Friday, January 16, 2015

Bob Dylan: Jokerman

Bob Dylan is generally regarded as the greatest songwriter in the history of pop/rock music. As an influence on the development of pop music of the last 50 years, Dylan is without peers.

Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman in Hibbing, Minnesota, in the thick of northern mining country. During his high school years, the moody and rebellious young Robert Zimmerman formed a rock and roll band called, the “Golden Chords,” featuring himself on piano. Young Zimmerman, like many his age, was taken with Elvis Presley and other early stars of rock and roll. It wasn’t until his short stint at The University of Minnesota that the young Dylan would discover the early blues, country, and folk music that would form the foundation of his early fame.

While at university, Zimmerman rarely attended classes and instead spent his time learning the guitar techniques of the early blues and country masters that he heard on recordings owned by fellow music-loving students. He even earned a reputation as a thief of music recordings when a friend noticed that his records were disappearing. It was during this time that Zimmerman had decided that he would drop out of school and go to New York City to visit his new hero, folk music legend, Woody Guthrie, who was ailing in Bellevue Hospital, and then embark on a career as a folk singer.

In early 1960, Zimmerman, who had begun to refer to himself as “Bob Dylan,” ventured off to New York City where he did manage to meet his hero, Guthrie. He fell in with the Greenwich Village bohemian crowd and began performing folk music in the coffee houses and clubs of the Village. During this time, Dylan was honing his instrumental and performance skills. He steadily developed a following and began appearing in folk music publications such as “Sing Out.” His growing reputation culminated in an appearance with blues legend, John Lee Hooker, at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village.

Several glowing reviews of Dylan’s performances in the Village brought him to the attention of Columbia Record’s John Hammond. Hammond invited Dylan to come to the Columbia Records studios for an audition. Hammond was impressed by Dylan’s command of early blues and folk styles and signed him to a contract.

In March, 1962, the 20-year-old Dylan went to the studio, and recorded his first album, “Bob Dylan.” The album was a mix of cover versions of old blues and country tunes, but did have two Dylan originals, “Song to Woody,” a tribute to his idol Woody Guthrie, and “Talking New York Blues,” a song about his struggles in New York. The album was well received and pointed to a promising future.

On his next release, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” (1963), Dylan showed tremendous growth in his songwriting and performing and firmly established himself as a great songwriter and folk performer.  This album featured the classic songs, “A Hard Rains a Gonna Fall” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” “Freewheelin’” is widely considered the best of Dylan’s folk albums.

Dylan recorded two more folk albums, “The Times Are A’Changin’” (1964) and “Another Side of Bob Dylan” (1964), and became a hero of the left-wing protest set. Dylan never wished to be a part of any movement, and he would soon be vilified by folk music fans when he decided to abandon folk music in favour of rock and roll.

In 1965, Columbia released Bob Dylan’s fifth studio album, “Bringing It All Back Home”. The record, while containing a lot of material in the folk vein, also contained, for some, the unwanted strains of rock and roll. Notable tunes on this album include “Maggie’s Farm” and “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” This was Dylan’s best album to date.

 Late 1965 saw the release of an album which is widely considered as one of the best in the history of pop/rock, “Highway 61 Revisited.” On a purely musical level, this is some of the best blues ever recorded. Dylan put together an outstanding backing band for this album with Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper on guitar and keyboards, respectively. Bloomfield’s guitar work on the track “Tombstone Blues” is of epic proportions and Dylan’s vocals on “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” are maybe his best ever. Everything else here is outstanding, especially the hit, “Like A Rolling Stone.” Lyrically, the songs here are highly impressionistic and often allegorical making interpretation a difficult task.

The following year, Dylan released another masterpiece, “Blonde on Blonde” (1966), an album that vies with its predecessor for the title of “Dylan’s best.” This time, Dylan had the future members of The Band backing him on several tracks. The album features more curious, impressionistic, but interesting lyrics. Musically, this album is in turns bluesy and folksy. Dylan scored minor hits with “I Want You” and “Just like a Woman” from this one.

Dylan had peaked in 1966 with the release of back to back masterworks. He continued to release fine albums between 1967 and 1975, with his best being “John Wesley Harding” (1967), “Nashville Skyline” (1968), and “New Morning” (1970). In 1975, with the release of the superb album, “Blood on the Tracks,” Dylan once again soared to the artistic heights that he had reached in 1966. “Tangled up In Blue,” and “Buckets of Rain” are standout tracks from the album.

Another classic, “The Basement Tapes,” recorded during the summer of 1967 with The Band was also released in 1975. The following year, Dylan recorded “Desire” (1976) which featured the song, “Hurricane,” about wrongly-imprisoned boxer, Ruben “Hurricane” Carter. Desire would prove to be the last truly superb album that Dylan would record during his golden period.

Shortly after recording Desire, Dylan would become a born-again Christian and release two mediocre albums of religious music, “Saved” and “Slow Train Comin.” It seemed that he had finally lost his muse. However, Dylan has continued to record and tour over the years and has periodically produced fine albums such as “Infidels” (1983), “Oh Mercy”(1989), “Time Out Of Mind”(1997), “Love and Theft”(2001), and “Modern Times”(2006).