Bob Dylan Bio

author: A Rolling Stone date: 03/26/2009 category: artists' discussions

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Part 1. Early Life. (1941 to 1960)

Young Robert Zimmerman was a pretty average kid, he had a loving Mom and Dad, friends, and a nice home. He was born in Duluth, Minnesota in 1941 and lived there with his parents amidst the small local Jewish community. However, a few years later in '47 Robert's father contracted polio and sadly passed away, causing Robert and his mother to move to the nearby Hibbing, Minnesota where he would spend most of his childhood. During these years Robert would often listen to their small radio, mostly country stars like Hank Williams. Later he would take a likin' to early rock and roll music. Though he admitted this music was good, Robert said that the rock music wasn't "serious" enough and didn't actually deal with any real issues like another genre of music that he discovered. That genre would turn out to be folk music, and hearing that music would truly change Robert's life in a very big way. When Robert was 18 years old in 1959, he was enrolled as a student at the University of Minnesota. Eventually, Robert would start performing folk songs at a coffee house not too far from campus and pretty soon he was a regular on the circuit and well-respected among his peers. Another strange occurrence would also arise sometime during this time period. That "occurrence" was that the young Robert Zimmerman started suavely going by the name of "Bob Dylan", shortening Robert to Bob and changing Zimmerman to Dylan, the latter decision being attributed the poet Dylan Thomas. Finally, at the end of his freshman year Bob dropped out of college and made his way to New York, hoping to make it as a folksinger and to visit his ailing long-time hero Woody Guthrie in a hospital in New Jersey on the way.

Part 2. - Record Deals, Folk Songs, And Musical Protest. (1961 to 1964)

At the beginning of 1961, Dylan moved to Greenwich Village in New York and began to make a subtle name for himself among the present folk greats there like Dave Van Ronk and Ramblin' Jack Elliott. He would play around in the clubs like the "Cafe Wha?" and the "Gaslight" and manage a very meager existence until one day when there was a breakthrough for Bobby. That breakthrough would come in the form of a positive review from critic Robert Shelton, a writer for the New York Times. As a direct result of this, Columbia producer John Hammond would sign Dylan to the famous label. Dylan's self-titled first album included two original songs and a collection of other folk and traditional gospel songs, though it didn't make much of an impact anywhere and was almost a financial loss for the label. The next year in 1962 Bob finally legally changed his name to Robert Dylan. He also picked up manager Albert Grossman who would be by his side faithfully until 1970. He was very protective of Bob and (due to frequent clashes) fired John Hammond as his producer and subsequently hired Tom Wilson to replace him. In 1963 his second album, "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" would be released and would meet critical appraisal and very kind reviews. Many of the songs on the album, particularly "A Hard Rains A-Gonna Fall" and "Blowin' in the Wind", were labeled as "protest songs" by the folk communtity and quickly became the biggest songs from the album. Many 60s artists would cover Dylan's tunes, and often they would become more popular than the original versions would for Dylan! Then, in '63, Bob's third album entitled "The Times They Are A-Changin" would be released. This album revealed fully the political and very cynical side of Dylan that filled his songs with topical stories of wrongdoings and blatant attacks on high society and the U.S. Government and it's crooked justice system. The folkies could not get enough to say the least. For a few years now, Dylan had been performing and "protesting" with fellow folksinger Joan Baez, though later she would aim herself more at civil rights movements while Dylan stayed comfortably pre-occupied with his music. The two would remain friends and often reunite. Next, his newest album called "Another Side Of Bob Dylan" displayed that his musical techniques were gradually beginning to change. Though some songs similar to his old ones were present, a new surreal type of writing was becoming prominent and some songs, I.e. "Black Crowe Blues," would foreshadow his next move in the world of music into a new genre later labeled as "folk-rock."

Part 3. - Is That an amp? And a drumset? And... Is that BOB?! (1964 to Early 1966)

This part of Dylan's career is largely considered his best, and at the same time his most controversial. The reason being that Dylan switched to including some electric instruments on his next album, "Bringing It All Back Home." Though the album was hailed as a musical triumph, some of his traditional folk followers thought it was an abomination even though it also featured several of his most popular acoustic songs on it's second side. Both this album and his next (and even more popular album) were released in 1965. Dylan also performed his controversial show at the Newport Folk Festival that year. Due to Dylan having a backing band, the guitars being too loud, and Bob himself sporting a Fender Stratocaster, he was booed off the stage after only three songs. Old friend Pete Seeger said that if he would've had an axe, he would've cut the lines running power to the stage. His next album, "Highway 61 Revisited," is arguably his best work. It featured a full-on rock sound with a subtle organ track mixed in and a near-constant acoustic guitar to keep it all together. Once again, critics handed out raving reviews. This album also contained the song that changed pop music forever. And that song would be the ever-present "Like A Rolling Stone". Rolling Stone magazine put it down in a countdown as the best song of all-time. Next in '66 Bob would release an even more rock-oriented record in the form of a two LP set titled "Blonde On Blonde". Dylan was on top of the world at this point and the critics only re-inforced this mindset. Bob was also secretly wed to his first wife, Sara Lownds, at this time and kept it pretty down-low until a slummy journalist printed it in the New York Times after somehow finding out. At this point Dylan also undertook a large tour of Europe and Australia and would split his show up into two different segments. The first segment would be the traditional Dylan by himself with his acoustic guitar and harmonica and the second segment had him playing his new hard rock music with his backing band called the "Hawks" (who would later form "The Band"). The infamous Royal Albert Hall concert (that suspiciously enough actually took place in a different building) also took place on this tour in which a disgruntled fan famously yelled out "Judas!", referring to his alleged "betrayal" of the folk community.

Part 4. - A Motorcycle Crash And Bob Dylan The Hermit. (Mid-1966 to 1974)

On July 29, 1966, Bob Dylan was in a motorcycle accident. Though the degree of his injuries were never fully disclosed, Bob has said that he was pretty bad off. So bad off in fact, that he would not go on tour again for another 8 years! For the rest of '66 Bob would mostly rest and wasn't known to record anything significant. However, in 1967 Bob started recording songs in a house called "Big Pink" with the Hawks. These demos were eventually released in 1975 as "The Basement Tapes". Many of these songs would be re-recorded by the Hawks (who renamed themselves "The Band") and featured on their first album, "Music from Big Pink". Many collaborations would occur between the two artists later on. After a nearly 20-month break, Dylan would travel to Nashville to do a quick series of recording sessions. The product of those sessions would be "John Wesley Harding", a mostly acoustic album full of ballads and the popular song,"All Along the Watchtower" which would be notably recorded by Jimi Hendrix and appear on most subsequent "Greatest Hits" compilations. This album was generally well-recieved and viewed somewhat as a baby step back to Dylan's roots. Next Dylan surprised everyone by coming out with a straight-up mainstream country record, complete with a duet featuring none other than Johnny Cash. By this time Bob's voice had changed into a low country croon which he later attributed to quitting smoking. The same year, Dylan would headline the 1969 Isle of Wight festival. Now, the seventies had finally arrived for Bobby! But they didn't exactly bring good tidings for him. He released the album titled blandly "Self Potrait" in 1970 and upon first listening to it, a Rolling Stone editor bluntly asked, "What is this sh*t?". The album was a double LP that featured few songs written by Dylan himself. Later that same year, Dylan would release "New Morning". This album was considered much better than it's predecessor and made most forget about the previous album. Dylan also released the song "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" which was included on the soundtrack to a movie he provided music for and starred in, "Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid." It is by far one of his most popular songs, and his most extensively covered. For his next record Dylan signed to Asylum and came out with "Planet Waves". The backing band on the album was The Band (formerly his faithful Hawks) and it received exceptional reviews. At the same time his old label, Columbia, released "Dylan", an album made of a collection of outtakes from previous sessions... The album is widely reffered to as the "Revenge Album" since the material was so poor and it was only released to fufill Bob's contract. Dylan also went on his first tour in 8 years at this time. In late 1974 sessions started for yet another new album.

Part 5. - A Triumphant But Short-Lived Return! (1975 to 1978)

In late 1974 Bob had recorded his next album, "Blood On The Tracks". However, he would later re-record some of the songs which delayed the actual release of the album until early 1975. At the time the album met mostly mixed reviews, but now it is regarded as a masterpiece and a definite return to his famous acoustic albums of the 60s. Later that year, Dylan and a caravan of musicians would go on the famous "Rolling Thunder Revue" tour. The Revue had two different "legs" and Bob's next album, Desire, would fall right in between them. Desire's sound can be described as a gypsy/folk/ballad/rock hybrid to try and shorten it into a few words. It stayed at #1 on the charts for 5 weeks and has become one of Dylan's most popular albums to date. Many of the songs are related to traveling, or some kind of journey whether it be literally or metaphorically. Also, during this time period Dylan's first wife, Sara, divorced him. Bob became emotionally disraught for quite a while afterwards since he had made many efforts to salvage their broken relationship. Dylan then made an appearance at The Band's farewell show/extravaganza, called "The Last Waltz" before releasing his next album, "Street Legal". The album was considered a full-on pop record and was dismissed due to it's poor sound mix in the studio.

Part 6. - Bob Has A New Best Friend, His Name's Jesus Christ. (1979 to 1982)

This is a very strange part of Dylan's life. Not strange really, just unexpected. You see, Bob became a born-again Christian during this period and he released two albums of gospel music. This trend was not very popular among his friends, fellow musicians, or especially among his fans. The first album was entitled "Slow Train Coming" and surprisingly enough received positive reviews among the secular community. Dylan also snatched his first hit in years with the song "Gotta Serve Somebody". He also got a Grammy for "Best Male Vocal Performance" for the same song. His next album, "Saved", (released in 1980) got mixed reviews and most say it wasn't as thought-out as it's predecessor. It never went gold in sales and now is now practically commercially ignored. His last prominently religious album was Shot Of Love, and it was released in 1981 and also was reviewed as lukewarm at best. However, a few songs off this album returned to secular themes which would foreshadow his later work.

Part. 7 - It Was Hit Or Miss... But Mostly Miss. (1983-1989)

During the 80s, Dylan's work was either great or terrible. There was really no middle ground. There was some good stuff that was released, but his worst work also came during this time period for sure. One way to describe this decade would be to say that Bob "lost his way" for a few years, but eventually "found the path back home" in the 90s. But I'm getting ahead of myself! Bob's first secular albums of the 80s would be Infidels (1983), which was unanimously hailed by fans and critics alike as some of his best work since "Blood on the Tracks". However, the most popular track to come from these sessions, "Blind Willie McTell", would not appear on the final cut of the album. Bob's next album, Empire Burlesque (1985) is an album that is the subject of much debate among Dylan fans. Though the songwriting is considered some of the best of the decade, the music is labeled as sounding quiet dated due to the contemporary production techniques used. Bob's next two albums ("Knocked Out Loaded" and "Down in the Groove") received universally negative reviews by both fans and critics and the two are considered to be Dylan's least engaging albums. However, on a lighter note, Dylan was inducted into the R & R Hall of Fame in '88 with Bruce Springsteen giving the induction speech. Also, later that year "Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1" was released. The Wilburys were a supergroup that featured Bob, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, George Harrison and Roy Orbison. Dylan also married Carolyn Dennis in 1986, though it was mostly kept under wraps. His next album however, "Oh Mercy", was considered a triumph for Dylan after two horrid albums. It drew many people back to his music which had been dwindling enough in the past few years for him to some of his most faithful fans. "Oh Mercy" was released in '89 and was the last album of the decade, so at least he ended the 80s on a good note!

Part 8. - Gettin' Old But Still Makin' Music. (1990-1999)

The 80s may have ended well, but that doesn't mean the 90s started well. Dylan's first album of the decade was a highly collaborative effort featuring Slash, Elton John, Stevie Ray Vaughn and George Harrison among many others. Even with the star-studded personnel, the album (entitled "Under the Red Sky") was essentially a joke and commercially flopped. But, in the same year, "Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3" (Vol. 2 never existed, a joke thought up by George Harrison) was released, minus Roy Orbsion who had recently passed away. The next year, in '91, Dylan was given the Lifetime Achievement award at the Grammys and gave a spirited performance of Masters of War, a song from back in the 60s. It was a great moment in Dylan history, and really echoed the past. Over the next two years Bob released two solo-acoustic albums (His first since '64! ) filled completely with old folk and blues numbers. Finally back to being a folkster after all these years! The albums were called "Good As I Been To You" and "World Gone Wrong". They would be the last studio albums he would release for several years. During this time period in '92 Dylan and his second wife were quietly divorced. However, he did release a live album in the form of his 1994 MTV Unplugged appearance. Of course, the tracklisting contained a lot of greatest hits, which Dylan protested saying that he wanted to do a show comprised entirely of traditional songs instead. Then, in 1997, Dylan released his first album of original material in seven years, and boy did it satisfy! The album, "Time Out Of Mind", was regarded as some of Dylan's best work in his career and won him the "Album of the Year" award at the Grammys. One of the most celebrated songs is the last track, "Highlands", a 16 minute-long surreal epic.

Part 9. - Modern Times (2000-Present)

Dylan started off the decade well, with his single "Things Have Changed", which he wrote for the movie "Wonder Boys." The song got him both a Golden Globe and an Oscar. The next year in 2001 Bob released "Love And Theft", yet another critically aclaimed album. It was produced by Jack Frost, though later it was revealed that the name was a pseudonym used by Bob himself. Then in 2004 Bob released "The Bob Dylan Chronicles, Vol. 1." The first installment in a series of autobiographies. The book covered sporadic parts of his career, skipping around almost every chapter! It was considered both entertaining and somewhat confusing but sales were impressive. A documentary directed by Martin Scorcese, "No Direction Home", was released the next year in 2005. It covered the 60s Dylan period extensively and was close to three and a-half hours long. It received a Peabody award in 2006. Next came Bob's most recent album, fittingly called "Modern Times", in 2006. The album was nominated for three Grammys and was named album of the year by Rolling Stone magazine. Though Dylan's voice has definitely been weathered over the years, it still cuts right to your heart! Since then Dylan has still remained on the road continuing his seemingly never-ending tour that began in 1988. There has been speculation that Dylan will release another studio album, but Bob has been reluctant to comment. Whatever happens, we'll still be here Bob!
More A Rolling Stone columns:
+ The 27 Club General Music 03/26/2009
+ The Rolling Thunder Revue Artists' Discussions 01/21/2009
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