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 B  O  B     D  Y  L  A  N




Born Robert Allen Zimmerman, May 24, 1941, Duluth, Minnesota

Now in the fourth decade of his career, Bob Dylan has been the most inscrutable and unpredictable figure in rock. In both his stance and his music, he was the most influential American pop musician of the Sixties, and the repercussions of his many styles are still widespread. Dylan was deified and denounced for every shift of interest, while whole schools of musicians took up his ideas, and his lyrics became so well known that politicians from Jimmy Carter to Vaclav Havel have cited them. By personalizing folk songs, Dylan reinvented the singer/songwriter genre; by performing his allusive, poetic songs in his nasal, spontaneous vocal style with an electric band, he enlarged pop's range and vocabulary while creating a widely imitated sound. By recording with Nashville veterans, he reconnected rock and country, hinting at the country-rock of the Seventies. In the Eighties and Nineties, although he has at times seemed to flounder, he still has the ability to challenge, infuriate, and surprise listeners.

Robert Zimmerman's family moved to Hibbing, Minnesota, from Duluth when he was six. After taking up guitar and harmonica, he formed the Golden Chords while he was a freshman in high school. He enrolled at the arts college of the University of Minnesota in 1959; during his three semesters there, he began to perform solo at coffeehouses as Bob Dylan (after Dylan Thomas; he legally changed his name in August 1962).

Dylan moved to New York City in January 1961, saying he wanted to meet Woody Guthrie, who was by then hospitalized with Huntington's chorea. Dylan visited his idol frequently. That April he played New York's Gerde's Folk City as the opener for John Lee Hooker, with a set of Guthrie-style ballads and his own lyrics to traditional tunes. A New York Times review by Robert Shelton alerted A&R man John Hammond, who signed Dylan to Columbia and produced his first album.

Although Bob Dylan included only two originals, "Talking New York" and "Song to Woody," Dylan stirred up the Greenwich Village folk scene with his caustic humor and gift for giving topical songs deep resonances. The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (#22, 1963) included "Blowin' in the Wind" (a hit for Peter, Paul and Mary), "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall," and "Masters of War," protest songs on a par with Guthrie's and Pete Seeger's. Joan Baez, already established as a "protest singer," recorded Dylan's songs and brought him on tour; in summer 1963 they became lovers.

By 1964 Dylan was playing 200 concerts a year. The Times They Are a-Changin' (#20, 1964) mixed protest songs ("With God on Our Side") and more personal lyrics ("One Too Many Mornings"). He met the Beatles at Kennedy Airport and reportedly introduced them to marijuana. Another Side of Bob Dylan (#43, 1964), recorded in summer 1964, concentrated on personal songs and imagistic free associations such as "Chimes of Freedom"; Dylan repudiated his protest phase with "My Back Pages." In late 1964 Columbia A&R man Jim Dickson introduced Dylan to Jim (later Roger) McGuinn, to whom Dylan gave "Mr. Tambourine Man," which became the Byrds' first hit in 1965, kicking off folk rock. Meanwhile, the Dylan-Baez liaison fell apart, and Dylan met 25-year-old ex-model Shirley Noznisky, a.k.a. Sara Lowndes, whom he married in 1965. With Bringing It All Back Home (#6), released early in 1965, Dylan turned his back on folk purism; for half the album he was backed by a rock & roll band. On July 25, 1965, he played the Newport Folk Festival (where two years earlier he had been the cynosure of the folksingers) backed by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and was booed. The next month, he played the Forest Hills tennis stadium with a band that included Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson, which accompanied him on a tour and later became the Band [see entry]. "Like a Rolling Stone" (#2, 1965) became Dylan's first major hit.

The music Dylan made in 1965 and 1966 revolutionized rock. The intensity of his performances and his live-in-the-studio albums -- Highway 61 Revisited (#3, 1965), Blonde on Blonde (#9, 1966) -- were a revelation, and his lyrics were analyzed, debated, and quoted like no pop before them. With rage and slangy playfulness, Dylan chewed up and spat out literary and folk traditions in a wild, inspired doggerel. He didn't explain; he gave off-the-wall interviews and press conferences in which he'd spin contradictory fables about his background and intentions. D. A. Pennebaker's documentary of Dylan's British tour, Don't Look Back, shows some of the hysteria. As "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" went to #2 in April 1966, Dylan's worldwide record sales topped ten million, and more than 150 other groups or artists had recorded at least one of his songs.

On July 29, 1966, Dylan smashed up his Triumph 55 motorcycle while riding near his Woodstock, New York, home. With several broken neck vertebrae, a concussion, and lacerations of the face and scalp, he was reportedly in critical condition for a week and bedridden for a month, with aftereffects including amnesia and mild paralysis. Though the extent of Dylan's injuries was later questioned by biographers, he did spend nine months in seclusion. As he recovered, he and the Band recorded the songs that were widely bootlegged -- and legitimately released in 1975 -- as The Basement Tapes (#7), whose droll, enigmatic, steeped-in-Americana sound would be continued by the Band on their own.

In 1968 Dylan made his public reentry with the quiet John Wesley Harding (#2), which ignored the baroque psychedelia in vogue since the Beatles' 1967 Sgt. Pepper; Dylan wrote new enigmas into such folkish ballads as "All Along the Watchtower." On January 20, 1968, he returned to the stage, performing three songs at a Woody Guthrie memorial concert, and in May 1969 he revealed a new, more mellow voice on the overtly countryish Nashville Skyline (#3), featuring "Lay Lady Lay" (#7, 1969) and "Girl from the North Country," with a guest vocal by Johnny Cash.

Dylan's early Seventies acts seemed less portentous. His 1970 Self Portrait (#4) included songs by other writers and live takes from a 1969 Isle of Wight concert with the Band. Widely criticized, Dylan went back into the studio and rush-released the mild, countryish New Morning (#7, 1970). By mid-1970 Dylan had moved to 94 MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village; on June 9, he received an honorary doctorate in music from Princeton.

George Harrison, with whom Dylan cowrote "I'd Have You Anytime," "If Not for You," and a few other songs that summer, persuaded Dylan to appear at the Concert for Bangla Desh; Leon Russell, who also performed, produced Dylan's single "Watching the River Flow." That year he also released his first protest song since the mid-Sixties, "George Jackson." In 1971 Tarantula, a collection of writings from the mid-Sixties, was published to an unenthusiastic reception. Dylan sang at the Band concert that resulted in Rock of Ages (1972) but didn't appear on the album; he sat in on albums by Doug Sahm, Steve Goodman, McGuinn, and others. Late in 1972 he played Alias and wrote a score for Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (#16, 1973), including "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" (#12, 1973). Writings and Drawings by Bob Dylan, a collection of lyrics and liner notes up to New Morning was published in 1973. Between Columbia contracts, Dylan moved to Malibu in 1973 and made a handshake deal with David Geffen's Asylum label, which released Planet Waves (#1, 1974); Columbia retaliated with Dylan (#17, 1973), embarrassing outtakes from Self Portrait. Dylan and the Band played 39 shows in 21 cities, selling out 651,000 seats for a 1974 tour; the last three dates in L.A. were recorded for Before the Flood.

Dylan scrapped an early version of Blood on the Tracks and recut the songs with local musicians in Minneapolis. He cowrote some of the songs on Desire (#1, 1976) with producer Jacques Levy; before making that LP, Dylan had returned to some Greenwich Village hangouts. A series of jams at the Other End led to the notion of a communal tour, and in October bassist Rob Stoner began rehearsing the large, shifting entourage (including Baez and such Village regulars as Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Bobby Neuwirth) that became the Rolling Thunder Revue, which toured on and off -- with guests including Allen Ginsberg, Joni Mitchell, Mick Ronson, McGuinn, and Arlo Guthrie -- until spring 1976. The Revue started with surprise concerts at small halls (the first in Plymouth, Massachusetts, for an audience of 200) and worked up to outdoor stadiums like the one in Fort Collins, Colorado, where NBC-TV filmed Hard Rain. The troupe played two benefits for convicted murderer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter (subject of Dylan's "Hurricane"), which, after expenses, raised no money. Dylan's efforts helped Carter get a retrial, but he was convicted and one of the witnesses, Patty Valentine, sued Dylan over his use of her name in "Hurricane."

In 1976 Dylan appeared in the Band's farewell concert, The Last Waltz, which was filmed by Martin Scorsese. His wife, Sara Lowndes, filed for divorce in March 1977. She received custody of their five children: Maria (Sara's daughter by a previous marriage whom Dylan had adopted), Jesse, Anna, Samuel, and Jakob. Dylan took a $2-million loss on Renaldo and Clara, a four-hour film released early in 1978 including footage of the Rolling Thunder Tour and starring himself and Joan Baez. He embarked on an extensive tour (New Zealand, Australia, Europe, the U.S., and Japan, where he recorded Bob Dylan at Budokan), redoing his old songs with some of the trappings of a Las Vegas lounge act.

Dylan announced in 1979 that he was a born-again Christian. McGuinn, the Alpha Band (an outgrowth of Rolling Thunder), and Debby Boone had introduced him to fundamentalist teachings. Slow Train Coming, overtly God-fearing, rose to #3; "Gotta Serve Somebody" (#24, 1979) netted Dylan his first Grammy (for Best Rock Vocal Performance, Male). His West Coast tour late in 1979 featured only his born-again material; Saved and Shot of Love continued that message. In late 1981 he embarked on a 22-city U.S. tour; in 1982 amid rumors he had repudiated his born-again Christianity, Dylan traveled to Israel. Infidels (#20, 1983), recorded with a band that included Mark Knopfler, Mick Taylor, and reggae greats Sly and Robbie, answered no questions. Despite its title, the album was more churlish than religious, although Dylan did admit that "Neighborhood Bully" was about Arab-Israeli relations. Biograph (#33, 1985), a five-disc retrospective with 18 previously unreleased tracks, helped put Dylan's long career in perspective, but Empire Burlesque (#33), released the same year, puzzled listeners with its backup singers and cluttered production by dance-music specialist Arthur Baker. A tour with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in 1986 supported the sloppy, cryptic Knocked Out Loaded (#53).

Dylan further confounded fans with a 1987 tour double-billed with the Grateful Dead, who also backed him. The shows yielded a concert album, Dylan & the Dead (#37, 1989). He appeared in the film Hearts of Fire with the singer Fiona. Although both Dylan and the movie were ravaged by the critics, Dylan's role as a burnt-out middle-aged rock star struck some as coming too close to the truth.

Dylan delayed the release of Down in the Groove (#61, 1988) twice in six months. The final product, with guests including Eric Clapton, Steve Jones (Sex Pistols), rappers Full Force, and members of the Dead, sounded tentative and unfocused. But as "Lucky," one-fifth of the Traveling Wilburys, Dylan appeared to enjoy participating in a group project. Dylan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989 and later that year released his best-received album of the Eighties, Oh Mercy (#30). Produced by Daniel Lanois (U2, Robbie Robertson) in New Orleans, it was a coherent collection of songs, and Dylan sounded reenergized and engaged. But as he had throughout his career, Dylan defied expectations. On his Never Ending Tour, started in 1988, Dylan recast his songs, at times throwing them away with offhand performances. His appearance on the L'Chaim -- To Life telethon led to rumors he had joined a Hasidic sect. Under the Red Sky (#38, 1990), the followup to Oh Mercy was almost universally panned.

In 1990 Dylan was named a Commandeur dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, France's highest cultural honor. At the Grammy Awards in 1991, where he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award, Dylan's whimsical acceptance "speech" and sloppy, almost unintelligible performance of "Masters of War" (the Gulf War had recently raged) left some fans scratching their heads, while others applauded his pugnacious attitude. For The Bootleg Series, vol. 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) (#49,1991), Dylan opened up the vaults; its 58 outtakes, live tracks, and demos proving Dylan's prolific virtuosity.

Columbia Records marked the 30th anniversary of Dylan's first album with an all-star concert at New York's Madison Square Garden. More than 30 stars, including Neil Young, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, Tom Petty, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Johnny Cash, Lou Reed, and Dylan himself, participated in the October 16, 1992, show, dubbed the "Bobfest" by Young. Broadcast live on pay-per-view, it was released as an album and video the next year. As if to bring his career full circle, Dylan recorded two folkish guitar and vocal albums of traditional songs: Good as I Been to You (#51, 1992) and World Gone Wrong (#70,1993). The latter earned Dylan the 1994 Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album.

In the mid-1990s Dylan's live concerts revived. Assembling one of the best bands of his career, he stopped throwing away his songs, instead playing both countryish rock and acoustic string-band versions of his best compositions. He made a triumphant appearance at Woodstock '94, though he had snubbed the original 1969 festival. In late 1994 Dylan performed on MTV Unplugged, with his new band augmented by Pearl Jam's producer Brendan O'Brien on keyboards (highlights were released on the 1995 Bob Dylan Unplugged album).

 

THE ALBUMS

1962 -- Bob Dylan (Columbia)
1963 -- The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan
1964 -- The Times They Are a Changin'; Another Side of Bob Dylan
1965 -- Bringing It All Back Home; Highway 61 Revisited
1966 -- Blonde on Blonde
1967 -- Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits; John Wesley Harding
1969 -- Nashville Skyline
1970 -- Self Portrait; New Morning
1971 -- Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, vol. 2
1973 -- Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid; Dylan
1974 -- Planet Waves (Asylum); Before the Flood
1975 -- Blood on the Tracks (Columbia); The Basement Tapes
1976 -- Desire; Hard Rain
1978 -- Bob Dylan at Budokan; Street Legal
1979 -- Slow Train Coming
1980 -- Saved
1981 -- Shot of Love
1983 -- Infidels
1984 -- Real Live
1985 -- Empire Burlesque; Biograph
1986 -- Knocked Out Loaded
1988 -- Down in the Groove
1989 -- Oh Mercy; Dylan & the Dead (with the Grateful Dead)
1990 -- Under the Red Sky
1991 -- The Bootleg Series, vol. 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961--1991
1992 -- Good As I Been to You
1993 -- The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration (with other artists); World Gone Wrong
1994 -- Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, vol. 3
1995 -- Unplugged

 

 

 

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