“I consider myself a poet first and a musician second. I live like a poet and I’ll die like a poet.” – Bob Dylan
One of the most influential musicians to ever live, Bob Dylan and his enduring legacy is well and truly etched into the annals of history. From teenage rebel as Minnesotan Robert Zimmerman to the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature as a freewheeling troubadour, Bob Dylan whatever name he chooses to goes by, is an icon.
We thought there was no better time to look back at his stunning career than on his birthday. Following the release of his first new material in years, perhaps the best of Bob is still on the way.
We take a look at the moments which shaped his career and Bob Dylan the man and the myth. From his agitative protest music during the Civil Rights Movement to his illustrious songwriting career which led to his 2016 Nobel Prize, below are the milestones which made Bob Dylan.
Talented Teen Rebel
At 11-years-old Robert Zimmerman began learning piano before quickly ditching the keys for a basic acoustic guitar. A fan of Elvis, Little Richard and James Dean, the latter become a fascination outside of music, Zimmerman had rock ‘n’ roll in his heart.
“Zimbo”, as he was affectionately known to his friends, played a High Schoool Talent Show with his band The Shadow Blasters on April 5th, 1957 covering Little Richard’s tunes. Dylan shared his thought on Little Richard following his passing this year.
“I played some shows with him in Europe in the early nineties and got to hang out in his dressing room a lot. He was always generous, kind and humble. And still dynamite as a performer and a musician and you could still learn plenty from him,” he said a post on social media. “In his presence he was always the same Little Richard that I first heard and was awed by growing up and I always was the same little boy. Of course he’ll live forever. But it’s like a part of your life is gone.”
In his presence he was always the same Little Richard that I first heard and was awed by growing up and I always was the same little boy. Of course he’ll live forever. But it’s like a part of your life is gone.— Bob Dylan (@bobdylan) May 9, 2020
New York, New York
Arriving at The Big Apple in January of 1961, after hitchhiking with two friends from University of Wisconsin, Dylan was up the next morning to visit Woody Guthrie who was sadly in his sickbed suffering from Huntington’s Disease. Once described by Dylan as “the true voice of the American spirit” Guthrie set Bob on an interesting path.
Having struck up a friendship Guthrie and Dylan shared ideas and jokes while the latter played the former’s songs in the smoky coffeehouses of Greenwich Village.
His ode to Guthrie, ‘Song For Woody’ would be one of only two original songs on his March 1962 eponymous debut LP release.
“The words came fast, very fast. It was a song of terror.”
In the Autumn of 1962, Dylan sat down at his rickety typewriter and composed a poem titled ‘Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ set to a folk song called ‘Lord Randall’ and the beginning of Bob’s reign as the ‘voice of a generation’ began as he found a willing audience for his protest songs.
“The words came fast, very fast. It was a song of terror,” Dylan later said.
“Line after line, trying to capture the feeling of nothingness.” Alongside ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ ‘Masters of War’ and ‘Talking World War III Blues,’ the track would appear on his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in May 1963.
Standing up for civil rights
One moment which would establish Dylan as the poster boy for the counter-culture generation would be this epic performance of ‘Only A Pawn In Their Game’ at the 1963 March on Washington.
Rightfully overshadowed by the importance of the movement, as well as the leader of the civil rights movements Dr Martin Luther King’s now-iconic ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, Dylan’s own position within this march started a few years beforehand.
Having been undoubtedly influenced by the politics of Woody Guthrie, Dylan only really started to develop his own ideologies and impressions when he arrived in New York in 1961 and with the help of his then-girlfriend Suze Rotolo.
On August 28th, while thousands upon thousands upon thousands of people, after marching on Washington, looked up to the microphone they saw a young white man with his guitar ready to join the march, the fight, the war with a simple but poignant song.
Introduced by actor Ossie Davis, Bob Dylan performed ‘When The Ship Comes In,’ and ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game,’ listen below:
Dylan Goes Electric
The sound of Bob Dylan and his band plugging into the amps of Newport Folk Festival’s 1965 edition is possibly one of the most debated moments in the history of modern music.
The choice for Dylan to perform the songs which had found him acoustic fame on an electric guitar would not only see a seismic shift in Dylan’s musical output but would define him as an uncompromising artist.
The crowd booed him and labelled him “Judas” while he played versions of ‘Maggies Farm’, ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ and more to constant heckles. Still, he stood unapologetic in the centre of the crowd and allegedly told the band to “play it fucking loud”. It was the ultimate act of defiance and cemented Dylan’s position as a poet unto himself and nobody else.
Dylan returns for the Concert For Bangladesh
Following advice from Ravi Shankar, The Beatles’ George Harrison decided to put on the ‘Concert For Bangladesh’ in 1971 in a bid to aid those struggling in the nation following years of turmoil, war and famine. Harrison invited a host of incredible musicians to perform but the world was waiting for Dylan.
The event, in truth, actually came at a very odd time for Dylan. It saw the star enjoying one of his reclusive phases that would litter his career with restful moments of reflection.
It’s a testament to the friendship he enjoys with Harrison, as well as the good cause it supported, that the freewheelin’ troubadour came out at all—but Dylan didn’t disappoint.
His first performance since 1969’s appearance at the Isle of Wight Festival would see renditions of classic Dylan numbers, ‘Blowin’ In the Wind’ and ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ which would send the crowd into states of gaping-mouthed awe.
However, this rarely seen footage of Bob performing ‘Just Like A Woman’ has us silently admiring the now Nobel-winning icon.
A Hurricane’s coming
One of Bob Dylan’s most iconic songs, ‘Hurricane’, has hardly been played by the mercurial songwriter since 1976. The track’s controversial subject matter has left it in the firing line for some years.
Written for Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, a boxer whose promising career was cut drastically short after he was convicted of killing two men and a woman at a bar in Paterson New Jersey, back in 1966.
Bob Dylan, ever a man of the people, felt that the boxer was wrongly convicted and was keen to highlight his demise. He decided to write a song for the boxer alongside Jacques Levy, nine years after his conviction in 1975 It would go down as one of Dylan’s most potent numbers and continue to mark him out
Live Aid disaster
After an incredibly successful two decades, the eighties were a lot more difficult for the mercurial singer. He had outgrown his protest posterboy image and was now on the hunt for success in the mainstream. It made him align with some dubious causes.
While you couldn’t call Live Aid, one of the biggest events in musical history dubious, you could argue his decision to appear alongside Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood was.
The singer looks shaken and dishevelled in this clip and is even quick to make some unsavoury remarks regarding American farmers. These remarks would eventually spark life into Farm Aid, a similar benefit concert, so that’s one good thing to come of this otherwise shaky performance.
Tom Petty to the rescue
Before Bob Dylan fully ascended into the pantheon of music history, the singer-songwriter found himself in a few rough patches. One such sticky situation came in the mid-eighties as Dylan fell out of favour with the rock and roll clique.
The artist had struggled to keep on the same intensity with which he approached the sixties and seventies and, what’s more, now the people weren’t even that bothered. Dylan had been largely replaced by a new set of classic rock stalwarts. Including Tom Petty.
The singer invited Dylan to come along with him and Stevie Nicks on the True Confessions tour. For Dylan, the chance to go out on the road and once again find his feet on the stage was an opportunity he couldn’t afford to pass up. Dylan was eternally grateful for the inclusion on the tour: “Tom was at the top of his game and I was at the bottom of mine,” he wrote in his 2004 book Chronicles.
As noted in the 2005 Paul Zollo book Conversations With Tom Petty, however, the singer felt differently to Dylan: “There was never a night when the audiences weren’t incredibly ecstatic about the whole thing,” he said. One such ecstatic moment came at the end of the evening when Petty would join Dylan for a performance of the latter’s classic ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’.
By 1992, with the 30th anniversary of Dylan’s first iconic album on the horizon, the world once again began to wake up to the singer’s incredible legacy. To make good on this a tribute for Bob was held at Madison Square Garden.
The show featured some of Dylan’s closest friends including Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Neil Young, Tom Petty and more. It’s an amazingly rare sight to see and even included Johnny Cash performing a tribute to the singer.
What’s even rarer to see is this incredibly talented group of musicians working together as they fine-tune their performance and chat amongst themselves. Yes, we have the candid rehearsal footage of Harrison, Dylan, Clapton and co. before their mammoth show at the MSG.
Nobel Prize Winner
Following years of touring bliss, whereby Dylan was allowed to write and rhyme as he wished on stage without the shackles of the need for affirmation, the mercurial troubadour was rightly recognised for his contribution to literature.
On December 10th Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature as well as the $700,000 that went along with it. It was another crowning moment of a simply glittering career.
Despite Dylan not showing up for the event, nor delivering his acceptance speech until the following year, it marked the singer out not only as a musician or even a poet but as a cultural icon that will outlive us all. Below you can listen to his acceptance speech.
The Return of Bob Dylan
Despite his Nobel Prize win, an award no musician had ever previously received, we’d argue Dylan’s biggest achievement landed only this year in the form of his first new song in eight years, ‘Murder Most Foul’.
The song, which slowly but feverishly remembers 60 years of popular history, references everybody from The Beatles to Etta James while centring around the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
“Greetings to my fans and followers with gratitude for all your support and loyalty across the years,” Dylan said in a brief statement when revealing the song. “This is an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting. Stay safe, stay observant and may God be with you.”
The track was a precursor to more releases and a brand new album. It means that even as Dylan reaches the grand age of 78, he is still just as capable as beguiling, bewitching and captivating us all just the same.