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Bob Dylan is the uncontested poet laureate of the rock and roll era and the pre-eminent singer/songwriter of modern times. Whether singing a topical folk song, exploring rootsy rock and blues, or delivering one of his more abstract, allegorical compositions, Dylan has consistently demonstrated the rare ability to reach and affect listeners with thoughtful, sophisticated lyrics.
Dylan re-energized the folk-music genre in the early Sixties; brought about the lyrical maturation of rock and roll when he went electric at mid-decade; and bridged the worlds of rock and country by recording in Nashville throughout the latter half of the Sixties. 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 to them. With his songs, Dylan has provided a running commentary on our 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 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 and grew up in the iron-mining town of Hibbing. He learned to play harmonica and piano by age ten and was a self-taught guitarist. As a high-school student in the late Fifties, he listened to everyone from Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie to Roy Orbison and Chuck Berry, cultivating a lifelong appreciation for traditional folk, country and rock and roll. While attending the University of Minnesota, Dylan traded his electric guitar for an acoustic instrument and began to pattern himself after quixotic folksingers of the previous generation.
In January 1961, Dylan moved to New York City, where he gravitated to the folk and blues scene on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. He debuted at the premiere Village folk club, Gerde's Folk City, on April 11th, 1961, 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. Near the outset, fellow folksinger Pete Seeger remarked, "He'll be America's greatest troubadour, if he doesn't explode."
On Dylan's self-titled first album he recorded topical folk songs, accompanying himself on harmonica and guitar. Bob Dylan contained only two originals ("Song for Woody" and "Talking New York"). Made in a matter of hours, it cost $402 to record, according to John Hammond. By contrast, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, released in May 1963, was almost entirely self-composed. That album included three classic antiwar songs - "Blowin' in the Wind," "Masters of War" and "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" â that astonished the cognoscenti in folk circles and established Dylan as a formidable composer and rising star.
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 #1 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 demanding and literate 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 ruminative 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 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." 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 rustic basement studio at a home (christened "Big Pink") in nearby Saugerties while he recovered. The quaint, quirky songs from those sessions turned up on some of rock's first bootlegs (such as The Great White Wonder), serving an audience that hungered for anything Dylan-related. A selection of these fascinating, low-fidelity Dylan and Band tracks saw legitimate release as The Basement Tapes, a double album, in 1975.
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 engaging, accessible songs like "Lay Lady Lay" in a newly mellow voice.
Overall, Dylan proved less consistent on record in the Seventies, especially on such relatively minor works as Self-Portrait (1970), a misbegotten collection that included some ill-chosen covers (e.g., Paul Simon's "The Boxer" and Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi"); Planet Waves (1974), a studio album hastily cut in three days with The Band; and Street-Legal (1978), which had a distinctly sour mood. There were also a number of live albums, but with the exception of Before the Flood - a compelling document of his 1974 tour with The Band - none is as memorable as what would later be released in The Bootleg Series.
Dylan struck the mark at mid-decade with such essential recordings as Blood On the Tracks (1975), partially recorded back home in Minnesota, and Desire (1976), which contained "Hurricane," his most trenchant protest song since the Sixties. Between the release of those albums, Dylan organized the Rolling Thunder Revue, an unwieldy but inspired caravan of troubadours and hangers-on. Dylan's rollicking cast of characters included Rambling Jack Elliot, Allen Ginsberg, Bob Neuwirth, Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Joni Mitchell and Mick Ronson (late of David Bowie's Spiders from Mars). A watershed year for Dylan fans, 1975 also saw the release of Dylan and the Band's often-bootlegged Basement Tapes.