Bob Dylan (born Robert Allen Zimmerman May 24, 1941, Duluth, Minnesota, USA) is widely regarded as one of America's greatest popular songwriters. Stephen Foster, Irving Berlin, Woody Guthrie, and Hank Williams are among the few songwriters similarly revered for their enduring contributions to the American oeuvre.
Much of his best-known work is from the 1960s, when his musical shadow was so large that he became a documentarian and reluctant figurehead of American unrest. The civil rights movement had no more moving anthem than his song "Blowin' in the Wind." Millions of young people embraced his song "The Times They Are A-Changin'" during that era of extreme change. The radical insurgent group The Weathermen named themselves after a lyric in Dylan's song "Subterranean Homesick Blues" ("You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows").
More broadly, Dylan is credited with expanding the vocabulary of popular music, moving it beyond traditional boy-and-girl themes into the heady realms of politics/social commentary, philosophy, and a kind of stream-of-consciousness absurdist humor that defies easy description. This allows for a rich ambiguity and plurality of meaning uncommon in song up until his appearance. This lyrical innovation has occurred within the context of Dylan's steadfast devotion to the richest traditions of American song, from folk and country/blues to rock 'n' roll and rockabilly, to Gaelic balladry, even jazz, swing, and Broadway.
Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota, to a Jewish family from Hibbing. He spent much of his youth listening to the radio -- at first the powerful blues and country music stations beamed all the way from New Orleans -- and later early rock and roll. He formed his first band, The Golden Chords, while still in high school. Around this time, Zimmerman chose the pseudonym Elston Gunn for himself, playing a few concerts as Bobby Vee's pianist under this name. An able but by no means brilliant student, he started university studies in 1959 in Minneapolis, during which time he was actively involved in the local Dinkytown folk music circuit. During his Dinkytown days Zimmerman began introducing himself as Bob Dylan. It has been suggested this choice was a tribute to the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. Dylan has often denied this, claiming in 1965 that he took the name from an uncle named Dillon. He added "I've read some of Dylan Thomas' stuff, and it's not the same as mine." In his 2004 biography, "Chronicles Vol.1", however, Dylan admits that Dylan Thomas was relevant to his choice of alias (although he still acknowledges no influence or tribute, saying only that "Dylan" sounds like "Allen," his middle name and original choice for a surname de plume). He quit formal studies in early 1961, eventually drifting to New York City to perform and to visit his ailing idol Woody Guthrie. Playing in small clubs for next to no pay, he soon gained some recognition after a review in the New York Times (September 29, 1961) by critic Robert Shelton, which led to John Hammond, a legendary music talent scout, signing him to Columbia Records.
At the time his voice, musicianship and songwriting were still raw. His performances, like his first Columbia album (1962's Bob Dylan), consisted of traditional folk, blues and gospel material interspersed with a few of his own songs. 1962 also saw Dylan recording some songs for Broadside (a folk music magazine that occasionally released recordings), under the pseudonym Blind Boy Grunt. By the time of his next record, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963), he had begun to make his name as both a singer and composer, specialising in protest songs, initially in the style of Guthrie and soon practically developing his own genre. His songs of the time are typified by "Blowin' in the Wind", its melody partially derived from slave song "No More Auction Block", coupled with lyrics questioning the social and political status quo. With hindsight, the lyrics to some of these songs appear unsophisticated ("How many times must the cannonballs fly before they are forever banned"), but when compared to the largely anemic popular culture of the 1950s they were a breath of fresh air, and the songs caught the zeitgeist of the 1960s. "Blowin' In The Wind" itself was widely recorded and was an international hit for Peter, Paul and Mary, setting an enduring precedent for other artists to cover Dylan's songs. Somewhat overlooked among the protest songs on Freewheelin', however, was a mixture of finely crafted bittersweet love songs ("Don't Think Twice, It's Alright ", "Girl From the North Country ") and jokey, frequently surreal talking blues ("Talking World War III Blues ", "I Shall Be Free "). This eclecticism would continue to inform his material for much of his career.
While a fine interpreter of songs, Dylan was not widely considered a traditionally beautiful singer, and many of his songs first reached the public through versions by other artists. Joan Baez, a friend and sometime lover, took it upon herself to record a great deal of his early material, as did many others including The Byrds, Sonny and Cher, The Hollies, Manfred Mann and Herman's Hermits. So ubiquitous were these covers by the mid-1960s that CBS started to promote him with the tag: "Nobody Sings Dylan Like Dylan". Whoever sang his songs, they were immediately recognizable as his and a good part of his fame rested not only on his lyrical excellence but on the underlying attitude -- a sort of po' boy adrift in the wide world posture that gradually changed to hipster arbiter of all things cool and uncool.
Protest and another side
By 1963, Dylan was becoming increasingly prominent in the civil rights movement, singing at rallies including the March on Washington in which Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his "I have a dream" speech. Dylan's next album, The Times They Are A-Changin', reflected a more sophisticated, politicised and cynical Dylan. The bleak material, concerned with such subjects as the murder of civil rights worker Medgar Evers and the despair engendered by the breakdown of farming and mining communities ("Ballad of Hollis Brown", "North Country Blues"), was lightened by a single anti-love song, "Boots of Spanish Leather". "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll", a highlight of the album, describes a young aristocrat's killing of a maid. Never explicitly mentioning race, the song leaves no doubt that the killer is white, the victim black.
By the end of the year, however, he started to feel both manipulated and constrained by the folk-protest movement. Accepting the "Tom Paine Award" from the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee at a ceremony shortly after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a drunk and rambling Dylan questioned the role of the committee, insulted its many overweight and balding members and claimed he saw something of himself in Lee Harvey Oswald. The messages, both from Dylan and those who booed him, were clear: Dylan and the civil rights movement were drifting apart. Some say this separation was not ideological, but rather an expression of Dylan's understandable reluctance to accept the title "Voice of His Generation".
Perhaps inevitably, then, his next album — the accurately but prosaically titled Another Side Of Bob Dylan (1964) — had a lighter mood than its predecessor. The surreal Dylan re-emerged on "I Shall Be Free #10" and "Motorpsycho Nightmare" employing a sense of humor which would persist throughout his career. "Spanish Harlem Incident" and "To Ramona" were touching love songs, while "Ballad in Plain D" and "I Don't Believe You" mourned a breakup; perhaps Dylan's parting with long-time girlfriend Suze Rotolo, who had been pictured with him on the famous album cover of Freewheelin'. Musically he had changed, too. Another Side is the first album on which Dylan's piano playing is featured (though only on one track, "Black Crow Blues"), with the beat and bass of his left hand presaging his return to rock music the next year. Perhaps more important to his later development were two other tracks. "Chimes of Freedom" was the first of a new type of Dylan song: lengthy and impressionistic, it retains an element of social commentary but with the topicality of his earlier work replaced by dense metaphorical landscape, a style later characterised by Allen Ginsberg as "chains of flashing images". "My Back Pages", in a similar style, is even more personal, a scathing attack on the dichotomous simplicity and arch seriousness of his own earlier work. By way of excuse, or even apology, he offers only that "I was so much older then / I'm younger than that now" and few have summed up the transition in his work from 1963 to 1965 better.
Throughout this time Dylan's artistic development moved so fast that he frequently left both critics and fans behind. His March 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home was a further stylistic leap. Influenced by The Beatles (whose artistic development had already been enhanced by Dylan's influence), and the rock and roll of his youth, the first side contained his first original uptempo rock songs. The music, provided by a full electric band of mainly session musicians, was a definite departure. Lyrically, however, the songs were pure Dylan, exhibiting his dry wit and inhabited by a sequence of grotesque, metaphorical characters. The raucous first single, "Subterranean Homesick Blues" owed much to Chuck Berry's "Too Much Monkey Business" and was provided with an early music video courtesy of D. A. Pennebaker's cinema verite presentation of Dylan's 1965 tour, Don't Look Back. Its opening lines were memorized by nearly the entire generation:
- Johnny's in the basement
- Mixin' up the medicine
- I'm on the pavement
- Thinkin' 'bout the government
as well as a line further along:
- Ah get born, keep warm
- Short pants, romance, learn to dance
- Get dressed, get blessed
- Try to be a success
- Please her, please him, buy gifts
- Don't steal, don't lift
- Twenty years of schoolin'
- And they put you on the day shift
Side 2 of the album was a different matter, comprising lengthy acoustic songs whose undogmatic political, social and personal concerns are illuminated with the rich poetic imagery that would become another trademark. One of these songs, "Mr. Tambourine Man", had already been a hit for The Byrds, albeit in a truncated form, and would remain one of Dylan's most enduring compositions.
That summer, Bob Dylan stoked the drama of his legacy by performing his first electric set with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band at the Newport Folk Festival, remembered ever since as a watershed event. Dylan had appeared at Newport twice before in 1963 and 1964. Two wildly divergent accounts of the crowd's response in 1965, each equally plausible, exist to this day. The agreed-upon fact is that Dylan, met with a mix of cheering and booing, left the stage after only a few songs. As one legend has it, the boos were from the outraged folk fans Dylan alienated with his electric guitars. According to this account, folk great Pete Seeger grabbed an axe, threatening to cut the power during the performance. Seeger insists there was no axe— he had merely joked about cutting the lines, and that due to excessive volume, not the music itself. When interviewed for the PBS Roots Music series, Seeger stated he was irritated that the lyric to "Maggie's Farm " (a song Seeger admired) was nearly incomprehensible due to the volume and musical arrangement. The other story says that the fans were upset by poor sound quality and a truncated set. Either way, Dylan re-emerged and sang a few solo acoustic numbers to everyone's satisfaction. But the import of the appearance at Newport worked its way into the awareness of this restless generation: thoughtful acoustic music was no longer enough even for tradition-aware singers like Dylan; times were spinning out of control and electricity was needed to express it.
Creative height, crash
Ignoring the occasional negative criticism, Dylan's rapid output (some say fuelled by rapid amphetamine intake) continued unabated through 1965 and 1966. The single "Like a Rolling Stone" was a US hit, cementing his reputation as a lyricist; at over six minutes, devoid of a bridge, "Like a Rolling Stone" also helped to expand the limits of hit radio. Its signature sound, with a full, jangling band and a simple organ riff, would characterise his next album release, Highway 61 Revisited (titled after the road that led from his native Minnesota to the musical hotbed of New Orleans; and also referencing any number of blues songs; i.e. Mississippi Fred McDowell's "61 Highway."). The songs were in the same vein as the advance single, more surreal litanies of the grotesque flavoured by Bloomfield's blues guitar, a tight rhythm section and Dylan's obvious enjoyment of the sessions. Electric amplification and the bluesrock backbeat ruled this album and all thought of Dylan remaining exclusively in the "new folk" category should have been abandoned. The closing song, "Desolation Row", a lengthy apocalyptic vision, wore its poeticism and influences on its sleeve, self-consciously referring to both Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot.
In support of the record, Dylan was booked for two US concerts, and set about assembling a band. Finding what he was looking for in The Hawks, formerly backing R&B singer Ronnie Hawkins, he persuaded the group to join him on tour. In August/September 1965 at Forest Hills Auditorium and the Hollywood Bowl the group were heckled by the audience who, Newport notwithstanding, still expected the acoustic troubadour of previous years. Undaunted, Dylan returned to the studio that October to begin work on his next album, the double Blonde on Blonde.
Musicians in the studio, including Robbie Robertson from The Hawks (who would slowly metamorphose into The Band), honed Dylan's sound. "That thin wild mercury sound," Dylan called it, obviating further description. The result was another classic record, often included in the top 5 on 'best albums of all time' lists. The record eclipsed Dylan's earlier works with masterpieces "Visions of Johanna" and "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again." The earlier surrealism now seemed tempered with more humanity and the record more coherent than its predecessors, with knowing nods to The Beatles, amongst others. In his personal life, Dylan secretly married Sara Lowndes on November 22, 1965.
Touring to promote the record remained hectic, however, taking him to Europe and Australia through the summer of 1966, including a famously raucous confrontation with an audience at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in England. Immortalized erroneously as the "Prince Albert Hall" concert, the recording was officially released in 1998. Before the concert's last song, "Like a Rolling Stone," a folk fan angry that Dylan had adopted an electric sound instead of acoustic, loudly shouts "Judas!" from the restless audience, to which Dylan responds, "I don't believe you. You're a liar." Turning to his band, Dylan urges them to "play fucking loud!" In fact, the audiences' negative reactions resulted in drummer Levon Helm temporarily quitting the band.
Meanwhile, Dylan was being pressured to produce the book length poem Tarantula, and, by many accounts, had stepped up his drug and alcohol intake to dangerous levels. The pace of his private and professional life seemed unsustainable. On July 29 1966, near his home in Woodstock, New York, the brakes of his Triumph 500 motorcycle locked, throwing him to the ground. The extent of his injuries was never fully disclosed and, whether through necessity or opportunism, Dylan used an extended convalescence to escape the pressures of stardom.
After convincing Levon Helm to rejoin them, The Band moved into a nearby big, pink house. Once Dylan was well enough, he began editing footage into Eat the Document, an as-yet unreleased sequel to Don't Look Back. More importantly, he began recording music with The Band in the basement of "Big Pink". The relaxed atmosphere yielded renditions of many of Dylan's favorite folk songs, and some newly written songs. These originals, at first compiled as demos for other artists to record, began to circulate on their own merits. Columbia released selections from them in 1975 as The Basement Tapes.
Unsurprisingly his official output was to be strongly influenced by the relaxed lifestyle which led to The Basement Tapes. His first release after the accident, John Wesley Harding (1967), was a contemplative record, heavily influenced by the Bible, which included "All Along The Watchtower", later immortalised by Jimi Hendrix in a version that Dylan himself has acknowledged as definitive. Dylan intended for the album's sparse arrangements to be filled in by later Band overdubs. Upon hearing it, The Band decided to let it stand. The sparse structure and instrumentation, coupled with lyrics firmly rooted in Judeo-Christian tradition, marked a departure not only from Dylan's own work, but from the escalating psychedelic fervor of the 1960s musical culture. This departure was underscored by Dylan's conspicuous absence from the Woodstock festival in 1969.
The second release after the motorcycle accident, Nashville Skyline (1969), produced by Bob Johnston , was a mainstream country record featuring a mellow voiced, contented Dylan and a duet with Johnny Cash. It also garnered Dylan new fans with the hit single "Lay Lady Lay". The same year, Dylan returned to live performance at the Isle of Wight rock festival (having made a brief appearance at Woody Guthrie's memorial concert in 1968).
More classic records, conversion
In the early 1970s Dylan's output was of variable quality. "What is this shit?" asked Greil Marcus, Rolling Stone magazine writer and Dylan loyalist, about 1970's Self Portrait. This may have been the sort of reaction Dylan was after. He said, "We released the album to get people off my back so that they wouldn't like me anymore. I said, 'Fuck it, I wish these people would just forget about me. I wanna do something they can't possibly like.'"
Dylan occasionally reached former heights on New Morning (1970) and the mostly-instrumental soundtrack album to Sam Peckinpah's film Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid, which included "Knockin' on Heaven's Door", amongst his most-covered songs. Dylan also had a role in the film as Alias, an almost non-vocal member of Billy's gang.
In 1973 Dylan left Columbia Records for David Geffen's newly formed Asylum records, for which he recorded Planet Waves (1974) with The Band. Planet Waves contained a striking contrast between some of his most sincere love songs and his most stinging "hate" songs. "Wedding Song", which states, "You breathed on me and made my life a richer one to live / When I was deep in poverty you taught me how to give" contrasts with "Dirge" which states, "I hate myself for loving you and the weakness that it showed / You were just a painted face on a trip down suicide road." Columbia's revenge release of studio outtakes and cover versions on Dylan (1973), robustly panned by critics and fans, did not stop him from returning to his old label the next year.
Following a US tour with The Band, captured on the lucrative live record Before the Flood (1974) (the tour had received more ticket requests than any prior tour by any artist), he re-entered the studio with a clutch of new songs. Coinciding with his recent estrangement from his wife, each song, from the slow blues "Meet Me in the Morning" to the lengthy, impassioned "Idiot Wind" offers insight into the darkest aspects of relationships. A plausible explanation for the album title decodes these emotional outpourings as the "blood" on the "tracks" of the vinyl disk. The resulting album, Blood on the Tracks (1975), was widely heralded as yet another creative peak. Populated by shadowy characters and shot through with tricks of time and nonchalant wordplay, just beneath consciousness the singer (and the listener) seems to inhabit a consistent yet threatening world, most of all in the well-known "Tangled Up in Blue". Another highly regarded song, "Up to Me" never made it onto the album but was included on Biograph, a compilation including many alternate versions and bootlegs. At a time when many younger artists, all of whom were Dylan fans, including Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits, were lumbered with the tag "the New Bob Dylan", it was evident that it was too early to count out the old Bob Dylan.
In 1975 Dylan wrote his first explicit "protest" song in 10 years, championing the cause of boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter whom he believed had been wrongfully imprisoned for a triple homicide in Paterson, New Jersey (Carter was released in 1985 because he had not received a fair trial and was not re-tried). After visiting Carter in jail Dylan wrote "Hurricane", a retelling of Carter's version of the events. Despite its length, the song was released as a single and performed at every date of Dylan's next tour, the Rolling Thunder Revue. The tour was something different: an open ended evening of entertainment featuring many performers picked up on the way, including T-Bone Burnett; Steven Soles; David Mansfield; former Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn; Scarlet Rivera, a violin player Dylan discovered while she was walking down the street to a rehearsal, her violin case hanging on her back; beat poet Allen Ginsberg; Joni Mitchell; and a reunion with Joan Baez. Running through the winter of 1975-76 the tour also encompassed the release of the album Desire (1976), with many of Dylan's new songs featuring an almost travelogue-like narrative style, showing the influence of his new collaborator, playwright Jacques Levy. Rolling Thunder, some highlights from which were released in 2002, also provided the backdrop to his three hour and fifty-five minute film Renaldo and Clara, a sprawling, improvised and frequently baffling narrative interspersed with footage of the tour. The movie attracted unpleasant reviews and was screened only in bohemian neighborhoods of large cities.
His 1978 album Street Legal was well reviewed and lyrically one of his most complex and absorbing, although it suffered from an unaccountably poor sound mix, submerging some gorgeous organ, saxophone and guitar work in the sonic equivalent of cotton wadding. The song Senor (Tales of Yankee Power) contends for the title of Dylan's most inscrutable ever, employing an oddly logical illogic ("Well, the last thing I remember before I stripped and kneeled / Was that trainload of fools bogged down in a magnetic field / A gypsy with a broken flag and a flashing ring / Said, 'Son, this ain't a dream no more, it's the real thing'"). Also in 1978 Dylan starred with The Band, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Neil Young, and many others in Martin Scorsese's concert film The Last Waltz, a sort of cinematic swan-song for The Band, who reappeared later in several incarnations but never again generated a comparable level of interest.
Dylan's work in the late 1970s and early 1980s was dominated by his becoming, in 1978, a born-again Christian. He released three albums of primarily religious songs; of these, some fans regard Slow Train Coming (1979) as most worth attention. He married his back up singer Carolyn Dennis and they had a girl, Desiree Dennis Dylan. Because of their religious content, many listeners overlook the masterworks on these records, which received harsh critical receptions that may have contributed to Dylan's loss of interest in creating high-quality albums in the mid-Eighties. Ranking among his best work are the sincere "Precious Angel", the syncopated "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking" and the forboding title track "Slow Train Coming". "Solid Rock", "Saving Grace", "Pressing On" and "In the Garden" from Saved (1980), plus "Every Grain of Sand" and the title song from Shot of Love (1981), along with the Shot of Love outtakes "Caribbean Wind" and "Angelina", have been recognized by many as among the greatest contributions to gospel music by a 20th century white composer. When touring to support these albums, Dylan refused to play secular music and recordings reveal that he delivered short sermons on stage, typified by:
- Years ago they used ..., said I was a prophet. I used to say, "No, I'm not a prophet," they say, "Yes, you are, you're a prophet." I said, "No, it's not me." They used to say, "You sure are a prophet." They used to convince me I was a prophet. Now I come out and say Jesus Christ is the answer. They say, 'Bob Dylan's no prophet.' They just can't handle it."
Dylan's current religious convictions are the subject of a running debate among Dylanphiles. News reports of his involvement in Chasidic Jewish fundraisers sways thinking one way, then he will sing a purely Christian song like "Saving Grace" in concert and set up a counter sway. His rare and notoriously confrontational interviews and reclusive lifestyle arouse and belie all speculation among his fans, as details about his personal life are closely guarded.
Hard-working elder statesman
Doldrums set in through much of the 1980s, with his work varying from the adequate (1983's Infidels) to the dreadful (1988's Down in the Groove ). Infidels was more noteworthy for what it did not include than for what it did, as Dylan left off the album what many consider to be some of his best work ever: "Blind Willie McTell", "Foot of Pride", "Someone's Got a Hold of My Heart" and "Lord Protect My Child", all of which were later released on the boxed set The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3 . Still, these lesser albums each contain gems, from 1985's Empire Burlesque ("When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky" and "Dark Eyes") to Knocked Out Loaded (1986) (with its Kris Kristofferson cover "They Killed Him" and the long, clever "Brownsville Girl") to Down in the Groove (1988) (containing the understated "Death is Not the End", the catchy "Silvio", cowritten with Grateful Dead collaborator Robert Hunter, and the folk ballad "Shenendoah"). He made a number of music videos for MTV as well.
Later in 1988 he took part in the Traveling Wilburys album project, working with Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, and his good friend George Harrison on lighthearted, well-selling fare. Dylan added both Lucky and Boo Wilbury to his growing list of pseudonyms. In 1987 he starred in Richard Marquand's movie Hearts of Fire in which he played a washed up, retired rock star turned chicken farmer whose teenage lover, played by one hit wonder '80s artist Fiona Flannigan , leaves him for a jaded English synth-pop sensation (whose hit song is "Tainted Love"), played by Rupert Everett. The film was a critical and commercial dud. When asked in a press conference if he had anything to do with writing this movie Dylan replied, attempting to stifle his laughter, "I couldn't have possibly written anything like that."
Also in 1988, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Dylan finished the decade with Daniel Lanois-produced Oh Mercy (1989). Lanois's influence is audible throughout Oh Mercy, especially in the ambience provided by reverb-heavy guitar tracks. The track "Most of the Time", a ruminative lost love composition, was later prominently featured in the film High Fidelity, while "What Was It You Wanted?" was a love song that doubled as a dry comment on the expectations of fans. The dense, production-heavy arrangements throughout the album count as yet another of Dylan's inspired departures.
1990s and beyond
Dylan's 1990s began with Under the Red Sky (1990), an odd about-face from the serious Oh Mercy. This album, dedicated to Gabby Goo Goo, puzzlingly consisted of childish songs, including "Under the Red Sky", "Wiggle Wiggle", and "Cat's in the Well", all recorded straight-on without any of the studio wizardry of "Oh Mercy". A later discovery by biographer Howard Sounes of Dylan's concealed 1985 marriage and child makes sense out of the nonsense songs. They seemingly were written for the entertainment of Dylan's five year old daughter, Desiree Gabrielle (Gabby Goo Goo?) Dennis-Dylan. Beside these songs sits "Born in Time", regarded as one of his most sincere love songs.
The next few years saw Dylan returning to his folk roots with two albums covering old folk and blues numbers: Good As I Been To You (1992) and World Gone Wrong (1993), featuring nuanced interpretations and ragged but highly original acoustic guitar work, led by a powerful version of "Lone Pilgrim". His 1995 concert on MTV Unplugged, and the album culled from it, marked Dylan's only newly-recorded output during the mid-1990s. Essentially a greatest hits collection, it was notable for its inclusion of "John Brown," an unreleased 1963 song detailing the ravages of both war and jingoism. The unreleased bootlegs of this album are prized by fans, particularly a slow, striking version of "I Want You" and versions of "Absolutely Sweet Marie" and "Blood in My Eyes", as is a four-CD bootleg of a 1994 show in New York City's Supper Club.
With the quality of his output taking a turn for the better, and a stack of songs written while snowed-in on his Minnesota ranch, Dylan returned to the recording studio with Lanois in January of 1997. That spring, before the album's release, Dylan was hospitalized with a life-threatening heart infection, pericarditis, brought on by histoplasmosis contracted by contact with desiccated airborne chicken dung (he is a recreational chicken farmer). To his doctors' surprise and his own he made a speedy recovery and left the hospital saying "I really thought I'd be seeing Elvis soon." He was back on the road by the summer.
September saw the release of the new Lanois-produced album, Dylan's first collection of original songs in seven years. Time Out of Mind, with its bitter assessment of love and morbid ruminations, was highly acclaimed and achieved an unforeseen popularity among young listeners, particularly the song "Love Sick", later covered by The White Stripes. This collection of complex songs won him his first solo Album of the Year Grammy Award (he was one of numerous performers on The Concert for Bangladesh, the 1972 winner.) "Not Dark Yet", a slow brooding anthem, ranks near the top of many all-time Dylan best lists. The ballad "To Make You Feel My Love", covered by both Garth Brooks and Billy Joel, was generally revered. Black humor is present throughout Time Out of Mind, but comes out most on the 16 minute blues "Highlands", his longest track to date.
In 2001, his song "Things Have Changed", penned for the movie "Wonder Boys", won an Academy Award for Best Song in a motion picture. For reasons unannounced, the Oscar tours with him, presiding over shows perched atop his amplifier.
Love and Theft, an album that explores divergent styles of American music and revisits Dylan's own creative roots, emerged as an uplifting piece of art amidst a great tragedy, having been released on September 11, 2001. Lyrically adventurous and musically unprecedented in his long career, Love and Theft, by many accounts, stands among the greatest of his work. Even those quite familiar with his earlier work may have trouble imagining Bob Dylan crooning, as he does on "Bye and Bye" and "Moonlight". Many believe the album's lyrical strengths are as pronounced as in his most famous earlier work:
- Some people will offer you their hand and some won't,
- Last night I knew you tonight I don't.
- I need somethin' strong to distract my mind,
- I'm gonna look at you till my eyes go blind...
- Well my ship's been split to splinters and it's sinking fast,
- I'm drownin' in the poison, got no future got no past.
- But my heart is not weary, it's light and it's free,
- I got nothin' but affection for all those who sailed with me...
- The trailing moss and mystic glow,
- Purple blossoms soft as snow,
- The petals pink and white the wind has blown,
- Won't you meet me out in the moonlight alone...
Though Dylan produced the record himself under the pseudonym Jack Frost, the record's fresh sound is owed in part to the accompanists. Tony Garnier , bassist and bandleader, had played with Dylan for 12 years, longer than any other musician. Larry Campbell , one of the most accomplished American guitarists of the last two decades, has played on the road with Dylan since 1997. Charlie Sexton and David Kemper , both highly respected in Nashville and beyond, had also toured with Dylan for years. Keyboard player Augie Meyers , the only musician not part of Dylan's touring band, also played on Time Out of Mind, earning Dylan's praise: "He can bring a song, certainly any one of mine, into the real world."
2003 saw the release of the film Masked & Anonymous, largely a joint creative venture with television producer Larry Charles , featuring one of the largest ever assemblages of top Hollywood stars in a single film. Dylan and Charles co-wrote the film under the pseudonyms Rene Fontaine and Sergei Petrov. As difficult to decipher as one of his songs, Masked & Anonymous was panned by most major critics and had a limited run in theaters. Some say this is not the movie's fault, as its black comedy is often mistaken for ponderous philosophy by critics unequipped to tell the difference.
Recent live performances
Dylan has played over 100 nights a year for the entirety of the 1990s and the 2000s, a far heavier schedule than most performers who started out in the 1960s. The "Never Ending Tour" continues, anchored by long-time bassist Tony Garnier and filled out with talented musicians who often take leaves from their own bands to tour with Dylan. To the dismay of some older fans Dylan refuses to be a nostalgia act; his reworked arrangements, evolving bands and experimental vocal approaches keep the music unpredictable night after night.
Playing keyboard, guitar, and harmonica, Dylan chooses songs from throughout his 40 year career, seldom playing the same set twice. While his chief place in posterity will be as the preeminent songwriter of latter 20th century America, his roles as recording artist and performer are cherished just as highly by his contemporaries.
Bob Dylan's large and vocal fan base write books, essays, 'zines, etc. at a furious rate. They also maintain a massive Internet presence with daily Dylan news, another site which rigorously documents every song he has ever played in concert, and one where visitors bet on what songs he will play on upcoming tours. Within minutes of the end of concerts, setlists and reviews are posted by his loyal following.
The poet laureate of Britain, Andrew Motion, is a vocal supporter of Dylan's work, as are musicians Lou Reed, Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, David Bowie, Ian Hunter and Neil Young. His songs have been covered by more artists than perhaps any other musician's.
Chronicles Vol. 1
After a year's delay, October 2004 saw the publishing of Bob Dylan's autobiography, Chronicles, Vol. 1. He once again confounded expectations. Dylan wrote three chapters about the year between his arrival in New York in 1961 and recording his first album, focusing on the brief period when he wasn't famous while virtually ignoring the mid-1960s when his fame was at its height. He also devoted chapters to two lesser-known albums, New Morning (1970) and Oh Mercy (1989), which contained insights into his collaborations with the poet Archibald MacLeish and producer Daniel Lanois respectively. In the New Morning chapter, Dylan expresses distaste for the label 'spokesman of a generation' and he evinces disgust with his more fanatical followers.
Another section features Dylan's account of a guitar strumming style in mathematical detail that he claimed was the key to his renaissance in the 1990s. Despite the opacity of some passages, there is an overall clarity in voice that is generally missing in Dylan's other prose writings, and a noticeable generosity towards friends and lovers of his early years. At the end of the book, Dylan describes with great passion the moment when he listened to the Brecht/Weill song ‘Pirate Jenny’, and the moment when he first heard Robert Johnson’s recordings. In these passages, Dylan suggested the process which ignited his own song writing gift.
Six weeks after its publication, Chronicles, Vol. 1 was number 5 on the New York Times' Hardcover Non-Fiction best seller list and climbing. Simultaneously, Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com reported it as their number 2 best seller among all categories. Chronicles Vol. 1 is the first of three planned volumes.
See Bob Dylan Discography.
The most famous songs:
The best songs (according to perceived consensus of rec.music.dylan Usenet group, in order)
- "Tangled Up in Blue" (Blood On The Tracks, 1975)
- "Like a Rolling Stone" (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)
- "Desolation Row" (Highway 61 Revisted, 1965)
- "Blind Willie McTell (song)" (outtake, Infidels, 1983, released on The Bootleg Series 1-3, 1991)
- "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" (The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, 1963)
- "Not Dark Yet" (Time Out of Mind, 1997)
- "Visions of Johanna" (Blonde On Blonde, 1966)
- "Every Grain of Sand" (Shot of Love, 1981)
- "Señor" (Street Legal, 1978)
See also: List of people compared to Bob Dylan, List of Born-again Christian Laypeople
- Bob Dylan, Chronicles: Volume 1. Simon and Schuster, October 5, 2004, hardcover, 208 pages. ISBN 0743228154
- Clinton Heylin, Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited. Perennial Currents, 2003, 800 pages. ISBN 006052569X
- David Hajdu, Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina, and Richard Farina Farrar Straus Giroux, 2001, 328 pages. ISBN 0374281998
- Mike Marqusee Chimes of Freedom : The Politics of Bob Dylan's Art The New Press, NY, 2003. 327 pages. ISBN 1-56584-825-X