Bob Dylan - Biography
Written by Chris Morris
Is there any way to adequately survey a career of such prolific density, diversity, and depth, or a life so rich in dramatic changes, twists, and reversals? He’ll never tell us himself: Even at his most forthcoming, Bob Dylan has been cryptic; at his worst, he is a master dissembler. Millions of words have been expended probing his life, and scholars have trailed him tirelessly; in the late ‘60s, “Dylanologist” A.J. Weberman incurred his wrath by picking through his garbage in an attempt to divine his essence. In the end, Dylan’s music may be the best skeleton key we have to explore America’s most protean musician, who changed the very face of folk and rock ‘n’ roll.
In Martin Scorsese’s 2005 film No Direction Home, about the musician’s early life and his career through ’66, Dylan himself says that throughout the metamorphic stages of his career he was “constantly in a state of becoming.” Vocalist Liam Clancy, a Greenwich Village folk scene contemporary, aptly compares him in the documentary to the shape-shifters of Celtic mythology: “It wasn’t necessary for him to be a definitive person.”
He had reason to become someone else. Born Robert Zimmerman on May 24, 1941, he was raised in the Great White North of the American Midwest. As a youth he longed to escape Hibbing, Minnesota, a few blocks of frigid Midwestern concrete bordering a pit of played-out iron mines, where his family moved in 1947. He fled through the music he heard on the radio (Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, Gene Vincent, Webb Pierce, even Johnny Ray), the films of Marlon Brando and James Dean, and the bop prosody of Jack Kerouac. Then he sought refuge playing rock ‘n’ roll: As a teen, he emulated Little Richard, and sometimes told the credulous that he was the teen idol Bobby Vee, in whose group he briefly played piano.
With folk music flourishing in its late-‘50s renaissance, Zimmerman soon turned in his Stratocaster for an acoustic guitar, and began his folk epoch in 1959 as an indifferent college student in Minneapolis. Rechristening himself Bob Dylan, he hitchhiked to New York City in 1961, seeking a career and an audience with his hospitalized avatar, Woody Guthrie. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott — another pseudonymous, middle-class, Jewish folk musician and Guthrie acolyte — was a key model for the younger vocalist. Dylan flung himself into the Village’s rarefied atmosphere of folk music “basket houses,” Old Left saber-rattling, and Bohemian cultural cross-breeding.
But Dylan stood apart from the earnest, traditionalist, politically engaged musicians with whom he shared stages. A tunesmith first and foremost, he didn’t consider himself a topical songwriter (though many others did, with ultimately disastrous results). He was at first deemed too raw for the folk establishment: Maynard Solomon, head of Joan Baez’s label Vanguard Records, declined to sign him, dismissing Dylan’s music as “too visceral.”
No purist, he did not eschew alliances with the record industry: Nonpareil talent scout John Hammond signed him to Columbia, the biggest label of the day, and the bare-knuckled manager Albert Grossman advanced his career. He was not above seriously bending the truth to enhance his image; his first interviews are often-hilarious experiments in bald-faced fictional reinvention. And he would take what he needed from anywhere, damn the consequences: The late folk singer Dave Van Ronk lamented, with a mixture of humor and bitterness, the appropriation of his arrangement of “House of the Rising Sun” for Dylan’s self-titled 1962 debut album.
The May 1963 release The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, his second album, was filled with brilliant original compositions, and it announced the true arrival of a bold new folk talent. By his appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in August 1963, Dylan was an icon of the folk and Left communities. The newly crowned king led a host of Newport stars, including his then-paramour Baez, in a festival-closing “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
And then Dylan said “No” — or rather, “No, no, no, no, no.” He rejected the folk movement’s smothering embrace and began his journey into new, more commercial — and controversial — musical terrain.
In late ’63, Dylan bluntly shot down the Old Left in a drunken speech at an Emergency Civil Liberties Commission awards ceremony. Quickly, the jeans and workshirts disappeared, replaced by leather jackets, polka-dot shirts, and Edwardian suits, and Dylan the pop star reared his head. One change succeeded another: his assumption of a sophisticated, impressionistic lyrical style, his dismissal of agit-folkies like Baez and his early champion Pete Seeger, his move into rock hit-making, and his noisy confrontation with the outraged ’65 Newport festival audience. In the summer of 1965, he scored his biggest popular hit with “Like a Rolling Stone,” which climbed to No. 2 on the Hot 100; he had also neatly divided his audience into warring factions.
“Things had gotten out of hand,” Dylan says in No Direction Home. On tour in 1966, he was quickly embroiled in a tragicomic face-off with enraged folkniks and uncomprehending journalists during his first electric sortie, backed by a Canadian-American group called The Hawks (later the Band). He left a May 1966 gig in Manchester, England, with a stinging cry of “Judas!” ringing in his ears. Traveling at warp speed, embattled on all sides, and consuming dope like candy, Dylan finally withered under the pressure of stardom.
His fateful July 1966 motorcycle accident led to another startling shift in artistic direction, a period of personal seclusion, and an eight-year touring hiatus. He started his artistic retrenchment in the seclusion of his Woodstock, N.Y., home. He began editing D.A. Pennebaker’s footage from the ‘66 world tour into a never-completed film, Eat the Document, and summoned members of The Hawks to Woodstock to assist with the project.
Dylan thus began jamming with his backup musicians at his house and a nearby pink ranch home, dubbed “Big Pink.” These informal sessions – part palate cleanser, part demo date – resulted in dozens of recordings of covers and new Dylan songs (some written in collaboration with The Hawks). The “Basement Tapes” would be widely bootlegged – most famously on the two-LP set The Great White Wonder; a handful were officially issued in 1975. Dylan’s sidemen performed a couple of the tunes on their 1968 debut as The Band, Music From Big Pink.
Refreshed, Dylan repaired to Nashville in 1967 to cut the pared-down album John Wesley Harding (1968). This spare, acoustic-based LP, full of folkish songs deep in the traditional American grain, was virtually a rebuke to the extravagant psychedelia of the period, and it startled and delighted many of Dylan’s fans. In January 1968, Dylan finally emerged from the shadows for a live performance with The Band at a Woody Guthrie memorial concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall.
Dylan plunged even further into straight-ahead Americana on Nashville Skyline (1969), a collection of original country songs recorded in Nashville with some of Music City’s best-known session players; Johnny Cash – one of the first established artists to cover Dylan’s material in the early ‘60s – guested on a remake of Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country.” Dylan also appeared on the debut broadcast of Cash’s network TV show that year.
Ever the contrarian, Dylan again began to back away from his renewed celebrity and his idolatrous audience with the release of Self Portrait (1970). A chaotic and unsatisfying two-LP set of slapdash covers and weak original material, it inspired anger and horror in many listeners: Greil Marcus’ review in Rolling Stone began, “What is this shit?” (Dylan himself later confessed, “I just said, well fuck it.”) He made modest amends with the release, seven months later, of New Morning (1970), a satisfying but not revelatory collection of originals distinguished by the inclusion of “If Not For You,” his writing collaboration with George Harrison of The Beatles.
After a period of recording and performing inactivity (save for an appearance at the star-studded Concert For Bangla Desh at New York’s Madison Square Garden in August 1971), Dylan made an unforeseen move into Hollywood. He took a featured role as the (what else?) enigmatic outlaw Alias in maverick director Sam Peckinpah’s Western Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which starred fellow singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson and James Coburn. Dylan’s mostly instrumental soundtrack for the film, released in 1973, included the soon-to-be-standard “Knocking On Heaven’s Door.”
Many changes were afoot in Dylan’s life and career. In 1973, Dylan – who had separated himself from his manager Albert Grossman – signed a recording deal with David Geffen’s Asylum Records. (Perhaps in revenge, his spurned longtime label Columbia released Dylan , a truly heinous compilation of unreleased covers.) He regrouped with The Band, now stars in their own right, for his hastily recorded Asylum debut Planet Waves (1974), which became his first-ever No. 1 album. It was recorded to promote ‘74’s joint tour with The Band – Dylan’s first in eight years; tickets were sold by mail order only, and 5.5 million requests were received for a total of 651,000 tickets. Dylan and his erstwhile Hawks performed with roiling passion on the tour, which fans greeted with lit matches and cigarette lighters held aloft in tribute – a gesture that would be repeated at thousands of other rock concerts. The tour was commemorated on the two-LP set Before the Flood (1974).
Later that year, Dylan re-signed with Columbia Records – a decision no doubt spurred by his disappointment with sales of his Asylum albums, and possibly influenced by his then-current affair with one of Columbia’s executives. His nearly nine-year marriage to Sara Lowndes Dylan, mother of his four children, was beginning to founder, though the pair would not finally separate and divorce until 1977. He composed a song cycle that surveyed the disarray of his marriage in gritty metaphorical terms, and recorded the resultant album in sessions in New York and Minneapolis (after the first round of studio dates failed to catch fire to his satisfaction) in late 1974. Blood On the Tracks (1975) would stand as Dylan’s incomparable achievement of his ‘70s career – carefully crafted, and surprisingly naked. It was his second No. 1 album.
In 1975, Dylan started working with a rag-tag group of musicians, many of them drawn from the Greenwich Village scene. They included violinist Scarlet Rivera; Steven Soles, David Mansfield, and T-Bone Burnett (who later formed The Alpha Band); and David Bowie’s former Spiders From Mars guitarist Mick Ronson. They formed the core of the band Dylan used for an earthy album co-written with Jacques Levy.
Desire (1976) was succeeded by a circus-like tour dubbed “The Rolling Thunder Revue.” His onetime lover Joan Baez was a recruit on the tour – somewhat surprisingly, since Dylan’s wife was also part of the entourage; Roger McGuinn of The Byrds, Dylan’s folk model Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, poet Allen Ginsberg, and Ronee Blakely, star of Robert Altman’s film Nashville, were also on board. The revue was captured in a TV special and live album, both titled Hard Rain (1976); improvised footage shot during the tour was edited by Dylan into the chaotic and excruciating four-hour 1977 feature film Renaldo and Clara, which opened to damning reviews and expired quickly, despite the speedy release of a two-hour cut. It has not been seen on a big screen since.
In the aftermath of his ’77 divorce, Dylan was somewhat at loose ends artistically. He recorded the disheveled Street-Legal (1978)- a rambling, gospel soaked slab of entertainment, not with out it's merits in the goodness of "Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)," "We Better Talk This Over," and "Is Your Love In Vein," embarking on a world tour (memorialized on Bob Dylan at Budokan - which included a hypnotic rendition of "Oh Sister.")
Near the end of the 1978 tour, during a concert in San Diego, Dylan bent down on stage and picked up a small cross a fan had thrown onstage. He later claimed that the next night in Tucson, he experienced a full-blown religious experience: As he examined the cross in his hotel room, the image of Jesus appeared before him. He later told a reporter, “Jesus put his hand on me. It was a physical thing…The glory of the Lord knocked me down and picked me up.” Soon thereafter, he became a disciple of the Los Angeles evangelical church the Vineyard, and began writing a series of fiery songs inspired by his surprising conversion to born-again Christianity.
The first fruit of Dylan’s new-found religion was the devout yet rocking album Slow Train Coming (1979), produced by former Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler in Muscle Shoals, Ala. Many critics bemoaned Dylan’s metamorphosis into a tongue-lashing Christian proselytizer, and some were put off by his concerts of the period, which resembled old-time tent revivals more than they did rock shows. But the album was Dylan’s bestselling collection in three years, and the finger-wagging single “Gotta Serve Somebody” reached the top 30. When it won a Grammy in 1980, Dylan thanked his Lord from the stage.
The sequel to Slow Train, Saved (1980), was not so fortunate commercially, peaking at No. 24 on the charts. It would be his last album comprising Christian material, though Christian imagery, and a preacher’s wrath, animated many subsequent records. Shot of Love (1981) contained the sublime "Every Grain Of Sand," the pop pleasure "Heart Of Mine" (featuring Ron Wood and Ringo Starr), and the laconic, wistful "In The Summertime," as well as his somber tribute to that much cited comic provocateur "Lenny Bruce." Infidels (1983), produced by Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler, gave Dylan fans something to crow about, as it was a solidly crafted affair that produced no shortage of great tunes- "Jokerman," "Sweetheart Like You," the lilting "Don't Fall Apart On Me Tonight," and the hard rocking "Neighborhood Bully" reflect a man who still had the knack for a great tune (one of Dylan’s finest songs, “Blind Willie McTell,” was recorded during this period, but went unreleased for a decade and a half).
Empire Burlesque (1985) followed, confounding some Dylan fans with it's updated production values and slick, cocaine sheen. Yet, a few of the songs contain Dylan's usual flair for the good hook- "I Remember You," the garish, harsh disco of "When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky," and the ersatz reggae soul- shimmering, shallow, and shocking- of "Tight Connection To My Heart" gave the record it's high points. Knocked Out Loaded (1986), Down in the Groove (1988), and live records Real Live (1985) and Dylan & the Dead (1989), continued the legend's medium hold on his fanbase, with the odd cut peaking through ("Brownsville Girl," "Ugliest Girl In The World," "Silvio," "When Did You Leave Heaven"), the Dylanologists waiting for the man to reconnect with his muse in the way they had been wanting.
Dylan – who was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 – showed signs that he was unwilling to rest on his featherbed of laurels. In 1988, he participated in the first of two jaunty, unassuming, and entertaining albums he recorded as a pseudonymous member – “Lucky Wilbury” -- of The Traveling Wilburys, a supergroup that also included Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, George Harrison, and Jeff Lynne. The same year, he embarked on what he called his “Never Ending Tour,” which for the next two decades took him into venues around the world ranging in size from arenas to theaters and minor-league ballparks, averaging 100 shows a year – a towering number for a performer of his stature.
In 1989, Daniel Lanois, producer of such commercial behemoths as U2’s The Joshua Tree, helped ease Dylan out of his rut. A master at working in non-studio environments, Lanois set up a mobile recording rig in a turn-of-the-century house in New Orleans and sprinkled his atmospheric powder on the most consistent collection of songs Dylan had authored in a decade. The resultant album- the swampy, profound Oh Mercy (1989), was artistically satisfying (it included a devistating piano ballad called "Ring Them Bells," recalling the 60s Dylan of yore, as if updated), and his association with Lanois laid the groundwork for his greatest triumph of the ‘90s.
His next album, Under The Red Sky (1990) was a lighthearted, rocking affair. Produced by Don and David Was of the outré rock-funk band Was (Not Was), it contained a surfeit of superstar guests (Elton John, George Harrison, Slash of Guns N’ Roses, Stevie Ray Vaughan), and was to be Dylan’s last album of original material for seven years.
In 1991, on the eve of his 50th birthday, Dylan received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences at the 33rd annual Grammy Awards. It began a period of pronounced retrospection by the musician. The next year, he was feted at an all-star Madison Square Garden concert celebrating his 30 years as a recording artist, at which he handily stole the show. He released Good As I Been To You (1992), a collection of solo acoustic versions of well-traveled blues, hillbilly, and folk tunes – including “Froggie Went A-Courtin’!” – that captured the ears of critics with their simplicity and almost devotional feeling. That album’s sequel, World Gone Wrong (1993), received a Grammy as best contemporary folk album.
After four years of constant touring without a new studio album, Dylan returned to the public eye, with a flourish. In May of 1997, he was admitted to a Los Angeles hospital with a case of pericarditis, a potentially fatal inflammation of tissue around the heart. Months later, his new album – recorded with Daniel Lanois at a converted movie house in Oxnard, Ca. – was released to an unexpectant world. In the wake of his serious illness, Time Out of Mind (1997) seemed precognitive – the mature Bob Dylan emerged in a cycle of songs obsessed with old age and death, sung in a rasping, mossy voice. Stunned critics hailed it as an autumnal masterpiece (“It reaches the exalted level of Blood On the Tracks,” Jon Pareles wrote in the New York Times), and it became Dylan’s first top 10 album in 18 years. In February 1998, Dylan collected two Grammys for it, including album of the year. That year, Columbia inaugurated its “Bootleg Series” of weighty previously unreleased Dylan material.
Thus began Dylan’s epoch as American music’s great grey eminence. Honors and glory were heaped upon him. “Things Have Changed,” the song he wrote for Curtis Hanson’s 2000 film Wonder Boys, received an Academy Award and Golden Globe Award as best original song. His album “Love and Theft” (2001) received reviews as glowing as those accorded Time Out of Mind, and outperformed that previous work, rising to No. 5 on the Billboard album chart. His lavishly praised 2004 memoir Chronicles Vol. 1 was a New York Times bestseller. In 2005, he took the opportunity to supply the narrative for his early career in a series of candid, droll interviews shot by his manager Jeff Rosen for Scorsese’s PBS biographical film No Direction Home. Finally, he achieved a new commercial pinnacle when his album Modern Times (2006) became his first release to hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200, entering the chart at the top, followed by Together Through Life and Christmas In The Heart (2009). His latest release is Tempest (2012).
In 2007, director Todd Haynes’ impressionistic film I’m Not There starred six actors – Australian actress Cate Blanchett among them; each served as a simulacrum of some facet of Dylan’s life. In view of the evidence, six was most certainly not enough. Like another great American poet, Walt Whitman, Dylan contains multitudes.