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Music

Timeline: 60 years of Bob Dylan

@TomTaylorFO

“All I can do is be me, whoever that is.” – Bob Dylan

On this day, back in 1962 the world received a humble new album from a young scruffy starlet they called the original vagabond in Greenwich Village. Whisperings in the dust-covered folk basements about his Promethean potential may not have been realised, but whether the world knew it yet or not, the cat was out of the bag now and the greatest songwriter of all time was dawning.

For six decades now, Bob Dylan has presided over the cultural landscape of music like a rambling Greenwich Village spawned numen, wayfaring a serpentine path through divine creative pastures and leaving a breadcrumb trail that has shaped the world in his wake. 

From his paid gig at Gerde’s Folk City where a sign was mocked up calling him the “Son of Jack Elliott”, all the way up to ‘Murder Most Foul’ which Nick Cave described as sounding as though “it has travelled a great distance, through stretches of time, full of an earned integrity and stature that soothes in the way of a lullaby, a chant, or a prayer,” Dylan his simultaneously been a timeless connection to the past while illuminating the future. 

With this profound sense of freedom to freely muse and snatch a semblance of beauty and understanding from anywhere and everywhere, he has inspired generations of songwriters, and as Dylan said himself what can be greater than that: “The highest purpose of art is to inspire. What else can you do? What else can you do for anyone but inspire them?”

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This notion has been ratified by near enough every artist to follow in the path of his enrapturing introspection, from Paul McCartney who said that when he met him, “I could feel myself climbing a spiral walkway as I was talking to Dylan. I felt like I was figuring it all out, the meaning of life” to the current generation of songwriters like Johnny Flynn who once stated: “Bob Dylan has and Einstein had their own way of perceiving the universe and translating it for us.”

In short, Bob Dylan was there at the birth of pop culture, and we can all be glad that he was able to use his Promethean force to wrestle it towards an entirely new and interesting direction. Much like one of Dylan’s favourite writers, Fydor Dostoyevsky, once said about the explosion of Russian literature, “we all came out of Gogol’s overcoat”, it would seem that every reverential songwriter after 1962 crawled out from Dylan’s cambric shirt.

Below we have charted the journey of that influence. From his debut album up until the latest celebrated rousing rally of songs with Rough and Rowdy Ways and ever mystic motorbike accident in between. This is the life and times of Bob Dylan, whoever that is….

Timeline:

1961

John Hammond signs Bob Dylan to Columbia Records.

The initial demos are met with dower reviews by his superiors. As Hammond recalled: “The vice president of Columbia Records said just right off, the most horrible thing he’d ever heard in his life.”

Bob Dylan releases self-titled debut LP

It features two original songs alongside folk standards. The album sold 5,000 copies in its first year which is just about enough to break even. He is referred to as “Hammond’s Folly”. 

March 19th, 1962
August 1962

Dylan signs a management contract with Albert Grossman.

They remain an integral team until 1970. Dylan described him as “like a Colonel Tom Parker figure”.

Dylan travels to the UK for his debut television appearance in Madhouse on Castle Street.

He closes the play with a performance of ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and London’s Bond Street folk scene is quick to celebrate the new star.

December 1962
May 1963

Dylan releases his second album and first masterpiece, The Freewheelin Bob Dylan.

His introspective splurge changed music forever and kickstarted an unbelievably prolific period. Dylan refuses to be self-congratulatory. “The songs are there. They exist all by themselves just waiting for someone to write them down. I just put them down on paper. If I didn’t do it, somebody else would,” he states.

Dylan performs at the March on Washington prior to Martin Luther King Jr’s iconic ‘I Have a Dream’ speech

The performance edges Dylan closer to the ‘Voice of a Generation’ moniker that would soon befall him. Dylan later writes: “Songs, to me, were more important than just light entertainment. They were my preceptor and guide into some altered consciousness of reality. Some different republic, some liberated republic.”

August 1963
January 1964

Dylan releases his third album, The Times They Are a-Changin’

The album reaches number 20 in the US charts and furthers his claim as an introspective spokesman. When Dylan’s friend Tony Glover saw the early manuscripts of the songs, he asked, “What’s this shit, man?” Dylan replied, “Well, you know, it seems to be what the people like to hear”.

Dylan releases Another Side of Bob Dylan

With it, the artist seems to edge away from the pressures of ‘Voice of a Generation’ tag bestowed upon his young shoulders. In ‘My Back Pages’ he sings, “Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”

August 1964
July 1965

Dylan goes electric at Newport Folk Festival

An announcer introduces him by saying, “take him, you know him, he’s yours.” Dylan electrically rallies against this notion, later saying: “What a crazy thing to say! Screw that. As far as I knew, I didn’t belong to anybody then or now.”

Dylan responds to a divisive period with a trilogy of electric masterpieces

As Robbie Robertson recalls of the defining classic ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and the ensuing tour: “I didn’t know how so much vocal power could come out of this frail man. He was so thin. He was singing louder and stronger than James Brown. We were in a battlefield on that tour, and you had to fight back.”

1965-1966
July 1966

Dylan suffers a motorbike accident

He subsequently retreats from the limelight for a year. He later writes: “I had been in a motorcycle accident and I’d been hurt, but I recovered. Truth was that I wanted to get out of the rat race. Having children changed my life and segregated me from just about everybody and everything that was going on. Outside of my family, nothing held any real interest for me and I was seeing everything through different glasses.”

Dylan releases New Morning

After a string of softer more introspective albums, a truly jaded Dylan decides to disavow anything remotely political for his 1970 album New Morning. He signals this change singing: “Build me a cabin in Utah / Marry me a wife, catch rainbow trout / Have a bunch of kids who call me pa / That must be what it’s all about…”

October 1970
1973

Dyaln switches record labels

When Dylan’s contract with Columbia expired he made the switch to Asylum Records. He releases the critically lukewarm record Planet Waves and it becomes his first number one album in the US. 

Back on the road

Backed by The Band, Dylan embarked on his first tour in seven years, playing 40 concerts in North America. “What was incredible was that they were so in tune with Bob, such great musicians, and so intuitive, they were able to basically just watch Bob’s hands on the chord changes and play along,” sound engineer Rob Fraboni said of The Band.

January 1974
January 1975

Dylan releases Blood on the Tracks

Dylan returns from the tour to an estranged wife. He sets off writing break up songs and eventually releases his triumphant comeback album Blood on the Tracks.  “A lot of people tell me they enjoy that album,” Dylan later says. “It’s hard for me to relate to that. I mean … people enjoying that type of pain, you know?”

The Rolling Thunder Revue comes to town

Dylan embarks on his epic Rolling Thunder Revue tour, enlisting stars like Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and more as he looks to capture the energy of a travelling roadshow. “I’ve been seeing Bob perform since 1966. I’ve never seen him as good as he was during the Rolling Thunder tour, night in, night out,” Larry Sloman writes.

October 1975
1979

Bob Dylan is born again

Dylan enters his born-again Christian phase with a trilogy of religious albums. They are critically slated. John Lennon scathingly comments: “He wants to be a waiter for Christ. The backing is mediocre […] the singing’s really pathetic and the words were just embarrassing.”

The wilderness years

Dylan continues to be musically experimental in the 1980s but with very little success both commercially and critically. Nevertheless, Dylan still opines his favourite Dylan album is 1981’s Shot of Love.

1981-1987
1988

Bob Dylan gets himself a band

Dylan forms the supergroup the Traveling Wilburys alongside George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison and Tom Petty. The project was a huge success and reinvigorated Dylan, as Harrison once said: “Just to preserve our friendship – that was the underlying contribution, I think, that I was trying to do.”

Dylan releases Time Out of Mind

It’s his first album of original songs in years. The album is a critical and commercial success earning him his first Album of the Year Grammy. For the record, he hooked back up with Daniel Lanois who had been responsible for his last success, Oh Mercy. Lanois recalls: “When Bob read me the lyrics of this record we were at a hotel room here in New York City. The words were hard, were deep, were desperate, were strong…. That’s the record I wanted to make.”

September 1997
October 2004

Dylan releases his memoir, Chronicles: Volume One

The superbly written book is a huge success, filled with wise and wry snippets like, “What was the future? The future was a solid wall, not promising, not threatening – all bunk. No guarantees of anything, not even the guarantee that life isn’t one big joke.” 

Dylan becomes a DJ

Dylan commences his career as a radio broadcaster with his show Theme Time Radio Hour. The same year he releases the critically acclaimed album Modern Times. Dylan’s friend Elton John opined: “It floored me, that someone of Dylan’s great output could come across and make an album like that at his age, which was for me so timeless and sounded so brilliant.”

2006
2007 – 2016

Back to business

Dylan releases a string of albums, mostly comprising of covers of classic standards. While the records fail to garner huge attention, they still have a cluster of fans including punk poet John Cooper Clarke who stated: “I never get sick of hearing those songs. In Bob’s version of the songs, his voice is slightly weathered, but all the better for it.”

Bob Dylan: Nobel Prize winner

Dylan controversially received the Nobel Prize in Literature, for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Dylan’s friend and peer Leonard Cohen offers up perhaps the wisest take, opining: “To me, [the Nobel] is like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain.”

2016
March 2020

Record breaking

Dylan returns with his celebrated album Rough and Rowdy Ways. The album reaches number one in more than ten countries. He is the first artist to chart in the Top 40 for seven consecutive decades.