Bob Dylan A Beginner's Guide

Bob Dylan A Beginner's Guide

Sick of every guy and his dog extolling the virtues of Dylan, telling you to 'listen to the words, man' and regarding you with palpable disdain for not knowing who played guitar on 'Blind Willie McTell'? Tired of feigning a grand mal seizure every time someone mentions Blonde on Blonde, just to spare yourself the embarrassment of admitting you've never heard it? Well, now you can sleep easy. With this Beginner's Guide you'll be an expert in no time, spouting Dylan ephemera to an enthralled world like you were down from the beginning, presumably while a bevy of nubile admirers look on in awe.

1962-1964: The Times They Are A-Changin'
After making his way to New York from a small Minnesotan mining town, aspiring songwriter Robert Zimmerman renamed himself after the poet Dylan Thomas, took his musical cues from ailing folkie Woody Guthrie and dropped his eponymous LP in 1962. It wasn't until the following year however, with The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, that the 22-year-old troubadour really hit his stride. Awash with classics like 'Blowing in the Wind', 'A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall' and the acerbic 'Masters of War', this sophomore release saw Dylan, armed only with guitar, vocals and harmonica, dropping truth bombs with scant regard for The Man. It also served as worthy precursor to the iconic and fully-realised folk masterpiece The Times They Are A-Changin' (1964). A snapshot of an America divided by war and changing social mores, this feted album contains protest songs ('With God On Our Side'), poignant civil rights commentary ('The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll') and moments of unbridled poetic beauty ('Boots Of Spanish Leather'). Barely six months later this success was followed with the release of Another Side of Bob Dylan. The shift from linear, reportage-style songwriting to freeform wordplay and hallucinatory storytelling earned the ire of Dylan's parochial folk fanbase, but helped usher in the albums that would transform him, however reluctantly, into the spokesman for his generation.

Trivia: When Dylan met Andy Warhol in the mid-1960s, the artist marked the occasion by presenting him with an Elvis print. No fan of pop art, Dylan first used it as a dartboard then traded the picture, now worth several million dollars, to his manager in exchange for a sofa.

1965-1966: Outlaw Blues
In an intensely creative 14-month jag between March 1965 and May 1966, Dylan released the trio of albums that would assure his musical immortality: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. The first two are stylistic and thematic counterparts - collections of effortless blues-influenced rock, beat verse and stream of consciousness Americana - but Blonde on Blonde stands alone, not only as recorded music's first significant double album but as a rollicking, polychrome, singularly surreal blues-rock magnum opus. Traditional folk fans were aghast at Dylan's decision to go electric, considering the move an unbridled sell-out, and it wasn't uncommon at the time for boos and heckling to feature almost as prominently during gigs as applause. Despite the jeers some of Dylan's best-known songs date from this period, including 'Like A Rolling Stone', 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' and 'Mr Tamborine Man,' and it is on these that his legacy principally rests. Also recorded at this time was 'Maggie's Farm,' his unequivocal parting salvo to the folk movement: 'They say sing while you slave but I just get bored/I ain't gonna work on Maggie's Farm no more.' With this Dylan's break with the past was complete, but the future, as it turned out, was far from certain.

Trivia: The title Bringing It All Back Home is a sly reference to the perceived musical theft of the Beatles and Stones: the Yanks invented rock 'n' roll, the Brits 'stole' it, now Dylan was bringing it back home again.

1967-1996: Driftin' Too Far From Shore
Following a mysterious motorcycle accident in July 1966 Dylan retired from public life, busying himself with raising a family in upstate New York. On 1967s John Wesley Harding and for several albums thereafter he affected a curious country twang, and though he penned the odd gem like 'Down Along the Cove' and 'Knocking On Heaven's Door' it wasn't until the lovelorn Blood On the Tracks (1975) that he could be said to have produced another bona fide classic. From there Dylan's output became patchy to say the least, as glossy production values, bloated live albums and even a fire-and-brimstone born-again Christian period dominated his output. He did find time to pen the occasional classic however, such as the aforementioned 'Blind Willie McTell', a peerless piano-driven ballad that features Dire Straights' Mark Knopfler strumming away tastefully on accompanying guitar, and this era also saw the inauguration of the superb B-side, live, outtake and obscurity collection The Bootleg Series, currently in its ninth incarnation.

Trivia: At the zenith of his conversion to fundamentalist Christianity, Dylan took to haranguing audiences at length during concerts, delivering sermons and refusing to play any songs from his earlier 'secular' albums.

1997-Present: Not Dark Yet
After producing a middling studio album and two equally unspectacular acoustic covers records in the early 1990s, Dylan came out of nowhere with 1997s Time Out of Mind, a stylish, stunningly-realised collection of world-weary blues cuts. Critics fell over themselves to heap unanimous praise upon the album, a situation that was repeated when Dylan, after picking up a Grammy in 2000 for the single 'Things Have Changed', released the self-produced Love & Theft. He completed the trilogy of triumphant comeback records in 2006 with Modern Times, his first US #1 album in 30 years, cementing what is one of the most remarkable career resurgences in popular music history.

Despite possessing a voice that sounds like nothing so much as the growl of an irate grizzly bear, these days a 69-year-old Dylan shows little sign of slowing down. He released another #1 album, Together Through Life, in early 2009, a charity Christmas album, of all things, later that same year and continues to maintain a hectic concert schedule as part of his aptly named Never Ending Tour. And he still plays 'Tambourine Man.' If you ask nicely.

Trivia: In August 2009, while wandering around New Jersey in a rainstorm, a dishevelled Dylan was mistaken for a vagrant by local law enforcement and bundled into the back of a police car. 'I wasn't sure if he came from one of our hospitals' said the officer in question.

-David Murcott

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