Born Robert Zimmerman on May 24, 1941, young Bob was inspired by Woody Guthrie, changed his name in tribute to Dylan Thomas, moved to New York City, and became the most culturally important American musical icon of the 1960s. Signed to Columbia Records by the discerning John Hammond, Sr. (a few of Hammond's other signings: Benny Goodman, Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen) after creating a buzz on the city's folk scene, Dylan debuted on record in 1962 with Bob Dylan. With only two original compositions, it's not one of his most crucial albums, but it's nonetheless an impressive effort that, after Dylan became popular, introduced a generation to the folk, country, gospel, and blues classics he covered on it, most successfully Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Please See That My Grave Is Kept Clean."
For the next five years, everything Dylan did was touched with genius. The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963) had fine covers of Henry Thomas's "Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance" and the traditional "Corrina, Corrina," but opened eyes because it unleashed his superb songwriting on the world with eleven brilliant, stylistically varied originals. For the socially conscious, it offered anti-war and pro-civil rights masterpieces: the acerbic "Masters of War" (arguably the most pointed anti-war song ever), the more philosophical "Blowin' in the Wind," the chilling "Oxford Town" (a then-topical look at an incident of racist violence in the Mississippi town of that name), and the poetic, dread-filled "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall." Dylan's off-the-cuff humor was on display in "Bob Dylan's Blues," the post-apocalytic "Bob Dylan's Dream," and "I Shall Be Free." Even more biting wit comes in the kiss-off "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." "Down the Highway" offered Dylan's take on raw blues. One of Dylan's three best albums, this doesn't have a weak track on it.
Though Freewheelin' climbed as high as #23 on the album chart, Dylan's style was still strongly tied to the hardcore folk scene, too raw for mainstream audiences, which didn't go for his nasal singing, fierce harmonica, and acoustic guitar strumming. His music would hit the pop charts first in covers by more easily palatable artists. Peter, Paul & Mary took "Blowin' in the Wind" all the way to #2 in '63 (after reaching the same peak earlier that year with "Puff the Magic Dragon"!) and followed up that success a few months later by taking "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" to #9.
The Times They Are A-Changin' (1964, #20) is more earnest; the absurdist humor temporarily set aside and protest songs emphasized: the title track, the sardonic "With God on Our Side," "Only a Pawn in Their Game," and (subtly) "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll." More metaphorical is "When the Ship Comes In." "North Country Blues" and "Ballad of Hollis Brown" condense into verse with frightening power the desperation and frustration of the poor ground down by capitalism's cruel inequality. But there are also two bittersweetly beautiful love songs, "One Too Many Mornings" and "Boots of Spanish Leather," and the closing "Restless Farewell" is unflinchingly introspective.
Later that year came Another Side of Bob Dylan (#43), recorded in a single night. "Chimes of Freedom" continues the political vein, but Dylan's humor is restored. "I Shall Be Free No. 10" and "Motorpsycho Nitemare" aren't famous, but their free-associative flavor portended his future direction. The most famous songs, however, are the four that the Byrds soon covered -- "All I Really Want to Do," the previously mentioned "Chimes of Freedom," and "Spanish Harlem Incident" on their 1965 debut; "My Back Pages" a few years later and the one the Turtles had a #8 hit with in '65, "It Ain't Me Babe" (Johnny Cash also did a fine cover of this one), which though couched in terms of a relationship was widely taken as Dylan's rejection of people's political and musical expectations. At times, on some of the lesser tracks, Dylan seemed so much more interested in the words than the music that his sound was getting a bit dry -- "Ballad in Plain D" (too aptly titled) is actually tedious. However, this was a problem he soon addressed.
Bringing It All Back Home (1965) has a split personality: on side one, Dylan's backed by a rock band, while side two returns to acoustic folk. The move to rock had long been contemplated; even, in fact, enacted, but then not issued by Columbia in order to keep Dylan's folk-singer branding intact. Putting it off made the change all the more seismic when it occurred; the folk audience would not accept the taint of commercialism, and rock was seen as corporate rather than authentic. Yet the songwriting was basically the same, and Dylan's increasingly surreal lyrics were approaching new heights of inspiration. "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" is in a clear line from his early talking blues, but even wilder. The opening track, "Subterranean Homesick Blues," was Dylan's first Top 40 song, if barely (for one week at #39); its many memorable phrases (most famously, "You don't need a weather man / To know which way the wind blows" and "Don't follow leaders / watch the parking meters") made a larger impact on the national consciousness than on the pop chart. Dylan's meanings were becoming more allusive (and, for many, more elusive), but the song's anti-establishment bent was nonetheless clear. The acoustic side led with "Mr. Tambourine Man," but that song was already familiar as an electrified (and abbreviated) #1 hit for the Byrds. And the wild imagery of "Gates of Eden" was not folk music no matter how barebones the musical arrangement."It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" and "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" would be heard in electric versions later but already have more energy than anything on The Times They Are A-Changin'.
The "betrayal" of Dylan's folk fans was made more starkly clear when he appeared in concert with electric-band backing; the symbolic break was not side one of Bringing It All Back Home, but his appearance that July at the Newport Folk Festival backed by members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, prompting outrage from folk icons such as Pete Seeger and boos from the audience (as documented in last year's film No Direction Home and its accompanying album). The following month, he put together a backing band based on Ronnie Hawkins's backing band The Hawks; the group would eventually achieve its own fame as The Band. Well into the next year, Dylan's new direction would continue to meet resistance from diehard folkie audiences (as famously heard on a sloppy but burning set recorded in England, soon bootlegged, and finally released over three decades later), but he was not deterred.
And his move paid off both commercially and artistically: Bringing It All Back Home hit #6 on the album chart, and Highway 61 Revisited (1965) reached #3 and changed rock history. With its lead track, "Like a Rolling Stone," Dylan even neared the top of the singles chart himself; the song spent two weeks at #2, changed rock forever, and made Dylan a mainstream figure. When Rolling Stone made a list in 2004 of the 500 greatest songs of all time (though, granted, the list had a severe modern and rock bias), it was practically a given that "Like a Rolling Stone" was #1. It's not just written brilliantly, it also sounds brilliant. Al Kooper sits in on organ (he was just a guest in the studio that day, and not even an organist), and he and Butterfield guitarist Michael Bloomfield with his stinging leads give the song a distinctive character far beyond Dylan's earlier rock efforts. At over six minutes, it was twice the length of most pop singles, but so compelling and pivotal that many radio stations played it all anyway. Full-bore rockers ("Tombstone Blues," "From a Buick 6," and the title track's devastating but hilarious critique of modern society), rollicking shuffles of explosive, caustic poetry ("It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry," and the searing dissection of the befuddled bourgeoisie "Ballad of a Thin Man"), the scruffily beautiful and nearly uncategorizable romantic plaint "Queen Jane Approximately," the mysterious, evocative "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues"; all offer layers upon layers of meaning across a variety of sounds and moods, capped by the closing "Desolation Row," an acoustic ten-verse epic that takes over 11 minutes to hop around two millennia while mixing historical figures and characters from Shakespeare and the Bible in with Dylan's. Another top-three Dylan album.
Following such a superb album might have daunted lesser men; to say that Blonde on Blonde (1966) is more of the same is not to diminish it in the slightest; it's also in the top three in Dylan's canon. A two-LP set when that was unheard of in rock, which shows how prolific Dylan's inspiration was in this period, it reached #6 in spite of its greater expense. The amount of variety on it is dazzling, Dylan's wordplay masterful, the music compelling in its loose exuberance. It opens with the deliberate, humorous chaos of "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," another #2 single, but also includes the personal and relatively straightforward "I Want You" (#20), finding Dylan sounding positively randy, and the tenderly perceptive yet unflinchingly detailed "Just Like a Woman" (#33), while a lot of songs suggest that the severe flux of his personal life was providing ample fodder for song topics. There was room for ruminative epics ("Visions of Johanna" and the 11-minute relationship memoir "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands"), poetic and playful wordplay ("Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again"), sharp-tongued blues ("Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat"), absurdist blues ("Obviously 5 Believers"), the circusy "Most Likely You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine," and much more on a 14-song album. Kooper returns to anchor the sound on organ, while Hawks lead guitarist Jaime (AKA Robbie) Robertson slips into the Mike Bloomfield role with some burning solos, and Nashville sessionmen have the time of their lives rocking with a country roll that makes it all fun to listen to.
Then, with Dylan at the pinnacle of his powers, tragedy struck in the form of a severe motorcycle crash that left him seriously injured, bedridden for a month, with serious secondary effects. Stuck in his Woodstock home or, eventually, visiting The Band at their house "Big Pink," Dylan spent a good chunk of his recovery time writing and recording more low-key, down-to-earth songs. His publisher sent tapes around to various performers, encouraging them to record the new songs; these ingratiatingly casual were leaked to the public as bootlegs. Finally, in 1975, two LPs' worth were issued as The Basement Tapes, by which time some of the songs (including "Tears of Rage," "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," "Nothing Was Delivered," and "This Wheel's on Fire") were familiar from versions released by The Band and The Byrds.
Dylan's official comeback came in February 1968 with John Wesley Harding (much anticipated, of course, and #2 on the album chart). Much quieter, with the raucousness of his previous two-and-a-half studio rock albums a distant memory, it's a country-rock album recorded in Nashville with a minimum of sidemen, spiced by Pete Drake's pedal steel guitar (on the last two tracks), devoid of epics, 12 songs in 38 minutes. The romanticized outlaw ballad "John Wesley Harding" leads off with an inconsequentiality one is tempted to assume is deliberate. On the following "As I Went Out One Morning," Dylan adopts a nearly crooning vocal tone to tell a story through accumulation of simple details; on the closing "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" his voice is even mellower. Things get more allegorical on "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine," while "All Along the Watchtower" is the most powerfully poetic song. Many others were quick to seize on its greatness, most notably Jimi Hendrix; when Dylan returned to rock, he adopted many aspects of Hendrix's fiery arrangement, though there's plenty of tension in Dylan's first version. Most of the other songs exhibit quiet power and subtly striking lyrics. Nonetheless, perhaps scared off by the country sound, Columbia could find nothing on the album that made sense for single release.
Dylan's immersion in country was even deeper on Nashville Skyline (1969, #7), and the smoothing out of his voice even more pronounced; this time, however, it yielded a hit single with "Lay Lady Lay" (#7). Dylan even collaborated with country icon Johnny Cash on a remake of "Girl from the North Country" (they recorded much more than that, albeit mostly old-time standards; bootlegs of these sessions are great fun). But while the album is enjoyable, there is nothing of the masterpiece about it, whether as a whole or even on any individual track.
With the change of decade the following year, the bottom fell out. Dylan's inspiration waned even further, and a series of underwhelming releases followed, though there were a few notable songs ("Knocking on Heaven's Door," "Forever Young"). Working with The Band again, he did deliver a fine concert album, Before the Flood (1974). He revived for one last masterpiece, Blood on the Tracks (1975, #1), and one flawed but near-masterpiece, Desire (1976, #1, horribly marred by the despicable mobster tribute "Joey" but uplifted by the cry of lost love "Sara," directed to his ex-wife).
Since then, though his fans keep rooting for him to return to brilliance, they have had to settle for occasional excellent songs but never great albums. A high-profile (but temporary) conversion to Christianity reinvigorated him, though increased fervor couldn't compensate for the more two-dimensional, black-and-white outlook of the resulting songs. Trying on a changing array of production styles in the 1980s may have hurt the albums more in the long term (they have not aged well) more than they helped in the short run (garnering some favorable reviews, if not much commercial success). In concert, it was often remarked, he seemed to treat his '60s classics with disrespect.
In the '90s, the situation improved. A pair of covers albums found Dylan returning to the roots music he loved and sang when he first started out, and he put together a band that treated his classics with greater respect. His 1995 MTV Unplugged album, if not even remotely "unplugged" (acoustic), featured always palatable, sometimes even inspired arrangements of both classics and newer songs. Time Out of Mind (1997) was his best album since Desire, and Love and Theft was almost as strong. A health scare seemed to push him to greater verve. He seems to especially find continued (if sad) relevance in "Masters of War," which has reappeared with forceful insistence in the face of the overseas conflicts sparked by Presidents Bush I & II. He even wrote a quirky but characterful first volume of biography. Columbia has opened its vault for a series of revelatory releases of studio alternates and outtakes, and some crucial classic concerts, and Martin Scorsese's definitive documentary last year reminded all of Dylan's iconic status. His peak may have been in the '60s, but he accomplished as much in that decade as any rocker before or since. As he turns 65 today, we can still look forward to more moments of musical brilliance from him. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer. He has just finished recording his original soundtrack to Bystander, a documentary film by John Reilly.