and ‘Nothing Was Delivered’ (The Byrds).

Bob Dylan breaks his silence with ‘John Wesley Harding’ (1968) (US no. 2, UK no. 1, AUS no. 1).  Arguably, this album sets ‘into motion the country rock movement’ with tunes such as ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’.  Since his absence from the spotlight, Dylan’s voice has changed, that nasal whine has given way to a more mellow and tuneful husky sound.  The album’s highlight is the ominous ‘All Along The Watchtower’.  The opaque lyrics leave the cause of the palpable sense of dread unspecified: “All along the watchtower / Princes kept their view / While all the women came and went / Barefoot servants too / Outside in the distance / A wildcat did growl / Two riders were approaching / And the wind begin to howl.”

‘Nashville Skyline’ (1969) (US no. 3, UK no. 1, AUS no. 2) continues the country music influence.  The album includes a duet with rocker turned country star Johnny Cash.  The singular ‘Lay Lady Lay’ (US no. 7, UK no. 5) is also present here as Dylan brays: “Lay, lady, lay / Back across my big brass bed.”  The double album, ‘Self Portrait’ (1970) (US no. 4, UK no. 1, AUS no. 3), features Dylan’s own primitive painting on the cover and is ‘a hodgepodge of covers, live tracks, re-interpretations and new songs’.  It receives ‘universally bad reviews’.  Aside from Dylan’s own ragged live version of ‘The Mighty Quinn’, the best moment on the album may be ‘All The Tired Horses’.  ‘New Morning’ (1970) (US no. 7, UK no. 1, AUS no. 4) tries to reverse the situation, but it is still ‘fatally flawed’.  The sweet love song, ‘If Not For You’, comes from this disc.

On 11 November 1970, Bantam Books releases ‘Tarantula’ (1970), a ‘collection of narratives and poems written mostly between 1965 and 1966’ by Bob Dylan.  This ‘stream-of-consciousness novel’ is ‘never completed to his satisfaction’.

‘Eat The Document’, Bob Dylan’s one hour documentary film, is screened at New York’s Academy Of Music on 8 February 1971.  Much of the footage is borrowed from ‘Don’t Look Back’.  Unfortunately, ‘the film is fragmentary and difficult for most of the audience to latch onto’.

Bob Dylan shows up for George Harrison’s charity concert for Bangla Desh on 1 August 1971 and performs onstage with the ex-Beatle.

The one-off single ‘George Jackson’ (US no. 33) is issued by Bob Dylan in 1971.  It is a temporary return to Dylan’s role of social commentator as it memorialises ‘a black militant killed in a prison shoot-out’: “Sometimes I think this whole world is one big prison yard / Some of us are prisoners, some of us are guards.”

‘I Shall Be Released’, a song from the unreleased 1967 sessions with The Hawks / The Band, is recorded anew for the compilation ‘Greatest Hits Vol. II’ (1971).

Bob Dylan makes his acting debut, playing a character appositely named Alias, in the movie ‘Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid’ (1973).  More notable is the song he contributes to the soundtrack of ‘Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid’ (1973) (US no. 16, UK no. 29, AUS no. 28).  ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’ (US no. 12, UK no. 14) is a moving number with an almost gospel feel: “Ma, put my guns in the ground / I can’t shoot them anymore / That long black cloud is comin’ down / I feel I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door.”

His contract with Columbia records completed, Bob Dylan switches to David Geffen’s Asylum label.  Columbia rushes out ‘Dylan’ (1973) (US no. 17, AUS no. 33), ‘a collection of “Self Portrait” outtakes’, that includes the piano-based ‘Spanish Is The Loving Tongue’.  Dylan’s Asylum debut, ‘Planet Waves’ (1974) (US no. 1, UK no. 7, AUS no. 21), is purported to be a ‘comeback’ but is ‘hardly the real McCoy’.  After a live album, ‘Before The Flood’ (1974) (US no. 3, UK no. 8) – a souvenir of a tour across the U.S.A. with The Band, Dylan returns to Columbia Records.

‘Blood On The Tracks’ (1975) (US no. 1, UK no. 4, AUS no. 4) ‘triumphantly reasserts his genius’.  The circumstances behind its creation are sad, though.  Dylan has just separated from his wife.  This is borne out in songs like ‘You’re A Big Girl Now’ and the conciliatory ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’.  The singer still has enough residual anger to lash out at the media with the scathing ‘Idiot Wind’.

‘The Basement Tapes’ (1975) (US no. 7, UK no. 8, AUS no. 13) finally gives an official release to the material Bob Dylan worked through with The Hawks / The Band in 1967 during the convalescence from his road accident.

‘Desire’ (1976) (US no. 1, UK no. 3, AUS no. 1) is one of the more underrated Bob Dylan albums.  In large part, the quality of the album is due to some deft collaboration.  Producer Don De Vito oversees the proceedings with great empathy.  The rhythm section of Rob Stoner (bass) and Howard Wyeth (drums) is one of the best to grace Dylan’s work.  Violinist Scarlett Rivera lends a gypsy feel to the album.  Playwright Jacques Levy helps with the lyrics on some songs.  Country star Emmylou Harris provides backing vocals.  If she sounds a bit behind the pace, it’s because she didn’t get a chance to rehearse since ‘in typical Dylan style, the recording was mostly bashed out in one all-night New York session, fuelled in part by Tequila’.  The album’s jewel is ‘Hurricane’ (US no. 33, UK no. 43), an account of the alleged false conviction of boxing champ Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter on a murder charge.  The court proceedings are said to be tainted by racism against the African-American accused: “To the black folks he was just a crazy nigger / No one doubted that he pulled the trigger”.  Now, Dylan points out, “Rubin sits like Buddha in a ten-foot cell / An innocent man in a living hell.”  Despite the famous singer’s crusade on his behalf, Carter remains imprisoned until 1985 when his appeal is successful.  (Note: It is Ronee Blakely, rather than Emmylou Harris, who is the female backing vocalist on ‘Hurricane’ and Rob Rothstein plays bass on this song.)  The album also includes the grainy ‘One More Cup Of Coffee’ and the exotic ‘Mozambique’ (US no. 54).  One of the best songs from the sessions, the humorous ‘Rita May’ (US no. 110), is exiled to the B-side of a single, though it is justly included on the compilation ‘Masterpieces’ (1976).  The closing track is ‘Sara’, a song for Dylan’s estranged wife, a “Scorpio sphinx in a calico dress / Sara, oh Sara / You must forgive me my unworthiness.”  Sara Lowndes is present in the studio, listening to the song for the first time and it is that take that ends up on the album.

Framing ‘Desire’ is a tour dubbed The Rolling Thunder Revue.  The tag is taken from the atmospheric conditions when Dylan is waiting for inspiration for the troupe’s name.  He is accompanied on stage during the tour by a shifting cast of rock and folk music stars including: former flame, Joan Baez; Ronee Blakely; David Blue; Ramblin’ Jack Elliott; Arlo Guthrie; Roger McGuinn (formerly with The Byrds); singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell; Bob Neuwirth; and David Bowie’s guitar sideman, Mick Ronson.  The tour is based on old-fashioned travelling medicine shows.  The whole thing, including live performances and ‘ludicrous improvised sketches’, is filmed for the four-hour film ‘Renaldo And Clara’ (1978).  With Dylan and Baez in the title roles, the ‘monumentally self-indulgent’ work earns ‘poor reviews’.

Dylan appears at ‘The Last Waltz’ the final bow for his former backing group, The Band, on 25 November 1976.

Sara Lowndes divorce from Bob Dylan becomes final on 29 June 1977.

Bob Dylan’s next album, ‘Street Legal’ (1978) (US no. 11, UK no. 2, AUS no. 5), is denounced as ‘incomprehensible’.

Dylan’s following move divides his fans like nothing since he went electric.  He finds God and releases a trio of albums about his Christian faith.  The first of them, ‘Slow Train Coming’ (1979) (US no. 3, UK no. 2, AUS no. 1), has the greatest impact.  Two members of British band Dire Straits, guitarist Mark Knopfler and drummer Pick Withers, grace the recording sessions.  The single, ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ (US no. 24) (“It may be the devil / Or it may be the Lord / But you gotta serve somebody”) displays a welcome bit of winking humour when Dylan sings, “You may call me Bobby / Or you may call me Zimmy.”  The rest of the fare is rather more earnest as titles like ‘Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking’ and ‘Do Right To Me Baby (Do Unto Others)’ demonstrate.  Dylan’s new religious outlook earns him boos from the audience on 3 November 1979 at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater.  Grimly, Dylan persists through ‘Saved’ (1980) (US no. 24, UK no. 3, AUS no. 18) and ‘Shot Of Love’ (1981) (US no. 33, UK no. 6, AUS no. 22) ‘getting less and less strident and less and less interesting’.

‘Infidels’ (1983) (US no. 20, UK no. 9, AUS no. 6) finds Bob Dylan returning to more secular material.  This album includes ‘Jokerman’ and the touching ‘Sweetheart Like You’ (US no. 55).  Despite ‘favourable reviews’, Dylan himself admits, “Lots of songs on [‘Infidels’] got away from me.”  ‘Empire Burlesque’ (1985) (US no. 33, UK no. 11, AUS no. 7) gets a similar reception.  It features the single ‘Tight Connection To My Heart’ (US no. 103).  However both these albums are ‘uneven’.

In June 1986 Bob Dylan marries his second wife, Carolyn Dennis.  She performs as a back-up singer under the slightly altered stage name Carol Dennis.  The couple have a daughter, Desiree (born 31 January 1986).

Also in 1986, Bob Dylan performs a number of shows with the rock band Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers.  Petty and company do a short set of their own, then act as backing for Dylan.  Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac even joins the crew for a couple of dates in Australia.  The tour is ‘successful and acclaimed’ but the album that follows, ‘Knocked Out Loaded’ (1986) (US no. 54, UK no. 35, AUS no. 27), is ‘received poorly’.

In 1987 Bob Dylan tours with fellow counter culture icons The Grateful Dead, using them as a backing group in the same way Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers were employed.

‘Down In The Groove’ (1988) (US no. 61, UK no. 32, AUS no. 41), ‘an album largely composed of covers’, is dismissed as ‘another slapped-together trifle’.

A better received effort is ‘Volume One’ (1988) (US no. 3, UK no. 16, AUS no. 1), an album released by The Traveling Wilburys.  This is a light-hearted supergroup reuniting Dylan with both George Harrison and Tom Petty and adding Jeff Lynne (from The Electric Light Orchestra) and Roy Orbison, the legendary rock star of the 1950s and 1960s.  To defuse any ego bruising, the five musicians pose as five brothers.  Dylan is Lucky Wilbury.  Roy Orbison dies later the same year on 6 December 1988.

In 1988 Bob Dylan embarks on what becomes known as The Never-Ending Tour, an almost constant stream of shows that continues into the late 1990s.

‘Dylan And The Dead’ (1989) (US no. 37, UK no. 38), a live album souvenir of the 1987 tour with The Grateful Dead, is considered ‘a disaster’.

‘Oh Mercy’ (1989) (US no. 30, UK no. 6, AUS no. 26) is Bob Dylan’s best album in years.  This is partly due to the canny efforts of producer Daniel Lanois who ‘apparently forces Dylan to work on his writing again’.  The single, ‘Everything Is Broken’ (UK no. 98), is witty and almost funky.

‘Under The Red Sky’ (1990) (US no. 38, UK no. 13, AUS no. 39) does not fare as well.  It is described as ‘a thoroughly inconsequential, silly album of doggerel’.

The four surviving members of The Traveling Wilburys return with a second album, contrarily titled ‘Volume Three’ (1990) (US no. 11, UK no. 14, AUS no. 14).  Their aliases have changed and Lucky Wilbury (Dylan) is now Boo Wilbury.

In October 1992 Bob Dylan and his second wife, Carolyn Dennis, divorce after six years of marriage.

‘Good As I Been To You’ (1992) (US no. 51, UK no. 18) and ‘World Gone Wrong’ (1993) (US no. 70, UK no. 35) are both acoustic recordings of traditional folk songs.

Bob Dylan undergoes something of a late career renaissance with ‘Time Out Of Mind’ (1997) (US no. 10, UK no. 10, AUS no. 24).  This album finds him again working with producer Daniel Lanois.  Dylan sings of ‘isolation and distance’ in a ‘ravaged, weary voice’.  The album includes the burgundy rich ‘To Make You Feel My Love’.  The momentum is maintained by ‘Love And Theft’ (2001) (US no. 5, UK no. 3, AUS no. 6) where ‘blood, desperation and wicked gallows humour are in the air’.  ‘Modern Times’ (2006) (US no. 1, UK no. 3, AUS no. 1) and ‘Together Through Life’ (2009) (US no. 1, UK no. 1, AUS no. 5) are similarly well regarded.

‘Christmas In The Heart’ (2009) (US no. 23, UK no. 40) is an unlikely seasonal recording from the unpredictable artist.

‘Tempest’ (2012) (US no. 23, UK no. 40) may represent a certain backing down from Dylan’s recent original albums, but there are still plenty of devoted Dylanologists who consider him one of the few, perhaps even the only, recording artist of his generation who is still producing meaningful work.

‘Shadows In The Night’ (2015) (US no. 7, UK no. 1, AUS no. 8) finds Bob Dylan performing versions of songs that are best known for being recorded by U.S. singer Frank Sinatra.  ‘Fallen Angels’ (2016) (US no. 7, UK no. 5, AUS no. 11), released on 20 May, repeats the formula with all but one song here previously recorded by Sinatra.

On 13 October 2016 Bob Dylan is awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.  He is the first songwriter or musician to receive the accolade.

The six albums Bob Dylan recorded from ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’ (1962) through ‘Blonde On Blonde’ (1966) are, alone, enough to secure his place in rock music history.  If the rest of his output was patchy, there are still a number of recordings that are too good to be easily ignored.  From his voice to his image, Bob Dylan redrew the lines of what is acceptable for a recording artist.  However his biggest legacy is as a songwriter.  He introduced a new depth and intelligence to rock songs.  Without Bob Dylan, rock music would have followed a very different path and been much less interesting.  He is one of the titans of the art form.

‘No one did more to liberate popular music from its perceived low cultural status’.  ‘Dylan’s impact on pop music – and on American culture – is simply inestimable’.

Sources:

  1. ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 46, 61, 64, 65, 69, 79, 90, 101, 102, 103, 104, 118, 130, 178, 183, 189, 192, 247, 304
  2. ‘The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 71, 72, 73
  3. ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘Bob Dylan’ by Alan Light, ‘The Band’ by Ed Ward (Plexus Publishing, 1992), p. 299, 301, 304, 305, 431
  4. ‘Rock Stars’ by Timothy White (Columbus Books, 1984) p. 136, 138
  5. ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 46, 55, 62, 67
  6. allmusic.com, ‘Bob Dylan’ by Stephen Thomas Erlewine as at 2 November 2001
  7. ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 70
  8. ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’, ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 34, 36, 41, 48, 55, 69, 73
  9. ‘The Love You Make – An Insider’s Story Of The Beatles’ by Peter Brown, Steven Gaines (Pan Books, 1983) p. 138
  10. wikipedia.org as at 14 January 2013, 1 January 2015, 4 January 2017
  11. ‘The History of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p. 73

Song lyrics copyright Warner

Last revised 11 January 2017

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