The most profoundly influential singer-songwriter of the rock era, Bob Dylan (b. Robert Allen Zimmerman, May 24, 1941, Duluth, Minnesota) has released over 45 albums since his 1962 debut and remains today as vital an artist, and as imposing a figure, as he was in his '60s heyday. The changes he wrought in all of pop music have been the subject of countless essays, articles, books, films and documentaries, as have the changes he himself has undergone, musical or otherwise. There are literally no major artists in popular music who have not been affected by Dylan on one level or another: He was a major catalyst in the careers of the Beatles and Rolling Stones in the '60s; his song "All Along the Watchtower" was the sole hit single by the Jimi Hendrix Experience; he was the figure to whom distinguished singer-songwriters such as Bruce Springsteen, John Prine, Loudon Wainwright III were compared upon their debuts; he was the subject of a song by David Bowie and the central inspiration of "new wave" up-and-comer Elvis Costello in the '70s; his "Mr. Tambourine Man" sparked the Byrds' success and thus spawned R.E.M. and the entire genre of folk-rock; and his many songs have been covered by literally hundreds of artists of nearly every musical genre. Dylan's memorable 30th Anniversary Concert, held at Madison Square Garden October 16, 1992, gave just an inkling of the number of superstar artists who consider themselves indebted to the singer-songwriter; among those performing were Neil Young, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Lou Reed, Johnny & June Carter Cash, Roger McGuinn, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Willie Nelson, Stevie Wonder, John Mellencamp, the Band, the O'Jays, Chrissie Hynde, Sinead O'Connor, Kris Kristofferson, and even Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam.
Dylan has said that he listened most to rock 'n' roll artists such as Little Richard, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis before hearing Leadbelly and turning toward folk music, then burgeoning in the late '50s. He read and was moved by Woody Guthrie's Bound For Glory, and began performing in coffeehouses near the University of Minnesota, where he enrolled briefly in 1959. By 1961, he had moved to New York, where he visited the hospitalized Guthrie in New Jersey and began performing in Greenwich Village folk clubs such as Gerde's Folk City. Finding early session work as a harmonica player, Dylan met legendary Columbia Records producer and talent scout John Hammond at a Carolyn Hester recording session; Hammond invited Dylan to make a demo tape. A rave review by New York Times critic Robert Shelton of a Dylan Gerde's appearance further drew attention to the singer, and by October, Hammond had signed Dylan to Columbia.
Dylan's earliest records were very much folk music in the tradition of Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Though his 1962 Bob Dylan bore only two original tunes ("Talkin' New York" and "Song To Woody," both talking blues), by the next year's The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, the singer had produced enough original material to base an entire career upon. Among the best known songs were "Blowin' In The Wind" and "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" (both top 10 hits for Peter, Paul & Mary in 1963), "Masters Of War," and the uniquely wordy "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall." Written during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the latter track was "a desperate kind of song," Dylan said at the time. "Every line in it is actually the start of a whole song. But when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn't have enough time alive to write all those songs so I put all I could into this one."
Though Dylan would not "go electric" until 1965, his earlier albums still found a wide audience: Freewheelin' had reached No. 22 on the charts, and 1964's The Times They Are A-Changin' peaked at No. 20. And while 1965's follow-up Another Side Of Bob Dylan only reached No. 43, the songs it contained were among Dylan's best-known due to cover versions by other artists: "My Back Pages" and "All I Really Want To Do" were both top 40 hits by the Byrds, the latter also a top 15 hit by Cher, and "It Ain't Me Babe" was a top 10 hit for the Turtles.
If any year was Bob Dylan's, it was 1965: He added an electric backing band on half of Bringing It All Back Home, was booed at the Newport Folk Festival for the same offense, and in June released what would be the most galvanizing single of his career--and perhaps all time--"Like A Rolling Stone." An immediate hit that held the No. 2 slot for two weeks (the Beatles' "Help" was No. 1), it would inspire a generation and become as close to a theme song as the budding counter-cultural "movement" of the '60s would ever have. The two albums that followed, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde are considered the singer's all-time classics, and indeed, Dylan's impact was felt everywhere: In the songs of contemporaries the Beatles and Rolling Stones, in the surge of former folk singers who were picking up electric guitars, and in the entranced media, that typically saw Dylan as a mysterious, charismatic figure who might provide a clue into the workings of what seemed an increasingly disenfranchised youth culture.
In July, 1966, a serious motorcycle accident kept Dylan in seclusion for many months, during which time he would eventually record material with a backing group soon to be known as the Band. Though that material was widely heard on many late-'60s bootlegs, its first legitimate release came in 1975, when Columbia issued it as The Basement Tapes. Had it been issued when it was recorded, it might've explained the jarring transition between Blonde On Blonde and 1968's John Wesley Harding, a stripped-down, starkly acoustic album of songs filled with noticeable religious imagery. While in retrospect it seems a logical move--particularly in light of the verbal-imagery overload of Blonde On Blonde's final track, "Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands," which might have signaled an approaching stylistic blind alley--it surprised many fans at the time. In truth, it was just another instance of one-time folkie Bob Dylan re-inventing himself. By the time of his wholly countrified Nashville Skyline, which featured the singer's voice sounding a near-octave lower than normal and simplistic songs such as "Country Pie," some wayward fans were suggesting Dylan's motorcycle accident was more serious than had been let on.
Dylan had many more surprises up his sleeve, and for the first time in his career was beginning to lose faithful critics. His 1970 double-LP Self Portrait--on which rock's songwriting legend covered both Paul Simon and Gordon Lightfoot--confused many and was widely panned; when he seemed to return to form short months later with New Morning, initially giddy critics were soon moping about a perceived "lack of depth" in Dylan's new material. In the meantime, Dylan took on an acting role in Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid and recorded its soundtrack--which included "Knockin' On Heaven's Door," a song that has since grown to become a classic in Dylan's canon.
Though Dylan's two ensuing ventures with the Band--1974's Planet Waves and the live Before The Flood--won a fair amount of praise (and sales: Planet Waves was the singer's first No. 1 album), it was his magnificent Blood On The Tracks that stands as his crowning achievement of the '70s. Seemingly a mixture of autobiography and romantic nostalgia, the album's "Tangled Up In Blue," "Simple Twist Of Fate," and "Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts" were richly rewarding tracks certainly the equal of much of his past work, and in many ways more lyrically mature. The set was the second No. 1 album in Dylan's career, and would only be bested commercially by its follow-up Desire, which was No. 1 for five weeks and greatly pushed by the singer's much-publicized Rolling Thunder Revue tour of 1975-76.
Increasingly, Dylan's recordings began to be marked by cycles of seeming dead ends and critical rebirths. When the singer surprised many by announcing he was a born-again Christian in 1979, it was accompanied by the marvelously peculiar Slow Train Coming, which featured religious-themed tracks such as "Gotta Serve Somebody," "Man Gave Names To All The Animals," and "When He Returns"; the oddest facet of Dylan's conversion, as displayed in Slow Train's songs, was his apparent belief in a merciless and vengeful God. Follow-up albums Saved (1980) and Shot Of Love (1981) lacked the superb songs of Slow Train, but by 1983's Infidels, Dylan was writing some of his sharpest songs in ages. Their political orientation bothered some critics who considered Dylan's religious conversion to have gone hand-in-hand with a new political conservatism; indeed, with their references to Israel and greedy labor union leaders, many songs such as "Neighborhood Bully" and "Union Sundown" were scathingly attacked by former staunch fans.
Since then, there have been many Bob Dylans on display for both critics and fans to choose from:
*The Dylan of the Past--whose glorious works have been resurrected twice now in much-lauded CD boxed-set format, Biograph (1985) and The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3 [Box] (Rare And Unreleased) 1961-1991 (1991).
*The Dylan of the Never Ending Tour--who has continued to document his non-stop live performance activities with Real Live (1985) and Dylan & The Dead (1989).
*The Dylan of Traveling Wilburys Fame--who recorded two hit albums between 1988-1990 with George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne, and Tom Petty.
*The Dylan of Today--who continues to roll out new albums, with a celebrity-studded cast of musicians and producers, such as Knocked Out Loaded (with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, 1986), Down In The Groove (with Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Ron Wood, and members of the Grateful Dead, Clash, and Sex Pistols, 1988), Oh Mercy (produced by Daniel Lanois, 1989), and Under The Red Sky (with David Crosby, George Harrison, Bruce Hornsby, Elton John, Jimmy & Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Slash of Guns N' Roses, 1990).
*The Dylan as He'd Like to Be Remembered--in which the former fledgling folksinger who started out with a guitar, harmonica, and other people's songs, does it all over again with Good As I Been To You (1992) and World Gone Wrong (1993).
Less than a year after his massive 30th Anniversary Concert gathered together some of the finest musicians in the world to pay him tribute, Bob Dylan was gearing up for the road yet again, this time touring with old friend Carlos Santana. "It's all about a livelihood," he told an Associated Press writer at the time. "It's all about going out and playing. That's what every musician who has crossed my path strives for."
This Biography was written by Dave DiMartino