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Bob Dylan (b. 1941)

 

Bob Dylan is an American musician, singer-song writer, and rock lyricist, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 for "having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition." Although Dylan has spent most of his career out of political circles, his lyrics have became so well known that public figures such as Jimmy Carter, Václav Havel, and Pope John Paul II have quoted them. Dylan's music has become the soundtrack of a generation.

"Johnny's in the basement mixing up the medicine
I'm on the pavement thinking about the government
The man in the trench coat badge out, laid off
Says he's got a bad cough wants to get it paid off
Look out kid it's somethin' you did,
God knows when but you're doin' it again . . ."

(in 'Subterranean Homesick Blues', 1965
)

Born Robert Allen Zimmerman, in Duluth, Minnesota, Bob Dylan entered the the folk music world of New York City in 1961. 'Blowin' in the Wind' (1962), his first hit, became the anathem of the civil rights movement, and made him a spokesman for his generation ‒ which he didn't want to be. 'The Times They Are A Changin'' (1963) took its famous line from 'Song of the Moldau' ('Das Lied von der Moldau' from Schweyk im Zweiten Weltkrieg, 1943), one of Bertolt Brecht's poems composed by Hans Eisler: "Times are a-changing. The last shall be the first / The last shall be the first." By 1964, Dylan was playing 200 concerts a year. John Lennon recognized the singing poet as his greatest rival, at that time far ahead of him. When the Beatles toured in the United States in 1964, the band befriended Dylan in New York at the old Delmonico Hotel. Dylan taught them to smoke pot.

Inspired by Barry Feinstein's black-and-white photographs of Hollywood life, Dylan wrote sometime in 1964 a suite of twenty-three poems. This collaboration of two great artists, Hollywood Foto-Rhetoric, did not appear until 2008. "The song disappears into the air, the paper stays," Dylan once said of the difference between the written text and the song, but in this book, his expressive lyricism captures the feeling of spontaneity and verbal energy in his recorded music. Perhaps thinking about his own role as a celebrity Dylan wrote: "you're nothin but your mask / you are actin all time / even when you're playin you". (The poem was connected to the photographs of Charles Chaplin and Clark Gable in the Hollywood Wax Museum.) The last section consists of images of hands holding the ultimate fetish of Hollywood, the Oscar statuette. Dylan concludes the book with the lines:"but i couldnt tell / who was laughing mama / i coulnt tell if it was me / or this thing / i was holding".

With his first studio album, Bringing It All Back Home (1965), Dylan turned his back on folk purism. On July 25, 1965, he plugged in his electric guitar (backed by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band) at the Newport Folk Festival. The confused crowd booed and cheered. According to a wildly exaggerated story, the folk singer Pete Seeger tried to cut the sound cables with an axe. After only three songs, Dylan left the stage, but then reappeared, performing 'It's All Over Now, Baby Blue' with a borrowed acoustic guitar. 

On July 29, 1966, Dylan crashed his Triumph 55 motorcycle near his home in Woodstock, New York, and spent nine months in seclusion after accident. "When I had that motorcycle accident," he said, "I woke up and caught my senses, I realized that I was just workin' for all these leeches. And I didn't want to do that." The poet Allen Ginsberg visited Dylan at Woodstock in August or September and brought him a pile of poetry to read: Rimbaud, Blake, Shelley, and Emily Dickinson. The crash has become an essential part of the myths surrounding Dylan, faintly echoing Orpheus's visit to Hades. It has been said that this forced withdrawal may have saved his creative life, since at that time he was overworking and burning out.

Tarantula
, Dylan's experimental and often hilarious collage of prose poems, was finished in 1966, but finally issued in 1971. Its publication was delayed by the accident and Dylan's domestic projects. The book opens with the words, "aretha/ crystal jukebox queen of hymn," and in between the stream-of-conscious ramblings and playing with truths and half truths it introduces characters and themes that would later surface again in songs. "Tarantula is show-off stuff, and it is very interesting to discover that Dylan, for all his genius with language, is not impressive when he's just showing off," noted Paul Williams (in College in the Twentieth-Century Art, Literature, and Culture by Rona Cran, p. 193). Dylan himself once characterized the book as "nonsense". From the beginning of his career, he has insisted repeatedly that he's not a poet ‒ "Wordsworth's a poet, Shelley's a poet, Allen Ginsberg's a poet" (in 'Dylan Revisited' by David Gates, Newsweek, 10/6/97).
"Mama, take this badge off of me
I can't use it anymore.
It's gettin' dark, too dark to see
I feel like I'm knockin' on heaven's door."
(in 'Knockin' on heavens door', 1973)

In 1972, Dylan acted in the western Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, a minor episode in his life, which nevertheless led to a hit single and the most touching scene in Sam Peckinpah's films. Peckinpah, who apparently had missed the whole 1960s, did not know who Dylan was, but offered him a role after they met in Durango, drank tequila, and Dylan played him some of his songs. When the editing of the film was completed, Dylan complained that his "music seemed scattered and used in every other place but the scenes in which we did it." Dylan's soundtrack album was dedicated to Peckinpah. The hymn-like score 'Knockin' on Heaven's Door' was written for the scene in which the gut-shot sheriff Baker (Slim Pickens) sits on a rock by the river and is waiting to die.

A collection of Dylan's lyrics and liner notes, Writings and Drawings by Bob Dylan, was published in 1973. Although often described as "notoriously reclusive," Dylan appeared in an oversized cowboy hat in the Band's farewell concert given on Thanksgiving Day 1976 (hats were a part of the group's image). Martin Scorsese's documentary on the event, The Last Waltz, has been called the greatest rock documentary of all time. In 1990, Dylan was named a Commandeur dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, France's highest cultural honor. After performing for Pope John Paul II in Bologna, Italy, the pope quoted Dylan's song 'Blowin' in the Wind' (fully understanding its melancholic, resignated subtext), saying that Christ is "the road a man must walk down before they call him a man." During the presidential campaign of 2000 Dylan, a prophet of doom, supported Barack Obama, a prophet of hope. In 2012, President Obama presented Dylan with a Medal of Freedom.

Like the British statesman Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965), who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953, Dylan is also an amateur painter. Having concealed his serious attitude toward art, Dylan came out with Draw Blank (1994), a collection of drawing, which he had made whilst travelling on tour between 1989 and 1992. He has had several exhibitions of his work, which have received mixed reviews. "Bob Dylan paints like any other amateur, using a rather oafish figurative style," wrote an art history professor when Dylan's paintings went on display in Copenhagen. "He is what we used to call a Sunday painter." Generally speaking, Dylan's style is expressionist and figurative, but his works also show influences from pop art.  

Since 1988, Dylan has been on what he calls the "Never Ending Tour," a kind of long pilgrimage in search of musical fulfilment. By 2013, he had played 2,500 shows on the tour. A performer by nature, he has argued that songs only come alive when they are performed in front of a live audience. Although Dylan has been characterized as a product of the American folk and blues traditions, his Jewish upbringing and heritage has had a deep influence on his art. "Because in fact Dylan comes from an ancient place, almost medieval," said the Irish rock band U2's singer Bono once. Basically, in the matters of belief, Dylan has been consistently inconsistent, but there are many references to messianic Judaism in his songs, most ostentatiously in the rhetoric of 'A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall' (1963), which combines biblical prophesy and nuclear fallout (And it's a hard, and it's a hard, it's a hard, and it's a hard, and it's a hard rain's a-gonna fall). Dylan has never denied that he believes in the Book of Revelation, but he has also said that "there's truth is all books."

With declining record sales in the 1980s and 1990s, and somewhat unpredictable performances, Dylan seemed to be heading toward the sunset of his illustrious career. The introspective Time Out of Mind (1997) started a Dylan revival, which has not waned. Fans and critics have ranked up this album with the best albums from the 1960s. In 'Not Dark Yet,' one of its most popular songs, Dylan confesses at the moment of despair: "I was born here and I'll die here against my will / I know it looks like I'm moving, but I'm standing  still". But there is still a flicker of hope, "It's not dark yet".

In his long-awaited book of memoir, Chronicles (2004), Dylan traced the roots of his music, boyhood dreams, and early days in New York. The book reached No. 2 on The New York Times bestseller list. At first Chronicles was considered honest and heartfelt  ‒ "Bob Dylan has delivered more than many of us dared hope for," wrote Mike Margusee in The Guardian (Saturday 16 October, 2004) ‒ but at a closer scrutiny critics realized that Dylan's impressionistic but at the same time crystal clear style prose ‒ his original authorial voice ‒ was a cunning trick that concealed beneath the surface an amalgam of voices, invented characters, borrowings from other writers (Mark Twain, Marcel Proust, Jack London, Sax Rohmer, and others), and dubious facts.

Throughout his career, Dylan has been a like a sponge, absorbing ideas and influences from numerous people and sources. Answering to a question about quotations in his songs, Dylan has said: "Oh, yeah, in folk and jazz, quotation is a rich and enriching tradition. That certainly is true. It's true for everybody, but me. I mean, everyone else can do it but not me." (in 'Bob Dylan Unleashed' by Mikal Gilmore, Rolling Stone, September 27, 2012)

Dylan has received all the major awards there are for an elder statesman of rock, including several Grammys, a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1988), the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1991 Grammy Awards show, and the 2015 MusiCares Person of the Year. In addition, he has two honorary doctorates (Princeton University, New Jersey, and St. Andrews University, Scotland), he received an Academy Award (2000) and a Golden Globe Award (2001) for the song 'Things Have Changed' (from Wonder Boys), and in 2008 he won a Pulizer Prize for his contributions to popular music and American culture. When the Swedish Academy announced Dylan as the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Dylan remained completely silent, a rection that did not come as a surprise for his fans. The Academy stopped trying to contact the artist, who was on his US tour with his band, but after two weeks, on Tuesday, October 25th, Dylan phoned Stockholm and said that he will accept the honour. "The news about the Nobel Prize left me speechless", he explained. Only one author, Jean-Paul Sartre, has refused to accept the prize. Boris Pasternak was forced by the Soviet government to turn it down.
For further reading: Darker Shade of Pale: A Backdrop to Bob Dylan by Wilfrid Mellers (1984); No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan by Robert Shelton (1986); Bob Dylan: Performing Artist: The Early Years, 1960-1973 by Paul Williams (1990); Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades by Clinton Heylin (1991, rev. 2001);  Bob Dylan: Performing Artist: The Middle Years, 1974-1986 by Paul Williams (1994); The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes by Greil Marcus (2001); Chimes of Freedom: The Politics of Bob Dylan's Art by Mike Marqusee (2003); Younger Than That Now: The Collected Interviews with Bob Dylan, edited by Jim Ellison (2004); Bob Dylan: Performing Artist: Mind Out Of Time, 1986-1990 & beyond by Paul Williams (2005, 2nd ed.); Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews, edited by Jonathan Cott (2006); Bob Dylan: A Descriptive, Critical Discography and Filmography, 1961-2007 by John Nogowski (2008); Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet by Seth Rogovoy (2009); The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan, ed. by Kevin J.H. Dettmar (2009); 'Bob Charlatan: Deconstructing Dylan's Chronicles' by Scott Warmuth, in New Haven Review (Summer 2010); 'Columbia Recording Artist Bob Dylan', in The Figure of the Singer by Daniel Karlin (2013); Time Out of Mind: The Lives of Bob Dylan by Ian Bell (2014); Another Side of Bob Dylan: A Personal History on the Road and off the Tracks by Victor Maymudes, Jacob Maymudes (2014); Dylan: The Biography by  Dennis McDougal (2014); The Dylanologists: Adventures in the Land of Bob by David Kinney (2014); Dylan Goes Electric!: Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night That Split the Sixties by Elijah Wald (2015); The Political Art of Bob Dylan: Revised and Expanded Second Edition, ed. by David Boucher and Gary Browning (2015)    

Selected works (books):

  • The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan; His Recorded Song Hits, 1963
  • Song Book, 1965
  • Bob Dylan Himself, His Words, His Music, 1965
  • Highway 61 Revisited, 1965
  • Bob Dylan, the Original, 1968
  • Nashville Skyline; Songs from the Columbia Album, 1969
  • Approximately Complete Works, 1970 
  • Song Book, 1970
  • Tarantula, 1971
  • Writings and Drawings by Bob Dylan, 1973
  • Planet Wawes, 1974
  • Before the Flood, 1974
  • Basement Tapes, 1975
  • Songs of Bob Dylan: From 1966 Through 1975, 1976
  • Bob Dylan in His Own Words, 1978 (compiled by Miles; edited by Pearce Marchbank) 
  • Street Legal, 1978
  • Slow Train Coming, 1979 
  • Lyrics, 1962-1985, 1985
  • Bob Dylan: In His Own Words, 1993 (ed. Christian Williams) 
  • Drawn Blank, 1994
  • Man Gave Names To All the Animals, 1999 (words by Bob Dylan; illustrated by Scott Menchin) 
  • Lyrics, 1962-2001, 2004
  • Chronicles: Volume One, 2004
  • Inspirations, 2005 
  • The Little Black Songbook: Bob Dylan, 2006
  • Bob Dylan: The Drawn Blank Series, 2007 (edited by Ingrid Mössinger and Kerstin Drechsel)
  • Forever Young, 2008 (illustrated by Paul Rogers) 
  • Hollywood Foto-Rhetoric: The Lost Manuscript, 2008 (text by Bob Dylan; photographs by Barry Feinstein)
  • Bob Dylan Revisited, 2009
  • Man Gave Names To All the Animals, 2010  (words by Bob Dylan; illustrated by Jim Arnosky)
  • Bob Dylan: The Brazil Series, 2010 (with contributions by John Elderfield, Jasper Monrad) 
  • Bob Dylan: The Asia Series, 2011 (with contributions by John Elderfield and Richard Prince)
  • Revisionist Art, 2012 
  • If Dogs Run Free, 2013 (pictures by Scott Campbell)
  • Bob Dylan Mood Swings: Iron Works, 2013 (text by Andrew Kelly; editor: Ursula Payne) 
  • The Lyrics: Since 1962, 2014 (edited by Christopher Ricks, Lisa Nemrow, and Julie Nemrow)
  • If Not For You, 2016 (illustrated by David Walker)
  • Lyrics: 1961-2012, 2016 
Selected discography (studio & live albums):
  • Bob Dylan, 1962
  • The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, 1963
  • The Times They Are a-Changin', 1964
  • Another Side of Bob Dylan, 1964
  • Bringing It All Back Home, 1965
  • Highway 61 Revisited, 1965
  • Blonde on Blonde, 1966
  • John Wesley Harding, 1967
  • Nashville Skyline, 1969
  • New Morning, 1970
  • Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, 1973 [soundtrack]
  • Dylan, 1973
  • Before the Flood, 1974 [live]
  • Planet Waves, 1974
  • Blood on the Tracks, 1975
  • The Basement Tapes, 1975
  • Hard Rain, 1976 [live]
  • Desire, 1976
  • Street-Legal, 1978
  • Bob Dylan at Budokan, 1979 [live]
  • Slow Train Coming, 1979
  • Saved, 1980
  • Shot of Love, 1981
  • Infidels, 1983
  • Real Live, 1984 [live]
  • Empire Burlesque, 1985 
  • Knocked Out Loaded, 1986
  • Down in the Groove, 1988
  • Oh Mercy, 1989
  • Dylan & the Dead, 1989 [live]
  • Under the Red Sky, 1990
  • Good as I Been to You, 1992
  • The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration, 1993 [live]
  • World Gone Wrong, 1993
  • MTV Unplugged, 1995 [live]
  • Time Out of Mind, 1997
  • Love and Theft, 2001
  • Live 1961–2000: Thirty-Nine Years of Great Concert Performances, 2001 [live]
  • Live at the Gaslight 1962, 2005 [live]
  • Live at Carnegie Hall 1963, 2005 [live]
  • Modern Times, 2006
  • Together Through Life, 2009
  • Christmas in the Heart, 2009
  • In Concert - Brandeis University 1963, 2011 [live]
  • Tempest, 2012
  • Shadows in the Night, 2015
  • Fallen Angels, 2016


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