Bob Dylan (/ˈdɪlən/; born Robert Allen Zimmerman, May 24, 1941) is an American musician, singer-songwriter, artist, and writer. He has been an influential figure in popular music and culture for more than five decades. Much of his most celebrated work dates from the 1960s, when he was an informal chronicler and a seemingly reluctant figurehead of social unrest.
A number of Dylan's early songs, such as "Blowin' in the Wind" and "The Times They Are a-Changin'", became anthems for the US civil rights and anti-war movements. Leaving behind his initial base in the culture of the folk music revival, Dylan's six-minute single "Like a Rolling Stone" radically altered the parameters of popular music in 1965. His recordings employing electric instruments attracted denunciation and criticism from others in the folk movement.
Dylan's lyrics have incorporated a variety of political, social, philosophical, and literary influences. They defied existing pop music conventions and appealed hugely to the then burgeoning counterculture. Initially inspired by the performance style of Little Richard, and the songwriting of Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson, and Hank Williams, Dylan has both amplified and personalized musical genres. His recording career, spanning fifty years, has explored many of the traditions in American song—from folk, blues, and country to gospel, rock and roll, and rockabilly to English, Scottish, and Irish folk music, embracing even jazz and swing. Dylan performs with guitar, keyboards, and harmonica. Backed by a changing line-up of musicians, he has toured steadily since the late 1980s on what has been dubbed the Never Ending Tour. His accomplishments as a recording artist and performer have been central to his career, but his greatest contribution is generally considered his songwriting.
Since 1994, Dylan has published three books of drawings and paintings, and his work has been exhibited in major art galleries. As a songwriter and musician, Dylan has sold more than 100 million records worldwide and received numerous awards over the years including Grammy, Golden Globe, and Academy Awards; he has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Minnesota Music Hall of Fame, Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and Songwriters Hall of Fame. The Pulitzer Prize jury in 2008 awarded him a special citation for "his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power." In May 2012, Dylan received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.
Life and career
Origins and musical beginnings
Bob Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman (Hebrew: רוברט אלן צימרמאן, Hebrew name שבתאי זיסל בן אברהם [Shabtai Zisl ben Avraham]) in St. Mary's Hospital on May 24, 1941, in Duluth, Minnesota, and raised in Hibbing, Minnesota, on the Mesabi Iron Range west of Lake Superior. His paternal grandparents, Zigman and Anna Zimmerman, emigrated from Odessa in the Russian Empire (now Ukraine) to the United States following the anti-Semitic pogroms of 1905. His maternal grandparents, Benjamin and Lybba Edelstein, were Lithuanian Jews who arrived in the United States in 1902. In his autobiography Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan writes that his paternal grandmother's maiden name was Kirghiz and her family originated from Kağızman in north eastern Turkey.
Dylan's parents, Abram Zimmerman and Beatrice "Beatty" Stone, were part of the area's small but close-knit Jewish community. Robert Zimmerman lived in Duluth until age six, when his father was stricken with polio and the family returned to his mother's home town, Hibbing, where Zimmerman spent the rest of his childhood. Robert Zimmerman spent his early years listening to the radio—first to blues and country stations broadcasting from Shreveport, Louisiana, and, as a teen, to early rock and roll. Zimmerman formed several bands while attending Hibbing High School. In the Golden Chords, he performed covers of songs by Little Richard and Elvis Presley. Their performance of Danny and the Juniors' "Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay" at their high school talent show was so loud that the principal cut the microphone off. In 1959, his high school yearbook carried the caption: "Robert Zimmerman: to join 'Little Richard'." The same year, using the name Elston Gunnn [sic], he performed two dates with Bobby Vee, playing piano and supplying handclaps.
Zimmerman moved to Minneapolis in September 1959, where he enrolled at the University of Minnesota. His early focus on rock and roll gave way to an interest in American folk music; in 1985, Dylan explained the attraction that folk music had exerted on him:
The thing about rock'n'roll is that for me anyway it wasn't enough ... There were great catch-phrases and driving pulse rhythms ... but the songs weren't serious or didn't reflect life in a realistic way. I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings.
He soon began to perform at the Ten O'Clock Scholar, a coffeehouse a few blocks from campus, and became actively involved in the local Dinkytown folk music circuit.
During his Dinkytown days, Zimmerman began introducing himself as "Bob Dylan". In his memoir, Dylan acknowledged that he had been influenced by the poetry of Dylan Thomas. Explaining his change of name in a 2004 interview, Dylan remarked: "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."
Relocation to New York and record deal
Dylan dropped out of college at the end of his first year (May 1960). In January 1961, he traveled to New York City, hoping to perform there and visit his musical idol Woody Guthrie, who was seriously ill with Huntington's Disease in Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital. Guthrie had been a revelation to Dylan and was the biggest influence on his early performances. Describing Guthrie's impact on him, Dylan later wrote: "The songs themselves had the infinite sweep of humanity in them ... [He] was the true voice of the American spirit. I said to myself I was going to be Guthrie's greatest disciple." As well as visiting Guthrie in the hospital, Dylan befriended Guthrie's acolyte Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Much of Guthrie's repertoire was actually channeled through Elliott, and Dylan paid tribute to Elliott in Chronicles (2004).
From February 1961, Dylan played at various clubs around Greenwich Village. He befriended and picked up material from many folk singers in the Village scene, including Dave Van Ronk, Fred Neil, Odetta, the New Lost City Ramblers, and Irish musicians The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. In September, Dylan gained some public recognition when Robert Shelton wrote a positive review in The New York Times of a show at Gerde's Folk City. The same month Dylan played harmonica on folk singer Carolyn Hester's eponymous third album, which brought his talents to the attention of the album's producer, John Hammond. Hammond signed Dylan to Columbia Records in October. The performances on his first Columbia album, Bob Dylan, released in March 1962, consisted of familiar folk, blues and gospel material combined with two original compositions. The album made little impact, selling only 5,000 copies in its first year, just enough to break even. Within Columbia Records, some referred to the singer as "Hammond's Folly" and suggested dropping his contract, but Hammond defended Dylan vigorously and was supported by Johnny Cash, an early fan of Dylan. In March 1962, Dylan contributed harmonica and back-up vocals to the album Three Kings and the Queen, accompanying Victoria Spivey and Big Joe Williams on a recording for Spivey Records. While working for Columbia, Dylan also recorded several songs under the pseudonym Blind Boy Grunt, for Broadside Magazine, a folk music magazine and record label. Dylan used the pseudonym Bob Landy to record as a piano player on The Blues Project, a 1964 anthology album issued by Elektra Records. Under the pseudonym Tedham Porterhouse, Dylan contributed harmonica to Ramblin' Jack Elliott's 1964 album Jack Elliott.
"Blowin' in the Wind"
Blowin' in the Wind was, according to critic Andy Gill, "the song with which Dylan's name is most inextricably linked, and safeguarded his reputation as a civil libertarian through any number of changes in style and attitude".
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Dylan made two important career moves in August 1962. He legally changed his name to Bob Dylan, and he signed a management contract with Albert Grossman. (In June 1961, Dylan had signed an agreement with Roy Silver. According to Dylan biographer Howard Sounes, Dylan regarded Silver as an agent who might help him to secure bookings rather than a manager. In 1962, Grossman paid Silver $10,000 to become the sole manager of Dylan's career.) Grossman remained Dylan's manager until 1970, and was notable both for his sometimes confrontational personality, and for the fiercely protective loyalty he displayed towards his principal client. Dylan subsequently said of Grossman, "He was kind of like a Colonel Tom Parker figure ... you could smell him coming." Tensions between Grossman and John Hammond led to Hammond being replaced as the producer of Dylan's second album by the young African American jazz producer Tom Wilson.
From December 1962 to January 1963, Dylan made his first trip to the United Kingdom. He had been invited by TV director Philip Saville to appear in a drama, Madhouse on Castle Street, which Saville was directing for BBC Television. At the end of the play, Dylan performed "Blowin' in the Wind", one of the first public performances of the song. The film recording of Madhouse on Castle Street was destroyed by the BBC in 1968. While in London, Dylan performed at several London folk clubs, including The Troubadour, Les Cousins, and Bunjies. He also learned new material from several UK performers, including Martin Carthy.
By the time Dylan's second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, was released in May 1963, he had begun to make his name as both a singer and a songwriter. Many of the songs on this album were labeled protest songs, inspired partly by Guthrie and influenced by Pete Seeger's passion for topical songs. "Oxford Town", for example, was a sardonic account of James Meredith's ordeal as the first black student to risk enrollment at the University of Mississippi.
His most famous song at this time, "Blowin' in the Wind", partially derived its melody from the traditional slave song "No More Auction Block", while its lyrics questioned the social and political status quo. The song was widely recorded and became an international hit for Peter, Paul and Mary, setting a precedent for many other artists who had hits with Dylan's songs. "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" was based on the tune of the folk ballad "Lord Randall". With its veiled references to an impending apocalypse, the song gained even more resonance when the Cuban missile crisis developed only a few weeks after Dylan began performing it. Like "Blowin' in the Wind", "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" marked an important new direction in modern songwriting, blending a stream-of-consciousness, imagist lyrical attack with a traditional folk form.
While Dylan's topical songs solidified his early reputation, Freewheelin' also included a mixture of love songs and jokey, surreal talking blues. Humor was a large part of Dylan's persona, and the range of material on the album impressed many listeners, including The Beatles. George Harrison said, "We just played it, just wore it out. The content of the song lyrics and just the attitude—it was incredibly original and wonderful."
The rough edge of Dylan's singing was unsettling to some early listeners but an attraction to others. Describing the impact that Dylan had on her and her husband, Joyce Carol Oates wrote: "When we first heard this raw, very young, and seemingly untrained voice, frankly nasal, as if sandpaper could sing, the effect was dramatic and electrifying." Many of his most famous early songs first reached the public through more immediately palatable versions by other performers, such as Joan Baez, who became Dylan's advocate, as well as his lover. Baez was influential in bringing Dylan to national and international prominence by recording several of his early songs and inviting him onstage during her own concerts.
Others who recorded and had hits with Dylan's songs in the early and mid-1960s included The Byrds; Sonny and Cher; The Hollies; Peter, Paul and Mary; The Association; Manfred Mann; and The Turtles. Most attempted to impart a pop feel and rhythm to the songs, while Dylan and Baez performed them mostly as sparse folk pieces. The cover versions became so ubiquitous that CBS started to promote him with the tag "Nobody Sings Dylan Like Dylan."
"Mixed Up Confusion", recorded during the Freewheelin' sessions with a backing band, was released as a single and then quickly withdrawn. In contrast to the mostly solo acoustic performances on the album, the single showed a willingness to experiment with a rockabilly sound. Cameron Crowe described it as "a fascinating look at a folk artist with his mind wandering towards Elvis Presley and Sun Records."
Protest and Another Side
In May 1963, Dylan's political profile was raised when he walked out of The Ed Sullivan Show. During rehearsals, Dylan had been informed by CBS Television's "head of program practices" that the song he was planning to perform, "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues", was potentially libelous to the John Birch Society. Rather than comply with the censorship, Dylan refused to appear on the program.
"The Times They Are a-Changin'"
Dylan said of "The Times They Are a-Changin'": "This was definitely a song with a purpose. I wanted to write a big song, some kind of theme song, with short concise verses that piled up on each other in a hypnotic way. The civil rights movement and the folk music movement were pretty close and allied together at that time."
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By this time, Dylan and Baez were both prominent in the civil rights movement, singing together at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. Dylan's third album, The Times They Are a-Changin', reflected a more politicized and cynical Dylan. The songs often took as their subject matter contemporary, real life stories, with "Only A Pawn In Their Game" addressing the murder of civil rights worker Medgar Evers; and the Brechtian "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" the death of black hotel barmaid Hattie Carroll, at the hands of young white socialite William Zantzinger. On a more general theme, "Ballad of Hollis Brown" and "North Country Blues" address the despair engendered by the breakdown of farming and mining communities. This political material was accompanied by two personal love songs, "Boots of Spanish Leather" and "One Too Many Mornings".
By the end of 1963, Dylan felt both manipulated and constrained by the folk and protest movements. These tensions were publicly displayed when, accepting the "Tom Paine Award" from the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee shortly after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, an intoxicated Dylan questioned the role of the committee, characterized the members as old and balding, and claimed to see something of himself (and of every man) in Kennedy's assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.
Another Side of Bob Dylan, recorded on a single June evening in 1964, had a lighter mood than its predecessor. The surreal, humorous Dylan reemerged on "I Shall Be Free No. 10" and "Motorpsycho Nightmare". "Spanish Harlem Incident" and "To Ramona" are romantic and passionate love songs, while "Black Crow Blues" and "I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)" suggest the rock and roll soon to dominate Dylan's music. "It Ain't Me Babe", on the surface a song about spurned love, has been described as a rejection of the role his reputation had thrust at him. His newest direction was signaled by two lengthy songs: the impressionistic "Chimes of Freedom", which sets elements of social commentary against a denser metaphorical landscape in a style later characterized by Allen Ginsberg as "chains of flashing images," and "My Back Pages", which attacks the simplistic and arch seriousness of his own earlier topical songs and seems to predict the backlash he was about to encounter from his former champions as he took a new direction.
In the latter half of 1964 and 1965, Dylan's appearance and musical style changed rapidly, as he made his move from leading contemporary songwriter of the folk scene to folk-rock pop-music star. His scruffy jeans and work shirts were replaced by a Carnaby Street wardrobe, sunglasses day or night, and pointy "Beatle boots". A London reporter wrote: "Hair that would set the teeth of a comb on edge. A loud shirt that would dim the neon lights of Leicester Square. He looks like an undernourished cockatoo." Dylan also began to spar in increasingly surreal ways with his interviewers. Appearing on the Les Crane TV show and asked about a movie he was planning to make, he told Crane it would be a cowboy horror movie. Asked if he played the cowboy, Dylan replied, "No, I play my mother."
Dylan's April 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home was yet another stylistic leap, featuring his first recordings made with electric instruments. The first single, "Subterranean Homesick Blues", owed much to Chuck Berry's "Too Much Monkey Business"; its free association lyrics have been described as both harkening back to the manic energy of Beat poetry and as a forerunner of rap and hip-hop. The song was provided with an early music video, which opened D. A. Pennebaker's cinéma vérité presentation of Dylan's 1965 tour of Great Britain, Dont Look Back. Instead of miming to the recording, Dylan illustrated the lyrics by throwing cue cards containing key words from the song on the ground. Pennebaker has said the sequence was Dylan's idea, and it has been widely imitated in both music videos and advertisements.
The second side of Bringing It All Back Home consisted of four long songs on which Dylan accompanied himself on acoustic guitar and harmonica. "Mr. Tambourine Man" quickly became one of Dylan's best known songs when The Byrds recorded an electric version that reached number one in both the U.S. and the UK charts. "It's All Over Now Baby Blue" and "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" were acclaimed as two of Dylan's most important compositions.
In 1965, as the headliner at the Newport Folk Festival, Dylan performed his first electric set since his high school days with a pickup group drawn mostly from the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, featuring Mike Bloomfield (guitar), Sam Lay (drums) and Jerome Arnold (bass), plus Al Kooper (organ) and Barry Goldberg (piano). Dylan had appeared at Newport in 1963 and 1964, but in 1965 Dylan, met with a mix of cheering and booing, left the stage after only three songs. One version of the legend has it that the boos were from the outraged folk fans whom Dylan had alienated by appearing, unexpectedly, with an electric guitar. Murray Lerner, who filmed the performance, said: "I absolutely think that they were booing Dylan going electric." An alternative account claims audience members were merely upset by poor sound quality and a surprisingly short set. This account is supported by Kooper and one of the directors of the festival, who reports his audio recording of the concert proves that the only boos were in reaction to the MC's announcement that there was only enough time for a short set.
Nevertheless, Dylan's 1965 Newport performance provoked a hostile response from the folk music establishment. In the September issue of Sing Out!, singer Ewan MacColl wrote: "Our traditional songs and ballads are the creations of extraordinarily talented artists working inside disciplines formulated over time ...'But what of Bobby Dylan?' scream the outraged teenagers ... Only a completely non-critical audience, nourished on the watery pap of pop music, could have fallen for such tenth-rate drivel." On July 29, just four days after his controversial performance at Newport, Dylan was back in the studio in New York, recording "Positively 4th Street". The lyrics teemed with images of vengeance and paranoia, and it was widely interpreted as Dylan's put-down of former friends from the folk community—friends he had known in the clubs along West 4th Street.
Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde
"Like a Rolling Stone"
Dylan's 1965 hit single, which appeared on the album Highway 61 Revisited. In 2004, it was chosen as the greatest song of all time by Rolling Stone magazine.
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In July 1965, Dylan released the single "Like a Rolling Stone", which peaked at number two in the U.S. and at number four in the UK charts. At over six minutes, the song has been widely credited with altering attitudes about what a pop single could convey. Bruce Springsteen, in his speech for Dylan's inauguration into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, said that on first hearing the single, "that snare shot sounded like somebody'd kicked open the door to your mind". In 2004 and again in 2011, Rolling Stone magazine listed it as number one on its list of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time". The song also opened Dylan's next album, Highway 61 Revisited, titled after the road that led from Dylan's Minnesota to the musical hotbed of New Orleans. The songs were in the same vein as the hit single, flavored by Mike Bloomfield's blues guitar and Al Kooper's organ riffs. "Desolation Row", backed by acoustic guitar and understated bass, offers the sole exception, with Dylan making surreal allusions to a variety of figures in Western culture during this epic song, described by Andy Gill as "an 11-minute epic of entropy, which takes the form of a Fellini-esque parade of grotesques and oddities featuring a huge cast of celebrated characters, some historical (Einstein, Nero), some biblical (Noah, Cain and Abel), some fictional (Ophelia, Romeo, Cinderella), some literary (T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound), and some who fit into none of the above categories, notably Dr. Filth and his dubious nurse."
In support of the record, Dylan was booked for two U.S. concerts and set about assembling a band. Mike Bloomfield was unwilling to leave the Butterfield Band, so Dylan mixed Al Kooper and Harvey Brooks from his studio crew with Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm, best known at the time for being part of Ronnie Hawkins's backing band The Hawks (later to become The Band). On August 28 at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium, the group was heckled by an audience still annoyed by Dylan's electric sound. The band's reception on September 3 at the Hollywood Bowl was more favorable.
While Dylan and the Hawks met increasingly receptive audiences on tour, their studio efforts floundered. Producer Bob Johnston persuaded Dylan to record in Nashville in February 1966, and surrounded him with a cadre of top-notch session men. At Dylan's insistence, Robertson and Kooper came down from New York City to play on the sessions. The Nashville sessions produced the double-album Blonde on Blonde (1966), featuring what Dylan later called "that thin wild mercury sound". Al Kooper described the album as "taking two cultures and smashing them together with a huge explosion": the musical world of Nashville and the world of the "quintessential New York hipster" Bob Dylan.
On November 22, 1965, Dylan secretly married 25-year-old former model Sara Lownds. Some of Dylan's friends (including Ramblin' Jack Elliott) claim that, in conversation immediately after the event, Dylan denied that he was married. Journalist Nora Ephron first made the news public in the New York Post in February 1966 with the headline "Hush! Bob Dylan is wed."
Dylan undertook a world tour of Australia and Europe in early 1966. Each show was split into two parts. Dylan performed solo during the first half, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and harmonica. In the second half, backed by the Hawks, he played electrically amplified music. This contrast provoked many fans, who jeered and slow handclapped. The tour culminated in a famously raucous confrontation between Dylan and his audience at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in England on May 17, 1966. An official recording of this concert was released in 1998: The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966. At the climax of the evening, a member of the audience, angered by Dylan's electric backing, shouted: "Judas!" to which Dylan responded, "I don't believe you ... You're a liar!" Dylan turned to his band and said, "Play it fucking loud!" as they launched into the final song of the night—"Like a Rolling Stone".
During his 1966 tour, Dylan was frequently described as exhausted and acting "as if on a death trip".D. A. Pennebaker, the film maker accompanying the tour, described Dylan as "taking a lot of amphetamine and who-knows-what-else." In a 1969 interview with Jann Wenner, Dylan said, "I was on the road for almost five years. It wore me down. I was on drugs, a lot of things ... just to keep going, you know?" In 2011, BBC Radio 4 reported that, in an interview that Robert Shelton had taped in 1966, Dylan claimed that he had kicked a heroin habit in New York City: "I got very, very strung out for a while ... I had about a $25-a-day habit and I kicked it." Some journalists questioned the validity of this confession, pointing out that Dylan had "been telling journalists wild lies about his past since the earliest days of his career."
Motorcycle accident and reclusion
After his European tour, Dylan returned to New York, but the pressures on him increased. ABC Television had paid an advance for a TV show they could screen. His publisher, Macmillan, was demanding a finished manuscript of the poem/novel Tarantula. Manager Albert Grossman had already scheduled an extensive concert tour for that summer and fall.
On July 29, 1966, Dylan crashed his 500cc Triumph Tiger 100 motorcycle on a road near his home in Woodstock, New York, and was thrown to the ground. Though the extent of his injuries was never fully disclosed, Dylan said that he broke several vertebrae in his neck. Mystery still surrounds the circumstances of the accident since no ambulance was called to the scene and Dylan was not hospitalized. Dylan's biographers have written that the crash offered Dylan the much-needed chance to escape from the pressures that had built up around him. Dylan confirmed this interpretation of the crash when he stated in his autobiography, "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." In the wake of his accident, Dylan withdrew from the public and, apart from a few select appearances, did not tour again for almost eight years.
Once Dylan was well enough to resume creative work, he began to edit D. A. Pennebaker's film footage of his 1966 tour. A rough cut was shown to ABC Television and was promptly rejected as incomprehensible to a mainstream audience. The film was subsequently titled Eat the Document and has been circulated via bootleg copies, and screened at a handful of film festivals. In 1967 he began recording music with the Hawks at his home and in the basement of the Hawks' nearby house, called "Big Pink". These songs, initially compiled as demos for other artists to record, provided hit singles for Julie Driscoll and The Brian Auger Trinity ("This Wheel's on Fire"), The Byrds ("You Ain't Goin' Nowhere", "Nothing Was Delivered"), and Manfred Mann ("Mighty Quinn"). Columbia released selections from them in 1975 as The Basement Tapes. Over the years, more and more of the songs recorded by Dylan and his band in 1967 appeared on various bootleg recordings, culminating in a five-CD bootleg set titled The Genuine Basement Tapes, containing 107 songs and alternate takes. In the coming months, the Hawks recorded the album Music from Big Pink using songs they first worked on in their basement in Woodstock, and renamed themselves The Band, thus beginning a long and successful recording and performing career of their own.
In October and November 1967, Dylan returned to Nashville. Back in the recording studio after a 19-month break, he was accompanied only by Charlie McCoy on bass,Kenny Buttrey on drums, and Pete Drake on steel guitar. The result was John Wesley Harding, a quiet, contemplative record of shorter songs, set in a landscape that drew on both the American West and the Bible. The sparse structure and instrumentation, coupled with lyrics that took the Judeo-Christian tradition seriously, marked a departure not only from Dylan's own work but from the escalating psychedelic fervor of the 1960s musical culture. It included "All Along the Watchtower", with lyrics derived from the Book of Isaiah (21:5–9). The song was later recorded by Jimi Hendrix, whose version Dylan later acknowledged as definitive. Woody Guthrie died on October 3, 1967, and Dylan made his first live appearance in twenty months at a Guthrie memorial concert held at Carnegie Hall on January 20, 1968, where he was backed by the Band.
"Lay Lady Lay"
"Lay Lady Lay", on the country album Nashville Skyline, has been one of Dylan's biggest hits, reaching No. 7 in the U.S.
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Dylan's next release, Nashville Skyline (1969), was virtually a mainstream country record featuring instrumental backing by Nashville musicians, a mellow-voiced Dylan, a duet with Johnny Cash, and the hit single "Lay Lady Lay".Variety magazine wrote, "Dylan is definitely doing something that can be called singing. Somehow he has managed to add an octave to his range." Dylan and Cash also recorded a series of duets, but only their recording of Dylan's "Girl from the North Country" was used on the album.
In May 1969, Dylan appeared on the first episode of Johnny Cash's new television show, duetting with Cash on "Girl from the North Country", "I Threw It All Away", and "Living the Blues". Dylan next traveled to England to top the bill at the Isle of Wight rock festival on August 31, 1969, after rejecting overtures to appear at the Woodstock Festival far closer to his home.
In the early 1970s, critics charged that Dylan's output was of varied and unpredictable quality. Rolling Stone magazine writer Greil Marcus notoriously asked "What is this shit?" on first listening to Self Portrait, released in June 1970. In general, Self Portrait, a double LP including few original songs, was poorly received. In October 1970, Dylan released New Morning, which some considered a return to form. In November 1968, Dylan had co-written "I'd Have You Anytime" with George Harrison; Harrison recorded both "I'd Have You Anytime" and Dylan's "If Not for You" for his 1970 solo triple album All Things Must Pass. Dylan's surprise appearance at Harrison's 1971 Concert for Bangladesh attracted much media coverage, reflecting that Dylan's live appearances had become rare.
Between March 16 and 19, 1971, Dylan reserved three days at Blue Rock Studios, a small studio in New York's Greenwich Village. These sessions resulted in one single, "Watching the River Flow", and a new recording of "When I Paint My Masterpiece". On November 4, 1971, Dylan recorded "George Jackson", which he released a week later. For many, the single was a surprising return to protest material, mourning the killing of Black Panther George Jackson in San Quentin Prison earlier that year. Dylan contributed piano and harmony vocals to Steve Goodman's album, Somebody Else's Troubles, under the pseudonym Robert Milkwood Thomas in September 1972.
In 1972, Dylan signed onto Sam Peckinpah's film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, providing songs and backing music for the movie, and playing the role of "Alias", a member of Billy's gang with some historical basis. Despite the film's failure at the box office, the song "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" has proven its durability as one of Dylan's most extensively covered songs.
Return to touring
Dylan began 1973 by signing with a new record label, David Geffen's Asylum Records, when his contract with Columbia Records expired. On his next album, Planet Waves, he used the Band as backing group, while rehearsing for a major tour. The album included two versions of "Forever Young", which became one of his most popular songs. As one critic described it, the song projected "something hymnal and heartfelt that spoke of the father in Dylan", and Dylan himself commented: "I wrote it thinking about one of my boys and not wanting to be too sentimental." Biographer Howard Sounes noted that Jakob Dylan believed the song was about him.
Columbia Records simultaneously released Dylan, a haphazard collection of studio outtakes (almost exclusively cover songs), which was widely interpreted as a churlish response to Dylan's signing with a rival record label. In January 1974, Dylan returned to live touring after a break of seven years; backed by the Band, he embarked on a high-profile, coast-to-coast North American tour, playing 40 concerts. A live double album of the tour, Before the Flood, was released on Asylum Records. Soon, Columbia Records sent word that they "will spare nothing to bring Dylan back into the fold". Dylan had second thoughts about Asylum, apparently miffed that while there had been millions of unfulfilled ticket requests for the 1974 tour, Geffen had managed to sell only 700,000 copies of Planet Waves. Dylan returned to Columbia Records, which subsequently reissued his two Asylum albums on their imprint.
"Tangled Up in Blue"
Dylan said of the opening song from Blood on the Tracks: "I was trying to deal with the concept of time, and the way the characters change from the first person to the third person, and you're never sure if the first person is talking or the third person. But as you look at the whole thing it really doesn't matter."
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After the tour, Dylan and his wife became publicly estranged. He filled a small red notebook with songs about relationships and ruptures, and quickly recorded a new album entitled Blood on the Tracks in September 1974. Dylan delayed the album's release, and re-recorded half of the songs at Sound 80 Studios in Minneapolis with production assistance from his brother David Zimmerman.
Released in early 1975, Blood on the Tracks received mixed reviews. In the NME, Nick Kent described "the accompaniments [as] often so trashy they sound like mere practice takes." In Rolling Stone, reviewer Jon Landau wrote that "the record has been made with typical shoddiness." Over the years critics have come to see it as one of Dylan's greatest achievements, perhaps the only serious rival to his mid-1960s trilogy of albums. In Salon.com, Bill Wyman wrote: "Blood on the Tracks is his only flawless album and his best produced; the songs, each of them, are constructed in disciplined fashion. It is his kindest album and most dismayed, and seems in hindsight to have achieved a sublime balance between the logorrhea-plagued excesses of his mid-1960s output and the self-consciously simple compositions of his post-accident years." Novelist Rick Moody called it "the truest, most honest account of a love affair from tip to stern ever put down on magnetic tape."
That summer Dylan wrote a lengthy ballad championing the cause of boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, who had been imprisoned for a triple murder committed in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1966. After visiting Carter in jail, Dylan wrote "Hurricane", presenting the case for Carter's innocence. Despite its 8:32 minute length, the song was released as a single, peaking at No.33 on the U.S. Billboard Chart, and performed at every 1975 date of Dylan's next tour, the Rolling Thunder Revue. The tour was a varied evening of entertainment featuring about one hundred performers and supporters drawn from the resurgent Greenwich Village folk scene, including T-Bone Burnett, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Joni Mitchell,David Mansfield, Roger McGuinn, Mick Ronson, Joan Baez, and violinist Scarlet Rivera, whom Dylan discovered while she was walking down the street, her violin case hanging on her back.Allen Ginsberg accompanied the troupe, staging scenes for the film Dylan was simultaneously shooting. Sam Shepard was initially hired to write the film's screenplay, but ended up accompanying the tour as informal chronicler.
Running through late 1975 and again through early 1976, the tour encompassed the release of the album Desire, with many of Dylan's new songs featuring an almost travelogue-like narrative style, showing the influence of his new collaborator, playwright Jacques Levy. The 1976 half of the tour was documented by a TV concert special, Hard Rain, and the LP Hard Rain; no concert album from the better-received and better-known opening half of the tour was released until 2002's Live 1975.
The 1975 tour with the Revue also provided the backdrop to Dylan's nearly four-hour film Renaldo and Clara, a sprawling and improvised narrative, mixed with concert footage and reminiscences. Released in 1978, the movie received generally poor, sometimes scathing, reviews and had a very brief theatrical run. Later in that year, Dylan allowed a two-hour edit, dominated by the concert performances, to be more widely released.
In November 1976, Dylan appeared at the Band's "farewell" concert, along with other guests including Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison and Neil Young. Martin Scorsese's acclaimed cinematic chronicle of this show, The Last Waltz, was released in 1978 and included about half of Dylan's set. In 1976, Dylan also wrote and duetted on the song "Sign Language" for Eric Clapton's No Reason To Cry.
In 1978, Dylan embarked on a year-long world tour, performing 114 shows in Japan, the Far East, Europe and the US, to a total audience of two million people. For the tour, Dylan assembled an eight piece band, and was also accompanied by three backing singers. Concerts in Tokyo in February and March were recorded and released as the live double album, Bob Dylan At Budokan. Reviews were mixed. Robert Christgau awarded the album a C+ rating, giving the album a derisory review, while Janet Maslin defended it in Rolling Stone, writing: "These latest live versions of his old songs have the effect of liberating Bob Dylan from the originals." When Dylan brought the tour to the U.S. in September 1978, he was dismayed the press described the look and sound of the show as a 'Las Vegas Tour'. The 1978 tour grossed more than $20 million, and Dylan acknowledged to the Los Angeles Times that he had some debts to pay off because "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."
In April and May 1978, Dylan took the same large band and backing vocalists into Rundown Studios, a rehearsal space Dylan had rented in Santa Monica, California, to record an album of new material: Street-Legal. It was described by Michael Gray as, "after Blood On The Tracks, arguably Dylan's best record of the 1970s: a crucial album documenting a crucial period in Dylan's own life". However, it suffered from poor sound recording and mixing (attributed to Dylan's studio practices), muddying the instrumental detail until a remastered CD release in 1999 restored some of the songs' strengths.
"Gotta Serve Somebody"
Dylan took five months off at the beginning of 1979 to attend Bible school. His subsequent album Slow Train Coming reached No.3 on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart and included this Grammy-winning song.
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In the late 1970s, Dylan became a born-again Christian and released two albums of Christian gospel music. Slow Train Coming (1979) featured the guitar accompaniment of Mark Knopfler (of Dire Straits) and was produced by veteran R&B producer Jerry Wexler. Wexler recalled that when Dylan had tried to evangelize him during the recording, he replied: "Bob, you're dealing with a sixty-two-year-old Jewish atheist. Let's just make an album." The album won Dylan a Grammy Award as "Best Male Vocalist" for the song "Gotta Serve Somebody". The second evangelical album, Saved (1980), received mixed reviews, and was described by Dylan critic Michael Gray as "the nearest thing to a follow-up album Dylan has ever made, Slow Train Coming II and inferior." When touring in late 1979 and early 1980, Dylan would not play any of his older, secular works, and he delivered declarations of his faith from the stage, such as:
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.
Dylan's embrace of born-again Christianity was unpopular with some of his fans and fellow musicians. Shortly before his murder, John Lennon recorded "Serve Yourself" in response to Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody". By 1981, Stephen Holden wrote in the New York Times that "neither age (he's now 40) nor his much-publicized conversion to born-again Christianity has altered his essentially iconoclastic temperament."
In late 1980 Dylan briefly resumed touring for a series of concerts billed as "A Musical Retrospective", where he restored several of his popular 1960s songs to the repertoire. Shot of Love, recorded the next spring, featured Dylan's first secular compositions in more than two years, mixed with Christian songs. The song "Every Grain of Sand" reminded some critics of William Blake's verses.
In the 1980s the reception of Dylan's recorded work varied, from the well-regarded Infidels in 1983 to the panned Down in the Groove in 1988. Critics such as Michael Gray condemned Dylan's 1980s albums both for showing an extraordinary carelessness in the studio and for failing to release his best songs. As an example of the latter, the Infidels recording sessions, which again employed Mark Knopfler on lead guitar and also as the album's producer, resulted in several notable songs that Dylan left off the album. Best regarded of these were "Blind Willie McTell", a tribute to the dead blues musician and an evocation of African American history, "Foot of Pride" and "Lord Protect My Child". These three songs were later released on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991.
Between July 1984 and March 1985, Dylan recorded Empire Burlesque.Arthur Baker, who had remixed hits for Bruce Springsteen and Cyndi Lauper, was asked to engineer and mix the album. Baker has said he felt he was hired to make Dylan's album sound "a little bit more contemporary".
Dylan sang on USA for Africa's famine relief fundraising single "We Are the World". On July 13, 1985, he appeared at the climax at the Live Aid concert at JFK Stadium, Philadelphia. Backed by Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood, Dylan performed a ragged version of "Hollis Brown", his ballad of rural poverty, and then said to the worldwide audience exceeding one billion people: "I hope that some of the money ... maybe they can just take a little bit of it, maybe ... one or two million, maybe ... and use it to pay the mortgages on some of the farms and, the farmers here, owe to the banks." His remarks were widely criticized as inappropriate, but they did inspire Willie Nelson to organize a series of events, Farm Aid, to benefit debt-ridden American farmers.
In April 1986, Dylan made a brief foray into the world of rap music when he added vocals to the opening verse of "Street Rock", a song featured on Kurtis Blow's album Kingdom Blow. Dylan's next studio album, Knocked Out Loaded, was released in July 1986 and contained three cover songs (by Little Junior Parker, Kris Kristofferson and the traditional gospel hymn "Precious Memories"), plus three collaborations with other writers (Tom Petty, Sam Shepard and Carole Bayer Sager), and two solo compositions by Dylan. One reviewer commented that "the record follows too many detours to be consistently compelling, and some of those detours wind down roads that are indisputably dead ends. By 1986, such uneven records weren't entirely unexpected by Dylan, but that didn't make them any less frustrating." It was the first Dylan album since Freewheelin' (1963) to fail to make the Top 50. Since then, some critics have called the 11-minute epic that Dylan co-wrote with Sam Shepard, 'Brownsville Girl', a work of genius.
In 1986 and 1987, Dylan toured extensively with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, sharing vocals with Petty on several songs each night. Dylan also toured with The Grateful Dead in 1987, resulting in a live album Dylan & The Dead. This album received some very negative reviews: Allmusic said, "Quite possibly the worst album by either Bob Dylan or the Grateful Dead." After performing with these musical permutations, Dylan initiated what came to be called the Never Ending Tour on June 7, 1988, performing with a tight back-up band featuring guitarist G. E. Smith. Dylan would continue to tour with a small, constantly evolving band for the next 20 years.
In 1987, Dylan starred in Richard Marquand's movie Hearts of Fire, in which he played Billy Parker, a washed-up-rock-star-turned-chicken farmer whose teenage lover (Fiona) leaves him for a jaded English synth-pop sensation (played by Rupert Everett). Dylan also contributed two original songs to the soundtrack—"Night After Night", and "I Had a Dream About You, Baby", as well as a cover of John Hiatt's "The Usual". The film was a critical and commercial flop. Dylan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in January 1988, with Bruce Springsteen's introductory speech declaring, "Bob freed your mind the way Elvis freed your body. He showed us that just because music was innately physical did not mean that it was anti-intellectual.
When Dylan released the album Down in the Groove in May 1988, it was even more unsuccessful in its sales than his previous studio album. Michael Gray wrote: "The very title undercuts any idea that inspired work may lie within. Here was a further devaluing of the notion of a new Bob Dylan album as something significant." The critical and commercial disappointment of that album was swiftly followed by the success of the Traveling Wilburys. Dylan co-founded the band with George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, and Tom Petty, and in late 1988 their multi-platinum Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 reached number three on the US album chart, featuring songs that were described as Dylan's most accessible compositions in years. Despite Orbison's death in December 1988, the remaining four recorded a second album in May 1990, which they released with the unexpected title Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3.
Dylan finished the decade on a critical high note with Oh Mercy produced by Daniel Lanois. Dylan critic Michael Gray wrote that the album was: "Attentively written, vocally distinctive, musically warm, and uncompromisingly professional, this cohesive whole is the nearest thing to a great Bob Dylan album in the 1980s." The track "Most of the Time", a lost love composition, was later prominently featured in the film High Fidelity, while "What Was It You Wanted?" has been interpreted both as a catechism and a wry comment on the expectations of critics and fans. The religious imagery of "Ring Them Bells" struck some critics as a re-affirmation of faith.
Dylan's 1990s began with Under the Red Sky (1990), an about-face from the serious Oh Mercy. The album contained several apparently simple songs, including "Under the Red Sky" and "Wiggle Wiggle". The album was dedicated to "Gabby Goo Goo"; this was later explained as a nickname for the daughter of Dylan and Carolyn Dennis, Desiree Gabrielle Dennis-Dylan, who was four at that time.Sidemen on the album included George Harrison, Slash from Guns N' Roses, David Crosby, Bruce Hornsby, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Elton John. Despite the stellar line-up, the record received bad reviews and sold poorly.
In 1991, Dylan was honored by the recording industry with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award from American actor Jack Nicholson. The event coincided with the start of the Gulf War against Saddam Hussein, and Dylan performed his song "Masters of War". Dylan then made a short speech, stating "My daddy once said to me, he said, 'Son, it is possible for you to become so defiled in this world that your own mother and father will abandon you. If that happens, God will believe in your ability to mend your own ways.'" This sentiment was subsequently revealed to be a quote from 19th-century German Jewish intellectual, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch.
The next few years saw Dylan returning to his roots with two albums covering old folk and blues numbers: Good as I Been to You (1992) and World Gone Wrong (1993), featuring interpretations and acoustic guitar work. Many critics and fans commented on the quiet beauty of the song "Lone Pilgrim", written by a 19th-century teacher and sung by Dylan with a haunting reverence. In November 1994 Dylan recorded two live shows for MTV Unplugged. He claimed his wish to perform a set of traditional songs for the show was overruled by Sony executives who insisted on a greatest hits package. The album produced from it, MTV Unplugged, included "John Brown", an unreleased 1963 song detailing the ravages of both war and jingoism.
With a collection of songs reportedly written while snowed-in on his Minnesota ranch, Dylan booked recording time with Daniel Lanois at Miami's Criteria Studios in January 1997. The subsequent recording sessions were, by some accounts, fraught with musical tension. Late that spring, before the album's release, Dylan was hospitalized with a life-threatening heart infection, pericarditis, brought on by histoplasmosis. His scheduled European tour was cancelled, but Dylan made a speedy recovery and left the hospital saying, "I really thought I'd be seeing Elvis soon." He was back on the road by midsummer, and performed before Pope John Paul II at the World Eucharistic Conference in Bologna, Italy. The Pope treated the audience of 200,000 people to a homily based on Dylan's lyric "Blowin' in the Wind".
September saw the release of the new Lanois-produced album, Time Out of Mind. With its bitter assessment of love and morbid ruminations, Dylan's first collection of original songs in seven years was highly acclaimed. One critic wrote: "the songs themselves are uniformly powerful, adding up to Dylan's best overall collection in years." This collection of complex songs won him his first solo "Album of the Year" Grammy Award.
In December 1997, U.S. President Bill Clinton presented Dylan with