Bob Dylan is without a doubt one of the creative world’s most purposefully mysterious and least understood characters. He isn’t merely a good musician or a generous benefactor of folk rock. Dylan is a prophet of metaphor and a creative movement in and of himself. Listening to his lyrics is like having some sort of construction get carried out in your brain, heaps of scaffolding, a bit of chaos and lots of noise but ultimately it leaves something better in its place.
Born Robert Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota 1941 and was raised in a small Jewish community. His father owned and operated an electrical goods store and as a result, young Dylan enjoyed a standard middle-class Jewish upbringing. He played in a wide variety of bands in high-school, honing his taste for the appreciation and application of music in a relatively non-musical world. A few months after his 18th birthday, Bob moved to Minneapolis to enroll at the University of Minnesota but didn’t last long in the sterile confines of the academic world. He dropped out at the end of his first year and moved to New York. Desperately searching to pursue his education in the music scene and expand his learning outwards into the interlocked worlds of lyricism, philosophy, and creativity.
Outlined in Chronicles, Dylan’s free-form autobiography, he explains not only his upbringing but he gives us a rare sliver of his insight into his emotional and creative connection with the authors of old:
“I was born in the Spring of 1941. The Second World War was already raging in Europe, and America would soon be in it. The world was being blown apart…”
“It was said that WWII spelled the end of the Age of Enlightenment, but I wouldn’t have known it. I was still in it. Somehow I could still remember and the light of something about it. I’d read that stuff. Roussea, John Locke, Montesquieu, Martin Luther, revolutionaries… it was like I knew those guys like they’d been living in my backyard.”
P.S. If you like Bob Dylan and you haven’t yet read Chronicles. Stop reading this and get the book right now. Consider it essential reading.
After Dylan’s move to New York, he began to break into the music scene. His first self-titled album, Bob Dylan, was released in 1962 for Colombia recording studios. Its style was deeply reminiscent of his musical idol at the time Woody Guthrie, mainly focusing upon the importance of grassroots protest songs. It did not do well. It was also in 1962 that he changed his name from Robert Zimmerman to Robert Dylan, borrowing the name from the illustrious American poet Dylan Thomas, author of the immortal ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’.
It was only with his next album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan: which featured the songs; ‘A Hard Rains a-Gonna Fall,’ and ‘Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright’, did he truly break out of the niche Greenwich Village scene and into the larger world of creative recognition.
American Beat Poet Allen Ginsberg recalls when he first heard Bob Dylan’s record spin at a party:
“When I got back from India and got to the West Coast, there’s a poet, Charlie Plymell, at a party in Bolinas, played me a record of this new young folk singer. And I heard “Hard Rain,” and wept. ’Cause it seemed that the torch had been passed to another generation. From earlier bohemian, or Beat illumination. And self-empowerment.”
Bob Dylan to this day, has released 36 studio albums, 91 singles, 40 music videos, 13 live albums, and 19 compilation albums, and yet I still think that a large portion of his true lyrical prowess can be condensed into 3 main albums:
- Bringing it All Back Home (1965)
- Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
- Blonde on Blonde (1966)
Bringing it All Back Home is without a doubt one of the greatest albums of all time. Released on March 22nd, 1965 it has resonated throughout the pages and passionate, intoxicated conversations of musical history as one of the most influential, genre-shattering records ever to be pressed into vinyl.
The 11 track masterpiece features a whimsical and surreal style of poetry blended perfectly into musicality, that to this day sends chills through the spines of listeners like the genesis of thunderbolts in gathering storm clouds. Despite its current positive recognition and seemingly holy position in the cabinets of musical divinity; its initial release and performances were met with an astonishing air of volatility.
The record was released 4 months before the infamous show on July 25th at the Newport Folk Festival; where he played an amplified and electronic set at a famous musical gathering that was entirely comprised of acoustic artists. Folk musicians and folk music fans of the 50s and early 60s were strictly acoustic: electric guitars and amplifiers were seen as the forbidden realm of pop music. And yet, Bob Dylan played three aggressive and electric songs at the festival before he left the stage, obviously his response to the resounding booing emanating from the crowd (seen below).
He’s reported to have said in an interview directly after the show:
“I electrified one half of the audience, and electrocuted the other.”
What makes this newfound musical direction so innovative is that his first 4 albums:
1. Bob Dylan (1962)
2. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963)
3. The Times They Are a-Changin’ (1964)
4. Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964)
All consisted of incredibly strong folk-protest subject material. These albums were directly poised against the status quo and were powerful odes of the counter-culture at the time; constantly seeking to bring attention to the social and political injustices of the early 60s in the United States.
However, all of this changed in his newfound direction of Bringing It All Back Home. He played folk songs through the lens of introspection and philosophical interrogation, coupled with the amplified rawness of rock and roll. He delivered the traditional folk-roots message in a medium that was not only aggressive and loud, it was also personal and abstract. The controversial statement before the release of his 2nd album of 1965 with Highway 61 Revisited debuting merely five months after releasing Bringing it All Back Home, reveals to us the start of a new form of Bob Dylan:
“You can’t change the world with a song, you can only sing about what’s inside of you.”
But like everything that Dylan says, there is an underlying, shrouded subtly to his words. The new songs on the electric records weren’t simply about rejecting the ability to change the world, they were distillations of his raw internal mechanisms, which were still so obviously trying to change the state of current affairs. Songs such as Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream and Ballad of a Thin Man, still featured the fundamental criticism-directed roots of protest songs that sought to take a stand against civil injustice; the messages were just far more beautifully disguised and illustrated than ever before. They erred so distinctly towards the abstract and personal, the messages hidden within them had to be hunted down by the listener. Just like the name of something or someone you can almost remember, every time you feel as though you’ve got it, it shifts from right out underneath you.
Increasing in obscurity and ever-consolidating his presence of electric guitars, louder rock & roll drum backings inexorably intertwined with his wild poetic prose: Dylan’s following albums Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde began to painted more surrealistic and personal portraits. His words throwing the listener off the ledge of rational thought and straight into a dreamlike landscape oozing with metaphorical sentiments and swirling contradictions that point right at the centre of things. His newer albums began to truly reflect that he was indeed really writing about the things inside of himself.
His psychedelic and archetypal poetic form rivaled only by other poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Leonard Cohen; seemed to paradoxically isolate and distill truth, not only of politics but also of the strange complexity of human nature. All of this being achieved through his chaotic, metaphorical and mystical methods. Dylan’s lyrics, much like truth itself, transmute and transform themselves with the perspective of the listener, engaged in a strange symbiotic agreement to alter and be altered by the listener.
In the year 1986, director John Hughes cited the album Bringing it All Back Home as being so influential on him as an artist that upon its release that:
“Thursday I was one person, and Friday I was another.”
Moving outwards towards Blonde on Blonde; Dylan’s first album to go double platinum on the U.S. charts, let us consider the sheer ridiculous prowess of Dylan’s lyrics in the song ‘Visions of Johanna’:
Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while
But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can tell by the way she smiles
See the primitive wallflower freeze
When the jelly-faced women all sneeze
Hear the one with the mustache say, “Jeez, I can’t find my knees”
Oh, jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule
But these visions of Johanna, they make it all seem so cruel
His constant surrender to metaphors of The Enlightenment, perpetually referencing the archaic and noble works of the classical artistic period and yet simultaneously intertwining them within a complex auditory performance that includes the dark, lustful and shameful parts of human nature like sex, greed, and pain is what perpetually invigorates the sheer sense of creative bewilderment that I garner from his music.
Much like the raw experience of an LSD trip; it is the sheer unspeakability of the experience itself that renders Dylan’s music so powerful. And whilst Dylan has released an enormous 30 studio albums following the release of Blonde on Blonde, Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing it All Back Home, it is within these albums that Bob Dylan altered the not only the path of musicality, but the very foundations of my creative intuitions, and it is why I remain in a constantly revived state of awe and respect for the works and life of Bob Dylan.