Friday, 23 April 2010

Bob Dylan

If you ever manage to come face to face with Bob Dylan don't, under any circumstances ask him what his work 'means.' Don't ask him to explain what the cultural significance of wearing a Triumph T-shirt is or if he really took someone's wife to Italy, he won't thank you for it.

Dylan has been pigeonholed his whole career, as a folk singer, a protester, a traitor, a championer of the underdog and a genius and depending on which song you listen to he could be all of or none of these things. But then Bob Dylan cares for labels as much as he does for explaining his songs.

Bob Dylan is an icon, of what exactly is up to you to decide but there can be no doubt that his music has had, and continues to have, a profound effect on music as a whole. In short, if you don't like Dylan, you don't like music.

Born in 1941, Dylan grew up 50's America, an America with the ever present and real threat of nuclear war and before he reached his 20th birthday he would have lived through some historical events. He enrolled in college but never attended classes, he "didn't have time" and eventually left for New York in 1960 to visit his idol Woodie Guthrie in hospital. He inevitably found his way to Greenwich village, the birthplace of the Beat Generation and stage for the revival of American folk music. And it was here, amongst all these writers, poets, singers and other bohemian types that Bob Dylan began changing the world.

Dylan's path in life seems to have been laid early, when he was 10 years old he came across a guitar and maybe more importantly a radio and he says the poet in him was brought out by Gloria and Echo, two early girlfriends.

But it was almost very different.

Dylan tried and failed to get into Westpoint, a United States Military Academy and even envisioned himself dying a heroic death, such was the political climate at the time.

Dylan changed his name from the less glamorous and decidedly more Jewish, Robert Zimmerman but he says he doesn't really know why. Theories have been put forward that it was after Welsh poet Dylan Thomas or because his given name was obviously Jewish and he changed it to avoid anti-Semitic feeling that was around at the time. Regardless of the reason it would be his stage name that would forever be linked to his unique singing voice and narrative style, first unleashed on the gathered crowd at Greenwich village's cafe Wha? on his first night in NY city.

He made a living in the 'basket houses' of Greenwich village, performing in between sets of poetry and passing a basket around to collect whatever donations found their way into them before moving on to the next place. Dylan began to assimilate everything that was around him and some people think he made a 'deal at the crossroads' that made him virtually unrecognisable when he returned to visit Minnesota a short time later.

Dylan was 'discovered' by Columbia Records producer John Hammond who convinced the company to take a chance on him. They did, but only because Hammond's reputation was respected due to his knack of discovering talent.

Dylan is an enigma and over the years has frustrated reporters with his lack of directness and sometimes point blank refusal to answer questions, instead, offering vague answers that are as much questions as the questions themselves. A frustration for reporters and Dylan himself seems to be the meaning behind his songs. Dylan maintains his songs are not about specific events and in Martin Scorsese's documentary 'No Direction Home,' Joan Baez recalls talking to Dylan about the meaning of a specific song with Dylan replying that he didn't know what it was about but "people in the future will write about what these songs are about."

Dylan lived through turbulent times and certain events must have had an effect on his music but he constantly refused to be drawn into politics, refused to be used and remained a thorn in the side of all kinds of groups, including his own fans. Dylan performed at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, sharing the stage with Martin Luther King Jr amongst others but refused to be a public part of the anti-Vietnam war campaign.

Dylan also became the focus of an boo campaign and was dubbed a traitor to folk music for his inclusion of Mike Bloomfield and The Paul Butterfield Blues Band to his concerts, especially at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival where even fellow performers were disturbed and even angered by his loud, bluesy backing band, although the debate about why the crowd were booing has passed into music folklore. In the two years preceding this Dylan was the toast of the festival.

Dylan's subsequent tour to Australia and Europe would be his last for 8 years, some say because of the motorcycle accident he was involved in when he returned to the USA but the constant booing and jeering that followed him on that tour, particularly in England may have proved too much for Dylan, who was still a relatively young man at the time.

Dylan continues to record and tour and still manages to surprise people too, most recently with his 2009 album Christmas In The Heart. And if you think Bob Dylan is just for old people just watch the video for the song 'Must Be Santa' from the aforementioned album.

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