Bob Dylan was 70 this week. He has had many guises in 50 years as a musician — from folkie to protest singer to prophet and preacher — but he is always relevant, says Carl Dixon
IT was revealed this week that music legend Bob Dylan kicked a heroin habit as a young man in New York. The news coincided with Dylan’s 70th birthday, which he celebrated in Sursee, Switzerland, on Tuesday. Given his reputation for hard living — a chain smoker for much of his life, he has had long love affairs with whiskey and marijuana — it is a wonder that Dylan has survived so long.
What is hardly surprising is that he continues to be the subject of controversy: as long as he draws breath, Dylan will give both pleasure and offence. In April, he toured China and was condemned when it was reported that he had ceded to the authorities’ request that he not perform his best-known protest songs, including Blowin’ in the Wind and The Times They Are A-Changin’. Dylan has denied that he was censored.
While his April dates were his first in China, Dylan is no stranger to Ireland. Since he toured here first in 1966, he has returned often, and he will perform at Live at the Marquee in Cork on June 16.
As a young man, Dylan became a fan of the Irish folk tradition. He befriended the Clancy Brothers in the wild, hell-raising days of 1960s New York, and said Liam Clancy was the best ballad singer he had heard. He has reportedly developed a friendship with Bono.
Now in the sixth decade of his career in music, Dylan remains a mystery. From the perpetual self-reinvention of his early years, through his promotion to protest figurehead in the 1960s, to his recent manic touring, his every move has come under scrutiny, but he has always kept his critics on their toes. His autobiography, Chronicles, released in 2004, was undeniably brilliant, but it was also criticised for being episodic and sparse; indeed, it raised as many questions as it answered.
Born to a lower middle-class Jewish merchant couple — Abram and Beatrice Zimmerman — in the nondescript Minnesota town of Duluth, Dylan seemed destined for a more prosaic life than that of a minstrel. When he was six, the family moved to Hibbing, one of the small lumber towns in the Mesabi Iron Range subsumed by big mining companies.
At its core, Hibbing’s largely Catholic population of Scandanavians, Croats and Italians was deeply conservative. Dylan’s high-school sweetheart, Echo Star Helstrom, recalled their early life in Anthony Scaduto’s 1971 biography of Dylan.
“It was like having fancy goldfish and plain goldfish in one bowl, and the plain goldfish would kill the fancy ones for being fancy. If you were different, they would pick you to pieces.”
The young Dylan, very much a fancy goldfish, responded by hanging with the motorbike ‘greasers’ or withdrawing into his music. He was known even then as secretive.
By the time Dylan left to go to the University of Minnesota in 1959, he liked to indulge in elaborate masquerades. This recurrent need to create identities for himself led to the invention of new past lives, ranging from carnival boy to hobo, musician and orphan. He also dropped the name Zimmerman for Dylan.
His attendance at college was erratic and it was a timeless existence outside of society’s mainstream. Dylan was a moody, if charismatic figure.
Like a John Steinbeck character, Dylan adopted the persona of a simple folk singer, on the edge of conventional life and immune to intellectual concerns. However, there is also a sense that, ever ambitious, he was very focused on his chosen craft and was honing his skills for a career ahead.
This developing sense of purpose coalesced around the figure of Woody Guthrie. As the quintessential hobo, whose protest songs were moulded by the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, Guthrie was the closest thing there was to folk royalty. Dylan was enthralled.
Perhaps Dylan was also starting to sense his own burgeoning talent, and as friends at the time noted, the first flickers of arrogance could be found in his musical performances. By 1960, although living in a grim, semi-furnished apartment with a constant mix of drifter friends, Dylan was playing regularly at the Bastille club and the Purple Onion. But it was time to move on. “I’m going to New York,” he said to his friends. “I am going to see Woody and I am going to make it big.”
At the time, it is unlikely that many believed his prophecy; he was still playing folk covers and hadn’t yet found his own distinctive voice. He had affected the Woody Guthrie persona and voice to such a degree that it came across as forced and his guitar playing was still relatively basic. Jennifer Warren met him at a party in Madison, on his pilgrimage to New York to visit Guthrie, and remembers thinking that this young kid, who was dreaming of a romantic life as a lonesome hustler, would be eaten alive by the denizens of Greenwich Village. Yet they underestimated him. Writing in Village Voice, journalist Jack Goddard described a short, peripatetic young man, his beardless, aqualine face crowned by an old cap. Goddard noted that Dylan’s style was unique. “But few could have guessed, on that wintery Sunday morning,” he wrote, “that a real enfant terrible had arrived on the folk scene or that within a single year he would emerge as one of the most gifted and unusual entertainers in the whole country.”
New York opened a new set of doors for Dylan. As he rose through the ranks of folk singers, he began to find his own distinctive voice as a songwriter. He became friends with his idol, Guthrie, who was suffering badly from Huntington’s Disease and confined to hospital. Dylan played Guthrie a song he had written for him, called Song to Woody, and they would sit talking quietly for hours.
Dylan’s penniless, waif-like persona hid a steely determination and he moved quickly from friend to friend, sucking in influences from such diffuse sources as Brecht, through Byron and Yeats, to the new generation of beat poets. Writing in Chronicles, Dylan recalls the influence of the Irish drinking-and-rebel songs that he heard, after hours, in the White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street. “The rebellion songs were a really serious thing,” he said. “They weren’t protest songs, though, they were rebel ballads ... even in a simple, melodic wooing ballad there’d be rebellion waiting around the corner.”
Although Dylan’s first, self-titled album with Columbia in 1962 was less than successful, his second, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in 1963, was to catapult him into the limelight as his music synergised perfectly with the early protest movement.
His rich vein of form included such classic songs as A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall and The Ballad of Hollis Brown, his powerful tale of a poor farmer who kills his wife and five children. “Your grass is turning black, There’s no water in your well, You spent your last lone dollar, On seven shotgun shells” goes the seventh verse, as Dylan ratchets up the dramatic tension of a grown man going to pieces.
The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, which featured Blowin’ in The Wind, was a critical success. Dylan’s best work was poetic, but picked up natural conversational rhythms, and he often appropriated the melody from a standard country song or an old Irish ballad. His protest songs, highlighting inequality and social issues, reflected and echoed the youthful ethos of the time and spoke in a common language that was accessible to all.
By the time Dylan played the Newport Folk Festival, in Rhode Island in 1963 with Joan Baez, the mass media were hailing him as the “crown prince of folk music.” His metamorphosis from hobo folk singer to visionary voice of a generation was gaining momentum. By the time of his third album, The Times They Are A- Changin’, he had moved beyond the confines of folk-driven, protest music to weave more complex images into his songs.
Always shrewd, perhaps Dylan recognised that folk had a shelf-life as a mainstream fad. By 1965, rock was being revitalised by, among others, The Beatles. Quick to spot which way the wind was blowing, Dylan returned to Newport in 1965 wearing pointed black boots, a black leather jacket and sporting an electric guitar. Outraged, his folk devotees booed him off stage.
At the time that the brilliant album Highway 51 Revisited was released in 1965, followed by another classic album, Blonde on Blonde, in 1966, Dylan was still being booed by the traditional folk crowd who’d once loved him, but he had indisputably moved on to electric and rock.
“The folk music scene had been like a paradise that I had to leave, like Adam had to leave the garden,” he would later say. “It was just too perfect.”
In his autobiography, Dylan describes the late 1960s as “strobes, black lights, freak-outs, the wave of the future. Students trying to seize control of national universities, anti-war activists forcing bitter exchanges. Maoists, Marxists, Castroites, leftist kids who read Che Guevara instruction booklets out to topple the economy. If you saw the news, you’d think the whole nation was on fire,” he wrote. Moving on from the more gentle socialism of the folk generation, the counter-culture revolution was in full swing, and, for many, Dylan’s music and persona were both the antenna and catalyst of this new movement.
While Dylan had a finely-honed social conscience, his elevation to social Messiah was always likely to clash with his secretive nature. At one concert, a wave of girls broke through a barrier and a tall blonde sniped off a lock of his hair with a shears. “Goons, moochers, gargoyle-looking gals, scarecrows and rogue radicals came to my house,” he wrote, “looking for the Prince of Protest and hoping to raid the pantry.” He was now a lightning rod for attention wherever he went.
“Whatever the counterculture was, I’d seen enough of it,” he wrote in Chronicles. “I was sick of the way my lyrics had been extrapolated, their meanings subverted into polemics, and that I had been appointed the Big Buddha of Rebellion, High Priest of Protest ... I felt like a piece of meat that had been thrown to the dogs.”
Dylan may have aspired to musical stardom but he’d never auditioned for the role of prophet, and he now set about dismantling his image with as much energy as he had once expended in creating it. Suffering a serious motorbike crash in 1966, he withdrew for a period from the public eye and married Sara Lownds. He tried to create a breathing space for himself by developing an air of mild eccentricity; he poured whiskey over his head in a department store, acted pie-eyed, started a rumour that he was quitting music and going back to college, and then got photographed in a skullcap in Jerusalem.
“What kind of alchemy, I wondered, could make reaction to a person lukewarm, indifferent and apathetic?” he wrote. “I wasn’t the toastmaster of any generation and that notion needed to be pulled up by the roots.”
His next album, John Wesley Harding, named after the Texas outlaw, was a slower, pared-down offering with dark, biblical undertones that Dylan insisted be put out with little publicity.
Released in 1967, when psychedelica was a dominant force, the album was a deviation from the mainstream and brought a run of ground-breaking and hugely-influential albums to a close. Speaking of those times, Dylan said: “Things would begin to burn. Bras, draft cards, American flags, bridges too. It was a strange world ahead that would unfold, a thunderhead of a world with jagged lightning edges. I went straight into it. It was wide open. One thing for sure, not only was it not run by God, but it wasn’t run by the devil either.” Now a father, Dylan, it seems, was happy to pull back from the madness and seek out much-needed peace.
Escaping the madness
Dylan continued to live in Woodstock, enjoying a simpler and calmer life. His next album, Nashville Skyline, was pure country. Oozing domestic bliss and apple-pie wholesomeness, it lacked his usual steely edge, what one fan used to call “the sound of a prairie dog caught on a barbwire fence.” Although successful, the album elicited rumblings of disquiet from the critics. “Dylan is a business man first and a prophet some time later,” one critic wrote. “The action is down in God’s country, in places like Nashville, Tennessee. And there is old Bobby Dylan, fat and sassy, grinning out from the album cover.”
The album may have been a subtle effort to deflect his audience and deflate his over-blown public persona, or it may have reflected his new-found calmness. Meeting with the Clancy Brothers, he spoke of buying a farm in Ireland. He enjoyed long, silent days trout fishing with Johnny Cash; another survivor of the madness. He even attended a school reunion in Hibbing with his wife, much to the shock of his former classmates. His next album, Self Portrait, released in 1970, was a hotchpotch affair, mainly of covers, which prompted influential critic Greil Marcus to ask in his review: “What is this shit?”
Dylan later said: “I released one album where I just threw everything I could think of at the wall and whatever stuck I released it. I assumed that when the critics dismissed my work, the public would forget about me.”
As a final perceived act of treachery, Dylan did an interview with Rolling Stone in which he portrayed himself as a commercial artist with little interest in social reality.
When former lover Joan Baez sang a self-penned song a short time later, exhorting him to return to the fold and rejoin the protest movement, it was already too late. Dylan, whether by accident, or as he later claimed by design, had moved on.
Although less intense than the dazzling and brittle days of the 1960s, the mid-1970s saw Dylan back touring. After the break-up of his marriage, he released the album Blood on the Tracks in 1975. Although critical reaction was mixed at the time, the album is now considered one of his best. American writer Rick Moody referred to it as “the truest, most honest account of a love affair from tip to stern ever put down on magnetic tape.”
That year also saw the release of one of his most charismatic songs, Hurricane, which championed the cause of boxer Rubin Carter, who was falsely tried for murder. At eight minutes long, it is both a powerful re-enactment of the night of the murder and a passionate plea for justice. It still has the power to evoke a sense of outrage in its audience. Carter was freed in 1988. The song was a rare regression to the protest songs of his early career.
In the late 1970s, Dylan apparently embraced Christianity and released two albums of Christian gospel music. There have since been some albums of dubious value, and others of high worth, most notably Infidels in 1983 and Time Out of Mind in 1997. Dylan is also an accomplished painter, and has tried his hand at acting: he had a minor role in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid in 1973, and later starred in Hearts of Fire and Masked and Anonymous.
After stints on the road with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Dylan began the Never Ending Tour in 1988. Since then he has played at least 100 gigs a year, many of them highly unpredictable in terms of his approach and levels of enthusiasm. In a late flurry of activity in 2000, he composed and won an Oscar for Things Have Changed, from the film Wonder Boys; a clever, stylish song that is a far cry from the anthemic The Times They Are A-Changin’. The lyrics — “People are crazy and times are strange, I’m locked in tight, I’m out of range, I used to care, but things have changed ... Only a fool in here would think he’s got anything to prove” — suggest a man who has come to terms with himself. Never a slave to critics’ opinions, Dylan, it seems, continues to do pretty much as he pleases.
If a songwriter can be judged by the number of artists who have covered his songs, then Dylan’s legacy is assured. Hundreds of acts, from Jimi Hendrix through Guns ‘N’ Roses to U2, have paid homage. He has been cited as a huge influence by John Lennon, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits, and one biographer ranked him with giant figures such Mozart, Picasso and Shakespeare.
Mixed in with a fair amount of dross there remains a range of brilliant, witty, angry and atmospheric songs, ranging from Visions of Johanna, from 1966, through Tangled Up in Blue in 1974 to the melodic, sensuous sounds of Not Dark Yet in 1997. As with his fellow septuagenarian Leonard Cohen, it is unlikely that his best songs will be forgotten.
Yet Dylan will be equally remembered for his cultural relevance. Like a character from The Life of Brian, this ambitious, wry Jewish boy from the sticks, who loved to play Woody Guthrie songs, was elevated to Messiah status; a role he could never live up to and which he eventually disowned. Artists, if they are lucky, catch the zeitgeist perfectly, the quicksilver mood of their own particular era. Dylan differs in that he actually inspired and helped to create the mood of the 1960s, a time that would change the modern world for ever. For a few tumultuous years, even if it was beyond his ability to control, he wielded a power and influence that few others could dream of.
Was Dylan a commercial artist whose music happened to perfectly match the times he lived in, a social crusader who got burned out by the demands of his acolytes, or a wry, non-conformist joker who was happy to leave all the madness behind him? Perhaps we will never know; perhaps he doesn’t know himself.
In Chronicles, he wrote “I was never any more than what I was — I gazed into the gray mist with tear-blinded eyes and made up songs that floated in a luminous haze ... I wasn’t a preacher performing miracles.” It all sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Well, perhaps that was all it ever was, or, perhaps, Dylan is just having a joke at our expense.