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With Bob Dylan, the times are always changing

Bob Dylan plays his acoustic guitar in New York in September, 1961.


Bob Dylan's self-titled debut LP stiffed in 1962, the year Judy Garland's Judy at Carnegie Hall won the Grammy for best album. Around the water coolers at Columbia Records, the mockers called the 21-year-old new folk-singing thing "Hammond's folly," in reference to John Hammond, the legendary talent scout who signed him to the label.

What the button-down record-label types didn't know was that popular music was about to change, and that Dylan would be one of the paradigm shifters.

On that eponymous first record, Dylan contributed only two original songs, including Song to Woody, a message to Woody Guthrie, the hospitalized bard whom Dylan had sought out upon his arrival in New York from Minnesota two years earlier.

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Though his first album showed Dylan's masterful understanding of his hero's vernacular, it was, in retrospect, mere throat-clearing.

On his 1963 follow-up, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, the young troubadour with a corduroy cap, scrawny voice, rough-cut guitar licks and howling mouth-harp had taken the baton outright. Protest songs Blowin' in the Wind and A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall forecast the doom and upheaval of the 1960s that would follow, with the latter anthem establishing Dylan's role in the pop-culture disruption:

And I'll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it

And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it

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Then I'll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin'

But I'll know my song well before I start singin'

And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard

It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.Fifty-three years later, Dylan has won the Nobel Prize in literature, joining Kipling, Yeats, Hemingway, Shaw, Steinbeck, Beckett, Toni Morrison, Pearl Buck and others in the honour, "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition," said the judges.

New poetic expressions? Dylan was a legend by the time he was 25, and many had argued way back in the 1960s that music was the new literature and that not only was Dylan the new Woody Guthrie, but the next Hemingway too.

The Times They Are a-Changin' from 1965 wasn't jive. "As the present now, will later be past," Dylan sang, "the order is rapidly fadin', and the first one now will later be last."

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The song established singer-songwriters as a vital new sort, and marked Dylan as the first in rank when it came to a folk music movement unparalleled in potency previously or since.

The man even instigated his own sub-genre – how many "next Bob Dylans" would come, go and otherwise fall short of the standard set by the stranger born Robert Zimmerman from Hibbing, Minn., who flunked out of the University of Minnesota after just six months for reading the wrong books?

"I didn't agree with school," Dylan said, in the liner notes to his debut album.

He remembered staying up nights reading Kant instead of dealing with Living With the Birds for a science course. Mostly, he was restless. "I couldn't stay in one place long enough," he recalled.

That impatience would agitate and motor Dylan's whole career.

He began his investigation into singing and guitar strumming at the age of 10. Five years later, he wrote his first song, dedicated to the bombshell Brigitte Bardot.

He had a sponge's capacity to soak up music: Hank Williams, Jelly Roll Morton, Carl Perkins, early Elvis Presley, Guthrie and all manner of blues performers.

In 1959, in Central City, Colo., Dylan secured his first gig, at a low-end strip joint, as he would later recall: "I was onstage for just a few minutes with my folk songs. Then the strippers would come on. The crowd would yell for more stripping, but they went off, and I'd come bouncing back with my folky songs. As the night got longer, the air got heavier, the audience got drunker and nastier, and I got sicker and finally I got fired."

The folk-music scene in Greenwich Village was bustling at the time of Dylan's arrival in early 1961. A piece by The New York Times' critic Robert Shelton, who caught the scruffy songster at Gerde's Folk City, heralded Dylan's ascension.

Shelton described the cherubic 20-year-old upstart as a "cross between a choir boy and a beatnik," with clothes that required tailoring and talent that was bursting at the seams.

"His music-making has the mark of originality and inspiration, all the more noteworthy for his youth," wrote Shelton, who also referenced Dylan's penchant for puckish myth-making and biographical obliqueness.

"But it matters less where he has been than where he is going," Shelton concluded, quite rightly, "and that would seem to be straight up."

By 1965, Dylan absolutely was up and ready to move out. The album Bringing It All Back Home was a vital progression to electric-based folk-rock. And while the song Mr. Tambourine Man was mellow, it alluded to something hallucinatory, about the smoke rings of his mind and a trip upon a magic swirling ship.

"Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me," Dylan sang. "In the jingle jangle morning I'll come followin' you."

Many would follow Dylan. Titan bands such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones followed his lead and began composing more insightful lyrics.

With Dylan as its voice, a folk-rock generation was born, but not without growing pains.

This folk land was no longer everybody's folk land when Dylan showed up at Newport Folk Festival in the summer of 1965 with a Sunburst Fender Stratocaster that plugged into an amplifier and shocked the traditional folk-music nation.

Dylan's juiced performance has been mythologized and overanalyzed, but whether or not Pete Seeger actually took an axe to the power cables behind the stage doesn't really matter.

Winds were blowing and Dylan was obeying his muse, with no particular loyalty to anything or anyone else.

In the same year, Dylan released Highway 61 Revisited, a full-on rock record with Alan Kooper on organ and Michael Bloomfield on an absolutely electric guitar. The now classic Like a Rolling Stone was a revolution in C major – the last step from Woody Guthrie protégé to rock god.

Touring the record with The Hawks (who would become The Band), Dylan was famously confronted with dissension from his audience.

On May 17, 1966, in Manchester, England, Dylan and his band were roaring through the semi-psychedelic part of their set, plugged into an especially potent sound system.

They were about to light into Like a Rolling Stone when a betrayed acolyte in the dark hall bellowed "Judas!" to which Dylan responded, "I don't believe you. You're a liar!" He then turned to the band and ordered them to "play it … loud."

That same week, Dylan released his double-LP masterpiece Blonde on Blonde, with tracks Most Likely You Go Your Way And I'll Go Mine and the bluesy opener Rainy Day Women #12 & 35. Often misinterpreted as a druggy insistence – "Everybody must get stoned" – the song is a comment on the backlash caused by unconformity. It was a taking of offence Dylan knew well then, and the dissatisfaction from some critics and some fans would continue to dog him as he made his way.

Since Blonde on Blonde, Dylan has zigged and zagged, soared and sagged.

He still tours doggedly; he was was on the bill last weekend (with Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, Neil Young, The Who and Roger Waters) at the Desert Trip festival in Indio, Calif., and will be there again when the shows are reprised this weekend.

Chances are he will not repeat himself. It's not in his DNA. "Have I ever played any song twice exactly the same?" Dylan once asked rhetorically. "I don't do that." Some of his fans wish he'd be more faithful to the original recorded versions.

Tough luck.

"With my thumb out, my eyes asleep, my hat turned up and my head turned on," Dylan told Time magazine in 1963. "I'm driftin' and learnin' new lessons."

And teaching many too.

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About the Author

Brad Wheeler is an arts reporter with The Globe and Mail. More


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