Bob Dylan – a review of his life and importance

Bob Dylan – Nobel Prize Winner!

There are few people who have had as much social impact as Bob Dylan. He is a man whose creative skills have flourished throughout the fifty five years of his career. He has reinvented himself time and again. His word skills have been applied to poems, songs, books and interviews. He has been successful at everything he turned his hand to – whether that be poetry, song, writing or hosting Radio Shows.

His career can be viewed in a number of ways. Chronologically it reveals a bit of a chameleon

Stage 1 – Folk-Blues.

I first encountered Bob in the early sixties when my friend Charlie had a job as a merchant seaman and brought his first album back from the States. He played it to me and told me (a young lad of about thirteen) that Bob was going to be big and would have hits if he released singles. I didn’t believe him. I was into Blues and Woody Guthrie but I didn’t hear anything great on that first album. It was reasonable folk-blues in my opinion – I’d heard Fixin’ To Die played better.

Stage 2 – Acoustic Masterpieces of songwriting

Then came a trio of acoustic masterpieces (Freewheelin’, The Times They are A-Changing and Another side of). Bob had moved from covering folk-blues to doing his own songs. And boy what songs they were. He had started basing his style on Woody Guthrie but this took song writing to a new level. He took up Woody’s themes of social justice and ran with them. His melded in poetry to take them to a new level of complexity, imagery and power.

There were songs of Civil Rights like the Ballad of Emmett Till, The Ballad of Hollis Brown, Only a Pawn in the Game, Oxford Town, Chimes of Freedom, To Ramona

There were songs about the futility of war and nuclear war – Blowin’ in the Wind. Masters of War, A Hard Rains Gonna Fall,  Let me Die in My Footsteps, With God on our Side

There were love songs that were miles away from the standard pop trivia. These were mature poems – Don’t Think Twice it’s Alright, Restless Farewell, Boots of Spanish Leather, One Too Many Mornings, All I Really Want To Do

There were songs about the racist establishment and communist haters – Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues, When the Ship Comes in

There were humorous songs with a message – I shall be Free Number 10, Talkin’ Bear Mountain

Bob opened people’s eyes to what was going on. He articulated people’s feelings. He motivated and aroused, he spelt it out, highlighted it and got a whole new generation turned on to social injustice and antiwar. He raised our sensibilities and empowered us to try to put things right. That is something that has never died in me.

And yes – he did release singles and Times They Are A-Changing was a big hit.

Joan Baez adopted him. Peter Paul and Mary popularised him and he was lauded by everyone as a poetic genius, songwriter extraordinaire, social activator, Protest Singer, and all-round genius – the voice of a generation.

Not only that but his songs were being covered by Beat Musicians. Pop and Rock was a teenage music. The lyrics (apart from the odd Chuck Berry one here and there – like Too Much Monkey Business) were all about love, cars and school. Bob changed that. The Animals, Byrds and Manfred Mann covered his songs and created FolkRock. But more importantly bands like the Beatles were freed from the normal strictures of the Pop/Rock song to experiment, get poetic and tell stories with real social importance. It transformed Rock into a more mature, adult structure, more complex, meaningful and poetic. That all came to fruition in the late sixties underground. Without Dylan we wouldn’t have had the later Beatles, Pink Floyd, Doors, Country Joe and the Fish, Buffalo Springfield, Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, Jefferson Airplane, later Rolling Stones, Traffic, Jimi Hendrix, Cream or the like. He opened minds to the possibilities.

Stage 3 – The Electric explosion

At the height of this deification Bob transformed himself. He’d always been a rocker and seized the opportunity to go electric. He left behind the Civil Rights and Antiwar songs and developed the poetry a stage further into the flow of consciousness of the Beat Generation. There was still a social message but it was interspersed with all manner of strange underworld denizens and imagery.

Phase 2 had been incredible by phase 3 was mind -blowing. He released 3 albums that blew everyone’s minds (though some took longer to adjust than others). He produced a sound like nobody had ever heard. With the power of the Butterfield Blues Band (Mike Bloomfield on searing guitar) at Newport and then a variety of musicians and the Hawks in the Studio and on tour. Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde were extraordinary in every respect. Everything about them was new – the sound, the song structure, the lyrics and the appearance. He took Rock by the short and curlies and shook it up.

There were barbed social songs – It’s Alright Ma I’m Only Bleeding, Subterranean Homesick Blues, Maggie’s Farm, Positively Fourth Street, Gates of Eden, Ballad of a Thin Man, It Takes a lot to Laugh, It Takes A Train to Cry, From a Buick 6, Tombstone Blues, Like a Rolling Stone, Desolation Row, Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues

Love songs of incredible beauty and lyricism – Love minus Zero/No Limit, Mr Tambourine Man, It’s All Over Now Baby Blue, Queen Jane Approximately

Then the awesome majesty of what must be the greatest album of all-time – (apart from Roy Harper and depending what mood I’m in) – Blonde on Blonde – ever track a poetic masterpiece of imagery and imagination.

1 Rainy Day Women #12 & 35

2 Pledging My Time

3 Visions of Johanna

4 One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)

5 I Want You

6 Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again

7 Leopard‐Skin Pill‐Box Hat

8 Just Like a Woman

9 Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine

10 Temporary Like Achilles

11 Absolutely Sweet Marie

12 4th Time Around

13 Obviously Five Believers

14 Sad‐Eyed Lady of the Lowlands

If that doesn’t blow your mind nothing will. There was nothing quite like this James Dean ultra-hip, mercury-mouthed, super-cool, poetic demon. No-one looked like him, sounded like him or could be as sharp.

But the guy was strung out on amphetamine, stressed to the heavens, hounded on all sides and driven insane with the demands for product, performances, books and interviews. It was a treadmill.

It had to end and it did. He crashed and decided to use it as a break. He did not want to be the Voice of a Generation or any part of this machine. He quit. He cleaned himself up.

Stage 4 – Opting Out

He bought a house in Woodstock, shacked up with the Band and started playing the old stuff, writing simpler and doing what was basically Americana. There were no obligations and we saw a simpler in-hip Dylan emerge who sang with Johnny Cash on Country songs and adopted a low-key image and produced three mediocre albums – the OK John Wesley Harding (with the great All Along the Watchtower), the lamentable Nashville Skyline (Which I smashed and threw away the day I bought it) and the dreadful Self-Portrait (Which I didn’t bother buying). He did a poor performance at the Isle of Wight and we all reckoned he was gone.

Stage 5 – the Return

Well New Morning was a slight return but it was with the albums Planet Waves, Blood on the Tracks, Desire and Street Legal, that we saw any of the real power return. It did not get to the peak of those sixties albums but these were really good. The poetry and imagery were there with tracks like Isis, Dirge, Forever Young, Tangled Up in Blue, Idiot Wind, Shelter From the Storm, Hurricane, Oh Sister, Sarah and Senor (Tales of Yankee Power).

This was the time of the live Rolling Thunder Review with nits attempt to bring people together and create some of that spirit again.

Stage 6 – The Religious holiday

Just when we were getting to hope that he might just begin to produce something absolutely majestic he dumped it all and saw the light. We had to tolerate two albums of Born Again sermonising. Least said.

Stage 7 – Mediocrity (by comparison to his own heights)

There followed a string of albums that were alright – Shot of love, Infidels, Empire Burlesque, Knocked Out Loaded, Down in the Groove, Oh Mercy, Under the Red Sky, Good As I Been to You, World Gone Wrong

Stage 8 – Renaissance of a patchy sort

The great Time out of Mind heralded a return to form and that was followed up with Love and Theft, Modern Times, Together Through Life and then the dubious Christmas in the Heart, The Tempest, Shadows in the Night and Fallen Angels.

These were the days when he did his fabulous Radio Shows and wrote the brilliant Chronicles.

So here we are. He deservedly receives the Nobel Prize for Literature. Nobody deserves it more.!!

I look forward to Leonard Cohen, Roy Harper, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Nick Harper receiving their due recognition now.

Well done Bob – We all owe you the world!! From scruffy Woody urchin through James Dean Rebel, Country hick, Thunderous mannequin to poet, radio presenter, novelist and chronicler – you’ve taken us on a journey!

12 thoughts on “Bob Dylan – a review of his life and importance

  1. Firstly, let me state that you must be the first 13 years old boy that I’ve ever come across who had such personal and close ‘friendly’ relations with a merchant seaman. Captain Pugwash springs to find. OK, joke over and back to reality…

    Well, it’s a review, I’ll give you that – but not a particularly accurate one.
    It would have been extremely unusual back then to be 13 year old and into blues and Woody Guthrie. Most of the music world people that I have interviewed from back in that era did not properly encounter blues music or Woody Guthrie as such until the release of Dylan’s Freewheelin’ and the first visit to UK shores of some bona fide blues musicians.
    Perhaps you’ve got ahead of yourself on this detail.

    The nuts and bolts of your precise up to 1966, merits no fault as it’s bulk standard journeyman’s knowledge. However, thereafter falls into an idiosyncrasy of very lazy research, in particular the indication that Roy Harper was somewhere close. I would seriously struggle with Take Me Into Your Eyes and Sophisticated Beggar as potential contenders to match wits with Blonde On Blonde. Of course, perhaps you ignore the “period drama” in it’s strictest terms here and relate to much later works by Harper.
    It would also be prudent to note that The Times They Are A-Changin’ single release did not trouble the US charts at all and failed to even enter the top 100.

    The fact that you smashed your copy of Nashville Skyline is irrelevant as the record was supported by it’s No. 1 sales position on UK’s album charts.
    Many would regard Self Portrait as a genuine delve into what has since been termed as “Americana”, a term which in itself is subject to interpretation through gross misuse. Regardless, the UK public bought enough copies to again secure the No. 1 position in album sales. It would be necessarily subjective to assume or make claim that “we all reckoned he was gone” following his performance at Isle of Wight. Was that ‘gone from the stage’ or ‘gone from this world’, whatever, patience is a virtue and the same could be said for The Beatles following their tempestuous 1966 USA tour, where many did think the end was nigh. Let’s assume that by 1969, people knew better.

    The Rolling Thunder Revue was a massive undertaking and nothing remotely of any attempt to re-take territory from it’s 1966 counter-part. It was an entirely different affair, with a host of characters as opposed to a four-piece backing band. At no point on this tour did Dylan behave as obviously stoned out of his gourd, with drawling speech at a snails pace and sneering at his baying audience.

    It’s such a shame that some listeners are unable to appreciate the excellent music as produced in several albums circa 1979 – 1981, with Slow Train Coming as an obvious highlight. They tend to have liked Baby Stop Crying, the single from the previous album, but can’t get into Fred Tackett’s sublime lead guitar playing, or the Waxler/Beckett production. Some detractors have more or less said that Dylan’s singing “Jesus Loves Me”, he isn’t, and far from it actually.

    Stage 7 is when this review really goes tits up, starting with the description that these albums are “alright”! And this includes Oh Mercy. This is potentially the dumbest statement that could be made here and John Bauldie will be turning in his grave – and he didn’t even live to get to hear it. Derek Barker will be calling for a boycott of all Opher Goodwin books. Yes, it is the dumbest of statements to make.
    I wonder how many Dylan scholars would ever select the album Infidels and correspond it in terms of writing and performance with Knocked Out Loaded?
    That’s an automatic anathema surely?
    The fact that Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong are solo acoustic efforts doesn’t warrant mention, suffice to know that they’re “alright”.

    The pendulum swings in the knowledge that Time Out Of Mind was great and whisks through twenty years worth of albums albeit omitting the very last, the no lesser three-CD compendium of seasoned favourites, Triplicate.

    And there we have it. Apparently having received the Nobel Prize for Literature, complete with a cheque for $925,000 neither of which he sprang forth with any urgency to collect.
    Not everybody was quite so excited with this accreditation, namely writer Irvine Welch, who described Dylan’s nomination as “an ill-conceived nostalgia award made for senile, gibbering hippies.”

    This is a very poor analysis and frankly, I’d rather not have read it. 5/10.

    1. I was actually, looking back, I must have been fourteen as my friend Mutt was a year older and joined the Merchant Navy at fifteen as a cook.
      I really do not care how much was sold of the Dylan albums, or what anybody else thought. I put forward my personal views and I stand fully behind them. If you want a bog-standard view of Dylan then go elsewhere. Here you get my opinions.
      As for the later ones only Time Out Of Mind grabbed me at all. The rest were alright. Good in relation to other people but not when compared with the pinnacles of Dylan’s sixties and seventies output.

  2. My point wasn’t about the cook, but exactly where you as a 13/14 years old schoolboy were getting blues and Woody Guthrie from.
    John Mayall, a lot older than you, struggled to get his hands on blues albums, so how did you? Or by your claim of being “into blues and Guthrie” really just mean that you’d heard a smattering and liked what you’d heard – as apposed to the genuine fan-boy with real proper records propping up his heaving bedroom shelves?
    I’m bowled over completely with your claim that you’d heard Bukka White’s “Fixin’ To Die”, as performed by Dylan, sung better! How on earth did you ever get to hear this song as issued in USA in 1940 on 10″ bakelite Vocalion label, which sold next to nothing. It took the American Folk Music Revival of the 1960’s to garner any interest in White, whom had more or less retired by then.
    Do I need to remind you that clearly stated on the back of Dylan’s eponymous album is the explanation that it was “learned from an old recording by Bukka White.”
    Put it this way, I smell bs and ain’t buying it.

    I’m sorry, but this piece suffers from some heavy-weight jaded disinterest from post 1978, and were you to “stand fully behind them”, you could guarantee being called up on it. Whilst you take care to applaud Mike Bloomfield for his twenty minutes of playing at Newport, you indifferently fail – because all these albums were just “alright” – to merit Dylan’s football stadium tour of Europe in 1984, following the album Infidels. He was quite possibly the first person/solo artist to ever do a football stadium tour, a minor detail that missed your radar. You obviously didn’t make any gigs otherwise you’d be lauding the plaudits of Mick Taylor, too.
    I am perplexed with your intimation that elsewhere is bog-standard.
    But Infidels bundled in with Knocked Out Loaded and just “alright” whips the rug from under your feet.

    1. Well you can smell whatever you like. At fourteen and fifteen I was developing a very wide taste in music. I had a friend called Dick Brunning who introduced me to Blues. He had a limited but very interesting collection – Lightnin’ Hopkins, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf. I heard the Howlin’ Wolf version of little Red Rooster before the Stones did it.
      There were shops who did stock some Blues and the old cardboard sleeve Folkways albums cropped up from time to time. There was a shop in Woking that always had a few. By the time I was sixteen/seventeen I had quite a little collection.
      Towards the end of the sixties I went on to see lots of Blues guys and used to got to Hammersmith Odeon for the Blues shows where I saw Son House, Bukka White, Skip James, Big Joe Williams, Muddy Waters, Hounddog Taylor, Otis Spann etc. etc.
      At around the same time that Donovan’s first album came out I had a girlfriend called Viv Oldfield whose brother was into Big Bill Broonzy, Woody Guthrie and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and he got me interested in that.
      Later, with the British Blues boom I got to see John Mayall with Peter Green and Mick Taylor in small clubs. Blues has always been an important part of my music appreciation.
      Now you can believe what you like as far as I’m concerned.
      I must say that having seen Dylan at Earl’s Court in his Gospel period I was severely disillusioned. You, and everyone else, might think everything he does is wonderful and rave over that later period, I don’t.

      1. Sounds just like the story of every other kid on the block.
        But you evaded my question again and gone way off an a defensive tangent.
        It was – you aged 13/14 and already knowing Bukka White’s ‘Fixin’ To Die’?

        Bukka White was never on any Folkways records.
        He never had an album out until 1964 and didn’t see a UK release until 1968.
        ‘Fixin’ To Die’ wasn’t on an album until Columbia’s issue of 1969, ‘Parchman Farm’.

        Bloody hell man, you’re making out to be almost on the porch in Mississippi backwoods, but no, you’re a bleedin’ country bumpkin from way out in Woking in Surrey! LOL.

        One Dylan gig in 1981 left you disillusioned? Seriously? That was it for you was it? LOL. I was at two of these six shows and one at Birmingham. We got a bit of Gospel, about one third of the twenty plus songs played. You’d missed his Gospel period by at least a year. His gigs at Newcastle and Wembley would have blown your socks off.
        I guess why that’s why they make records and chocolate and vanilla.

  3. There’s so much more to Dylan than just the studio albums and many songs are simply blue prints for what he will eventually do with them on stage. As a gig regular I can say for sure that I’ve been sometimes disappointed with a performance but would never describe as much as having been severely disillusioned. I don’t think that’s an appropriate term in this context for having experienced only one concert.
    Had you been Sarah Lowndes and been screwed over then you might get away with being seriously disillusioned.
    Thinking about it if I’d only ever seen him a few times I might not
    I’ve been to shows where the sound wasn’t too hot – not Dylan’s fault, where he was drunk – Dylan’s fault and when he wasn’t feeling too well – not Dylan’s fault.
    Dylan’s all about the live entity and although it doesn’t happen now, back then he’d tour each time with a new band and a new set of songs – too bad you didn’t like the selection on that one night out of what must be now going on some four thousand concerts played. I see Roy Harper gets a mention. I’ve been to a gig of his and fallen asleep 30 minutes in – it was that dull, excruciatingly dull.
    As mentioned above, these gigs in 1984 at Newcastle and Wembley with Mick Taylor were something else.

    As a by-note, not that Leonard was ever the remotest of contenders but there’s no chance now as Nobel don’t award the dead. Joni Mitchell – why what’s she done? She’s not made a decent record since 1976 and she only made two. Nick Harper? Roy’s boy? LOL. ??? Well if it’s that loose, I’d like to nominate my postman.
    Rewind that one – Nick Harper???

  4. Well I’ve only been to Dylan shows a handful of times. Unfortunately I missed his amazing early acoustic and first electric shows and nothing could compare to those though I would have loved to have seen the Rolling Thunder. I deliberately avoided seeing him when he toured because I did not want the disappointment of a substandard performance.
    Friends went to see him in the late seventies and assured me that he was back on form so I went and caught that dreadful Earl’s Court show complete with Gospel singers. Not my cup of tea. I’ve been 4 or five times since and seen him really on form, dismal and mediocre. So I guess I’ve had the full gamut. He usually has excellent musicians but on one occasion it was as if he really could not be bothered.
    Roy Harper has always been amazing and Nick is an incredibly guitarist, song writer and performer who deserves to be right up there at the top.
    It all comes down to personal taste.

  5. No – it is you that is exaggerating and making something out of nothing. My friend Dick’s interest in the Blues at such a young age was exceptional and had a big impact on my. When the first British Blues boom – with the likes of the Stones, Animals, Pretty Things and Yardbirds – took off Dick and I had heard the real thing.
    Why pick a fight?

    1. Put it this way – I just proved to you that you were exaggerating. The facts speak for themselves. It was yourself that made something out of something that didn’t exist and your imagination was running riot. It was your exaggeration that got my attention as I had read it open mouthed, completely perplexed. You can fool yourself but not some readers.
      Understand that.
      I also heard the not such a real thing too, these British copy groups, being 68 years old and right behind you.
      Pick a fight? Seriously, maybe you should read your own post up top about people who don’t agree being called trolls! I wasn’t fighting, merely making an inquiry and followed with a correction to an inaccuracy.
      I asked the question again and got a story about Dick. Hello Dick.

      Are you always as curmudgeonly? No wonders it took a week for you to take on board that Leadbelly has been Lead Belly these last twenty years. LOL.

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