Happy birthday to Robert Allen Zimmerman aka Bob Dylan, born this day in 1941 in Duluth Minnesota and raised in nearby Hibbing. Born “far from home” according to his own account in Martin Scorsese’s 2005 documentary Bob Dylan – No Direction Home, he knew that there was something out there for him to do, and it had something to do with the sounds coming out of his radio.
So, after forming a rock n’ roll group, and playing piano for touring singers, he pursued folk music after pawning his electric guitar for an acoustic. At some point too, he changed his name to Bob Dylan, starting out with the intention of going by Bob Allen, using his middle name, and then deciding that “Dylan” had more connection to the world of poetry through Dylan Thomas. Young Bob was excited by the Beat poets, Hank Williams, the blues, and by Woody Guthrie, a songwriter who would inspire him to write songs of his own and seek out a community of others who were driven to do the same thing. First, he went to Minneapolis, and then to New York’s Greenwich Village.
The folk community in the Village embraced him and his incredible gift for folk interpretation as evidenced on his first album Bob Dylan released in 1962 on Columbia Records, the record label that has retained him since. The folk community loved him even more after the release of his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in 1963. Even the rock n’ roll world stood up and took notice of that one. The album contained Bob Dylan originals such as “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright”, “Talking World War III Blues” and the era-defining “Blowin’ in the Wind”, which would become a civil rights anthem. Such was the impact of his writing and stage presence that the folk community wanted to make Bob the successor to Woody Guthrie, who’d been hospitalized by the end of the 50s with Huntington’s Chorea. Bob would visit Woody in the hospital a number of times, starting in 1961. But as Bob branched out and developed his craft, he showed that he had no intention of accepting the mantle of his hero. To make this clear, he sang that he didn’t “want to work on Maggie’s farm no more” during a tumultuous appearance at the 1965 Newport folk festival. His pursuit of electrified sounds, and use of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band for the performance demonstrated a new direction that certainly didn’t involve any further marches to Washington, or any other songs about answers Blowin’ in the wind. Bob was on his way down Highway 61 instead.
The next year in 1966, he pissed off folkies in Britain too, touring with an R&B band called the Hawks who blew the roof off of the Manchester Free Trade Hall, and helped to get Bob labeled “Judas”. They wanted the earnest folk singer of two years previous, not the speeded-out, wild-haired beatnik with the black and white telecaster and impenetrable shades. It is important to note that the concept that an artist could “change direction” was an alien one in 1966, nor was there any conventional ‘rock press’ to explain it to fans. Until Dylan, no one took this idea seriously on a mainstream level. Both the concept and the strain of journalism to convey it had yet to be invented, until Bob Dylan plugged in and dropped out of the folk pantheon in order to follow his own course. Somewhere in there, Bob made a string of classic records including rock’s first double LP, entitled Blonde on Blonde which he recorded in Nashville. The songs reveled in electrified country-flavoured rock music, equally influenced by the Beatles, and revealing his playfulness when it came to his lifelong romance with the english language.
And then, Bob changed again.
After returning home from his harrowing tour in Europe later that year, he had a motorcycle accident near his home in rural upstate New York. Details were sketchy at the time, and there were a lot of conflicting reports as to the severity of his injuries. But, serious or not, it took him off the map for 18 months. In late 1967, he emerged with a new album which completely went against the grain of the brightly-coloured, psychedelic times. This new record even stood in stark contrast to Blonde on Blonde. That album was John Wesley Harding – sepia-toned, spare, and desolate, yet also strangely biblical in it’s parable-like approach in the songwriting. He would further his efforts with two more albums – Nashville Skyline in 1969 which is a straight-ahead country album sung in an entirely new voice, and Self-Portrait in 1970, a collection of fragments and odd cover versions. Both of those albums were attempts to move further away from his supposed “voice of a generation” status, a position he had always rejected. His life at home was difficult once members of the counterculture tracked him down, visiting his home at all hours, and unwilling to acknowledge that he had a wife and children who didn’t see Dylan as they saw him. And indeed Bob himself saw nothing common in the graven image these people were erecting and equating to him. He just wanted to be a musician and raise a family at the same time, without being pestered about issues over which he had no strong opinion or control.
By the mid-70s, Bob’s marriage was on the outs, yet he enjoyed another purple patch of creativity to rival the one which had established him a decade before. He toured for the first time in 8 years, taking the Band along with him, the group who had once been the very Hawks who had stood by him in facing a sea of glaring faces during his ’66 tour. And he put out the excellent Blood on the Tracks, and its follow up Desire in 1975 and 1976 respectively. The supporting tours would be branded the Rolling Thunder Revue, featuring a number of Bob’s friends including Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, T-Bone Burnett, Mick Ronson, Rambling Jack Elliot, and many others who would join the tour and fall away from town to town. Bob wore white make-up on stage to accentuate his face. But the mask would always be looked upon as symbolic more so than practical. With Dylan, it was hard for critics to avoid. The mask was his stage face. He would always give a version of himself away, never the real thing (if such a person exists). His make-up was looked upon as a challenge to the identities his fans and critics attempted to place upon him.
There were further phases after that, as the tours stretched into years, and the years to decades. Dylan discovered Jesus in 1978 and sang about it for three albums. But, like many voices established in the 60s, Dylan had a patchy 80s overall. He thought about retiring a number of times. Still, he toured with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, became a Traveling Wilbury , made a live album with the Grateful Dead, and worked for the first time with Daniel Lanois on 1988’s Oh Mercy. He had been granted entry into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame that year, and was honoured in concert by friends and admirers.
In terms of recording during the 90s, he recorded an Unplugged show for MTV with an accompanying live album, and cut two albums of folk cover tunes – World Gone Wrong and As Good As I’ve Been To You – which made some wonder about whether or not his muse had skipped town. But then again, these records made others remember why Columbia records had signed him in 1962 in the first place – for his love of dusty old tales of betrayal and misfortune, and his ability to deliver them convincingly in a voice that was nothing less than original.
By 1997, Bob had dashed any doubts about his writing talent on the rocks with the critical and commercial smash Time Out of Mind, a collection of brutally eloquent songs about age, love, loss, fear, and death, again produced by Daniel Lanois. This, and an Oscar for his song “Things Have Changed” as featured in the film Wonder Boys would firm up his status as a songwriting elder statesman, as would his follow-up album Love and Theft in 2001, released on September 11 of that year. A third album in the trilogy would appear in 2006 – Modern Times. Interest in Dylan was driven by Scorsese’s documentary, his own autobiography entitled Chronicles Volume One, as well as Todd Haynes’ meta-biography I’m Not There in 2007 in which Bob, or a series of self-aware impressions of him, is portrayed by several actors, one of which is Cate Blanchet. In what other life could such an approach be feasible?
Like many songwriters, Bob Dylan sees himself as a vessel, out of which pours images and melody. The term ‘prophet’ sits uncomfortably with him as he has said that he doesn’t know where these things come from. It makes sense that if he were a prophet, he should know. But as it is, it’s a mystery to him too, which I suppose is why he keeps it up, why he tours almost constantly, and perhaps why people are fascinated with his work. Everyone loves a good mystery. And Bob Dylan is certainly that as well.
Bob Dylan is an artist who is both loved and hated – you either get him or you don’t. But, either way, the truth of it is that his work has benefited everyone who calls themselves a songwriter. Dylan proved you could sing in any sort of voice and be listened to, if what you were saying meant something to an audience. Where it’s easy to take this for granted these days when everyone writes songs about what ever they want to write about, it is important to remember that things were not always this way. And Bob Dylan was one of the few who cut the trail on which others currently tread.
Happy Birthday, Bob!
Hear Bob Dylan talk about his life and work in this interview with Ed Bradley from the television news program 60 Minutes.
And read about a new crop of Bob Dylan photos recently discovered, and taken around the time of Bob’s 1966 electric tour.