BIOGRAPHY: BOB DYLAN
(Name of the Professor)
In Requirement of fulfillment of the Course
(Name of the Course)
In 2007, it was announced that one of the popular songs of singer Bob Dylan was about to be remixed. It came across as a shock to rock’n roll fans worldwide who considered this remix idea as if someone is trying to draw a moustache on Leonardo DaVinci’s famous Mona Lisa portrait. The song to be remixed was, “Most Likely You Go Your Way” and a new video was to be released for the remix that was directed by Rupert Jones. For this purpose, hundreds of Bob Dylan look-alikes all across the USA auditioned for the role. The aim was to introduce a new song for the dance floor for today’s generation. When observing the auditions and listening to the same track being played and replayed with new bass and changed drums, one cannot help but reminisce about the life of Bob Dylan and his career spanning over almost half a century. ((Yaffe, 2011: Introduction- Pages: XV-XVI)
Starting his career from performing at a coffeehouse named Ten O Clock Scholar; Robert Allen Zimmerman made his way to the local Dinky town folk music group. It was during his time at that music group that Zimmerman found a passionate interest in the poetry of Dylan Thomas and, therefore, designed a new stage name for himself; Bob Dylan.
Bob Dylan dropped out of college and travelled to New York in 1960 to find better opportunities. From February 1961, Dylan worked and performed at several clubs around the Greenwich Village. During his performing years at the village, Dylan sought inspiration from various poets and artists, such as Frank O’Hara, Dave Van Ronk, Robert Lowell, Wallace Stevens, T.S. Elliot, Fred Neil, Odetta, and the Clancy Brothers. His performance caught the eye of producer John Hammond, who signed up Dylan with Columbia Records in October 1961. Dylan released his first album in the summer of 1962 titled “Bob Dylan," comprising mainly of gospel, blues and folk music. (Yaffe, 2011: The Cawing, Derisive Voice- Page 2)
Throughout the 1960’s, Dylan did not achieve much success in his musical career. However, he would later be regarded as a “new kind of hybrid” for the 60’s genre. He is regarded as probably one of the first singer-songwriter; a category he practically invented. Using pseudonyms such as Bob Landy, Bill Boy Grunt and Tedham Porterhouse, Dylan composed and sang several songs and provided music to the music album Jack Elliot. (Yaffe, 2011: The Cawing, Derisive Voice- Page 3).
Dylan’s next album was released in 1963 titled “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan." The album established Bob Dylan as one of the leading singers and contemporary songwriters of that time. The songs were brilliant, not just in terms of music and vocals, but also had powerful political lyrics. “Girl from the North Country” and “Masters of War” became cult classics. Most of his songs addressed civil rights issues and nuclear war hysteria amongst Americans. For instance, his song “Oxford Town” described the plight of James Meredith; the first African-American student to enroll at the University of Mississippi. “A Hard Rains a-Gonna Fall” was a satirical intake on the impending nuclear apocalypse and the Cuban missile crisis. However, it was the song “Blowin’ in the Wind” that became one of Dylan’s most popular songs to date and recognized as an (unofficial) anthem of the 60’s. The song posed rhetorical questions on peace, war and social inequalities and injustice. George Harrison of The Beatles had this to say, “The song lyrics and the attitude were incredibly wonderful and original!” His untrained and distinctive voice, especially nasal singing ability, had left listeners in a mix; some praising his abilities and credentials as a singer, while others are rejecting it.
His political beliefs deepened into his lyrics with his third album “The Times They Are a-Changin’” which reflected his support for several civil rights movements, in particular his disgust as the murder of Medgar Evers. (Yaffe, 2011: The Cawing, Derisive Voice- Page 7)
His fourth album “Another Side of Bob Dylan” was no different from his previous one. By this time, critics were already of the opinion that “Dylan had become a social outcast and was more caught up with the current political affairs, rather than being a songwriter and singer."
Dylan’s career drastically changed from that of a political sloganeer and civil rights’ activist in 1964 to that of a fragmented, Beat-influenced, folk-rock music star in 1965. As writer David Yaffe identifies:
“His voice changed from a big-city shouter is to that of a drugged-out gnome. The voice would continue to change over the upcoming years, but its message (much to Dylan’s relief) was no longer that of a social change, activism or a revolution.” (Yaffe, 2011: The Cawing, Derisive Voice- Page 7)
With his fifth album “Bringing It All Back Home," Bob Dylan ventured into the electric and acoustic and rock’n roll genre. The songs “Mr. Tambourine Man," “It is All Over Now Baby Blue” and “It is All right Ma (I am only Bleeding)” were fused with electric music and became two of the most three of the most important songs of the album. However, his songs (and subsequently his performance at a concert in Newport in 1965) were heavily criticized by the folk music fans. This period was termed as an “Electric Shock”, or the “Electric Dylan Controversy." Singer Evan McColl wrote:
“Our traditional folk songs were created by very well-talented artists working in the same genre for over years. However, what is Bob Dylan doing?!”
In July 1965, Dylan released an over six-minute single track “Like A Rolling Stone," which at its peak, ranked 2nd on US charts. The song paved way for his next album “Highway 61 Revisited.” Most of the songs were a sharp contrast from blues and folk music, such as “Desolation Row” and were backed by acoustic guitars. The following year, Dylan toured Europe and Australia where he performed concerts divided into two parts. The first part was a solo gig featuring the singer himself playing acoustic guitars and harmonica while the second part comprised of teaming up with the Hawks and playing electric genre. The tour concluded with an infamous showdown Dylan had with a charged-up member of the audience in England in 1966. (Yaffe, 2011: The Cawing, Derisive Voice- Page 7)
Philip Larkin, an English poet and a noted critic of the American music, described Bob Dylan’s voice as “cawing and divisive” upon hearing the tracks of Highway 61 Revisited. While many critics did not appreciate Dylan’s voice, singing style and constant switching between political philanthropy and electric rock genre, it should be noted that these are the features that set Dylan apart from other singers and composers of his era.
Dylan’s music revolutionized rock. With rage and playfulness, Dylan completely disregarded folk music and ventured into the rock genre. He gave vague interviews and contradictory remarks about his intentions. D.A. Pennebaker's documentary “Don't Look Back” highlights some of the hysteria surrounding him and the cold detachment he had with his celebrity status. As his song "Rainy Day Women” became Number two in April 1966, Dylan's worldwide record sales crossed $10 million mark, making him the most sought after singer in US and an inspiration for several fellow and struggling musicians.
In 1968, Dylan made his comeback after recovering from a fatal motorbike accident with his new album “John Wesley Harding.” Dylan again returned to folk songs with his classic "All Along the Watchtower," (which was later covered, and redefined, by Jimmy Hendrix). It is worth mentioning that during his recovery phase, he and his band continued writing songs, which were released in 1975 by the name of “The Basement Tapes."
In May 1969, he released his next album “Nashville Skyline," featuring "Lay Lady Lay" and "Girl from the North Country," with a mellower vocal by Johnny Cash. Dylan's 1970’s albums appeared less portentous. His 1970 “Self Portrait” included songs by other lyricists. Universally panned by the critics, Dylan released another album “New Morning” in a rush, the same year. He received an honorary doctorate in Music from Princeton.
In 1971, his next album “Tarantula” was released to a largely non-appreciative audience. The album contained most of his songs from 1960’s, with a new single titled “Watching the River Flow.” Dylan sang at the Band concert that resulted in an unreleased album titled “Rock of Ages."
Later in 1972 he played a role in and wrote a song for “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid.” David Geffen's Asylum label released Dylan’s next album “Planet Waves.” Dylan wrote an early version of his next album “Blood on the Tracks," copying music from Minneapolis players and hit the Number one spot in 1975. He co-wrote some of the songs in his album “Desire” with producer Jacques Levy.
In 1976, Dylan appeared in the Band's farewell concert, “The Last Waltz," which was filmed by Martin Scorsese. In 1978, Dylan had to bear a $2 million loss on the movie “Renaldo and Clara," a four-hour film starring him, Joan Baez and the Rolling Stones. In March 1977, Dylan’s wife Sara Lowndes filed for divorce and took custody of their kids.
In 1979, Dylan became a born-again Christian. His next album, “Slow Train Coming” helped him bag his first Grammy Award for Best Rock Vocal Performance (Male). With his new-found faith, his music and lyrics went on to define a new message, with his albums “Saved” (1980) and “Shot of Love” (1981) continued that message.
In late 1983, he released his next album “Infidels," two years after touring the USA and repudiating his faith in Christianity. He travelled to Israel and recorded with several artists there. This time, his lyrics were more churlish than religious, although Dylan did admit that his song ""Neighborhood Bully,"" was targeted towards Arab-Israeli relations.
“Empire Burlesque," released in 1985, once again confused listeners with its backup singers. Dylan went on a tour with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in 1986 to promote his next album “Knocked out Loaded.” Dylan again toured in 1987. This time, with the Grateful Dead as his backup band, he released the concert album, “Dylan & the Dead.”
He delayed the release of his next album “Down in the Groove” twice in six months in 1988. The album also featured Eric Clapton, Sex Pistols and rappers Full Force. Dylan was inducted into the Rock’n Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. Later that year, he released “Oh Mercy.” The album was a collection of songs in which Dylan sounded focused and energized. However, as always, Dylan’s style was unpredictable. In 1988, he went on the Never Ending Tour, where he edited his songs and at times threw them away with poor performance and motivation. His next album “Under the Red Sky” (1990) was a failure.
In 1990 Dylan achieved Commandeur dans l'Ordre des Art et des Lettres, the highest cultural honor in France. In 1991, Dylan was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammy, and he gave a performance on “Masters of War” again shocked fans in disbelief. On October 16, 1992, Columbia celebrated the 30th anniversary of Dylan's first album with a concert at Madison Square Garden, NY, featuring Neil Young, Pearl Jam, Tom Petty, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan himself. The concert was released as an album and video the following year. Apparently, to bring his career full circle, Dylan recorded two folk solo guitar songs, “Good as I Been to You” (1992) and “World Gone Wrong” (1993).
Throughout the 1990’s, Dylan assembled one of the best bands and started playing both country-rock and acoustic string-band versions of his hit songs. Teaming up again with producer Lanois, Dylan released the deep-blue songs in his next venture “Time Out of Mind” (1997), which became his most critically acclaimed release in almost 20 years.
In 2000, Dylan wrote a new song called "Things Have Changed." The song became popular after it was bought for the soundtrack of the movie Wonder Boys. The song then also won a Grammy Award. In 2001, Dylan recorded a new album called “Love and Theft”, with his road band. Even though the album was recorded in haste, it reached the Number Five spot. Dylan used the same cracked voice and gloomy viewpoint that made his album Time Out of Mind a laughing stock for the fans. He even made a knock-knock joke in "Po' Boy." The effect was as hard-hitting and profound as that of Time Out of Mind. The album ranked high in every major critic’s poll, with several reviewers reading deeply into the irony and uncanny that such an apocalyptic album was released on September 11, 2001.
Throughout his career spanning over 50 years, Bob Dylan came to be known as one of the most versatile artists in American history. He has influenced pop culture and music for five decades. He has been awarded for being one of the most influential people on American music and pop culture. He remains a success despite the difficulties he faced and will remain a legend in America. Lucinda Williams once stated, “I want to be a female version of Bob Dylan.” . (Yaffe, 2011: The Cawing, Derisive Voice- Page 4).
Yaffe, David. Icons of America: Bob Dylan- Like A Complete Unknown. Michigan: Yale University Press, 2011.