The thought of writing a 500-word blog on Bob Dylan to mark his recent 80th birthday, filled me with the horrors. Far better writers than me have struggled to fully understand the enigma that is Dylan. So, if you are now reading this, ready for an in-depth study of the man, I’d turn back now. This will instead be a fairly brief ‘riff’ in honour of him reaching that ripe old age, highlighting certain crucial events as I go along.
He is someone, especially the ’50s/60s Bob’, who fascinates me strangely. To that end, I find I have quite a few books on him. I’ll also watch any documentary on the man. I particularly loved listening to his weekly radio show ‘The Theme Time Radio Hour’ for XM Satellite Radio. What a joy that was, when he played a succession of great unknown, to me anyway, records accompanied by some marvellous witty chat.
What I don’t have is a ton of his records. In truth I can struggle with his voice, and a lot of his later work leaves me a bit cold, whereas his earlier output and especially his ‘Dylan Goes Electric’ stuff I really like. To be completely honest, even then, some of that took a good while to penetrate my brain as I struggled to get past the vocals. What can I say, I love great voices like Otis and Aretha, though, I also like a voice that is different – among them Billie Holiday and Billy McKenzie.
Anyway, over the years, I’ve being drawn to the man and as I read the lyrics for tunes like ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol’ ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ and ‘Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat.’ to name just a very few, I finally realised his genius.
On a shallower level, I also like the ‘look’ of him around those early times, like when he was channelling the Woody Guthrie vibe, before moving through to the fuzzy hair and colourful clothing period of the mid to the late 60s . To my mind he has always been a ‘dresser’ and even now, as he enters his dotage with pencil thin moustache and the cowboy garb, he still cuts a dash.
Complimenting the great looks of certain periods in his life, there are also some of his album covers, which are simply iconic. Hands up who has tried to re-create the Bob and Suze Rotolo moment on the cover of ‘Freewheelin” whilst holidaying in New York? You too eh? Also named on merit are ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ ‘Bringing it all Back Home’ and the slightly disconcerting, out of focus ‘Blonde on Blonde.’
From an early age, Dylan was held up as a spokesman for a generation, but he refused to acknowledge that, though his songs in many ways captured a period perfectly. He also attracted devout followers, who left him uncomfortable. In many ways, he was the ultimate non-pop starry pop star. He was awkward and angular in press conferences, but funny too. He definitely did not play ‘the game.’ I always felt he was at least five steps ahead of those posing a question to him. He foiled them time and again, with his sharp natural intelligence burning bright under that mop of curls.
He was born Robert Allen Zimmerman and came from a Jewish heritage. Watching those aforementioned documentaries, I have often found myself rewinding them, trying to understand how he transitioned from being a chubby mid- western school kid, to becoming a singer /songwriter in local coffee houses, whilst affecting a name change, after reading the poems of Dylan Thomas.
‘You’re born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents. I mean, that happens. You call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free…’
He tuned in and dropped out as he hitched his way across America after leaving Hibbing, Minnesota in 1959 . He first made a pilgrimage to see Woody Guthrie in hospital, before landing in Greenwich Village, performing songs that would later change a generation.
Once in New York, he dossed on people’s couches. He read their books and listened to their records, all the while feeding his curious mind, with content that he would later pour into songs written on a typewriter, later performed for pennies before those in the Folk movement of which he was now immersed.
‘I was there to find the singers,’ Dylan later wrote ‘the ones I’d heard on record – Dave Van Ronk, Peggy Seeger, Ed McCurdy, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.’
Bob caught the ear of legendary producer John Hammond and he released his eponymous first album in 1962, and it’s content of folk, gospel and the blues, raised his profile. Then along came Albert, Albert Grossman, who became his manager
‘He was kind of like a Colonel Tom Parker figure … you could smell him coming.’
His new songs became big news and groups eagerly covered them. His peers had begun to take note…
‘We just played it, just wore it out. The content of the song lyrics and just the attitude—it was incredibly original and wonderful’ – Beatle George Harrison speaking of ‘Freewheelin’.’
Dylan took his place in the Civil Rights struggle, alongside Martin and performed at the March on Washington in 1963 with his thenlover Joan Baez. Then he went Pop! D. A. Pennebaker gave us afascinating glimpse behind the scenes in the film ‘Don’t Look Back’ as Dylan dealt the cards for those with home sick blues behind the Savoy Hotel in London. The Byrds went big with ‘Tambourine Man’ in 1965 and ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ went national, hitting number two in the US charts, some going for a song that lasted 6-minute song. ‘Judas!’ they cried in Manchester, to which he famously turned to his band and instructed them to ‘play fucking loud.’ I personally discovered names such as Tom Wilson, Al Kooper, Mike Bloomfield and Robbie Robertson from this period, described as ‘two cultures smashing together with a huge explosion.’
Bob married Sarah Lownds as five constant years on the road began to take a heavy toll. He disappeared after a motorcycle accident (or was it?) and spent time with the band The Band in upstate New York, escaping the hamster wheel he found himself on.
‘I had been in a motorcycle accident and I’d been hurt, but I recovered. Truth was that I wanted to get out of the rat race.’
He recorded over a hundred songs at home and in the Big Pink, in Woodstock in 1967, as he rested up, many of which finally saw the light of day as ‘Basement Tapes’, in 2014. He was back in 1968 and it seems like he’s been touring ever since. ‘The Never- Ending Tour’ just rumbles on.
‘I had a couple of bad years. I put a lot of money into the movie, built a big house … and it costs a lot to get divorced in California.’
He also took a detour to convert to Christianity in the late 70s ‘Years ago, they said I was a prophet. I used to say, “No I’m not a prophet”, they say “Yes you are, you’re a prophet.” I said, “No it’s not me.” They used to say, “You sure are a prophet.” They used to convince me I was a prophet. Now I come out and say Jesus Christ is the answer. They say, “Bob Dylan’s no prophet.” They just can’t handle it.’
Further insight into this complex man, came in the form of the book ‘Chronicles: Volume One.’ in late 2004 and ‘No Direction Home’ – Martin Scorsese’s acclaimed film. Recently in London there was an exhibition of his very accomplished artwork, which is often displayed in galleries around the world and published in books. It is said, he has sold over 125 million records. He has also won countless awards – Oscars, Grammys, Pulitzers and Nobel.
In December 2020, he sold his back catalogue to Universal Music. Six hundred songs or so. The price given was estimated between $300 and $400 million.
U.S. President Bill Clinton presented Dylan with a Kennedy Center Honor and paid him the following tribute:
‘He probably had more impact on people of my generation than any other creative artist. His voice and lyrics haven’t always been easy on the ear, but throughout his career Bob Dylan has never aimed to please. He’s disturbed the peace and discomforted the powerful.’
To end, we have Pete Townshend struggling like me to capture the immensity of Dylan.
‘They asked what effect Bob Dylan had on me,’ he said. ‘That’s like asking how I was influenced by being born.
Joni Mitchell told it like this ‘When I heard Bob Dylan sing, I thought hallelujah, man, the American pop song has grown up. It’s wide open. Now you can write about anything that literature can write about. Up until that time rock & roll songs were pretty much limited to, ‘I’m a fool for ya, baby.’
Bob Dylan certainly changed that. Amen.
The Mumper of SE5
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