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|B i o g r a p h y|
influence on popular music is incalculable. As a songwriter, he
pioneered several different schools of pop songwriting, from
confessional singer/songwriter to winding, hallucinatory,
stream-of-conscious narratives. As a vocalist, he broke down the
notions that in order to perform, a singer had to have a conventionally
good voice, thereby redefining the role of vocalist in popular music.
As a musician, he sparked several genres of pop music, including
electrified folk-rock and country-rock. And that just touches on the
tip of his achievements. Dylan's force was evident during his height of
popularity in the '60s — the Beatles' shift toward introspective
songwriting in the mid-'60s never would have happened without him
— but his influence echoed throughout several subsequent
Many of his songs became popular standards, and his best albums were undisputed classics of the rock & roll canon. Dylan's influence throughout folk music was equally powerful, and he marks a pivotal turning point in its 20th-century evolution, signifying when the genre moved away from traditional songs and toward personal songwriting. Even when his sales declined in the '80s and '90s, Dylan's presence was calculable.
For a figure of such substantial influence, Dylan came from humble
beginnings. Born in Duluth, Minnesota, Bob Dylan (b. Robert Allen
Zimmerman, May 24, 1941) was raised in Hibbing, Minnesota from the age
of six. As a child he learned how to play guitar and harmonica, forming
a rock & roll band called the Golden Chords when he was in high
school. Following his graduation in 1959, he began studying art at the
University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. While at college, he began
performing folk songs at coffeehouses under the name Bob Dylan, taking
his last name from the poet Dylan Thomas. Already inspired by Hank
Williams and Woody Guthrie, Dylan began listening to blues while at
college, and the genre weaved its way into his music.
Dylan spent the summer of 1960 in Denver, where he met bluesman
Jesse Fuller, the inspiration behind the songwriter's signature
harmonica rack and guitar. By the time he returned to Minneapolis in
the fall, he had grown substantially as a performer and was determined
to become a professional musician.
Dylan made his way to New York City in January of 1961, immediately
making a substantial impression on the folk community of Greenwich
Village. He began visiting his idol Guthrie in the hospital, where he
was slowly dying from Huntington's chorea. Dylan also began performing
in coffeehouses, and his rough charisma won him a significant
following. In April, he opened for John Lee Hooker at Gerde's Folk
City. Five months later, Dylan performed another concert at the venue,
which was reviewed positively by Robert Shelton in the New York Times.
Columbia A&R man John Hammond sought out Dylan on the strength of
the review, and signed the songwriter in the fall of 1961. Hammond
produced Dylan's eponymous debut album (released in March 1962), a
collection of folk and blues standards that boasted only two original
Over the course of 1962, Dylan began to write a large batch of
original songs, many of which were political protest songs in the vein
of his Greenwich contemporaries. These songs were showcased on his
second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. Before its release,
Freewheelin' went through several incarnations. Dylan had recorded a
rock & roll single, "Mixed Up Confusion," at the end of 1962, but
his manager Albert Grossman made sure the record was deleted because he
wanted to present Dylan as an acoustic folkie. Similarly, several
tracks with a full backing band that were recorded for Freewheelin'
were scrapped before the album's release. Furthermore, several tracks
recorded for the album — including "Talking John Birch Society
Blues" — were eliminated from the album before its release.
Comprised entirely of original songs, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan
made a huge impact in the US folk community, and many performers began
covering songs from the album. Of these, the most significant were
Peter, Paul & Mary, who made "Blowin' in the Wind" into a huge pop
hit in the summer of 1963 and thereby made Bob Dylan into a
recognizable household name. On the strength of Peter, Paul &
Mary's cover and his opening gigs for popular folkie Joan Baez,
Freewheelin' became a hit in the fall of 1963, climbing to number 23 on
the charts. By that point, Baez and Dylan had become romantically
involved, and she was beginning to record his songs frequently. Dylan
was writing just as fast, and was performing hundreds of concerts a
By the time The Times They Are A-Changin' was released in early
1964, Dylan's songwriting had developed far beyond that of his New York
peers. Heavily inspired by poets like Arthur Rimbaud and John Keats,
his writing took on a more literate and evocative quality. Around the
same time, he began to expand his musical boundaries, adding more blues
and R&B influences to his songs. Released in the fall of 1964,
Another Side of Bob Dylan made these changes evident. However, Dylan
was moving faster than his records could indicate. By the end of 1965,
he had ended his romantic relationship with Baez and had begun dating a
former model named Sara Lowndes. Simultaneously, he gave the Byrds "Mr.
Tambourine Man" to record for their debut album.
The Byrds gave the song a ringing, electric arrangement, but by the
time the single became a hit, Dylan was already exploring his own brand
of folk-rock. Inspired by the British Invasion, particularly the
Animals' version of "House of the Rising Sun," Dylan recorded a set of
original songs backed by a loud rock & roll band for his next
album. While Bringing It All Back Home (March 1965) still had a side of
acoustic material, it made clear that Dylan had turned his back on folk
music. For the folk audience, the true breaking point arrived a few
months after the album's release, when he played the Newport Folk
Festival supported by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.
The audience greeted him with vicious derision, but he had already
been accepted by the growing rock & roll community, as well as the
mainstream press, who were fascinated by his witty, surreal and caustic
press confences. Dylan's spring tour of Britain was the basis for D.A.
Pennebaker's documentary Don't Look Back, a film that captures the
songwriter's edgy charisma and charm.
Dylan made his breakthrough to the pop audience in the summer of
1965, when "Like a Rolling Stone" became a number two hit. Driven by a
circular organ riff and a steady beat, the six-minute single broke the
barrier of the three-minute pop single. Dylan became the subject of
innumerable articles, and his lyrics became the subject of literay
analyzations across the US and UK. Well over 100 artists covered his
songs between 1964 and 1966; the Byrds and the Turtles, in particular,
had big hits with his compositions. Highway 61 Revisited, his first
full-fledged rock & roll album, became a Top Ten hit upon its fall
1965 release. "Positively 4th Street" and "Rainy Day Women #12 &
35" became Top Ten hits in the fall of 1965 and spring of 1966,
respectively. Following the May 1966 release of the double-album Blonde
on Blonde, he had sold over 10 million records around the world.
During the fall of 1965, Dylan hired the Hawks, formerly Ronnie
Hawkins' backing group, as his touring band. The Hawks, who changed
their name to the Band in 1968, would become Dylan's most famous
backing band, primarily because of their intuitive chemistry and "wild,
thin mercury sound," but also because of their British tour in the
spring of 1966, The tour was the first time Britain had heard the
electric Dylan, and their reaction was disagreeable and violent. At the
tour's penultimate date — usually referred to as the Royal Albert
Hall concert, but generally acknowledged to have occurred in Manchester
— an audience member called Dylan "Judas," inspiring a positively
vicious version of "Like a Rolling Stone" from the Band.
The performance was immortalized on countless bootleg albums (an
official release finally surfaced in 1998), and it indicates the
intensity of Dylan in the middle of 1966. He had assumed control of
Pennebaker's second Dylan documentary, Eat the Document, and was under
deadline to complete his book Tarantula, as well as record a new
record. Following the British tour, he returned to America.
On July 29, 1966, he was injured in a motorcycle accident outside of
his home in Woodstock, New York home, suffering injuries to his neck
vertebrae and a concussion. Details of the accident remain elusive
— he was reportedly in critical condition for a week and had
amnesia — and some biographers have questioned its severity, but
the event was a pivotal turning point in his career. After the
accident, Dylan became a recluse, disappearing into his home in
Woodstock and raising his family with his wife, Sara. After a few
months, he retreated with the Band to a rented house, subsequently
dubbed Big Pink, in Bearsville to record a number of demos.
For several months, Dylan and the Band recorded an enormous amount
of material, ranging from old folk, country and blues songs to
newly-written originals. The songs indicated that Dylan's songwriting
had undergone a metamorphosis, becoming streamlined and more direct.
Similarly, his music had changed, owing less to traditional rock &
roll, and demonstrating heavy country, blues and traditional folk
influences. None of the Big Pink recordings were intended to be
released, but tapes from the sessions were circulated by Dylan's music
publisher with the intent of generating cover versions. Copies of these
tapes, as well as other songs, were available on illegal bootleg albums
by the end of the '60s; it was the first time that bootleg copies of
unreleased recordings became widely circulated. Portions of the tapes
were officially released in 1975 as the double-album The Basement Tapes.
While Dylan was in seclusion, rock & roll had become heavier and
artier in the wake of the psychedelic revolution. When Dylan returned
with John Wesley Harding in December of 1967, its quiet, country
ambience was a surprise to the general public, but it was a significant
hit, peaking at number two in the US and number one in the UK.
Furthermore, the record arguably became the first significant
country-rock record to be released, setting the stage for efforts by
the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers later in 1968. Dylan followed
his country inclinations on his next album, 1969's Nashville Skyline,
which was recorded in Nashville with several of the country industry's
top session men.
While the album was a hit, spawning the Top 10 single "Lay Lady
Lay," it was criticized in some quarters for uneven material. The mixed
reception was the beginning of a full-blown backlash that arrived with
the double-album, Self Portrait. Released early in 1970, the album was
a hodge-podge of covers, live tracks, re-interpretations and new songs
greeted with vicious reviews from all quarters of the press. Dylan
followed the album quickly with New Morning, which was hailed as a
Following the release of New Morning, Dylan began to wander
restlessly. In 1971, he moved back to Greenwich Village, published
Tarantula for the first time, and performed at the Concert for
Bangladesh; it would be his only live performance in the first half of
the decade. During 1972, he began his acting career by playing Alias in
Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which was released in
1973. He also wrote the soundtrack for the film, which featured
"Knockin' on Heaven's Door," his biggest hit since "Lay Lady Lay." The
Pat Garrett soundtrack was the final record released under his Columbia
contract before he moved to David Geffen's fledgling Asylum Records.
As retaliation, Columbia assembled Dylan, a collection of Self
Portrait outtakes, for release at the end of 1973. Dylan only recorded
one album, 1974's Planet Waves — coincidentally his first number
one album — before he moved back to Columbia. The Band supported
Dylan on Planet Waves and its accompanying tour, which became the most
successful tour in rock & roll history; it was captured on 1974's
double-live album, Before the Flood.
Dylan's 1974 tour was the beginning of a comeback culminated by
1975's Blood on the Tracks. Largely inspired by the disintegration of
his marriage, Blood on the Tracks was hailed as a return to form by
critics and it became his second number one album. After jamming with
folkies in Greenwich Village, Dylan decided to launch a gigantic tour,
loosely based on travelling medicine shows. Lining up an extensive list
of supporting musicians — including Joan Baez, Jonie Mitchell,
Rambling Jack Elliott, Arlo Guthrie, Mick Ronson, Roger McGuinn, and
poet Allen Ginsberg — Dylan dubbed the tour the Rolling Thunder
Revue and set out on the road in the fall of 1975.
For the next year, the Rolling Thunder Revue toured on and off, with
Dylan filming many of the concerts for a future film. During the tour,
Desire was released to considerable acclaim and success, spending five
weeks on the top of the charts. Throughout the Rolling Thunder Revue,
Dylan showcased "Hurricane," a protest song he had written about boxer
Rubin Carter, who had been unjustly imprisoned for murder. The live
album Hard Rain was released at the end of the tour. Dylan released
Renaldo and Clara, a four-hour film based on the Rolling Thunder tour,
to poor reviews in early 1978.
Early in 1978, Dylan set out on another extensive tour, this time
backed by a band that resembled a Las Vegas lounge band. The group was
featured on the 1978 album Street Legal and the 1979 live album, At
Budokan. At the conclusion of the tour in 1979, Dylan announced that he
was a born-again Christain, and he launched a series of Christian
albums that fall with Slow Train Coming. Though the reviews were mixed,
the album was a success, peaking at number three and going platinum.
His supporting tour for Slow Train Coming featured only his new
religious material, much to the bafflement of his long-term fans.
Two other religious albums — Saved (1980) and Shot of Love
(1981) — followed, both to poor reviews. In 1982, Dylan traveled
to Israel, sparking rumors that his conversion to Christianity was
short-lived. He returned to secular recording with 1983's Infidels,
which was greeted with favorable reviews.
Dylan returned to performing in 1984, releasing the live album Real
Live at the end of the year. Empire Burlesque followed in 1985, but its
odd mix of dance tracks and rock & roll won few fans. However, the
five-album/triple-disc retrospective box set Biograph appeared that
same year to great acclaim. In 1986, Dylan hit the road with Tom Petty
& the Heartbreakers for a successful and acclaimed tour, but his
album that year, Knocked Out Loaded, was received poorly. The following
year, he toured with the Grateful Dead as his backing band; two years
later, the souvenier album Dylan & the Dead appeared.
In 1988, Dylan embarked on what became known as "The Never-Ending
Tour" — a constant stream of shows that ran on and off into the
late '90s. That same year, he released Down in the Groove, an album
largely comprised of covers. The Never-Ending Tour received far
stronger reviews than Down in the Groove, but 1989's Oh Mercy was his
most acclaimed album since 1974's Blood on the Tracks. However, his
1990 follow-up, Under the Red Sky, was received poorly, especially when
compared to the enthusiastic reception for the 1991 box set The Bootleg
Series, Vols. 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased), a collection of previously
unreleased outtakes and rarities.
For the remainder of the'90s, Dylan divided his time between live
concerts and painting. In 1992, he returned to recording with Good as I
Been to You, an acoustic collection of traditional folk songs. It was
followed in 1993 by another folk album, World Gone Wrong, which won the
Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album. After the release of World Gone
Wrong, Dylan released a greatest-hits album and a live record.
Dylan released Time Out of Mind, his first album of original material in seven years, in the fall of 1997. Time Out of Mind received his strongest reviews in years and unexpectedly debuted in the Top 10. Its success sparked a revival of interest in Dylan — he appeared on the cover of Newsweek to promote the album and his concerts became sell-outs. Early in 1998, Time Out of Mind received three Grammy Awards — Album of the Year, Best Contemporary Folk Album and Best Male Rock Vocal.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine - All Music Guide
Official Homepage: www.bobdylan.com
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