Bob Dylan aka The Bard had an amazing ability to reinvent and repackage his music for every generation of fans. He is a throwback to the halcyon days of the traveling folk musicians.
Robert Allen Zimmerman was born into a Jewish family that was based in Duluth, Minnesota. Somewhere down the line, Robert Zimmerman became Bob Dylan. He later admitted that it was because of the influence of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.
Bob Dylan formed his first high school band that went by the name of the Golden Chords. The band was formed during his Robert Zimmerman days. He played under the name Elston Gunn. Apart from the Golden Chords, he also played under the pianist Bobby Vee. Most of young Bon Dylan’s music was influenced by the blues and country music that he would listen to over the radio.
Initially, he would play at every available gig. He soon built a formidable reputation as a fine songwriter. But Dylan as a singer was not considered as a viable proposition. As a result, most of his songs were sung by other artists. They included his lover Joan Baez, Sonny and Cher, The Hollies, and The Byrds. But it was not long before Dylan began singing his own songs.
In 1963, he became a key figure of in the civil rights movement. He was one of the movers and shakers in the cultural change that was taking place. He wrote a song that protested the incarceration of the boxer, Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter. Dylan was also present at the speech made by Martin Luther King Jr. at the Washington Memorial. The mood of the times was captured in his next album, The Times They Are A-Changin.’
Dylan is definitely the father of the phenomena of reinventing oneself. It has been turned into an art form by Madonna. In spite of his active participation in the civil rights movement, by the end of the year, he was disillusioned by it. He went to the extent of publicly proclaiming that he identified with Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassinator of John F. Kennedy.
True to form, in 1964, he released his next album, which was ironically titled Another Side of Bob Dylan. It was the first album that featured Dylan as the pianist. Songs on it included the humorous ‘Motorpsycho Nightmare’, the romantic ‘To Ramona’, and the sad ‘Ballad in Plain D’. This was the time when Dylan mania was going through the roof. In D.A. Pennebaker’s presentation of Dylan’s 1965 tour, the legendary opening lines were as follows:
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
The Dylan sound reached a crescendo when he played for the first time with an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival. There were still peaks to climb and barriers to break through. His 1965 hit ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ was the first song to break the constraint of the three-minute single. In fact’ it lasted for six minutes. It reached #2 on the charts. Increasingly, artists began to vie for the opportunity to cover Dylan.
Just when it seemed that life could not get more beautiful, some cosmic deity pulled the rug under his feet. His relationship with Joan Baez ended, and he commenced a new one with Sara Lowndes. In 1966, he suffered a life-threatening motorcycle accident, in which he seriously injured his neck vertebrae. He suffered from amnesia for sometime. It also seemed that he had hit a creative road block. The next time he resurfaced was in 1971, when he performed in the Concert for Bangladesh, that was organized by George Harrison. He also published his book called ‘Tarantula’.
In 1988, Dylan embarked on what became known as ‘The Never-Ending Tour’. It was a succession of tours that lasted for close to a decade. In 1997, he made a comeback of sorts when he came out with ‘Time Out of Mind’. It opened to rave reviews and debuted in the Top 10. It ended up receiving three Grammy awards. 1997 was a watershed year for Dylan for another reason. He suffered from a disease called Histoplasmosis. It is potentially fatal because it affects the heart. The year ended perfectly, because he was one of the recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors, the nation’s highest award for artistic brilliance.
Bob Dylan had a number of artists who he would look up to―Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, Bobby Vinton, etc. But unlike them, he successfully reinvented himself time and again. One of the reasons why unlike his idols, he remains relevant even today.