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Bob Dylan "Rock and Roll music wasn’t enough for me”

This summer’s Hyde Park concert will be just one more stop along a seemingly never-ending road for this restless icon. By Simon Evans

His name may be instantly recognisable, his musical and cultural legacy unchallenged, but for many people Bob Dylan’s music is often experienced second-hand, when his songs are recorded or performed by someone else.

How many of the millions who bought or downloaded Adele’s version of Make You Feel My Loveknow or care that it was originally an obscure album track on Dylan’s 1997 Time Out of Mind album. How many of those who sent Robert Palmer and UB40’s I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight into the Top Ten in 1990 were aware it originally featured on Bob’s 1967 comeback album, John Wesley Harding?

All Along The Watchtower, Mr Tambourine Man, Blowin’ In The Wind, It Ain’t Me Babewere all, initially at least, made famous by other artists, and when you also consider Bob Dylan’s last UK Top Ten hit single was more than 40 years ago, it’s not unreasonable to ask what all the fuss is about.

And yet this Nobel Prize-winning singer-songwriter remains one of the most important cultural figures of the last century, a one-time, if reluctant, voice of a generation who single-handedly expanded the vocabulary of the pop song, beating a path for countless others to follow. In short, Bob Dylan created what we now know as rock music.

He brought into popular song the poetic concerns and influences of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation, early figures in what, during the mid Sixties, would blossom into a full-blown counter-culture, influencing everything from art and design to pop music, film and literature. This process may have happened without Bob Dylan but he was its catalyst and figurehead.

His songs transcended the deadening conformity of the late Fifties and early Sixties, and his distinctive voice – not everyone’s cup of tea it must be said – had an accusatory tone, offering hope to a generation tired of racial injustice and the ever-present threat of nuclear war.

But although he is often regarded as a great innovator Dylan has, like all major artists, not been afraid to draw on many different influences and sources.

The early protest songs that made his name – Blowin’ In The Wind, The Times They Are A Changin’, A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall, were all heavily influenced by the American folk singer Woody Guthrie, while many of the tunes were borrowed from the English folk tradition. His songs also drew on the visionary poetry of Rimbaud and William Blake,the music of blues singer Robert Johnson and even Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. The protest movement that Dylan became a part of – thanks, in part, to the patronage, of his then lover Joan Baez – was a response to the mass civil rights protests of the early Sixties, and Dylan became one of the darlings of the movement when he performed in front of 300,000 people at the 1963 Washington Monument rally, where Martin Luther King made his famous “I have a dream” speech.

It was all a long way from Hibbing, Minnesota, where the young Bob Dylan or, to use his birth name, Robert Zimmerman, listened to blues and country radio stations before discovering rock and roll, the family having moved to the city when he was six. He had been born on May 24, 1941, in the sea port of Duluth into a Jewish family; both sets of grandparents having moved to the United States in the early years of the century from Eastern Europe.

He started singing in rock and roll bands while attending Hibbing High School and recalled seeing Buddy Holly perform in Duluth three days before his death. He even performed a couple of dates with teen idol Bobby Vee, but by the time he enrolled at the University of Minnesota, in September 1959, his interest was turning towards folk music.

In the sleevenotes for his 1985 box set, Biograph, Dylan explained, “The thing about rock’n’roll is that for me it wasn’t enough... There were great catch-phrases and driving pulse rhythms... but the songs weren’t serious or didn’t reflect life in a realistic way. I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, much deeper feelings.”

Later, during his mid-Sixties heyday Dylan would find a way to fuse the raw excitement and urgency of rock and roll with the literary sophistication and depth of folk music and, in so doing, create a whole new art form. But for now his attention was focused on becoming a folk singer (although he would briefly dabble with rock and roll for his single Mixed Up Confusion, in 1962).

By the time he dropped out of college, in 1960, Robert Zimmerman had become Bob Dylan, the more user-friendly surname inspired by his reading of the poems of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. When he started picking up a devoted following in the early Sixties the discovery that Dylan was not his real name drew some criticism, not least from fellow folkie singer-songwriter Paul Simon, who said, “I think that upset a lot of people, it was important that he be honest.” But, explaining the change of name in a 2004 interview,” Dylan said, “You’re born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents. I mean, that happens. You call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free.”

By 1964 the ever-restless Dylan was tiring of protest songs. His second album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan topped the UK album charts (and was a favourite of The Beatles) while the title track of his third album The Times They Are a Changin’ would later become his first British Top Ten single.

However, the 1964 Another Side of Bob DylanLP found Dylan, as he put it in the later song Jokerman, “shedding off one more layer of skin”, focusing on deeply personal songs and, in My Back Pages, disavowing his protest past with the immortal line, “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”

Dylan was now entering a phase of white-hot creativity and during a period of 15 months, between March 1965 and June 1966, would release three of his most iconic albums, Bringin’ It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde.

They contained some of his most enduring songs, including Mr Tambourine Man, Like A Rolling Stone, Subterranean Homesick Blues, Stuck Inside of Mobile, Desolation Rowand Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, the latter written for his wife, Sara Lownds.

The albums saw him fully embracing electric blues and rock and roll music, which outraged his old purist folkie followers. Pop was regarded in such quarters as commercial and ephemeral, and they would voice their discontent during live concerts, most famously during Dylan’s appearance at Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1966.

Accused of being a ‘traitor’ he lashed back, “I don’t believe you, you’re a liar.”

Dylan was clearly racing ahead of the pack, straining against the boundaries of what was previously regarded as possible in a pop song. He would later write, “I could see that the type of songs I was leaning towards singing didn’t exist and I began playing with the form, trying to grasp it – trying to make a song that transcended the information in it, the character and plot.”

Bruce Springsteen would later describe the effect of hearing the opening of Like A Rolling Stone for the first time, “that snare shot sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind.” And he wasn’t alone. However, the effects of excessive touring and recording, not to mention the constant press attention, started to take its toll, and during his 1966 tour of England Dylan was described as being exhausted and acting “as if on a death trip”.

In July 1966, with a TV special in the works, his publishers demanding the manuscript for what turned out to be his impenetrable novel, Tarantula, and a concert tour looming, Dylan was involved in a motorcycle crash near his home in Woodstock, in upstate New York. Some commentators have questioned whether it actually happened (no ambulance was called) or was merely an excuse for him to jump off the hamster wheel. Dylan himself later said it was a combination of the two, “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.”

Sara had already given birth to one child, and would give birth to three more over the next three years, so while the rest of the world went quietly mad during the Summer of Love, Dylan was hidden away with his wife and children at their country retreat. He wasn’t idle though, and in 1967 started recording songs with his former backing band The Hawks (later renamed The Band), initially as demo recordings for other artists to cover. This Wheel’s On Fire, a big hit for Julie Driscoll, and Mighty Quinn, a Number One for Manfred Mann, both emerged from these sessions.

When Dylan returned to active duty it was with the stripped-down John Wesley Harding LP, a return to the folk music of his early years that was in contrast with the elaborate studio confections being produced by The Beatles and Rolling Stones at the time.

Once again he was ahead of the curve,and soon everyone was heading back to their roots, although no one was prepared for the Dylan albums that would follow; Nashville Skyline and Self Portrait being, respectively, cozy celebrations of hearth and home and a double album of cover versions of variable quality. “What is this ****?” remarked Dylan expert Greil Marcus in his review ofSelf Portrait.

His first appearance in three years, at the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival, was also a disappointment for many fans, comprising new songs and countrified versions of old favourites. Never one to be written off, Dylan would soon embark on a run of great Seventies albums, including Blood On The Tracks, Desireand Street Legal, all preceded by a surprise UK hit, Knocking On Heavens Door, and a rapturouslyreceived appearance at George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh.

And then, newly divorced, another left-turn, as Dylan embraced evangelical Christianity on the albums Slow Train Coming and Saved, the former featuring Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler. Condemned at the time, this period was re-evaluated in 2017 with the release of a box set containing studio out-takes and live performances. And what do you know, a lot of it was very good indeed, not least because Dylan’s performances were full of the zeal and urgency of the recently-converted. As for the Christian content, well, his songs had been full of religious imagery from the very beginning for those who had ears to listen.

Indeed it could it be argued the religious period was Dylan’s last great creative outpouring. There have been great albums over the years, Infidels (produced by Mark Knopfler), Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind (both produced by U2’s producer Daniel Lanois), but inspiration now seems to have deserted him.

Dylan is an instinctive artist, relying on the inspiration of the moment rather than sitting down and grinding out songs to order (although he can do that too when necessary). He has tended to record quickly, sometimes in one take, preferring the spontaneity of a performance rather than constant over-dubs.

Songs are not set in stone but works in process, to be constantly refined, and even rewritten, in live performance. That is why fans will not be satisfied with just seeing him perform once during a particular tour; every night is different, promising a revelatory rendering of an obscure album track. That very spontaneity may also explain why Dylan has not always been the best judge of his own songs.

How else can you explain why such gems as Blind Willie McTell, now acknowledged as one of his greatest songs, did not receive an official release until eight years after it was first recorded. The same goes for Percy’s Song, If You Gotta Go, Go Now, Farewell Angelina, Lay Down Your Weary Tune and I’ll Keep It With Mine, all of which were recorded by other artists but never appeared on an official Dylan album until years later.

More recently Dylan has been churning out albums of cover versions of old standards and, what’s more, performing some of them live on tour, to the horror of many aficionados. Journalist Dennis Ellam, who first saw Bob Dylan perform on the 1966 tour, and countless times since, confessed he hadn’t even taken Bob’s latest offering, Triplicate, out of its shrink-wrap.

So has this puzzle wrapped in an enigma now just become a museum piece, in danger of drowning in his own legacy? After all, the University of Tucson has just taken delivery of his vast archive and Sony continue to make annual raids into his vast back catalogue.

Live, however, it seems Dylan still has something to prove. During the last year alone he has played 84 live shows, across Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the US. He has been on the road constantly now for more than 30 years and shows no sign of letting up. This summer he appears alongside Neil Young at a concert in Hyde Park, and after that… who knows.

The former New York Times music critic Robert Shelton – credited with giving the young Dylan his first review when he arrived in Greenwich Village to start playing the clubs, and the author of a semi-authorised biography No Direction Home – was asked many years later when he thought the middle-aged Dylan might retire from relentless touring and recording.

“Never – it’s not going to happen,” he said. “It’s a tough journey, but you have to remember that this is the path Dylan chose for himself long ago. He has dedicated his life to it, and he won’t ever give it up.

“Ask yourself – if you are Bob Dylan, then what else are you going to do? Pull the shades, draw up your rocking chair and sit by the fireside wearing your slippers? I don’t think so!”

So will we see another album containing his own songs? Possibly not; the most recent, Tempest, was released six years ago. A couple of years later, a weighty volume of Dylan’s complete lyrics was published, 960 pages long and priced at £160. It seemed to be the definitive collected works. Another clue – it might be no coincidence that William Shakespeare’s final play, at least as sole author, was The Tempest.

And Dylan has spoken frankly about his waning powers of creativity. In a TV interview as long ago as 2004 he talked about some of his most powerful songs from the Sixties, and quoted a line from his 1965 song It’s Alright Ma…“Darkness at the break of noon, shadows even the silver spoon, a handmade blade, the child’s balloon.”

Rather poignantly he said: “I don’t know how I got to write those songs, all those early songs were almost magically written.” Could he still do it, he was asked?

Could he still do it, he was asked?

“Uh-huh...,” he shook his head, “you can’t do something for ever. I did it once and I can do other things now. But I can’t do that.” Those other things include art works; his paintings and ironwork sculptures sell for up to £500,000 a time, while limited edition, signed prints can fetch up to £10,000.

But we have been here before; more than once over Dylan’s career the well has seemed to run dry, only for another flood of creativity to result in yet another great album. It happened in the late Eighties, and again in the late Nineties, but perhaps it would be too much to expect as his 80th year draws ever closer. Or could it?

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