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June 2006

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Bob Dylan


Bob Dylan is the pre-eminent poet/lyricist and songwriter of his time. He re-energized the folk-music genre, brought a new lyrical depth to rock and roll when he went electric, and bridged the worlds of rock and country by recording in Nashville. As much as he's played the role of renegade throughout his career, Dylan has also kept the rock and roll community mindful of its roots by returning often to them. With his songs, Dylan has provided a running commentary on a restless age. His biting, imagistic and often cryptic lyrics served to capture and define the mood of a generation. For this, he's been elevated to the role of spokesmen - and yet the elusive and reclusive Dylan won't even admit to being a poet. "I don't call myself a poet because I don't like the word," he has said.
"I'm a trapeze artist." Bob Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman on May, 24th, 1941, in Duluth, Minnesota. He learned to play harmonica and piano by age ten and taught himself to play the guitar. As a high-school student in the late Fifties, he listened to Hank Williams and Little Richard and learned how to play rock and roll. While attending the University of Minnesota, Dylan traded his electric guitar for an acoustic and began to pattern himself after hard-traveling folksingers of the previous generation, such as his mentor Woody Guthrie. In December 1960, Dylan moved to New York City, where he gravitated to the folk and blues scene on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. His New York City debut occurred at Gerdes' Folk City on April 11th, 1961, with Dylan opening for bluesman John Lee Hooker. After playing harmonica on a session for folksinger Carolyn Hester, Dylan was signed by producer John Hammond to a contract with Columbia Records. Except for a brief hiatus in the early Seventies, Dylan has recorded for and remained with the label since 1961.


Dylan's first album was a stripped-down record on which he recorded topical folk songs, accompanying himself on harmonica and guitar. That album contained only two originals ("Song for Woody" and "Talking New York"), although the situation would quickly change with the almost entirely self-composed The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, released in May 1963. That album included such classics as "Blowin' in the Wind," "Masters of War" and "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" - songs that astonished the cognoscenti in folk circles and established Dylan as a formidable composer and presence. In early 1964, as the Beatles began conquering young America, the articulate and challenging Dylan occupied the minds of a slightly older set. He released two albums that year: The Times They Are a-Changin', his most overtly message-oriented album, and Another Side of Bob Dylan, which represented the artist in a more introspective and personal guise with such songs as "My Back Pages" and "It Ain't Me, Babe."


Dylan's gradual move from folk to rock and roll was inspired by the Beatles (whom Dylan "secretly dug") and the Byrds (whose electrified folk-rock arrangement of Dylan's then-unreleased "Mr. Tambourine Man" eventually went to Number One in June 1965). Dylan tested the waters with Bringing It All Back Home, one side of which was acoustic and the other electric. His lyrics were as literate and demanding as ever, but on songs like "Subterranean Homesick Blues" they were now set to slangy, ramshackle rock and roll. In May 1965 Dylan undertook his first tour of the U.K., toting an acoustic guitar and an often confrontational attitude. That stormy affair was documented in stark black and white by filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker in Don't Look Back. Dylan returned to the States fit for battle, and the next skirmish occurred with the folk-music crowd that had so revered him. On July 25th, 1965, Dylan strode onstage at the Newport Festival with an electric guitar in hand and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band backing him up. He was booed offstage after only three songs, at which point he returned with an acoustic guitar and a message for all the folk purists: "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue."


A few weeks after the Newport debacle, Dylan notched his first major hit with "Like a Rolling Stone," a scornful six-minute epistle whose distinctively autumnal mood owes much to organist Al Kooper and guitarist Michael Bloomfield. "Like a Rolling Stone" was the opening track on Highway 61 Revisited, a landmark pop album that set Dylan's surrealistic verse to raw, careening rock and roll. Early in 1966 he headed to Nashville to record the double album Blonde on Blonde, a career milestone that even Dylan allows was "the closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind...It's that thin, that wild mercury sound." Recorded in Nashville with the cream of country-music sessionmen, Blonde On Blonde included the hit singles "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" and "I Want You," as well as deeper, more ambitious pieces such as "Just Like a Woman," "Visions of Johanna" and the side-long "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands." That spring, he embarked on a moody, tempestuous world tour that found him backed by the Hawks (later known as the Band) and facing down audiences that still hadn't forgiven him for going electric. Then, on July 29, he was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident near his home in Woodstock, New York. Dylan dropped out of sight for a year and a half, rehearsing and recording with the Band at their funky home studio in nearby Saugerties while he recovered. The fruits of those labors were repeatedly bootlegged and finally saw legitimate release in 1975 as The Basement Tapes.


Dylan's first post-accident release was John Wesley Harding, a folk-country album that found Dylan penning inscrutable parables about historical characters and outlaws as a metaphorical means of deflating the audience-hero relationship. Jimi Hendrix took one of its songs, "All Along the Watchtower," and turned it into an electrified, apocalyptic anthem for the ages. Dylan changed course in December 1969 with his most overtly "country" record, Nashville Skyline, which found him singing lightweight songs like "Lay Lady Lay" in a newly mellow voice.


While Dylan was the uncontested voice and conscience of the Sixties, his footing seemed somewhat less consistent in subsequent decades, especially on such lesser works as Self-Portrait and Street-Legal, as well as what seemed like an inordinate number of live albums. All the same, he scaled periodic heights on such essential recordings as 1975's Blood On the Tracks and on the Rolling Thunder Revue, an inspired caravan of troubadours that hit the road later that same year. In 1976, Dylan released another excellent record, Desire, and provided some of the most riveting performances at the Band's farewell concert, The Last Waltz. Beginning in 1979, Dylan took one of his more unexpected career turns by embracing Bible-thumping Christianity on a trilogy of albums (Slow Train Coming, Saved, Shot of Love). Thereafter, he resumed his more generally secular but no less moralistic commentary on such deserving albums as Infidels (1983), Empire Burlesque (1985) and Oh Mercy (1989).


During this same period, Dylan's career was revived and considered retrospectively to great effect in the boxed sets Biograph (1985) and The Bootleg Series, Vol. 1-3 (1991). Dylan's most recent album of original material, Under the Red Sky, appeared in 1991. Since then, he has recorded two albums of gruffly sung, unadorned folk songs exhumed from the public domain that bring Dylan full circle, echoing the eponymous first album he recorded three decades earlier. While he has been relatively inactive on the recording front, Dylan has spent much of the Nineties on the road like the wandering troubadour he has always perceived himself to be. The legend remains very much alive.

 





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