Bob Dylan is 80 years old, but who really is Bob Dylan? Of the few things we know for sure is that his real name is Robert Allen Zimmerman, that he was born in Duluth, Minnesota, on May 24, 1941, that he was one of the greatest icons of the turbulent 1960s, that he converted to Christianity in the late 1970s, and that he is the rock musician most admired by his fellow musicians. We also know that Dylan contains, like Walt Whitman, multitudes.
In Martin Scorsese's recently released documentary about the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, Dylan claimed that "life is about creating yourself." Few lives were better spent than his - always wearing a mask or a disguise but telling truths in songs while lying in interviews. And in that same documentary Dylan stated, with his face uncovered, that "if someone wears a mask, they are going to tell you the truth, but if not, they are probably lying to you". Few people know as much about that as this mysterious myth who has reinvented himself at least a dozen times. So let's celebrate 80 years of Bob Dylan and his multitudes by delving into the many sides he has offered during his career. Even so, I, personally, still don't know who Bob Dylan really is. Possibly every person bewitched by his music has their ideal Dylan… mine is strolling with Cinderella, Einstein, T.S. Elliott and Casanova down Desolation Row.
The voice of a generation (1962-1964)
In January 1961 Bob Dylan arrived in New York to visit his idol, Woody Guthrie, who was dying in a ramshackle hospital. Dylan had recently given himself his name, after the poet Dylan Thomas, and had been playing folk music for about a year, his first passion being rock & roll - which explains why his high school yearbook listed Robert Zimmerman's wish to "join Little Richard's band". Soon after arriving he was already playing in Greenwich Village bars and crashing on the couches of the leading figures of the folk movement such as Dave Van Ronk, Fred Neil, Odetta and the Clancy brothers. In a short time the ‘Minnesota hillbilly’ had become the scene’s main attraction - with his sparse voice, limited guitar playing and a peculiar way of playing the harmonica, Dylan sounded totally different. Some people have it and some people don't, but whatever ‘it’ was, Dylan had it, and in spades. In early 1962 he signed with Columbia and in March of that year his first album, Bob Dylan, came out, full of covers of traditional songs, a couple of old blues and a couple of originals influenced by Guthrie. The album was okay but it didn't seem destined to change the world either.
Everything changed when he wrote Blowin' In The Wind, a song that had hymn written all over it. Soon, covers began, such as that of Peter, Paul & Mary, while Dylan began to write one anthem after another, A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall, a warning about the possible military holocaust (the missile crisis was still raging), Masters Of War or one of his first love songs, the wonderful Don't Think Twice It's Allright. When The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan was released, the singer had already been described as the ‘spokesman of his generation’, and the leader of the folk and protest movement. This was confirmed with the appearance of The Times They Are A Changin'. Dylan took on the role of prophet. For folkies his songs were like the commandments of Moses, and his creation as a rebel myth was augmented by his refusal to appear on the Ed Sullivan show and his appearance at Martin Luther King's mythical march on Washington.
But after Kennedy's assassination, Dylan began to think he was a pawn being manipulated by others. As he himself said, times were changing, and on April 4, 1964 the American singles charts were topped by a British electric guitar band, the Beatles, soon to be followed by other groups like the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and the Animals. Dylan saw in them kindred spirits, he was fed up with the restrictions of folk and being 'the spokesman of a generation' - Dylan wanted to be Dylan, whatever that is, and he was more interested in talking about what goes on in his head ("and if my thoughts could be seen, they would probably put my head in a guillotine") than in telling people what to think or do. There was another side to Bob Dylan and his new album, called precisely Another Side Of Bob Dylan, is full of much more personal songs, even though they are played on acoustic guitar and harmonica - to the relief of all those guardians of folk he is starting to get fed up with. In August he personally meets the Beatles and introduces them to marijuana for the first time. From that meeting emerged a Beatles more concerned about lyrics and a Dylan with an electric guitar on his shoulder, ready to invent folk rock.
Must-have albums: The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963), The Times They Are a-Changin' (1964), Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964)
Anthological songs: Blowin In The Wind (1963), Don’t Think Twice It’s Allright (1963), The Times They Are A Changin' (1964), It Ain’t Me Babe (1964), A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall (1963), Boots Of Spanish Leather (1964), My Back Pages (1964), Masters Of War (1963), All I Really Want To Do (1964), The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll (1964), Spanish Harlem Incident (1964), Chimes Of Freedom (1964), Baby Let Me Follow You Down (1962), Ballad In Plain D (1964), With God On Our Side (1964), Talkin' New York (1962), Tomorrow Is A Long Time (Live 1963), Corrina Corrina (1963)
Electric poet (1965-1966)
This was the most important era not only of Dylan's career but possibly the most mind-blowing burst of creativity in all of popular music in the last 100 years. From January 13, 1965, the moment he goes into the studio to record Bringing It All Back Home, to July 29, 1966 when he had a terrible motorbike accident, Bob Dylan becomes the first and most important ‘Rock God’. Everything he touches in this period is outstanding. From the magic trilogy composed by Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde to the tour with the Hawks (later The Band) everything Dylan did in this year and a half is sacred; this is the moment that defined his image and his music forever.
A Dylan with curly hair and sunglasses first took the Newport Festival by storm with the great Mike Bloomfield on guitar. Here Dylan makes it clear that he is not going to work on Maggie's Farm again and when he releases his definitive album, Highway 61 Revisited, it is already evident that his conversion to electric has no way back. When he adds the Hawks, with Robbie Robertson and his Telecaster spitting fire, and goes on tour to receive Judas screams at every stop, but with all tickets sold. It's the tour that ushers in the rock era, Dylan has something for everyone, music critics who don't get it (do you, Mr. Jones?) or the old folkies who smile at him on the street and give him a hard time as soon as he turns around ("I wish just once you could get inside my shoes, so you'd know what a drag it is to see you"). He is totally inspired and lives on pills, heroin and alcohol, while constantly glued to his typewriter, spitting out page after page of schizophrenic poetry as the world revolts around him and other rock musicians hail him as the new Messiah.
But by the time he reaches the climax of this stage, with the spectacular Blonde On Blonde, he begins to see himself, again, trapped, "Is this really the end? To be stuck inside Of Mobile with the Memphis blues again?". A new Dylan looms on the horizon, one who will step away from the spotlight and leave life on the road for family life in the country. The end, unsurprisingly, is pure poetry, with Bob Dylan crashing his Triumph and disappearing from the public scene for several years.
Must-have albums: Bringing It All Back Home (1965), Highway 61 Revisited (1965), Blonde on Blonde (1966), The Bootleg Series Vol. 4 - Live 1966: The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert (1998)
Anthological songs: Like A Rolling Stone (1965), Desolation Row (1965), Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues (1965), Mr Tambourine Man (1965), Positively 4th street (1965), It’s all over now baby blue (1965), Visions Of Johanna (1966), Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again (1966), One Of Us Must Know (1966), She Belongs To Me (1965), Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window? (1966), Love Minus Zero (1965), Ballad Of A Thin Man (1965), Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands (1966), I Want You (1966), Queen Jane Aproximately (1965), It’s allright mama (I'm only bleeding) (1965), Most Likely You Go Your Way And I’ll Go Mine (1966), Baby Let Me Follow You Down (Live 1966), Absolutely Sweet Marie (1966), It Takes A Lot to Laugh… (1965), Subterranean Homesick Blues (1965), Just Like A Woman (1966), Fourth Time Around (1966), I Don’t Believe You (Live 1966), Highway 61 (1965), Rainy Day Women (1966), Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat (1966), One Too Many Mornings (Live 1966), Maggie’s Farm (1965), If You Gotta Go, Go Now (1965), I'll Keep It With Mine (1966), On The Road Again (1965)
The father of Americana (1967-1969)
After the motorcycle accident, Dylan retired to Woodstock, New York, to recover and live quietly with his wife Sara and their children. Soon after, the musicians of The Hawks also moved - without Levon Helm who would join later - and rented a big pink house where, in their basement, Dylan and his band (as they would become known) began to record several demos from which a new genre, Americana, would emerge. Dylan despised the pomposity of psychedelia and while half the world lived in the heights of the summer of love, he and his boys returned to the roots of American popular music, to country, folk, blues and early rock & roll, to discover the pleasure of minimal arrangements and music played between musicians playing side by side. From that would come the famous The Basement Tapes, which would not be released until 1975, although its songs began to be heard everywhere when part of it was leaked on the first bootleg record in history, The Great White Wonder.
After leaving Woodstock, Dylan went to Nashville and recorded one of his most spartan albums, John Wesley Harding, a work in which the torrent of words of his electric phase was reduced and the themes were inspired by Western and the Bible. The last song on the album, the unforgettable I'll Be Your Baby Tonight, announced his next album, Nashville Skyline, in which Dylan transforms himself into a kind of country crooner with the support of Johnny Cash.
Must-have albums: John Wesley Harding (1967), Nashville Skyline (1969), The Basement Tapes (1975)
Anthological songs: I’ll be your baby tonight (1967), Lay Lady Lay (1969), Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You (1969), This Wheels On Fire (1967), Girl From The North Country (with Johnny Cash) (1969), All Along the Watchtower (1967), You Ain’t Going Nowhere (1967), I Dreamed I saw Saint Augustine (1967), Odds And Ends (1967), Tears Of Rage (1967), Quinn The Eskimo (1967), Too Much Of Nothing (1967), Million Dollar Bash (1967), Nothing Was Delivered (1967), I Threw It All Away (1969)
Husband and father (1970-1973)
Since the end of his tour with The Hawks in 1966 Dylan had withdrawn from touring and almost from the stage, his concerts were few and seen as exceptional, like the one on the Isle of Wight in 1969 or the Concert for Bangaldesh by his friend George Harrison. Dylan lived in seclusion and out of focus, and in 1970 his first ‘serious slip’ appeared, Self Portrait, and in 1973, the appearance of Dylan, the worst album of his career, confirmed the downturn. In between there are great songs, like Knocking On Heaven's Door, If Not For You or the versions he makes in 1971 of old songs from The Basement Tapes, like I Shall Be Released and Down In The Flood, but the signs of recovery come when Dylan signs for Asylum and reunites with The Band.
Must-have albums: New Morning (1970)
Anthological songs: Knocking On Heaven’s Door (1973), If Not For You (1970), I Shall Be Released (1971), The Man In Me (1970), Watching The Riverflow (1971), Wallflower (1971), Billy 1 (1973), Down In The Flood (1971), When I Paint My Masterpiece (1971), Went To See The Gypsy (1970), George Jackson (1971)
Rolling thunder (1974-1978)
In 1974 he got back together with The Band, now all stars in their own right but, now, everyone was cheering for them, even though they didn't have the strength of 1965 and 1966. What was once a revolution was now the norm, and the boos turned into cheers to see Dylan's first tour in years. The albums they made together, Planet Waves, in the studio, and Before the Flood, live, took him back to the top of the charts. But the muses would return in all their glory when he began to separate from his wife and to put all the anger, disgust and melancholy that it caused him in his new songs ("You're an idiot, babe, it's a wonder that you still know how to breathe"). The result was Blood On The Tracks, the only album in his discography that can rival the sacred trilogy of the mid-60s, and the most chaotic and fascinating tour he did, the Rolling Thunder Revue, which would also lead to another great album, Desire. Among the many guests on that legendary tour was Mick Ronson with his Les Paul, fresh from the Spiders from Mars...
Must-have albums: Blood on the Tracks (1975), Desire (1976), The Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Revue (2002)
Anthological songs: Hurricane (1975), Tangled Up In Blue (1975), Simple Twist of Fate (1975), Idiot Wind (1975), You’re a big girl now (1975), Where Are You Tonight? (1978), Buckets Of Rain (1975), Forever Young (1974), If You See Her Say Hello (1975), Never Say Goodbye (1974), Isis (1976), Shelter From The Storm (1975), One More Cup Of Coffee (1976), Changing Of The Guard (1978), Meet in the morning (1975), Romance in Durango (1976), You're gonna make me lonesome when you go (1975), Seven Days (1976), Mozambique (1976), Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power) (1978), Baby, Stop Crying (1978)
Re-born Christian (1979-1982)
The next move would be one of the most surprising of his career, rock's most famous Jew converted to Christianity and began to release albums based on his new faith, with gospel influences. To further alienate his audience, he decided to stop playing his old hits and focus on this Christian trilogy that, despite not being particularly well appreciated, begins with a remarkable album, Slow Train Coming, with the accompaniment of Mark Knopfler on guitar. Dylan once again displeases his followers with statements like this: "Years ago they... said I was a prophet. I'd say, 'No, I'm not a prophet,' they'd say, 'Yes you are, you are a prophet.' I would say, "No, I'm not." They used to say "Sure you are a prophet". They used to convince me that I was a prophet. Now I come out and say Jesus Christ is the answer."
Must-have albums: Slow Train Coming (1979)
Anthological songs: Gotta Serve Somebody (1979), Every Grain Of Sand (1981), Precious Angel (1979), I Believe In You (1979), When You Gonna Wake Up (1979)
Mid-life crisis (1983-1996)
Dylan returned to secular music in 1983 with Infidels, an album in which, curiously, he left out some of the best works of his career, such as the spectacular Blind Willie McTell and Foot Of Pride, which would not see the light of day until the recommendable Biograph of 1991. The rest of the 80s and the early 90s were the least commercially and critically successful period of Dylan's career. Oh Mercy is the best album of this transitional period, occupying a high place in the memory of its creator, if we heed his first (and for now only) volume of memoirs, entitled Chronicles. Still, even in this, the least fertile period of his career, some very interesting gems can be found.
Must-have albums: Oh Mercy (1989)
Anthological songs: Tight Connection To my Heart (1985), Jokerman (1983), Blind Willie McTell (1983), Most Of The Time (1989), Seeing The Real You At Last (1985), Silvio (1988), Everything Is Broken (1989), Foot Of Pride (1983), Cats In The Well (1990), Shooting Star (1989), Man In The Long Black Coat (1989), I And I (1983)
In 1997 Dylan was on the verge of ‘reuniting with Elvis’, but, after recovering, that near-death experience restored his inspiration and that year he released his best album since Blood On The Tracks, Time Out Of Mind. The reinvention of the Minnesota bard as ‘the keeper of the essence of the best American music’ came with a great collection of songs, among which Love Sick shines, in which he uses a trick that works very well, playing a blues with a slow reggae cadence, and the exciting Not Dark Yet, one of the great songs of his career.
With his next album, Love & Theft, Dylan showed again that he was going through a third? youth. Swing, rockabilly, blues, folk and country came together in an album with a vintage flavor, like Dylan's voice, turned into a growl macerated by alcohol. The playful Summer Days, the beautiful Mississipi and the catchy Cry a While are just a sample of this powerful collection of songs.
This continued with Modern Times, an album with which he returned to number one in the U.S. charts - 30 years after the last time he reached it with Desire. Although Together Through Life and Christmas in the Heart represented a small downturn, this stage was closed in style with Tempest, in 2012, while Dylan was still embarked on his endless tour, giving more than 100 concerts a year. A tour in which Dylan once again brought out his most sardonic sides in the introduction, a sort of parody/homage to James Brown's multiple titles, which went like this: "Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce the poet laureate of rock'n'roll. The voice of the promise of the sixties counterculture. The guy who forced folk into rock'n'roll's bed. Who donned makeup in the seventies and disappeared in the smoke of substance abuse. Who emerged to discover Jesus. He was considered a washed-up figure at the end of the 1980s, then suddenly shifted gears and released some of the best songs of his career since the late 1990s. Ladies and gentlemen, Columbia Records’ artist Bob Dylan." Columbia Records’ artis, Bob Dylan… If there's one thing every single Dylan possible has loved, it's busting balls....
Essential albums: Time Out Of Mind (1997), Love & Theft (2001), Modern Times (2006), Tempest (2012)
Anthological songs: Not Dark Yet (1997), Mississippi (2001), Things Have Changed (2000), Thunder On A Mountain (2006), Love Sick (1997), Cry A While (2001), Roll On John (2012), Pay In Blood (2012), Summer Days (2001), Someday Baby (2006), Sugar Baby (2001), Tryin To Get To Heaven (1997), Spirit On The Water (2006), Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum (2001), Cold Irons Bound (1997), Scarlet Town (2012), High Water (2001), Duquesne Whistle (2012)
Twilight crooner (2013-2019)
But after Tempest there was a three-year hiatus, after which Dylan returned with a new mask, in this case that of a twilight crooner, a sort of rockabilly Sinatra with a rough and worn voice. Shadows in the Night was an album of covers of popular classics popularized by the Voice, to which Dylan gave his particular sound. It could have remained an interesting curiosity but Dylan followed it up with Fallen Angels and Triplicate, a triple disc, in which he delved into Great American Songbook standards. These were not bad albums but they seemed to indicate that Dylan's creativity was once again going through a rough patch. It seemed as if the artist was already more interested in revisiting the past than in offering something new, but there was a further reinvention awaiting...
Anthological songs: Melancholy Mood (2016)
The farewell of the (false?) prophet (2020-¿?)
It has taken a worldwide pandemic, with the suspension of all tours, for Bob Dylan to recover the magic and return in style with an album that sounds like a farewell. Rough And Rowdy Ways sees Dylan embracing multiple Dylan's, and as he says in one of his new songs, this guy contains multitudes. He's a false prophet and Dr. Frankenstein, a pirate and Calliope's lover, an old bluesman and a voiceless crooner. Robert Allen Zimmerman looks death in the face and winks at it as one who knows he has achieved immortality, even if he also knows that his date with that black rider, whom some call the Grim Reaper, is closer than it is far away.
After eight years without releasing new material, the most time in his career, Dylan returned with the colossal Murder Most Foul. At a time when the world was living locked up at home and playlists were multiplying, Dylan offered us his own with a 17-minute song that is a journey through the history of the USA and the music that has accompanied it. Everything so 20th century - so folk, so jazz, so blues, so country, so rock & roll, - myths of a time that no longer exists. Dylan shows again the fragility of everything and nods at other legends such as Charlie Parker, Elvis, Little Richard, Beethoven… and himself. And the song ends, after name-checking more than 70 songs, by making one last request: "Play Murder Most Foul". You can't but listen to it without thinking that he has done it again. Maybe this is his last reinvention or maybe not… what is clear is that immortality was already assured many decades ago... Congratulations, Mr. Dylan.
Must-have albums: Rough & Rowdy Ways (2020)
Anthological songs: Murder Most Foul (2020), Key West (2020), False Prophet (2020), I Contain Multitudes (2020), Goodbye Jimmy Reed (2020)