Tuesday, November 9, 2010


Bob Dylan has been a major figure in music for five decades. He pioneered several  schools of songwriting, from confessional singer/songwriter to winding, hallucinatory, stream-of-consciousness narratives. He broke down the notion that a singer must have a conventionally good voice in order to perform, redefining the vocalist's role in popular music. 

He evolved in the 60s as a chronicler and reluctant figurehead of social unrest. His songs became anthems for the US civil rights and anti-war movements. His lyrics incorporated a variety of political, social, philosophical, and literary influences. Starting out as a folk singer inspired by Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson, and Hank Williams his music evolved into electric rock and roll, fusing poetry and music into his own ever-changing style. His work has incorporated folk, blues, country, gospel, rock and roll, jazz, swing, and Irish folk music. His influence is incalculable on all of the folk and rock music that has come after. 

Bob Dylan moved to New York City in 1961, hoping to perform and visit his idol Woody Guthrie, who was seriously ill with Huntington's Disease. Dylan played at the various clubs around in Greenwich Village and received positive reviews from Robert Shelton of the New York Times after a show at Gerde's Folk City. He came to the attention of the producer John Hammond who signed him to a contract with Columbia Records.

His first album simply called Bob Dylan, consisted of familiar folk, blues, and gospel material along with two original compositions. He did a version of House of the Rising Sun and wrote his tribute to Guthrie with Song To Woody. The album didn't do well and the jazz producer Tom Wilson was brought in to work on his second album.

The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan was released in May, 1963. Many of the songs were labeled protest songs, inspired by Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Oxford Town was a sardonic account of James Meredith's ordeal as the first black student to risk enrollment at the University of Mississippi. It also included his most famous song at that time Blowin' In The Wind which took its melody from a traditional slave song while its lyrics questioned the social and political status quo. A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall contained veiled references to nuclear apocalypse, and gained more resonance with the Cuban Missile Crisis. It also marked an important new direction in modern songwriting, by combining traditional folk with stream-of-consciousness and imagist lyrics. The album also contained love songs and jokey, surreal talking blues. Masters of War is a great song that made a powerful anti-war statement.

Dylan's third album, The Times They Are a-Changin' reflected a more politicized and cynical artist. The songs took their content from contemporary real life stories. Only A Pawn In Their Game addressed the murder of civil rights worker Medgar Evers. The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll was about the death of the black barmaid at the hands of a young white socialite.

Around this time Dylan was supposed to be on the Ed Sullivan Show singing Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues, but the producers of the show were worried about legal issues, so Dylan refused to appear rather than comply with censorship.

Another Side of Bob Dylan came out in 1964, and had a lighter mood than its predecessor. The surreal, humorous Dylan was reflected on I Shall Be Free #10 and Motorpsycho Nightmare. Spanish Harlem Incident and To Ramona are passionate and romantic love songs. Black Crow Blues and I Don't Believe You suggest  the rock and roll soon to enter Dylan's music. It Ain't Me Babe is on the surface a song about spurned love, but can also be seen as Dylan's rejection of the role his reputation had thrust at him. My Back Pages attacks the seriousness of his earlier topical songs and seems to predict the backlash he was about to encounter as he took a new direction. The incredible Chimes of Freedom sets elements of social commentary against a denser metaphorical landscape in a style Allen Ginsberg would call - chains of flashing images.

In 1965, Dylan made a huge stylistic leap with Bringing It All Back Home, featuring his first recordings with electric instruments. Subterranean Homesick Blues owed much to Chuck Berry's Too Much Monkey Business. Its free association lyrics contained the manic energy of Beat poetry and was forerunner of rap and hip-hop. It also had an early music video that came out of  D. A. Pennebaker's cinema verite presentation of Dylan's 1965 tour of England, Don't Look Back. The B Side consisted of four long songs on which Dylan accompanied himself on acoustic guitar and harmonica. Mr. Tambourine  Man became one of Dylan's best known songs when The Byrds recorded an electric version that reached the top of the charts. One of my favorite Dylan songs is on this album - It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) where the stream-of-consciousness lyrics are delivered in a continuous flow. He who is not busy being born is busy dying.

Also in 1965, He performed at the Newport Folk Festival with his electric band that included Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper. The crowd became hostile, and this performance provoked a negative response from the folk rock establishment. Some people saw this move in an electric direction as selling out, but Dylan was just wanted to go in a new direction and the next two albums - Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde are now considered two of his best.

In July 1965, Dylan released Like A Rolling Stone. At over 6 minutes in length, the song is credited with altering attitudes about what a pop single could convey. Bruce Springsteen, in his speech during Dylan's inauguration into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, said that on first hearing the single, that "the snare shot sounded like somebody'd kicked open the door to your mind." Rolling Stone listed it as the number one of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. He also released the single Positively 4th Street about this time which was full of angry lyrics and widely interpreted as Dylan's response to his former friends in the folk community. It can also be seen as reflecting his bitterness towards a past lover.

Like A Rolling Stone was the first song on Highway 61 Revisited, titled after the road that lead from Dylan's Minnesota home to the musical hotbed of New Orleans. Most of the songs were flavored by Mike Bloomfield's blues guitar and Al Kooper's organ riffs. There is an intensity on this album, and includes the dark and powerful Ballad of a Thin Man. Desolation Row offers the sole acoustic exception, with Dylan making surreal allusions to a variety of figures in Western culture. The song takes the form of a Fellini-esque parade of grotesques and oddities featuring a huge cast of iconic characters, some historical, some biblical, some fictional, some literary, and some who don't fit into any category.

Blonde on Blonde was released in 1966 and inverted the garage rock sound of Highway 61. It blended blues, country, rock, and folk into a wild, careening, and dense sound. Robbie Robertson played an intense, weaving guitar and the Hawks were the backing band. It is made up of songs driven by inventive, surreal, and witty wordplay, not only on the rockers but also on the moving ballads like Visions of Johanna, Just Like A Woman, and Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands. Blonde on Blonde is an album of enormous depth, providing endless lyrical and musical revelations. The music is filled with cutting guitar riffs, liquid organ sounds, crisp piano, and even a woozy brass band on Rainy Day Women #12 & 35. It's the culmination of Dylan's electric rock and roll period - he would never release a studio record that rocked this hard, or contained such bizzare imagery.

In July 1966, Dylan had a motorcycle accident near his home in Woodstock, New York. The extent of his injuries were never disclosed, but after the accident he withdrew from the public and only appeared at  a few select appearances for the next several years.

In the Fall of 1967, Dylan returned to the studio and recorded John Wesley Harding, a quiet, more contemplative record of shorter songs that drew its imagery from the American West and The Bible. All Along The Watchtower took its lyrics from the Book of Isaiah, and of course was later recorded by Jimi Hendrix, which Dylan felt was the definitive version.

His next release in 1969 was Nashville Skyline, which was a straight country album, featuring Nashville musicians, a mellow-voiced Dylan, a duet with Johnny Cash, and a hit single - Lay Lady Lay.

Dylan's work became more varied and unpredictable in the 70s. He appeared live at the Concert For Bangladesh that was put together by George Harrison. He put out a few albums with New Morning probably being the strongest, and acted and made music for the film Pat Garrett and Billy Kid. One of his greatest and most emotional songs Knockin' On Heaven's Door came from these sessions. He also produced a live album with The Band called Before The Flood.

My favorite album from the 70s was Blood On The Tracks. It achieved a sublime balance between his earlier stream-of-consciousness work, and the simpler compostions of his post-accident years. It is an honest account of a love affair, with the stunning and moving song Tangled Up In Blue as its centerpiece.

Also around this time The Basement Tapes album was released, which were recordings Dylan had made with The Band in 1968. The work had previously been available as a bootleg. It is a truly American album as it gets into the weirdness inherent in old folk, country, and blues tunes. It is lively and humorous and has full bodied performances. 

Desire came out in 1975, and contained the song Hurricane which was about Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, which presented a case for his innocence after he had spent years in jail for a triple murder committed in Patterson, New Jersey in 1966. The song was over 8 minutes long but was released as a single. The album had a travelogue narrative style, showing the influence of Dylan's new collaborator, the playwright, Jacques Levy.

In 1975, Dylan went on the road with The Rolling Thunder Revue. The tour had many performers including T-Bone Burnett, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Joni Mitchell, Roger McGuinn, Mick Ronson, Joan Baez, and the violinist Scarlet Rivera who played a prominent role on Desire. The Revue provided the backdrop for Dylan's nearly four-hour film Renaldo and Clara, which mixed concert footage with reminiscences. He also appeared at The Band's farewell concert in 1976, that was filmed by Martin Scorsese and released as The Last Waltz.

In the late 70s Bob Dylan became a born-again Christian and released two albums - Slow Train Coming, followed by Saved. In 1980, he released the album Shot of Love that contained the haunting song Every Grain of Sand. He released several other albums in the 80s with Infidels receiving the best reviews. Knocked Out Loaded contained a song Dylan wrote with Sam Shepard called Brownsville Girl, that some critics called a work of genius. In 1988, Dylan co-founded the group The Traveling Wilburys, with George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne, and Tom Petty. They produced two successful albums. My favorite record of Dylan's of the decade was Oh Mercy, which was released in 1989. It was produced by Daniel Lanois, and was attentively written, vocally distinctive, and musically warm. It contained several excellent songs including Most of the Time, Everything Is Broken, Political World, and What Is It That You Wanted.

In the 1990s Dylan started to release several albums under the name - The Bootleg Series - that included out takes, alternate takes, demos, and live performances. The first one - Volumes 1-3, was released in 1991 and had many great songs including one of my favorites Blind Willie McTell. Over the next 20 years other volumes would come out including live concerts from The Royal Albert Hall in 1966, where an audience member called Dylan " Judas" for going electric. Dylan responded with  "I don't believe you." Volume 6 was from the 1964 concert at Philharmonic Hall in New York. Volume 5 consists of concert performances from the 1975 Rolling Thunder Review. Volume 8 - Tell Tale Signs - covers rare and unreleased work from 1989-2006. Volume 7 is the soundtrack from the excellent documentary about Dylan by Martin Scorsese called No Direction Home.

Dylan also released an excellent album of new material in 1997 called Time Out of Mind. It contains carefully considered, bitter, and resigned songs that have a dark atmospheric edge. Love Sick, Not Dark Yet, and the 16 minute Highlands are beautiful and haunting.

Since the turn of the century, Bob Dylan has released several strong albums including Love and Theft, Modern Times, and Together Through Life. Just recently Volume 9 of the Bootleg Series was released - The Witmark Demos, 1962-1964.

In 2007, I saw him perform in Bethel, New York near the site of Woodstock. He played incredible reconstructed rock versions of many of his major songs, that at first were hard to recognize, including an amazing uptempo rock version of Blind Willie McTell.

Bob Dylan's musical life is still fascinating and his influence can still be heard in the music that comes out today.

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