Which singer invented the modern pop song, wrote the soundtrack to the Sixties, inspired Frank Sinatra and the Sex Pistols and earned praise from the Pope and Elvis Presley?
The answer, my friend, will be blowin’ out 72 birthday candles later this year.
After 500 songs, almost 50 albums albums and 100 million record sales, Bob Dylan, the man behind a bulging jukebox of golden oldies, is truly a golden oldie himself.
The legend was launched in January 1961, in the week of John Kennedy’s inauguration, when 20-year-old Robert Zimmerman – the grandchild of Jewish-Russian immigrants – stepped off a Greyhound bus from Minnesota. As the opening act for blues legend John Lee Hooker, his poetic protest songs soon became the toast of Greenwich Village’s bustling folk scene.
After changing his name, Bob Dylan changed pop music. From the old-fashioned sentiment of Blowin’ In The Wind to the new world order of The Times They Are A-Changin’, he gave pop music a right royal kick in the b-side – singing about politics and revolution at a time when “Hey Nah, My Boyfriend’s Back” was considered lyrically leftfield.
Dylan expert Patrick Humphries says these early songs helped shape popular culture: “His words and ideas, ‘the times they are a-changin’, the answer is blowin’ in the wind and ‘don’t follow leaders’ soon became part of everyday life.”
As Bruce Springsteen said, before inducting Dylan into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: “He had the vision and talent to make a pop song that contained the whole world. He invented a new way a pop singer could sound and changed the face of rock and roll forever.”
While the world rushed to rubberstamp his legendary status, Dylan remained unruffled – as if writing the soundtrack to a generation was as simple as writing a shopping list. Those early songs may have been one small step for Bob Dylan, but they were one giant stage-dive in the history of rock ‘n roll.
The Seventies cemented his appeal, with number one albums Planet Waves and Blood On The Tracks and a world tour that saw six million apply for 650,000 tickets. He also looked beyond the beaten tracks of the Top 40, coming over all country on the soundtrack to the movie Pat Garrette & Billy The Kid.
Into the Eighties and Dylan turned evangelical, converting to fundamental Christianity and releasing religious records Slow Train Coming and Saved.
Michael Billig, author of Rock ‘N Roll Jews, says the singer constantly struggles with spirituality. “Being Jewish was something he tried to disguise as a teenager. For many years he was obviously ill at ease with himself, became a born again Christian and then went right the other way and seemed to become an extreme Zionist fundamentalist.”
After going gospel, Dylan returned to his roots – wearing a tallit at the Western Wall for the bar mitzvah of his son Jakob and studying with Lubavitch Hasidim in Brooklyn. He once said of his born-again phase: “It had to happen. When I get involved in something, I get totally involved. I don’t just play around the fringes.”
Dylan literally knocked on heaven’s door in 1997 after a near-fatal heart infection. The scare only increased the singer’s appetite and output, averaging 200 live shows a year to promote number one album Time Out Of Mind and launching an American stadium tour with Paul Simon.
In 2008 he made history, becoming the oldest living musician to have a number one album in Britain and earned his seventh British number one with Together Through Life, pushing out fellow artist Neil Diamond as the oldest musician to claim the top spot. And he broke his own record in 2012 with stunning back-to-form album, Tempest.
Patrick Humphries is not surprised by the legend’s longevity: “Dylan brought poetry into the rock mainstream and transformed the shape of the popular song. He has been, for successive generations, an inspirational figurehead.”
As Zimmerframe Zimmerman himself puts it. “Other artists get by on style, but I’ve got to sing something with truth to it. Life is so short you might as well say how you feel. I’ve written a whole bunch of songs, so I can’t say I didn’t get what I wanted to do.”