Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan was easily one of the most important figures in contemporary music, and one of the most perversely fascinating as well. Born Robert Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota, he was raised on rock & roll but discovered folk music as a student at the University of Minnesota. By 1959 he was playing coffeehouses, taking Woody Guthrie as a role model and taking his name from Dylan Thomas. At first he was simply a folksinger; his 1962 debut album had only two original songs. But a quantum leap occurred between this and the next year's followup, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. Now Dylan was writing songs ("A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," "Blowin' in the Wind," "Masters of War") that dealt with social/political unrest in terms that were both hard-hitting and poetic. The same album introduced "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," one of his most enduring failed-love songs. Over the next four years, virtually every move Dylan made was a cultural event. Pegged with the "protest songwriter" tag, he quickly grew beyond it and wrote more impressionistic songs on 1964's The Other Side of Bob Dylan. His influence went as far as the Beatles, who he famously introduced to marijuana in August 1964. By the next year Dylan was playing rock music with an electric band; legend has it that he was booed offstage at the Newport Folk Festival for the new sound (though some reports say that he was simply booed for wrapping up too early, or for poor sound mixing that made the songs difficult to hear). That year brought the rock-tinged album Highway 61 Revisited, with its landmark single "Like a Rolling Stone." But he was definitely booed the following year in England, when an audience member shouted "Judas!" during the electric set. This now-iconic moment, at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, spurred a furious Dylan to deliver his arguably greatest live performance, backed by the group that became known as The Band. The classic era abruptly ended in July 1966 with a serious motorcycle crash whose full story remains mysterious. Dylan spent a full three years out of the spotlight, recording a wealth of unreleased material (known as the Basement Tapes) with the Band. When he did emerge, it was with a string of albums (including Nashville Skyline and the double Self Portrait that were shockingly casual in sound and ambition. He remained secluded in the early '70s, scoring and acting in what was considered a minor Sam Peckinpah movie, "Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid"(1973), which ironically produced "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," a contender as Dylan's single best-loved song. The rest of the decade-in fact, the rest of his career-was characterized by drastic ups and downs. He made a creative comeback with 1975's Blood on the Tracks, a personal outpouring inspired by his divorce, and the following year took a busload of musical friends around the country in the shambling Rolling Thunder Revue tour. He documented this in a movie, "Renaldo & Clara" (1978) that probably told fans more about his love life than they wanted to know. Still more surprising was Dylan's declaring himself a born-again Christian in 1979 and embracing fundamentalist themes on Slow Train Coming. This too proved temporary; by 1983's Infidels it had been folded into an overall sense of spirituality. During the '80s Dylan suddenly became a ubiquitous live performer, touring collaboratively with Tom Petty and later the Grateful Dead; and in 1988 began the series of loose-knit, small-combo one-nighters known as the Never Ending Tour. There were more creative triumphs (1997's blues-tinged Time Out of Mind, written after he survived a life-threatening heart ailment) and more baffling moves: in 2015 he became enraptured with the Frank Sinatra song catalogue and devoted three consecutive albums to it, including his only triple album, Triplicate. In 2017 Dylan became the first songwriter ever awarded the Nobel Prize for literature; characteristically he skipped the ceremony. Meanwhile new generations discovered key moments in Dylan's career through the archival releases in his Bootleg Series.