He has gone by the names Elston Gunn, Blind Boy Grunt, Lucky Wilbury, Jack Frost, and Jack Fate. He was born Robert Allen Zimmerman on May 24, 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota. It's hard to pick up any book or periodical dealing with popular music that doesn't mention or feature him. Of course he's best known to the world as Bob Dylan. His influence is immeasurable, his writing profound and provocative, his singing…well take it or leave it but his phrasing uncanny. Popular music can be divided up into before Bob Dylan and after Bob Dylan. At Dylan's induction into the Rock 'N' Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, Bruce Springsteen noted that "Dylan was a revolutionary. Bob freed the mind the way Elvis freed the body. He invented a new way a pop singer could sound, broke through the limitations of what a recording artist could achieve, and changed the face of rock 'n' roll forever". He is an artist so complex and enigmatic that director Todd Haynes deemed it wise to portray Dylan's life as a character study in the recent film I'm Not There. Six different actors were used to accomplish this task including actress Cate Blanchett. But to say that the man has multiple personalities would be inaccurate – he has multiple complexities. Whenever any new artist comes down the pike that possesses Dylan-like qualities, they are immediately branded a "new Dylan". Past "new Dylans" have included the already mentioned Mr. Springsteen, John Prine, Loudon Wainwright III, and Steve Forbert. But no matter how great all of these other artists are, there's still only one Bob Dylan.
Instead of dying young and leaving behind a beautiful corpse as many of his contemporaries did, Dylan continued and continues at the age of 67 to perform a grueling concert schedule. (It's called unofficially the Never Ending Tour). He is constantly reinterpreting and revitalizing the many songs in his catalog on a nightly basis. He's been known to change keys, tempos, and lyrics on the spot. The same qualities Brando brought to acting (improvisation, spontaneity, and a mercurial temperament) are the same qualities Dylan brings to writing and performing. And if touring is not enough, Dylan has a dj job on XM radio as host of his own program. At one time or another in his long career, he has been a folk/protest singer, angry rock poet, reluctant voice of a generation, reclusive country gentleman, born again Christian, observer of the Jewish faith, a just going through the motions performer, venerated icon, and elder statesman of roots music. And oh yea…one last thing. When he's introduced in concert – it's as Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan just a recording artist? Just a "song and dance man" as he once famously said? Who says the man isn't humble? Last year the Pulitzer Prize committee awarded him a special citation "for his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power."
So if you agree with my thesis that Dylan is the greatest songwriter of the last 100 years, what is his greatest and most influential work? It is my humble opinion that it is the 1965 release Bringing It All Back Home. One can also make a compelling case for Dylan's other 1965 release Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde On Blonde (1966), my personal favorite Blood On The Tracks (1975), or Time Out Of Mind (1997). But Bringing It All Back Home is the album that changed everything. For without Bringing It All Back Home one could argue that there would be no Highway 61 Revisited, there would be no Blonde On Blonde, and because this album was so influential there possibly would never have been Astral Weeks (Van Morrison), The Doors self titled debut album, the Beach Boys highly lauded Pet Sounds, and the later Beatles albums. You have to admit that Helter Skelter and She Came In From The Bathroom Window have a harder edge musically and lyrically than some of the group's earlier efforts like Love Me Do. What if Bringing It All Back Home had been a critical and commercial flop? The pop music world might have been very different indeed.
By 1965 Dylan had already become firmly entrenched as a folk music darling. If he had recorded nothing else but Bob Dylan (1962), The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963), The Times They Are A-Changing (1964), and Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964) his musical legacy would still be secure. These four albums produced timeless classics such as Blowing In The Wind, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, With God On Our Side, and Masters of War . But even as early as 1964, Dylan showed signs of discontent with the old guard of the folk music community. People like Pete Seeger and other traditionalists had lofty expectations as to how a folk singer should conduct him/herself. Tiring of "finger pointing" songs, he began to turn more introspective while at the same time making broader observations about American society. The chaos and anarchy of the revitalized rock scene was more of an appeal to Dylan at that point in his career.
Recording of Bringing It All Back Home commenced on Jan.13, 1965 and lasted for three days. Comprising eleven songs, side one was recorded in garage band rock 'n' roll mode as an act of defiance to those die hard folk traditionalists. Interestingly enough, Dylan recorded side two acoustically perhaps as a way to at least engage those same folkies.
1.) Subterranean Homesick Blues – Johnny's in the basement mixing up the medicine and what a strange brew it is. Drug making/drug dealing and the underground culture it spawned. Dylan's delivery and phrasing render the song a precursor of rap music. Dylan himself was influenced by the talking blues of Woody Guthrie. He reminds us that you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
2.) She Belongs To Me – A song about a temperamental artist. Reverse the genders and the song could have been very well written about Dylan himself.
3.) Maggies Farm – The title is possibly based on a real farm in Georgia or New York. Freeing oneself from the mindlessness of manual labor? Yearning to be different from the unquestioning crowd? A mind is a terrible thing to waste especially on Maggies Farm. The song gained renewed popularity in the U.K. during the reign of Margaret Thatcher.
4.) Love Minus Zero/No Limit – A lover whose wisdom is beyond understanding. She knows too much to argue or to judge.
5.) Outlaw Blues – A straight ahead blues number with Dylan looking like Robert Ford but feeling like Jesse James.
6.) On The Road Again – A companion to Maggies Farm but funnier.
7.) Bob Dylan's 115th Dream – The misadventures of Dylan the explorer as he discovers or "rediscovers" America.
1.) Mr. Tambourine Man – Dylan at his most poetic and alliterative. Many interpret this song as a drug trip…take me on a trip upon your magic swirlin' ship… but it might very well be inspired by real life tambourine man Bruce Langhorne.
2.) Gates of Eden – Eden here is a metaphor for perfection. And no matter how enlightened individuals and societies become we are doomed to petty arguments discussing what is real and what is not. A stunning meditation on the fall of mankind and its futile attempt to capture what was lost.
3.) It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) – A damning indictment of everything wrong with America in 1965. And because the song is so timeless, it is also a damning indictment of everything wrong with America in 2009. Corrupt politicians (even the President of the United States sometimes has to stand naked ), hypocritical judges, assorted con artists, and the power of the all mighty dollar (money doesn't talk, it swears) are all objects of Dylan's scorn.
4.) It's All Over Now, Baby Blue – A final break from a lover (Joan Baez), a movement, and from people's expectations.
Bringing It All Back Home was released on March 22, 1965. The title suggested that Dylan was taking back to American shores what the British rockers had appropriated for themselves. The album cover itself generated a lot of speculation as to what it all meant. A well groomed Dylan was photographed dressed to the nines stroking a cat looking a bit bored with his surroundings. His surroundings being an old Victorian mansion equipped with an elegant fireplace. Magazines, antiques, various albums, and a fall out shelter sign are strewn about the room. Posing in the background is a luscious brunette dressed in red(Sally Grossman – wife of then Dylan manager Albert Grossman) with cigarette dangling from her fingertips.
Later that summer, Dylan performed at the highly regarded Newport Folk Festival – with electric guitar. Conflicting accounts of that performance have persisted for years. Was Dylan booed off stage as some say he was? Or were the boos directed at the sound system itself? Did an enraged Pete Seeger attempt to take an axe to the power cables as long rumored? What is known is that Dylan left the stage shaken but later reemerged with acoustic guitar in hand closing with It's All Over Now, Baby Blue. There couldn't have been a more appropriate song. The course of pop and rock music would forever be altered.