There are few people who have had as much social impact as Bob Dylan. He is a man whose creative skills have flourished throughout the fifty five years of his career. He has reinvented himself time and again. His word skills have been applied to poems, songs, books and interviews. He has been successful at everything he turned his hand to – whether that be poetry, song, writing or hosting Radio Shows.
His career can be viewed in a number of ways. Chronologically it reveals a bit of a chameleon
Stage 1 – Folk-Blues.
I first encountered Bob in the early sixties when my friend Charlie had a job as a merchant seaman and brought his first album back from the States. He played it to me and told me (a young lad of about thirteen) that Bob was going to be big and would have hits if he released singles. I didn’t believe him. I was into Blues and Woody Guthrie but I didn’t hear anything great on that first album. It was reasonably folk-blues in my opinion – I’d heard Fixin’ To Die played better.
Stage 2 – Acoustic Masterpieces of songwriting
Then came a trio of acoustic masterpieces (Freewheelin’, The Times They are A-Changing and Another side of). Bob had moved from covering folk-blues to doing his own songs. And boy what songs they were. He had started basing his style on Woody Guthrie but this took song writing to a new level. He took up Woody’s themes of social justice and ran with them. His melded in poetry to take them to a new level of complexity, imagery and power.
There were songs of Civil Rights like the Ballad of Emmett Till, The Ballad of Hollis Brown, Only a Pawn in the Game, Oxford Town, Chimes of Freedom, To Ramona
There were songs about the futility of war and nuclear war – Blowin’ in the Wind. Masters of War, A Hard Rains Gonna Fall, Let me Die in My Footsteps, With God on our Side
There were love songs that were miles away from the standard pop trivia. These were mature poems – Don’t Think Twice it’s Alright, Restless Farewell, Boots of Spanish Leather, One Too Many Mornings, All I Really Want To Do
There were songs about the racist establishment and communist haters – Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues, When the Ship Comes in
There were humorous songs with a message – I shall be Free Number 10, Talkin’ Bear Mountain
Bob opened people’s eyes to what was going on. He articulated people’s feelings. He motivated and aroused, he spelt it out, highlighted it and got a whole new generation turned on to social injustice and antiwar. He raised our sensibilities and empowered us to try to put things right. That is something that has never died in me.
And yes – he did release singles and Times They Are A-Changing was a big hit.
Joan Baez adopted him. Peter Paul and Mary popularised him and he was lauded by everyone as a poetic genius, songwriter extraordinaire, social activator, Protest Singer, and all-round genius – the voice of a generation.
Not only that but his songs were being covered by Beat Musicians. Pop and Rock was a teenage music. The lyrics (apart from the odd Chuck Berry one here and there – like Too Much Monkey Business) were all about love, cars and school. Bob changed that. The Animals, Byrds and Manfred Mann covered his songs and created FolkRock. But more importantly bands like the Beatles were freed from the normal strictures of the Pop/Rock song to experiment, get poetic and tell stories with real social importance. It transformed Rock into a more mature, adult structure, more complex, meaningful and poetic. That all came to fruition in the late sixties underground. Without Dylan we wouldn’t have had the later Beatles, Pink Floyd, Doors, Country Joe and the Fish, Buffalo Springfield, Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, Jefferson Airplane, later Rolling Stones, Traffic, Jimi Hendrix, Cream or the like. He opened minds to the possibilities.
Stage 3 – The Electric explosion
At the height of this deification Bob transformed himself. He’d always been a rocker and seized the opportunity to go electric. He left behind the Civil Rights and Antiwar songs and developed the poetry a stage further into the flow of consciousness of the Beat Generation. There was still a social message but it was interspersed with all manner of strange underworld denizens and imagery.
Phase 2 had been incredible by phase 3 was mind -blowing. He released 3 albums that blew everyone’s minds (though some took longer to adjust than others). He produced a sound like nobody had ever heard. With the power of the Butterfield Blues Band (Mike Bloomfield on searing guitar) at Newport and then a variety of musicians and the Hawks in the Studio and on tour. Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde were extraordinary in every respect. Everything about them was new – the sound, the song structure, the lyrics and the appearance. He took Rock by the short and curlies and shook it up.
There were barbed social songs – It’s Alright Ma I’m Only Bleeding, Subterranean Homesick Blues, Maggie’s Farm, Positively Fourth Street, Gates of Eden, Ballad of a Thin Man, It Takes a lot to Laugh, It Takes A Train to Cry, From a Buick 6, Tombstone Blues, Like a Rolling Stone, Desolation Row, Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues
Love songs of incredible beauty and lyricism – Love minus Zero/No Limit, Mr Tambourine Man, It’s All Over Now Baby Blue, Queen Jane Approximately
Then the awesome majesty of what must be the greatest album of all-time – (apart from Roy Harper and depending what mood I’m in) – Blonde on Blonde – ever track a poetic masterpiece of imagery and imagination.
1 Rainy Day Women #12 & 35
2 Pledging My Time
3 Visions of Johanna
4 One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)
5 I Want You
6 Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again
7 Leopard‐Skin Pill‐Box Hat
8 Just Like a Woman
9 Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine
10 Temporary Like Achilles
11 Absolutely Sweet Marie
12 4th Time Around
13 Obviously Five Believers
14 Sad‐Eyed Lady of the Lowlands
If that doesn’t blow your mind nothing will. There was nothing quite like this James Dean ultra-hip, mercury-mouthed, super-cool, poetic demon. No-one looked like him, sounded like him or could be as sharp.
But the guy was strung out on amphetamine, stressed to the heavens, hounded on all sides and driven insane with the demands for product, performances, books and interviews. It was a treadmill.
It had to end and it did. He crashed and decided to use it as a break. He did not want to be the Voice of a Generation or any part of this machine. He quit. He cleaned himself up.
Stage 4 – Opting Out
He bought a house in Woodstock, shacked up with the Band and started playing the old stuff, writing simpler and doing what was basically Americana. There were no obligations and we saw a simpler in-hip Dylan emerge who sang with Johnny Cash on Country songs and adopted a low-key image and produced three mediocre albums – the OK John Wesley Harding (with the great All Along the Watchtower), the lamentable Nashville Skyline (Which I smashed and threw away the day I bought it) and the dreadful Self-Portrait (Which I didn’t bother buying). He did a poor performance at the Isle of Wight and we all reckoned he was gone.
Stage 5 – the Return
Well New Morning was a slight return but it was with the albums Planet Waves, Blood on the Tracks, Desire and Street Legal, that we saw any of the real power return. It did not get to the peak of those sixties albums but these were really good. The poetry and imagery were there with tracks like Isis, Dirge, Forever Young, Tangled Up in Blue, Idiot Wind, Shelter From the Storm, Hurricane, Oh Sister, Sarah and Senor (Tales of Yankee Power).
This was the time of the live Rolling Thunder Review with nits attempt to bring people together and create some of that spirit again.
Stage 6 – The Religious holiday
Just when we were getting to hope that he might just begin to produce something absolutely majestic he dumped it all and saw the light. We had to tolerate two albums of Born Again sermonising. Least said.
Stage 7 – Mediocrity (by comparison to his own heights)
There followed a string of albums that were alright – Shot of love, Infidels, Empire Burlesque, Knocked Out Loaded, Down in the Groove, Oh Mercy, Under the Red Sky, Good As I Been to You, World Gone Wrong
Stage 8 – Renaissance of a patchy sort
The great Time out of Mind heralded a return to form and that was followed up with Love and Theft, Modern Times, Together Through Life and then the dubious Christmas in the Heart, The Tempest, Shadows in the Night and Fallen Angels.
These were the days when he did his fabulous Radio Shows and wrote the brilliant Chronicles.
So here we are. He deservedly receives the Nobel Prize for Literature. Nobody deserves it more.!!
I look forward to Leonard Cohen, Roy Harper, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Nick Harper receiving their due recognition now.
Well done Bob – We all owe you the world!! From scruffy Woody urchin through James Dean Rebel, Country hick, Thunderous mannequin to poet, radio presenter, novelist and chronicler – you’ve taken us on a journey!