Saturday, August 11, 2007

Bob Dylan (1941-)

Sierra Club


In writing songs I've learned as much from Cezanne as I have from Woody Guthrie.


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Bob Dylan born Robert Allen Zimmerman May 24, 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota in the USA, is widely regarded amongst America's greatest popular songwriters and performers. Much of his best work is from the 1960s when his musical shadow was so large that he took on political influence. The civil rights movement has no more moving anthem than his song Blowin' in the Wind. Millions of young people embraced his song The Times They Are A-Changin' The radical political 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").

Dylan was raised in a Jewish family in Hibbing, Minnesota and spent much of his youth listening to the radio, at first the powerful blues and country music stations and later early rock and roll. He formed his first band, The Golden Chords, while still at high school. An able, but by no means brilliant student, he started university studies 1959 in Minneapolis, during which time he was actively involved in the local "Dinkytown" folk music circuit. However, he quit studying in early 1961 moving to New York City to perform, and to visit the ailing Woody Guthrie. Living in Greenwich Village and playing in small clubs, he gained some recognition after a review in New York Times (September 29/1961) by critic Robert Shelton, that led to (Jazz legend) John Hammond 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 his own songs. 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 but later practically creating his own genre. His songs of the time are typified by Blowing In The Wind: a simple folk melody coupled with lyrics questioning the social and political status quo. Whilst, with hindsight, the lyrics some of these songs appear naive and unsophisticated, compared to the largely anemic popular culture of the 1950s they were a bresh of fresh air, and the songs caught the zeitgeist of the 1960s. Blowing In The Wind itself was widely recorded and a huge hit for Peter, Paul and Mary, and was later the subject of some controversy over its authorship. Somewhat overlooked among the protest songs on Freewheelin', however, was a mixture of finely crafted bittersweet love songs (Don't Think Twice Its 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.

Whilst a fine interpreter of songs, Dylan was not widely considered a beautiful singer, and many of his songs first reached the public through versions by other artists. Joan Baez, a friend and sometime lover of Dylan, took it upon herself to record a great deal of his early material as did many others including The Byrds, Sonny and Cher, Jimi Hendrix, and The Hollies. (So ubiquitous were these covers by the mid-1960s that CBS started to promote Bob with the tag: "Nobody Sings Dylan Like Dylan".)

By 1963, Dylan was becoming increasingly prominent in the civil rights movement, singing at rallies and performing at the same march at which Martin Luther King gave his "I have a dream" speech. Dylan's next album, The Times They Are A-Changin', reflected an 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 only by a single anti-love song, Boots Of Spanish Leather. 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 National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee at a ceremony shortly after the assassination of John F. Kennedy a drunk and not-entirely-coherent Dylan questioned the role of the committee and claimed he saw something of himself in Lee Harvey Oswald.

The message, both from Dylan and the elements in the crowd that booed, was clear: Dylan and the civil rights movement were drifting apart. 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 Nitemare, Spanish Harlem Incident and To Ramona were touching love songs while Ballad in Plain D and I Don't Believe You mourned his breakup with long-time girlfriend Suze Rotolo, who had been pictured with him on the front of Freewheelin'. Musically, he had changed too. Dylan's piano playing was featured on many of the tracks, 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, however, were two of the new songs. Chimes Of Freedom was the first of a new type of Dylan song: lengthy and impressionistic its 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 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 The Beatles, the folk rock of The Byrds and the rock and roll of his youth, the first side contained a his first selection of uptempo rock songs. The music, provided by a full electric band of mainly session musicians, was. 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 -- which owed much to Chuck Berry's Too Much Monkey Business -- was also provided with an early music video courtesy of D. A. Pennebaker's film of his 1965 tour, Don't Look Back.) Side 2 was a different matter, comprised of 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.) Later that summer he angered folk music purists by performing with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band at the Newport Folk Festival. Where in previous years he had received a rapturous reception, he was met with boos and after only a few songs, the ignominy of having the power switched off (supposedly by folk legend Pete Seeger). Ignoring the occasional negative criticism Dylan's rapid output (fuelled in part by alcohol, cannabis and amphetamines) continued unabated through 1965 and 1966. The single Like A Rolling Stone, was a US hit, cementing his reputation as a lyricist amongst the general public and, at over six minutes, helping to expand the limits of what would receive radio play. Its signature sound, with a full 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). The songs were in the same vein, more surreal litanies of the grotesque, were flavoured by Bloomfield's blues guitar, a tight rhythm section and Dylan's obvious enjoyment of the sessions. The closer, Desolation Row, a lengthy -- and not entirely succesful -- apocalyptic vision of societyy, 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", then backing R'n'B singer Ronnie Hawkins, he persuaded the group to join him on tour. From August to September 1965 at Forest Hills Auditorium and the Hollywood Bowl the group were heckled by the audience who, Newport notwithstanding, still expected the acoustic troupadour of previous years. Undaunted, Dylan returned to the studio that October with to begin the work on his next album, the double Blonde On Blonde. In the studio, the musicians, who would slowly metamorphose into The Band, perfected their sound, ("the wild mercury sound" Dylan called it, and it defies any other description), and the result was another classic record. The 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. At the same time, he was pressured to produce his first novel (the largely unreadable Tarantula) and it appeared that something would have to give. On July 30 of that year, whilst riding his Triumph 500 motorcycle in New York State, Dylan was injured in a motorcycle accident. The extent of his injuries was never fully disclosed and, whether through necessity or opportunism, Dylan used his convalescence to escape the pressures of stardom. Retiring to Woodstock in New York with The Band and recording for their own entertainment, they produced the widely bootlegged The Basement Tapes (officially relased in 1974) playing traditional US and country music. Unsurprisingly his official output was strongly influenced by these, which can be heard on his next two albums. The first, John Wesley Harding (1968), was a contemplative record influenced by the Old Testament, which included All Along The Watchtower, later immortalised by Jimi Hendrix. The second, Nashville Skyline (1969), was a more mainstream country record, featuring a mellow voiced, contented Dylan and a duet with Johnny Cash and is often considered to mark the beginning of an artistic decline. 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).

In the early 1970s Dylan's output was of variable quality. ("What the hell is this shit?" asked Rolling Stone magazine about Self Portrait (1970)). He occasionally reached his previous heights on New Morning (1970) and the movie soundtrack album Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid included Knockin' On Heaven's Door, amongst his best known songs. In 1973 he left Columbia Records for David Geffen's newly formed Asylum records, for whom he recorded Planet Waves (1974) with The Band. Columbia's release of studio out-takes and cover versions on the appalling Dylan (1973) did not stop him returning to his old label the next year. Following a US tour with The Band, which would be captured on the live Before The Flood (1975), he re-entered the studio with a clutch of new songs inspired, if that is the word, by his recent estrangement from his wife. Each song, from the slow blues Meet Me In The Morning to the lengthy Idiot Wind, offers an insight into their relationship, and Dylan's talent is to stretch the personal until it appears universal and use the universal to elucidate the intensely personal. The resulting album, Blood On The Tracks (1974), was widely heralded as a return to form. At a time when many other artists, including Bruce Springsteen, were lumbered with the tag the New Bob Dylan it was evidence that it was too early to count out the old Bob Dylan.

In 1975 Dylan wrote his first explicit "protest" song for 10 years. Angered by an apparent miscarriage of justice, he championed the cause of boxer Ruben "Hurricane" Carter, who had been wrongfully imprisoned for a robbery/homicide. After visiting Carter in jail, Dylan wrote "Hurricane", a straight 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 a departure, an open ended evening of entertainment featuring performers picked up on the way, including reuniting Dylan 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 a more narrative style, the influence of his new collaborator, the playwright Jacques Levy. Rolling Thunder also provided the backdrop to his film Renaldo and Clara, a sprawling, improvised and frequently baffling record of the tour. His 1978 album Street Legal was well reviewed, and its use of Steve Douglas on saxophone reminded many of the work of Clarence Clemons in Bruce Springsteen's band. The remainder of Dylan's work in the late 1970s was dominated by his becoming, in 1978, a born-again Christian. He released three albums of primarily religious songs; of these three, some fans regard Slow Train Coming (1979) as most worth attention.

He remained in the doldrums throughout the 1980s, with his work varying from the adequate (1983's Infidels) to the dreadful (1988's Down In The Groove), all the while crossing the world on his "Neverending Tour." He did take part in the Travelling Wilburys album project. The 1990s again saw something of a renaissance, first with Oh Mercy (1989) and later returning to his folk roots with two albums covering old folk and blues numbers: Good As I've Been To You (1992), World Gone Wrong (1993). In 1997, he released an album of original songs, Time Out Of Mind (1997) for which he won a Grammy Award. In 2001, his song Things Have Changed, from the movie Wonder Boys, won an Academy Award for best original song in a motion picture, and recieved further plaudits for the Love and Theft album. [This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License and uses material adapted in whole or in part from the Wikipedia article on Bob Dylan.]

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