You can call him Robert Allen Zimmerman, which was what his hardware storeowner father called him. You can call him Bob Dylan, which name he took later. You can call him a celebrity paranoid about his personal life.
Whatever you call him, his name will be etched in the annals of rock 'n' roll (though it is only about six decades old, and Dylan turns 60 on 24 May 2001). His name can also make even the biggest names in any kind of showbiz stand up -- or at least show some respect.
He's a poet nominated thrice for the Nobel, a songwriter who was profoundly influenced by protest singers like Guthrie as well as great songwriters like Eddie Cochran and Little Richard. He is also somebody who revelled in paining, stunning, angering his audience. He was the next generation protest singer (the authentic heir to Woody Guthrie, as Pete Seeger so accurately worded it). That was the iconoclastic Sixties.
A 1966 photograph shows Dylan dipping his blues harp in water (to get a kind of sound that he was very fond of at that time). That is probably one photograph of Cool personified. Fans of Miles Davis and other bebop-jazz artistes may bristle at that statement -- but for rock fans that is what Cool was about. Dylan was the perfect rock artiste -- a write-off drug addict (before his famous motorbike crash), a singer-poet par excellence who could coldly dump someone who adored him (Joan Baez) and somebody who didn't give a damn about what the world thought of him.
It was this same attitude that got him booed in the 1965 Newport Folk Festival when he appeared onstage with an electric guitar (and a look borrowed from The Beatles) and the Butterfield Blues Band with the great Paul Butterfield as frontman -- it's a band that had Eric Clapton as lead guitarist at one time. Dylan did it again in his '66 Royal Albert Hall concert (which wasn't actually held at the Royal Albert Hall, but that's a different story). The first part of the concert held only Dylan, his guitar and harmonica onstage. The next half was one of the loudest experiences the audience had ever had.
Some notes on his life: Dylan, having dropped out of university just before he turned 18 in 1959, started out as a musician trying to make his mark on the Greenwich village folk scene.
He took his stage name in honour of the late, great poet Dylan Thomas, and was 'discovered' when he was auditioning to play the harmonica for Carolyn Hester.
Dylan released his first album, the self-titled Bob Dylan on Columbia Records in 1961. His next 40 albums -- that makes it a release a year! -- were also going to be released on Columbia Records. Bob Dylan didn't even create a ripple in the US market. It contained mostly covers of traditional folk ballads and the inevitable Song to Woody. His second release, however, had many self-penned protest tunes (and classics) such as Blowin' In The Wind, Masters of War and A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall. The album was the classic Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963).
Dylan also experimented with techniques like the 'talking blues', something first mastered (and popularised) by Woody Guthrie. He wrote a number of songs that used this technique -- Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues and Talkin' World War III Blues. Freewheelin' Bob Dylan established him as an angst-ridden, against-the-tide voice and a political figure to reckon with. He became one of the most popular folk musicians and a songwriter in his own right.
Dylan's third release was the evergreen The Times They Are A-Changin' . For most of the older generation -- today's older generation -- the title number was their war-song as they chafed at making adjustments with folks back home. For most of us now, it's still the same guy, but with a different song: Things Have Changed. About the same time, Dylan released an introspective album - the first of many to come -- Another Side of Bob Dylan.
Another Side... came as a shock (to some, pleasant, to some others, it was slightly indigestible) because this was the first time Dylan was talking about himself rather than venting his ire on the Establishment.
He sings in All I Really Want to Do:
I ain't lookin' to compete with you,
Beat or cheat or mistreat you,
Simplify you or classify you,
Deny, defy or crucify you.
All I really want to do
Is, Baby be friends with you.
Sometimes Dylan would know what he's talking about. Sometimes he wouldn't:
i used t' hate enzo
i used t' hate him
so much that i could've killed him
he was rotten an' ruthless
an' after what he could get
i was sure of that
my beloved one met him
in a far-off land
an' she stayed longer there
because of him
croaked with exhaustion...
(Some Other Kinds of Songs: jacket notes from Another Side...)
When Dylan wrote protest songs, he didn't want people to read into them more than they ought to. But Dylan's fans invariably did. This resulted in Dylan turning a recluse from the media. He also turned a recluse for various other reasons, but let's not discuss them now. And with this came a build-up of a certain defensiveness, or cockiness:
Dylan: ...I do know what my songs are about.
Playboy: And what's that?
Dylan: Oh, some are about four minutes, some are about five minutes, and some, believe it or not, are about eleven or twelve.
Dylan's happiest year was 1965 when his Bringing It All Back Home Again went platinum. This surprised, and pained his fans because it was a half-electric, half-acoustic album talking about the same old things -- totally acoustic numbers like Mr Tambourine Man on one side and completely electric songs like Subterranean Homesick Blues on the other. Dylan, one suspects, revelled in inflicting pain on his enthusiasts. Incidentally, if you can't find Bringing It All Back Home on the shelves, try Subterranean Homesick Blues, the album's alias.
A spring UK tour followed, which is recorded in the rockumentary, Don't Look Back.
Of course, then came the famous Newport Folk Festival where die-hard folkies accused him of selling out to rock.
But Dylan would return to his folk roots again, and again, as this snatch of conversation shows (it appeared in the jacket of his '85 album, Biograph):
...great catch-phrases and driving pulse rhythms and you could get high on the energy but they weren't serious or didn't reflect life in a realistic way. I knew that when I got into folk music ... [Those] songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings ... I needed that. Life is full of complexities and rock 'n' roll didn't reflect that. It was just put on a happy face and ride, sally, ride, there was nothing even resembling Sixteen Snow White Horses or See That My Grave is Kept Clean ... If I
did anything, I brought one to the other. There was nothing serious
happening in music when I started& .
Dylan was always the larger-than-life figure, the masthead of a generation, the Darling of Student Rebels, Redresser of Wrongs, Setter of Standards. The first benefit concert in the history of Rock was his Concert for Bangladesh. The first double album in rock history was Blonde on Blonde. The first instance of major bootlegging was the stuff he had recorded with The Band when he was bedridden due to a motorbike accident in uptown New York. It was later officially released as Basement Tapes. Even the most famous landmark in rock history, Woodstock, was named so partly in tribute to the town Dylan had begun to reside in. Numerous bands -- from The Byrds to Hendrix to Clapton to even Lou Reed -- have covered his songs.
On May 24, he turns 60. Indians do a small ceremony when they cross 60, but for Dylan? What better way to celebrate his birthday than for an array of artiste-adorers charmed by the Dylan magic covering his songs. You know the songs made a statement when they were released. And still do when they are played now.
Niki N Kalpa
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