Bob Dylan Biography

Robert Allen Zimmerman, 24 May 1941, Duluth, Minnesota, USA. Bob Dylan is without doubt one of the most influential figures in the history of popular music. He is the writer of scores of classic songs and is generally regarded as the man who brought literacy to rock lyrics.

The son of the middle-class proprietor of an electrical and furniture store, as a teenager, living in Hibbing, Minnesota, Robert Zimmerman was always intrigued by the romanticism of the outsider. He loved James Dean movies, liked riding motorcycles and wearing biker gear, and listened to R&B music on radio stations transmitting from the south. A keen fan of folk singer Odetta and country legend Hank Williams, he was also captivated by early rock ‘n’ roll. When he began playing music himself, with school friends in bands such as the Golden Chords and Elston Gunn And The Rock Boppers, it was as a clumsy but enthusiastic piano player, and it was at this time that he declared his ambition in a high school yearbook ‘to join Little Richard’. In 1959, he began visiting Minneapolis at weekends and on his graduation from high school, enrolled at the University of Minnesota there, although he spent most of his time hanging around with local musicians in the beatnik coffee-houses of the Dinkytown area. It was in Minneapolis that he first discovered blues music, and he began to incorporate occasional blues tunes into the primarily traditional material that made up his repertoire as an apprentice folk singer.

Zimmerman, who by this time had changed his name to Dylan in honour of one of his favourite poets, Dylan Thomas, played occasionally at local clubs but was, by most accounts, a confident but, at best, unremarkable performer. In the summer of 1960, however, Dylan spent some time in Denver, and developed as an artist in several extraordinary and important ways. First, he adopted a persona based upon the Woody Guthrie romantic hobo figure in the movie Bound For Glory. Dylan had learned about Guthrie in Minnesota and had quickly devoured and memorised as many Guthrie songs as he could. In Denver, he assumed a new voice, began speaking with an Okie twang, and adopted a new ‘hard travellin’’ appearance. Second, in Denver Dylan had met Jesse Fuller, a blues performer who played guitar and harmonica simultaneously by using a harp rack. Dylan was intrigued and soon afterwards began to teach himself to do the same. By the time he returned to Minneapolis, he had developed remarkably as a performer. By now sure that he intended to make a living as a professional musician, he returned briefly to Hibbing, then set out, via Madison and Chicago, for New York, where he arrived on 24 January 1961.

For a completely unknown and still very raw performer, Dylan’s impact on the folk scene of Greenwich Village was immediate and enormous. He captivated anyone who saw him with his energy, his charisma and his rough-edged authenticity. He spun stories about his background and family history, weaving a tangled web of tall tales and myths about who he was and where he was from. He played in the coffeehouses of the Village, including Cafe Wha?, The Commons, The Gaslight and, most importantly, Gerde’s Folk City, where he made his first professional appearance, supporting John Lee Hooker, in April 1961. He was also paid for playing harmonica on records by Harry Belafonte and Carolyn Hester, as a result of which he came the attention of producer John Hammond Jnr. , who signed him to Columbia Records in Autumn 1961. At the same time, a gig at Gerde’s was reviewed favourably in the New York Times by Robert Shelton, who declared that Bob Dylan was clearly destined for fortune and fame.

His first album, called simply Bob Dylan, was released in March 1962. It presented a collection of folk and blues standards, often about death and sorrows and the trials of life, songs that had been included in Dylan’s repertoire over the past year or so, performed with gusto and an impressive degree of sensitivity for a 20-year-old. However, it was the inclusion of two of his own compositions, most notably the mature and affectionate tribute, ‘Song To Woody’, that pointed the way forward. Over the next few months, Dylan wrote dozens of songs, many of them ‘topical’ songs. Encouraged by his girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, Dylan became interested in, and was subsequently adopted by, the Civil Rights movement. His song ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, written in April 1962, was to be the most famous of his protest songs and was included on his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, released in May 1963. In the meantime, Dylan had written and recorded several other noteworthy early political songs, including ‘Masters Of War’ and ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’, and, during a nine-month separation from Suze, one of his greatest early love songs, ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’.

At the end of 1962, he recorded a single, a rock ‘n’ roll song called ‘Mixed Up Confusion’, with backing musicians. The record was quickly deleted, apparently because Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, saw that the way forward for his charge was not as a rocker, but as an earnest acoustic folky. Similarly, tracks that had been recorded for Dylan’s second album with backing musicians were scrapped, although the liner notes which commented on them and identified the players, remained carelessly unrevised. The Freewheelin’ record was so long in coming that four original song choices were substituted at the last moment by other, more newly composed songs. One of the tracks omitted was ‘Talking John Birch Society Blues’, which Dylan had been controversially banned from singing on the Ed Sullivan Show in May 1963. The attendant publicity did no harm whatsoever to Dylan’s stature as a radical new ‘anti-establishment’ voice. At the same time, Grossman’s shrewd decision to have a somewhat saccharine version of ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ recorded by Peter, Paul And Mary also paid off, the record becoming a huge hit in the USA, and bringing Dylan’s name to national, and indeed international, attention for the first time.

At the end of 1962, Dylan flew to London to appear in the long-lost BBC Television play, The Madhouse On Castle Street. The experience did little to further his career as an actor, but while he was in London, he learned many English folk songs, particularly from musician Martin Carthy, whose tunes he subsequently ‘adapted’. Thus, ‘Scarborough Fair’ was reworked as ‘Girl From The North Country’, ‘Lord Franklin’ as ‘Bob Dylan’s ‘Dream’, and ‘Nottamun Town’ as ‘Masters Of War’. The songs continued to pour out and singers began to queue up to record them. It was at this time that Joan Baez first began to play a prominent part in Dylan’s life. Already a successful folk singer, Baez covered Dylan songs at a rapid rate, and proclaimed his genius at every opportunity. Soon she was introducing him to her audience and the two became lovers, the King and Queen of folk music. Dylan’s songwriting became more astute and wordy as the months passed. Biblical and other literary imagery began to be pressed into service in songs such as ‘When The Ship Comes In’ and the anthemic ‘Times They Are A-Changin’’, this last written a day or two after Dylan had sung ‘Only A Pawn In Their Game’ in front of 400, 000 people at the March On Washington, 28 August 1963. Indeed, the very next day, Dylan read in the local newspaper of the death of black waitress Hattie Carroll, which inspired the best, and possibly the last, of his protest songs, ‘The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll’, included on his third album, The Times They Are A-Changin’, released in January 1964.

Dylan’s songwriting perspectives underwent a huge change in 1964. Now finally separated from Suze Rotolo, disenchanted with much of the petty politics of the Village, and becoming increasingly frustrated with the ‘spokesman of a generation’ tag that had been hung around his neck, the ever-restless Dylan sloughed off the expectations of the old folky crowd, and, influenced by his reading the poetry of John Keats and French symbolist Arthur Rimbaud, began to expand his own poetic consciousness. He then wrote the songs that made up his fourth record, Another Side Of Bob Dylan - including the disavowal of his past, ‘My Back Pages’, and the Illuminations-inspired ‘Chimes Of Freedom’ - while yet newer songs such as ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ (which he recorded for but did not include on Another Side), ‘Gates Of Eden’ and ‘It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding’, which he began to include in concert performances over the next few weeks, dazzled with their lyrical complexity and literary sophistication.

Here, then, was Dylan the poet, and here the arguments about the relative merits of high art and popular art began. The years 1964-66 were unquestionably Dylan’s greatest as a writer and as a performer; they were also his most influential years and many artists today still cite the three albums that followed, Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited from 1965 and 1966’s double album Blonde On Blonde as being seminal in their own musical development.

Another Side Of Bob Dylan was to be Dylan’s last solo acoustic album for almost 30 years. Intrigued by what the Beatles were doing - he had visited London again to play one concert at the Royal Festival Hall in May 1964 - and particularly excited by the Animals’ ‘folk rock’ cover version of ‘House Of The Rising Sun’, a track Dylan himself had included on his debut album, he and producer Tom Wilson fleshed out some of the Bringing It All Back Home songs with rock ‘n’ roll backings - the proto-rap ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ and ‘Maggie’s Farm’, for instance. However, the song that was perhaps Dylan’s most important mid-60s composition, ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, was written immediately after the final series of acoustic concerts played in the UK in April and May 1965, and commemorated in D.A. Pennebaker’s famous documentary film, Don’t Look Back. Dylan said that he began to write ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ having decided to ‘quit’ singing and playing. The lyrics to the song emerged from six pages of stream-of-consciousness ‘vomit’; the sound of the single emerged from the immortal combination of Chicago blues guitarist Michael Bloomfield, bass player Harvey Brooks and fledgling organ-player Al Kooper. ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ was producer Tom Wilson’s last, and greatest, Dylan track. At six minutes, it destroyed the formula of the sub-three-minute single forever. It was a huge hit and was played, alongside the Byrds’ equally momentous version of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, all over the radio in the summer of 1965.

Consequently, it should have come as no surprise to those who went to see Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival on July 25 that he was now a fully-fledged folk rocker; but, apparently, it did. Backed by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Dylan’s supposedly ‘new sound’ - although admittedly it was his first concert with supporting musicians - was met with a storm of bewilderment and hostility. Stories vary as to how much Dylan was booed that night, and why, but Dylan seemed to find the experience both exhilarating and liberating. If, after the UK tour, he had felt ready to quit, now he was ready to start again, to tour the world with a band and to take his music, and himself, to the farthest reaches of experience, just like Rimbaud. Dylan’s discovery of the Hawks, a Canadian group who had been playing roadhouses and funky bars until introductions were made via John Hammond Jnr. and Albert Grossman’s secretary Mary Martin, was one of those pieces of alchemical magic that happen hermetically. The Hawks, later to become the Band, comprised Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko and Levon Helm. Dylan’s songs and the Hawks’ sound were made for each other. After a couple of stormy warm-up gigs, they took to the road in the autumn of 1965 and travelled through the USA, then, via Hawaii, to Australia, on to Scandinavia and finally to Britain, with a hop over to Paris for a birthday show, in May 1966. Dylan was deranged and dynamic, the group wild and mercurial. Their set, the second half of a show that opened with Dylan playing acoustically to a reverentially silent house, was provocative and perplexing for many. It was certainly the loudest thing anyone had ever heard, and, almost inevitably, the electric set was greeted with anger and dismay. Drummer LevonHelm was so disheartened by the ferocity of the booing that he quit before the turn of the year - drummers Sandy Konikoff and Mickey Jones completed the tour. The most infamous date took place at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in England; known erroneously as the ‘Royal Albert Hall’ concert for many years, the recording was officially released in 1998. After an angry folk fan shouts out ‘Judas’ from the audience, Dylan responds ‘I don’t believe you! You’re a liar!’ and turns round to the band and instructs them to ‘play fuckin’ loud!’ as they begin playing the last song of the night, ‘Like A Rolling Stone’.

Offstage, Dylan was spinning out of control, not sleeping, not eating, looking wasted and apparently heading rapidly for rock ‘n’ roll oblivion. Pennebaker again filmed the tour, this time in Dylan’s employ. The ‘official’ record of the tour was the rarely seen Eat The Document, a film originally commissioned by ABC-TV. The unofficial version compiled by Pennebaker himself was You Know Something Is Happening. ‘What was happening, ’ says Pennebaker, ‘was drugs...’. Dylan was physically exhausted when he returned to America in June 1966, but had to complete the film and finish Tarantula, the book that was overdue for Macmillan. He owed Columbia two more albums before his contract expired, and was booked to play a series of concerts right up to the end of the year in increasingly bigger venues, including Shea Stadium. Then, on 29 July 1966, Dylan was injured in a motorcycle accident near his home in Bearsville, near Woodstock, upper New York State. Was there really a motorcycle accident? Dylan still claims there was. He hurt his neck and had treatment. More importantly, the accident allowed him to shrug off the responsibilities that had been lined up on his behalf by manager Grossman. By now, the relationship between Dylan and Grossman was less than cordial and litigation between the two of them was ongoing until Grossman’s death almost 20 years later.

Dylan was nursed through his convalescence by his wife, Sara - they had been married privately in November 1965 - and was visited only rarely. Rumours spread that Dylan would never perform again. Journalists began to prowl around the estate, looking for some answers but finding no one to ask. After several months of doing little but feeding cats, bringing up young children, and cutting off his hair, Dylan was joined in the Bearsville area by the Hawks, who rented a house called Big Pink in West Saugerties. Every day they met and played music. It was the final therapy that Dylan needed. A huge amount of material was recorded in the basement of Big Pink - old folk songs, old pop songs, old country songs - and, eventually, from these sessions came a clutch of new compositions, which came to be known generically as The Basement Tapes. Some of the songs were surreally comic - ‘Please Mrs Henry’, ‘Quinn The Eskimo’, ‘Million Dollar Bash’; others were soul-searchingly introspective musings on fame, guilt, responsibility and redemption - ‘Tears Of Rage’, ‘Too Much Of Nothing’, ‘I Shall Be Released’. Distributed by Dylan’s music publisher on what became a widely bootlegged tape, many of these songs were covered by, and became hits for, other artists and groups. Dylan’s own recordings of some of the songs were not issued until 1975.

In January 1968, Dylan appeared with the Hawks, at this time renamed the Crackers, at the Woody Guthrie Memorial Concert at Carnegie Hall in New York. The following month John Wesley Harding was released, a stark, heavily moralistic collection of deceptively simple songs such as ‘All Along The Watchtower’ (the subject of a memorable cover version by Jimi Hendrix), ‘The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest’, ‘Dear Landlord’ and ‘Drifter’s Escape’, many of which can be heard as allegorical reflections on the events of the previous couple of years. The record’s final song, however, ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’, was unambivalently simple and presaged the warmer love songs of the frustratingly brief Nashville Skyline, released in April 1969. After the chilly monochrome of John Wesley Harding, here was Dylan in full colour, smiling, apparently at ease at last, and singing in a deep, rich voice, which, oddly, some of his oldest acquaintances maintained was how ‘Bobby’ used to sound back in Minnesota when he was first learning how to sing. ‘Lay Lady Lay’, ‘Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You’, a duet with Johnny Cash on ‘Girl From The North Country’ - it was all easy on the ear, lyrically unsophisticated and, for some, far too twee. Nevertheless, Nashville Skyline was an extraordinarily influential record. It brought a new hipness to the hopelessly out-of-fashion Nashville (where, incidentally and incongruously, Blonde On Blonde had also been recorded) and it heralded a new genre of music - country rock - and a new movement that coincided with, or perhaps helped to spawn, the Woodstock Festival of the same summer. A return to simplicity and a love that was in truth only a distant relation of that psychedelically celebrated by the hippies in San Francisco a couple of years earlier, to whom Dylan paid no heed whatsoever. There are, therefore, no photographs of Bob Dylan in kaftan, beads and flowers or paisley bell-bottoms.

Dylan chose to avoid the Woodstock Festival (though the Band - the newly rechristened Crackers, who by now had two of their own albums, Music From Big Pink and The Band, to their credit - did play there), but he did play at the Isle Of Wight Festival on 31 August 1969. In a baggy Hank Williams-style white suit, it was a completely different Bob Dylan from the fright-haired, rabbit-suited marionette who had howled and screamed in the face of audience hostility at the Albert Hall more than three years earlier. This newly humble Dylan cooed and crooned an ever-so-polite, if ever-so-unexciting, set of songs and in doing so left the audience just as bewildered as those who had booed back in 1966. However, that bewilderment was as nothing compared with the puzzlement that greeted the release, in June 1970, of Self Portrait. This new record most closely resembled the Dylan album that preceded it - the bootleg collection Great White Wonder. Both were double albums; both offered mish-mash mix-ups of undistinguished live tracks, alternate takes, odd cover versions, botched beginnings and endings. Some even heard Self Portrait’s opening track, ‘All The Tired Horses’, as a caustic comment on the bootleggers’ exploitation of ages-old material - was Dylan complaining ‘How’m I supposed to get any ridin’ done?’ or ‘writin’ done?’ There was little new material on Self Portrait, but there was ‘Blue Moon’. The critics howled. Old fans were (yes, once again) dismayed. Rolling Stone magazine was vicious: ‘What is this shit?’, the review by Greil Marcus began.

‘We’ve Got Dylan Back Again’, wrote Ralph Gleason in the same magazine just four months later, heralding the hastily released New Morning as a ‘return to form’. There was Al Kooper; there was the Dylan drawl; there were some slightly surreal lyrics; there was a bunch of new songs; but these were restless times for Dylan. He had left Woodstock and returned to New York, to the heart of Greenwich Village, having bought a townhouse on MacDougal Street. It was, he later realized, an error, especially when A.J. Weberman, the world’s first Dylanologist, turned up on his doorstep to rifle through his garbage in search of clues to unlocking the secret code of his poetry and (unintentionally) scaring his kids. Weberman saw it as his duty to shake Dylan out of his mid-life lethargy and reanimate him into embracing political and moral causes, and remarkably, met with some success. On 1 August 1971, Dylan appeared at The Concert For Bangla Desh benefit, his only live performance between 1970 and 1974, and in November of the same year released ‘George Jackson’, a stridently powerful protest song, as a single. Little else happened for some time. Dylan cropped up so frequently as a guest on other people’s albums that it ceased to be seen as a coup. He began to explore his Jewishness and was famously pictured at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. In 1973 he played, with some aplomb, the enigmatic Alias in Sam Peckinpah’s brilliant Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, for which movie he also supplied the soundtrack music, including the plaintive hit single ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’.

Also in 1973, in a move that confounded industry-watchers, Dylan left Columbia Records, having been persuaded by David Geffen of the advantages of signing to his Asylum Records label. The disadvantage, some might say, was the cruelly spurned Columbia’s misguided desire to exact a kind of revenge. They put out the shambolic Dylan, an album of out-takes and warm-ups, presumably intending either to embarrass Dylan beyond endurance or to steal some of the thunder from his first Asylum album, Planet Waves, newly recorded with the Band. In terms of the records’ merits, there was no contest, although a few of the Dylan tracks were actually quite interesting, and the only embarrassment suffered was by Columbia, who were widely condemned for their petty-minded peevishness.

A US tour followed. Tickets were sold by post and attracted six million applications. Everybody who went to the shows agreed that Dylan and the Band were fantastic. The recorded evidence, Before The Flood, also released by Asylum, certainly oozes energy, but lacks subtlety: Dylan seemed to be trying too hard, pushing everything too fast. It is good, but not that good. What is that good, indisputably and incontestably, is Blood On The Tracks. Originally recorded (for Columbia, no hard feelings, etc.) in late 1974, Dylan substituted some of the songs with versions reworked in Minnesota over the Christmas period. They were his finest compositions since the Blonde On Blonde material. ‘Tangled Up In Blue’, ‘Idiot Wind’, ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’, ‘Shelter From The Storm’, ‘Simple Twist Of Fate’, ‘You’re A Big Girl Now’... one masterpiece followed another. It was not so much a divorce album as a separation album (Dylan’s divorce from Sara wasn’t completed until 1977), but it was certainly a diary of despair. ‘Pain sure brings out the best in people, doesn’t it?’ Dylan sang in 1966’s ‘She’s Your Lover Now’; Blood On The Tracks gave the lie to all those who had argued that Dylan was a spent force.

If Dylan the writer was reborn with Blood On The Tracks, Dylan the performer re-emerged on the Rolling Thunder Revue. A travelling medicine show, moving from small town to small town, playing just about unannounced, the line-up extensive and variable, but basically comprising Dylan, Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Rambling Jack Elliott, Allen Ginsberg, Mick Ronson, Bobby Neuwirth and Ronee Blakley, the Revue was conceived in the Village in the summer of 1975 and hit the road in New England, in Plymouth, Massachusetts, on 31 October. It was a long wished-for dream, and Dylan, face painted white, hat festooned with flowers, was inspired, delirious, imbued with a new vitality and singing like a demon. Some of those great performances are preserved in the four-hour movie Renaldo And Clara, the self-examination through charade and music that Dylan edited through 1977 and defended staunchly and passionately on its release to the almost inevitable uncomprehending or downright hostile barrage of criticism that greeted it. The Revue reconvened for a 1976 tour of the south, musical glimpses of its excitement being issued on the live album Hard Rain. A focal point of the Revue had been the case of wrongly imprisoned boxer Hurricane Carter, to whose cause Dylan had been recruited after having read his book, The Sixteenth Round. Dylan’s song ‘Hurricane’ was included just about every night in the 1975 Revue, and also on the follow-up album to Blood On The Tracks, Desire, which also offered several songs co-written with Jacques Levy. Desire was an understandably popular record; ‘Isis’, ‘Black Diamond Bay’, ‘Romance In Durango’ represented some of Dylan’s strongest narrative ballads.

This was further borne out by the songs on Street Legal, the 1978 album that was released in the middle of a year-long stint with the biggest touring band with which Dylan ever played. Some critics dubbed it the alimony tour, but considerably more funds could have been generated if Dylan had gone out with a four-piece. Many of the old songs were imaginatively reworked in dramatic new arrangements, although the recording is of poor quality. At Budokan, released in 1979, documents the tour at its outset; the Earls Court and Blackbushe concerts caught it memorably mid-stream; while an exhausting trip around the USA in the latter part of the year seemed to bring equal amounts of acclaim and disapproval. ‘Dylan’s gone Vegas’, some reviewers moaned. True, he wore trousers with lightening flashes while behind him flutes and bongos competed for attention with synthesizers and keyboards, but some of the performances were quite wonderful and the new songs, ‘Senor (Tales Of Yankee Power)’, ‘Changing Of The Guard’, ‘Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)’, ‘True Love Tends To Forget’, sounded terrific.

In 1979, Dylan became a born-again Christian and released an album of fervently evangelical songs, Slow Train Coming, recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, with Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett, and featuring Mark Knopfler and Pick Withers from Dire Straits, and in November and December played a series of powerful concerts featuring nothing but his new Christian material. Cries of disbelief? Howls of protest? Well, naturally; but the record was crisp and contemporary-sounding, the songs strong, the performances admirable (Dylan was to win a Grammy for best rock vocal performance on ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’), and the concerts, which continued in 1980, among the most powerful and spine-tingling as any in his entire career. The second Christian album, Saved, was less impressive, however, and the fervour of the earlier months was more muted by the end of the year. Gradually, old songs began to be reworked into the live set and by the time of 1981’s Shot Of Love, it was no longer clear whether or not - or to what extent - Dylan’s faith remained firm. The sarcastic ‘Property Of Jesus’ and the thumping ‘Dead Man, Dead Man’ suggested that not much had changed, but the retrospective ‘In The Summertime’ and the prevaricating ‘Every Grain Of Sand’ hinted otherwise.

After three turbulent years, it was hardly surprising that Dylan dropped from sight for most of 1982, but the following year he was back in the studio, again with Mark Knopfler, having, it was subsequently established, written a prolific amount of new material. The album that resulted, Infidels, released in October 1983, received a mixed reception. Some songs were strong - ‘I&I’ and ‘Jokerman’ among them - others relatively unimpressive. Dylan entered the video age by making promos for ‘Sweetheart Like You’ and ‘Jokerman’, but did not seem too excited about it. Rumours persisted about his having abandoned Christianity and re-embraced the Jewish faith. His name began to be linked with the ultra-orthodox Lubavitcher sect: the inner sleeve of Infidels pictured him touching the soil of a hill above Jerusalem, while ‘Neighbourhood Bully’ was a fairly transparent defence of Israel’s policies towards its neighbours. Dylan, as ever, refused to confirm or deny his state of spiritual health.

In 1984, he appeared live on the David Letterman television show, giving one of his most extraordinary and thrilling performances, backed by a ragged and raw Los Angeles trio, the Cruzados. However, when, a few weeks later, he played his first concert tour for three years, visiting Europe on a package with Santana put together by impresario Bill Graham, Dylan’s band was disappointingly longer in the tooth (with Mick Taylor on guitar and Ian McLagan on organ). An unimpressive souvenir album, Real Live, released in December, was most notable for its inclusion of a substantially rewritten version of ‘Tangled Up In Blue’.

The following year opened with Dylan contributing to the ‘We Are The World’ USA For Africa single, and in the summer, after the release of Empire Burlesque, a patchy record somewhat over-produced by remix specialist Arthur Baker but boasting the beautiful acoustic closer ‘Dark Eyes’, he was the top-of-the-bill act at Live Aid. Initially, Dylan had been supposed to play with a band, but then was asked to perform solo, to aid the logistics of the grande finale. In the event, he recruited Ron Wood and Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones to help him out. The results were disastrous. Hopelessly under-rehearsed and hampered both by the lack of monitors and the racket of the stage being set up behind the curtain in front of which they were performing, the trio were a shambles. Dylan, it was muttered later, must have been the only artist to appear in front of a billion television viewers worldwide and end up with fewer fans than he had when he started. Matters were redeemed a little, however, at the Farm Aid concert in September, an event set up as a result of Dylan’s somewhat gauche onstage ‘charity begins at home’ appeal at Live Aid. Backed by Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers, it was immediately apparent that Dylan had found his most sympathetic and adaptable backing band since the Hawks. The year ended positively, too, with the release of the five album (3-CD) retrospective feast, Biograph, featuring many previously unreleased tracks.

The collaboration with Tom Petty having gone so well, it was decided that the partnership should continue, and a tour was announced to begin in New Zealand, Australia and Japan with more shows to follow in the USA. It was the summer’s hottest ticket and the Petty/Dylan partnership thrived for a further year with a European tour, the first shows of which saw Dylan appearing in Israel for the very first time. Unfortunately, the opening show in Tel Aviv was not well received either by the audience or by the press, whose reviews were vitriolic. The second show in Jerusalem was altogether more enjoyable, until the explosion of the PA system brought the concert to an abrupt end.

Between the two tours, Dylan appeared in his second feature, the Richard Marquand-directed Hearts Of Fire, made in England and Canada and co-starring Rupert Everett and Fiona Flanagan. Dylan played Billy Parker, a washed-up one-time superstar who in all but one respect (the washed-up bit) bore an uncanny resemblance to Dylan himself. Despite Dylan’s best efforts - and he was probably the best thing in the movie - the film was a clunker. Hoots of derision marred the premiere in October 1987 and its theatrical release was limited to one week in the UK. The poor movie was preceded by a poor album, Knocked Out Loaded, which only had the epic song ‘Brownsville Girl’, co-written with playwright Sam Shepard, to recommend it.

Increasingly, it appeared that Dylan’s best attentions were being devoted to his concerts. The shows with Tom Petty had been triumphant. Dylan also shared the bill with the Grateful Dead at several stadium venues, and learned from the experience. He envied their ability to keep on playing shows year in, year out, commanding a following wherever and whenever they played. He liked their two drummers and also admired the way they varied their set each night, playing different songs as and when they felt like it. These peculiarly Deadian aspects of live performance were soon incorporated into Dylan’s own concert philosophy. Down In The Groove, an album of mostly cover versions of old songs, was released in the same month, June 1988, as Dylan played the first shows of what was to become known as the Never-Ending Tour. Backed by a three-piece band led by G.E. Smith, Dylan had stripped down his sound and his songs and was, once again, seemingly re-energized. His appetite for work had never been greater, and this same year he found himself in the unlikely company of George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison as one of the Traveling Wilburys, a jokey rock band assembled on a whim in the spring. Their album, Volume 1, on which Dylan’s voice was as prominent as anyone’s, was, unexpectedly, a huge commercial success.

With his Traveling Wilbury star in the ascendancy, and fresh from his induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, Dylan’s next album emerged as his best of the 80s. Oh Mercy, recorded informally in New Orleans and idiosyncratically produced by Daniel Lanois, sounded fresh and good, and the songs were as strong a bunch as Dylan had come up with in a long time. However, for reasons best known only to himself, it transpired from bootleg tapes that Dylan had been excluding many excellent songs from the albums he had been releasing in the 80s, most notably the masterpiece ‘Blind Willie McTell’, which was recorded for, but not included on, Infidels. Indeed, despite the evident quality of the songs on Oh Mercy - ‘Shooting Star’ and ‘Most Of The Time’ were, for once, both songs of experience, evidence of a maturity that many fans had long been wishing for in Dylan’s songwriting - it turned out that Dylan was still holding back. The crashing, turbulent ‘Series Of Dreams’ and the powerful ‘Dignity’ were products of the Lanois sessions, but were not used on Oh Mercy. Instead, both later appeared on compilation albums.

Not without its merits (the title track and ‘God Knows’ are still live staples, while ‘Born In Time’ is a particularly emotional love song), the nursery-rhyme-style Under The Red Sky, released in September 1990, was for most a relative, probably inevitable, disappointment, as was the Roy-Orbison-bereft Traveling Wilburys follow-up, Volume 3. However, the touring continued, with Dylan’s performances becoming increasingly erratic - sometimes splendid, often shambolic. It was one thing being spontaneous and improvisatory, but it was quite another being slapdash and incompetent. Dylan could be either, and was sometimes both. His audiences began to dwindle, his reputation started to suffer. The three-volume collection of out-takes and rarities, The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3 (Rare And Unreleased) 1961-1991, redeemed him somewhat, as did the 30th Anniversary Celebration concert in Madison Square Garden in 1992, in which some of rock music’s greats and not-so-greats paid tribute to Dylan’s past achievements as a songwriter. The previous year he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammies.

There was, however, precious little present songwriting to celebrate. Both Good As I Been To You (1992) and World Gone Wrong (1993), although admirable, were collections of old folk and blues material, performed, for the first time since 1964, solo and acoustically. Greatest Hits Volume 3 (1994) threw together a clump of old non-hits and Unplugged (1995) saw Dylan revisiting a set of predominantly 60s songs in desultory fashion. Even the most ambitious CD-ROM so far, Highway 61 Interactive, while seemingly pointing to a Dylan-full future, wallowed nostalgically in, and was marketed on the strength of, past glories. Although Dylan’s live performances became more coherent and controlled, his choice of material grew less imaginative through 1994, while many shows in 1995, which saw continued improvement in form, comprised almost entirely of songs written some 30 years earlier.

In 1997 it was rumoured that Dylan was knocking on heaven’s door. Although he had suffered a serious inflammation of the heart muscles (pericarditis brought on by histoplasmosis) he was discharged from hospital after a short time, eliciting his priceless quote to the press: ‘I really thought I’d be seeing Elvis soon’. It was time, perhaps, for doubters to begin to consign Dylan to the pages of history. However, as time has often proved, you can never write off Bob Dylan. He is a devil for hopping out of the hearse on the way to the cemetery. The Lanois-produced Time Out Of Mind was a dark and sombre recording, with Dylan reflecting over lost love and hints of death. It was his best work for many years, and although his voice had continued to decline, the strength of melody and lyric were remarkable. One outstanding example of Dylan’s continuing ability to write a tender love song was ‘To Make You Feel My Love’. Both Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood recorded excellent versions for the movie soundtrack Hope Floats in 1998 (Brooks took it to number 1 on the US country chart). That same year, the official release of the legendary bootleg, recorded at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1966, received a staggering amount of praise from the press. This was completely justified because the concert of familiar songs reminded and confirmed his towering importance as a songwriter.

Dylan’s first recording of the new millennium was ‘Things Have Changed’, the Grammy-award winning main and end-title theme for Curtis Hanson’s movie Wonder Boys. His new studio album Love And Theft received generous praise, far in excess of its overall quality. Only ‘Mississippi’ could be classed as a great Dylan song. The quality of the material was thrown into sharp relief by two further superb releases in the Bootleg Series, a compilation of live recordings of the Rolling Thunder Revue from 1975, and a 1964 concert from the Philharmonic Hall in New York. Dylan, meanwhile, was concentrating on completing the script for his next venture into the world of film. The star-studded Masked And Anonymous was greeted with resounding indifference when it was first shown in 2003, with reviewers either puzzled or openly repulsed by the cryptic screenplay. Dylan fans took another view; it was weird but brilliant. A various artists soundtrack album, featuring several radical reworkings of classic Dylan material, was released at the same time.

The following October Dylan published the first volume of his memoirs, Chronicles: Volume One. While retaining hints of his trademark opacity, Dylan’s prose evinced a clarity and generosity absent from his previous written output. In September 2005, the Martin Scorsese television film No Direction Home: Bob Dylan was broadcast on public television channels in the USA and UK. This remarkable film focused on Dylan’s life and music from 1961-66. Dylan embarked on a series of radio broadcasts in 2006 when he presented Theme Time Radio Hour, another astonishing addition to his talent portfolio. Few would have thought that he could have carried it off with such warmth and devilish humour, but the shows, together with some exceptional music, became an unmissable weekly event for Dylan fans.

The musical world welcomed Dylan’s 2006 release Modern Times with open arms. The reviews were remarkable and fully justified in their praise for what was his greatest work since Oh Mercy. This was no gratuitous coincidence as the album hit the US chart at number 1, making Dylan the oldest person ever to do so. After almost 50 years of writing lyrics he still has something to say; now with a weathered tone and dry humour, but interesting and profound nonetheless. His standing was confirmed the following year when he was awarded an honorary Pulitzer Prize, the first rock ‘n’ roll artist to achieve such status.

Whatever the quality of his musical output will be in the future (and at present the future looks good), Bob Dylan is unquestionably the greatest musical poet of the twentieth century and certainly one of the most important figures in the entire history of popular music.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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