Bob Dylan at 65

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Bob Dylan performs at the 44th Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles.

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In his autobiography Chronicles, Volume 1, the usually furtive artist sheds light on how Robert Allen Zimmerman became Bob Dylan — how he almost instantly bloomed from a nothing-special teenager into a pathfinding songwriter. Hibbing was a north-country town where, he said in No Direction Home, "It was so cold, you couldn't be bad." Seems he was a decent kid, whose dream was to attend West Point. (The mind reels when considering how different the 60s might have been if Bob Dylan the protest poet had instead become Lieut. Zimmerman in the jungles of Vietnam.)

Dylan didn't just materialize, in the Village, "modern Gomorrah," he called it, in 1960. The pop-cult 50s was Dylan's home—or, at last, his sleepover when he was a kid. In Chronicles he describes his feeling of kinship with smooth-singing Bobby Vee and Ricky Nelson, with the composer Harold Arlen and the wrestler Gorgeous George. He also played occasionally in rock band and briefly backed Vee in 1959, when the Buddy Holly soundalike singer was booked to fill the dates Holly couldn't make because he'd died in a plane crash in a frosty Iowa cornfield.

What changed Zimmerman was hearing Guthrie's songs. The Dust Bowl balladeer with the scrappy social conscience touched this kid, gave him purpose and ambition. "You could listen to his songs," he says in No Direction Home, "and actually learn how to live." Pierced to the heart, Bob actually left home this time, thumbing east to a Queens, N.Y., hospital, where Guthrie lay ailing of Huntington's Disease. That pilgrimage accomplished three things. It gave comfort to his idol; it gave Zimmerman, now Dylan, a vocal style; and it got him to New York City, where within a few months he was the toast of a tiny coterie.

There, he made himself into Bob Dylan by reading everything — the poetry of Rimbaud and the Beats, non-fiction on issues of the day — that graced the coffee tables of friends whose living-room couches he crashed on. "I began cramming my brain with all kinds of deep poems," he writes in Chronicles. "It seemed like I'd been pulling an empty wagon for a long time and now I was beginning to fill it up and would have to pull harder." He burrowed into the microfilm files of the New York Public Library to research the social issues he needed to know and wanted to write about. He hung around the offices of the folk magazine Sing Out! and in Village folk clubs like Cafe Wha? and Gerde's Folk City, hoovering the great American folk-song book and the performing styles of the day. He also got an instant education from his first New York girlfriend Suze Rotolo, a political activist who took Dylan to an evening of Brecht songs in the Village.

Soon Dylan had assimilated Guthrie — gone through him and come out the other side. Now, as a singer-songwriter, he had joined the folkie scene of people who made, in the words of the New Lost City Ramblers' John Cohen, "Long-playing, short-selling records." Everyone remarked on Dylan's lyric gift and driving ambition. After just a few months, and before he was 20, he had scored his first professional gig in the Village (a supporting act to blues singer John Lee Hooker). Rejected by the traditional labels, Folkways and Vanguard (whose A&R man said, "We don't record freaks"), he made an odder move: being signed by legendary producer John Hammond for Mitch Miller's Columbia Records. Miller called Dylan "Hammond's folly.

What came out of this furious schooling was an amalgam of all these influences that Dylan forged into his own ornery persona. It was as cannily career-minded as it was artistically valid. Dylan mystified and promoted himself, inventing a biography that included being a seven-time runaway and a carny roustabout (he had done nothing of the sort) and putting his own name in his song titles ("Bob Dylan's Blues," "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream"). He knew he had lucked into being the right man at the right time: "America was changing. I had a feeling of destiny and I was riding the changes."

For Dylan, it was all to claim the crown of folkie purist. As he said in the spoken intro to "Bob Dylan's Blues": "Unlike most of the songs nowadays that are bein' written uptown in Tin Pan Alley -- that's where most of the folk songs come from nowadays -- this, this is a song, this wasn't written up there. This was written somewhere down in the United States." In fact, Dylan had kinship to those great songwriters, especially to the kids his age, at exactly this time, who were toiling away up in the Brill Building writing for Phil Spector and his black girl groups. The connection went back ever further, for Dylan was as brilliant and canny an imitator, synthesizer and transformer of folk music as Irving Berlin was of ragtime and George Gershwin of jazz. And within a few years, his songs would be covered more than any other songwriter.

His studio sessions were portraits of a young man in a hurry. The first album was a fairly traditional folk album, with only two original songs; its main provocation would have been to Mitch Miller, whose easy-listening aesthetic was violated by Dylan's rasp and snarl. The second LP, The Freewheeling Bob Dylan, showed his instant, astonishing blossoming as a songwriter, with "Blowin' in the Wind," "Masters of War," "A Hard Rains A-Gonna Fall" and "Don;t Think Twice, It's All Right" (wow!), and his voice got stronger, more assertive, as if he was ready to fill the larger halls he would soon be playing. By the third album, The Times They Are A-Changin', he was the fully-formed folk prophet, and so assured of his abilities that he could record his fourth LP, the 1964 Another Side of Bob Dylan, in one night.

With the fifth album, Bringing It All Back Home, he stayed acoustic on one side, went electric on the other. Anarchy! the folkies cried. Welcome! the mass audience purred. His sixth, Highway 61 Revisited, consolidated his rep as the first rock poet, and the seventh, the two-record Blonde on Blonde, concluded it. Just after its release, Dylan was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident. Some of us think that, after the crash, he and his music were never the same.

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