Devotees hail him a messiah, others consider him a grumpy grouch who could never hold a tune (they’re wrong by the way). But both lovers and haters agree that Dylan has always been impossible to classify, categorise and he remains an enigma to this day. The wide-eyed folk singer has evolved into a wizened old living legend, but there were plenty of incarnations along the way…
In 1961, a freewheelin’ Robert Zimmerman left his hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota and rolled into New York with a new name and identity. He sang protest songs, marched on Washington with Martin Luther King Jr and by 1963 had become the voice of a generation.
Listen to: Chimes of Freedom
Times were a-changin’ when Dylan committed the sin of plugging in his guitar. Going electric at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1965 – 50 years ago next month – and on his subsequent tour of the UK changed the course of music history. “Judas” cried critics, “Play fucking louder,” retorted Dylan, inventing not just a new rock ‘n’ roll sound but an uncompromising, defiant rock ‘n’ roll attitude.
Listen to: Tell Me, Momma
The organisers of the Isle of Wight festival booked rocking Bob, instead a suited and booted country crooner showed up. He dressed differently, sounded different (he had apparently given up smoking) and even starred in Sam Peckinpah’s western Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid.
Listen to: Duets with Johnny Cash
Cowboy clobber was ditched in favour of cravats and white face paint. Dylan gathered up a bunch of bohos including Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Roger McGuinn, T-Bone Burnett and Allen Ginsberg, and toured a travelling road show known as The Rolling Thunder Review.
Listen to: The Rolling Thunder Review tour
Dylan changed his way of thinking and released a run of religious records at the start of the 1980s. Somebody threw a silver crucifix on stage a gig in San Diego. Dylan picked it up and by the time the tour hit Tuscon, he was having visions of Jesus. The following albums were a little gospel, a lot old testament.
Listen to: Precious Angel
Just as Dylan was found, he encountered the patchiest period of his career. Some woeful albums were released, and what’s worse is some incredible songs, like Blind Willie McTell were recorded but inexplicably left off the final track list. Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie and Quincy Jones had to teach Dylan how to sound like himself again before the recording session of We Are The World and during Live Aid he asked for some of the money to be donated to American farmers…
Listen to: Brownsville Girl
Could supergroups get any more super? Dylan joined George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne to form The Travelling Wilburys. The Avengers of middle aged musicians even gave each other nicknames (Dylan was Lucky) as they wrote songs lampooning Prince and Bruce Springsteen, and taking inspiration from boxes lying around Dylan’s garage.
Listen to: Handle With Care
On 7 June 1988 Dylan kicked off a new tour…and it’s still going. The so-called Never Ending Tour has so far taken in 2686 dates, with another 46 scheduled this year including five nights at the Royal Albert Hall in October. In all, Dylan has performed 220 times in the UK and his most performed song is All Along the Watchtower.
Listen to: Things Have Changed
Here’s something not many Dylan fans thought they would get from Santa – a surprisingly traditional and reverential collection of Christmas songs. Proceeds from Christmas From The Heart was donated to Feeding America, Crisis and the World Food Programme and Dylan gave an exclusive and extremely rare interview to The Big Issue.
Listen to: Must Be Santa
The latest incongruous incarnation Dylan has morphed into is a troubadour singing old Sinatra standards. The 36th studio album from the now 74-year-old debuted at number one in the UK album charts in February this year.
Listen to: The Night We Called It A Day