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BOB DYLAN - BIOGRAPHY Print E-mail

Image The grandchild of Jewish-Russian immigrants, Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman, on May 24, 1941, in Duluth, Minnesota. In 1947, the Zimmerman family moved to the small town of Hibbing, where an unexceptional childhood did little to hint at the brilliance to come. Robert started writing poems around the age of ten, and taught himself rudimentary piano and guitar in his early teens. Falling under the spell of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and other early rock stars, he started forming his own bands, including the Golden Chords and Elston Gunn and His Rock Boppers. According to the 1959 Hibbing high school yearbook, his goal was "to join Little Richard."   

The young Zimmerman left Hibbing for Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota in the fall of 1959. The sights and sounds of the big city opened new vistas for him, and he began to trace contemporary rock and roll back to its roots, listening to the work of country, rock, and folk pioneers like Hank Williams, Robert Johnson, and Woody Guthrie.He began to perform solo at local nightspots like the Ten O'Clock Scholar cafe and St. Paul's Purple Onion Pizza Parlor, honing his guitar and harmonica work and developing the expressive nasal voice that would become the nucleus of his trademark sound. It was around this time, too, that he adopted the stage name Bob Dylan, presumably in honor of the late Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, though this is an origin he has continued to deny throughout his career.

The following year, he dropped out of college and went to New York with two things on his mind: to become a part of Greenwich Village's burgeoning folk-music scene, and to meet Guthrie, who was hospitalized in New Jersey with a rare, hereditary disease of the nervous system. He succeeded on both counts, becoming a fixture in the Village's folk clubs and coffee houses and at Guthrie's hospital bedside, where he would perform the folk legend's own songs for an audience of one. He also began writing songs at a remarkable pace, including a tribute to his hero entitled "Song to Woody."

In the fall of 1961, Dylan's legend began to spread beyond folk circles and into the world at large after critic Robert Shelton saw him perform at Gerde's Folk City and raved in the New York Times that he was "bursting at the seams with talent." A month later, Columbia Records executive John Hammond signed Dylan to a recording contract, and the young singer-songwriter began selecting material for his eponymous debut album. Not yet fully confident in his own songwriting abilities, he cut only two original numbers, rounding out the collection with traditional folk tunes and songs by blues singers like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Bukka White. The result was an often haunting, death-obsessed record that, culminating in Dylan's gravel-voiced reading of "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean," sounded as much like the work of an aging black blues man as a twenty-one-year-old Jewish folksinger from Minnesota.

  60'

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Bob Dylan - 1962
The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan - 1963
The Times They Are A-Changin' - 1964
Another Side of Bob Dylan - 1964
Bringing It All Back Home - 1965
Highway 61 Revisited - 1965
Blonde on Blonde - 1966
Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits - 1967
John Wesley Harding - 1967
Nashville Skyline - 1969


The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan
, released in 1963, contained two of the sixties' most durable folk anthems, "Blowin' in the Wind" and "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," the breathtaking ballads "Girl From the North Country" and "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," and nine other originals that marked the emergence of the most distinctive and poetic voice in the history of American popular music. The Times They Are A-Changin', provided more of the same: the title cut and "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" were the standout protest songs, while "Boots of Spanish Leather" was his saddest and most graceful love song so far.

The most revealing song on Another Side was "Ballad in Plain D," which painted a harsh, one-sided, blow-by-blow picture of Dylan's breakup with his longtime girlfriend Suze Rotolo, who can be seen on his arm in happier days on the Freewheelin' album cover. Shortly after his split with Rotolo, he became involved with the world's most famous folk diva, Joan Baez. The relationship proved beneficial for them both, as Baez raided Dylan's unreleased material for her albums and introduced him to thousands of fans at her concerts.

Early in 1965, he went into the studio with a nine piece band and recorded Bringing It All Back Home, a half-electric, half-acoustic album of complex, incisive, biting songs like "Subterranean Homesick Blues" , "Mr. Tambourine Man," and "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." In the meantime, he recorded and released the album Highway 61 Revisited, which contained the monumental single "Like a Rolling Stone." Next up was Blonde on Blonde, a two-record set recorded in Nashville in early 1966. From the raucous party rock of "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" to the rambling, hallucinogenic folk 'n' blues of "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again" to the poignant, apocalyptic balladry of "Visions of Johanna" and "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands".

By this time, Dylan was routinely being hailed as the most important voice of his generation, but he was reaching a breaking point; he was, after all, only twenty-five years old.
"The pressures were unbelievable," he would later tell biographer Anthony Scaduto. "They were just something you can't imagine unless you go through them yourself. Man, they hurt so much."
Dylan's next official release, though, was the even more low-key John Wesley Harding.

Nashville Skyline, his next album, seemed to revel in disappointing fans' expectations: it was a straight country record, and despite some lovely songs (especially "I Threw It All Away") and a hit single ("Lay Lady Lay") it was seen as Dylan's first real artistic misstep.
Self Portrait, the two-record set which followed in 1970, was viewed as a genuine disaster. New Morning, released four months later, was a comeback of sorts but it was a far cry from Dylan's best work. The release of his long-awaited book Tarantula in 1971 didn't do anything to rehabilitate his reputation in hip circles.

  70'

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Self Portrait - 1970
New Morning - 1970
Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 - 1971
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid - 1973
Dylan - 1973
Planet Waves - 1974
Before the Flood - 1974
Blood on the Tracks - 1975
The Basement Tapes - 1975
Desire - 1976
Hard Rain - 1976
Street Legal - 1978
At Budokan - 1979
Slow Train Coming - 1979


In the summer and fall of 1973, he and the Band started rehearsing the Dylan songbook for a comeback tour, and in early November they took a few days off to record the album Planet Waves. It was a hasty, underwritten effort, but that didn't stop it from shooting to the top of the charts after Dylan and the Band hit the road for a nationwide tour in January of 1974. An acclaimed two-record live set, Before the Flood, came out within a few months of the tour.

Dylan's confusion, pain, and anger over marriage split infused the songs he was writing with a rare passion. The result was Blood on the Tracks, perhaps the most mature, moving, and profound examination of love and loss ever committed to record.

Later that year, a truncated version of The Basement Tapes was finally released, and was hailed as a found masterpiece. Another tour soon followed--the ragtag Rolling Thunder Revue, which featured old friends like Joan Baez and Roger McGuinn. Mid-tour, Dylan released Desire, which was his third consecutive No. 1 album; it featured the single "Hurricane," dedicated to the wrongly imprisoned boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter.

Dylan's first post-divorce album, Street Legal, did not bode well for the future. At thirty-seven, Dylan seemed, both personally and professionally, at loose ends. Even so,he released the overtly born-again album Slow Train Coming. Much to the surprise of his critics, the record was a commercial success.

The tour that followed was a fire and brimstone affair that managed to alienate many of Dylan's longtime fans, and his next album, Saved, failed to crack the Top 20. For the faithful, though, his next record, Shot of Love offered signs of hope: "Every Grain of Sand" was a gorgeous, philosophical ballad that took a far more forgiving tone than his past two albums, while "The Groom's Still Waiting at the Alter" (the non-LP B-side to the single "Heart of Mine") was a barn-burning rocker that would have fit nicely on Highway 61 Revisited.

  80'

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Saved - 1980
Shot of Love - 1981
Infidels - 1983
Real Live - 1984
Empire Burlesque - 1985
Biograph - 1985
Knocked Out Loaded - 1986
Dylan & the Dead - 1988
Down in the Groove - 1988 
Oh Mercy - 1989


Infidels
(1983) continued the positive trend: co-produced by Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler, whose graceful guitar work made it Dylan's best-sounding record ever, it was also his finest sustained collection of songs since Blood on the Tracks.

While Dylan had toured regularly since returning to the stage with the Band in 1974, beginning in the mid-eighties he hit the road full-time, first with all-star cronies Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and the Grateful Dead, then, starting in 1988, with a small rock combo led by guitarist and Saturday Night Live musical director G.E. Smith. Shows on the so-called Never Ending Tour were generally sloppy, and Dylan tended to mumble his songs and glower at his audiences, but he stuck with it--nine years later, he's hardly spent a month off the road.

The original work he's released over the last decade has continued to contain flashes of genius, but only the Daniel Lanois-produced Oh Mercy worked to any sustained effect. Check out the wild, twelve-minute Dylan-Sam Shepard road song "Brownsville Girl" (from 1987's Knocked Out Loaded) or the hallucinatory Oh Mercy outtake "Series of Dreams" (from the revelatory, career-spanning three-CD set The Bootleg Series) to hear the best of the latter-day Dylan.

Then there are the two fast and funny Traveling Wilburys albums, which catch Dylan--along with superstar pals George Harrison, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, and (on the first record) Roy Orbison--in an uncommonly lighthearted mood.
He followed up 1990's Under the Red Sky with two albums' worth of old folk and blues covers: 1992's Good As I Been to You and 1993's World Gone Wrong. While both are largely satisfying efforts, they didn't win him many new fans.

  90'

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Under the Red Sky - 1990
The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 - 1991
Good as I Been to You - 1992
The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration - 1993
World Gone Wrong - 1993
Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, Vol. 3 - 1994
MTV Unplugged - 1995
Time Out Of Mind - 1997
The Bootleg Series vol.4:Bob Dylan Live 1966 - 1998
The Essential Bob Dylan - 2000
Love and Theft - 2001

Early in 1997, though, those who lived in hope of an artistically born-again Dylan had cause for optimism: musician Jim Dickinson told a Memphis newspaper that he had played on some recent, Daniel Lanois-produced Dylan sessions featuring new material Dylan had composed while stuck at home in Minnesota during a blizzard. According to Dickinson, one cut was seventeen minutes long, and overall the material was "so good, I can't imagine he won't use it."

The seventeen-minute song turned out to be "Highlands," the closing cut on the critically acclaimed Time Out of Mind, which was released in September and became Dylan's first gold record of the decade.
 

Special thanks to Mike Hobo and Ernie

 

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