Bob Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman on this day in 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota.
When Senator Joe Lieberman, of all people, commemorated Bob Dylan's 50th birthday on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1991, he referred to Dylan's air of "mystery" and his "refusal to play roles society might seek to assign him." The very fact that a politician should have become such an articulate critic of rock music is probably a testament to Dylan's power as a transformer, both of the role of rock icon as well as the roles of rock listeners.
As a youth, Dylan was a devotee of 1950s rock and roll who learned to play harmonica and guitar. While studying art at the University of Minnesota, he first heard Woody Guthrie, and was inspired to play folk music in coffeehouses under the name "Bob Dylan," taken from the poet Dylan Thomas. In Denver in 1960 he met bluesman Jesse Fuller, who was the inspiration for Dylan's signature harmonica rack. Fortified with a head full of blues and country-folk, Dylan moved to New York City in 1961, where his shaggy, ramblin'-man charisma attracted the attention of the Greenwich Village folkies. He also began visiting the dying Woody Guthrie in the hospital there.
Dylan's voice -- his skinny, metallic bear-growl -- was very different from the pastoral warbling of folk singers like the Weavers and Peter, Paul and Mary, and at first the impresarios weren't sure how to package him, at one point proposing that he sing duets with another obscure cabaret chanteuse named Barbra Streisand, but eventually they unveiled him in his first album as a modern-day traditional folk balladeer. Before he could be pegged as a mere revivalist, however, he released The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan in 1963, a collection of original songs (mainly political protest pieces such as "Oxford Town," about James Meredith's registration at the University of Mississippi; "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall," about nuclear holocaust; and the instant pacifist classic "Blowin' in the Wind") which rang like an overdue wake-up call through the sleepy pop charts, and revealed something of Dylan's personality for the first time: witty, edgy, caustic, sometimes angry, at any rate calculatingly conscious of mood and effect even at the gentlest margins.
While his impact on the folk community was instant and enormous as he began to tour with his some-time girlfriend Joan Baez, Time magazine made fun of him, saying he looked 14 at 22 and that his faintly ridiculous "accent belongs to a jive Nebraskan, or maybe a Brooklyn hillbilly"; but his style nonetheless gave shape to a generation of student protesters as the anti-war and civil rights movements were in their infancy. By the time he released The Times They Are A-Changin' (1964), Dylan the artist was morphing at break-neck speed, adding more R & B influence to his music and more Rimbaud to his lyrics, eschewing the role of political spokesman by singing love songs (!) at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964, and eventually, in Bringing It All Back Home (1965), flirting with the electronic sounds of the British Invasion.
During the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Dylan played 3 rock songs wearing a tight suit, pointy shoes and a Stratocaster around his neck, with Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper in (loud) support, and was greeted with a mixture of shock and anger from folk fans who saw his betrayal as not being just a musical one but a selling out of the whole leftist movement for whom he had become an icon, while folk elder Pete Seeger reportedly ran around backstage trying to unplug cables.
Dylan had left the folkies behind, but had entered the mainstream as a rock-poet-guru. Full-fledged rock albums followed -- Highway 61 Revisited, 1965, and Blonde on Blonde, 1966 -- the former of which included the 6-minute, pulsing, crypto-poetic diatribe "Like a Rolling Stone," a song which he sang with laser-like viciousness at the Royal Albert Hall (or, according to the everlovin' Fathead, Free Trade Hall in Manchester, England - see comment below), backed by The Band, after a self-righteous folkie in the audience called Dylan "Judas!" at the top of his lungs in the spring of 1966.
The controversy was quieted when on July 29, 1966, Dylan suffered neck and head injuries in a motorcycle accident near his home in Woodstock, New York -- just 3 months after the motorcycle death of his friend, ex-girlfriend Baez's brother-in-law Richard Fariña. The accident seemed to turn him into a recluse, at least temporarily, as he recorded in secret with The Band; the material from these rehabilitation sessions was not released until 1975 as The Basement Tapes.
Emerging after almost 2 years of public silence, his next 2 albums -- John Wesley Harding (1967) and Nashville Skyline (1969) -- were pioneering country-rock sets which again fooled his following (who expected the psychedelia which was all the rage at the time), but which nevertheless produced a top 10 single, "Lay Lady Lay."
Thereafter, Dylan began a long period of rambling which has never really ended: he moved back to Greenwich Village; performed at George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh; debuted as an actor in Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1972), which featured his song "Knockin' on Heaven's Door"; and toured with The Band to packed venues in 1974. His 1975 release, Blood on the Tracks, a song cycle largely inspired by the dissolution of his marriage to model Sara Lowndes, proved he could still write wrenchingly about uncertainty, fear and the light of little kindnesses. He launched a large star-studded traveling show, the Rolling Thunder Revue, later that year (with such luminaries as Baez, Joni Mitchell, Arlo Guthrie and Allen Ginsberg as featured guests), followed by another tour in 1978, after which he mystified fans once again by declaring himself a born-again Christian and releasing 3 albums of praise music -- Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980) and Shot of Love (1981) -- to mixed reactions.
After a trip to Israel in 1982, his album Infidels (1983) apparently signaled an ebb to his torrent of Christian fervor, with political lyrics in support of Israel's claims in the Middle East. The seemingly endless touring continued, with stints alongside Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and the Grateful Dead among others. He had a pop success in 1988 teaming with Petty, George Harrison and Roy Orbison as the "Traveling Wilburys," and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame later that year, but even getting bronzed did not slow his inspired reinventions.
At least 2 albums on either side of a near fatal heart episode, Oh Mercy (1989) and Time Out of Mind (1997, winner of Grammies for Album of the Year, Best Contemporary Folk Album and Best Male Rock Vocal), showed him in rare form: confessional, sarcastic, demanding intelligence and sensitivity from his listeners; at times transcendently philosophical but alert, still tapping his calloused fingertips against his skinny veins for pulse beats within which to count out his next incarnation -- every inch the cat-eyed guru who can't stand still.