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The Evolution of Bob Dylan

Watch Dylan’s evolution from bright-eyed folk revivalist to 1980s wash-up to a genius on a true Never Ending Tour

Sigmund Goode/ Michael Ochs Archive

When Bob Dylan arrived in New York City in the freezing cold winter of 1961 his repertoire was mostly old folk songs, some dating back 100 years – not surprising, since the folk revival was reaching its peak at the time, with mainstream acts like Joan Baez and the Kingston Trio generating lots of press attention.

On many of his earliest recorded concerts Dylan seems to be channeling the very spirit of Woody Guthrie and other folk icons. These made for compelling shows, but he soon realized that to move himself (and the movement) forward he'd need to start penning originals. One of his first was "Song to Woody," a tribute to Woody Guthrie. 

By Andy Greene

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Protest Singer: 1962-1964

The world was going through a radical transformation when Dylan got the urge to write original songs. The Cold War seemed to be on the verge of going hot in a hurry, the Civil Rights movement was ripping America in half and President Kennedy was beginning to move troops into Vietnam. Dylan wasn't very political by nature, but his girlfriend Suze Rotolo came from an active leftist family and she urged him to begin writing about issues of the day. The songs came quickly — from "Masters of War" to "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" to "With God On Our Side." The image of him singing these songs was so powerful and became so ingrained in the minds of his generation that nothing he did in the ensuing years could make them view him as anything other than a protest singer. 

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The Electric Years: 1965-1966

Legend has it that Dylan was nearly booed offstage at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1965 when he plugged in and performed a three-song set with an electric band. People have been debating exactly what happened that day for 46 years, but it's beyond dispute that many of the traditional folkies felt betrayed by Dylan's new direction. They shouldn't have been shocked. Earlier that year he had released the half-electric Bringing It All Back Home, and "Like A Rolling Stone" hit shelves that very month.

These days, the cries of "sellout" seem absurd and Dylan's work from that period is widely seen as the best of his career – particularly Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. Keeping up that frenzied creative pace meant little sleep and reportedly lots of pills, which eventually caught up to Dylan on the famous 1966 world tour. Footage from the shows reveals a drained, zombie-like Dylan desperate to go home and reevaluate his life. 

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Genius in Seclusion: 1967-1973

In late July 1966 Bob Dylan crashed his motorcycle near his Woodstock, New York home. The exact extent of his injuries was most likely far less severe than many thought at the time, but they were bad enough to force him to cancel the remaining dates of his world tour. He didn't stay idle, though. Even though he devoted much of his time in the late Sixties/early Seventies to his rapidly growing family, Dylan still found time to record the Basement Tapes and a series of eclectic albums that were the polar opposite of the ambitious psychedelic rock that topped the charts in that era. Beginning with 1970's Self Portrait, Dylan's commercial and creative appeal took a huge nosedive, and by 1973 he was widely seen as a washed-up recluse. 

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Back on the Road: 1974-1978

In early 1974, Dylan was coaxed back on the road by a huge offer to play American arenas with the Band. Demand for tickets was off the charts as nostalgia for the Sixties was already sweeping the nation. When the tour finished Dylan's wallet was swelling, but his marriage was falling apart. He poured his heartache into the brilliant music on Blood On The Tracks, proving to the world that he wasn't a relic from another era. In fact, to many critics the album is the best work of his career.

When he hit the road again in late 1975 he decided to do the exact opposite of the previous tour, opting to travel in a multi-artist caravan and play theaters with little advanced notice. The shows were some of the most powerful of his career. In typical Dylan fashion, he reversed himself completely just three years later when he launched his first world tour in a dozen years. He was back in arenas, belting out the hits with a giant band that seemed like it was on loan from Elvis or Neil Diamond. It wouldn't be evident until the following year, but Dylan was going through some major changes. 

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Born Again: 1979-1981

So much attention was paid to the devoutly Christian message on 1979's Slow Train Coming and its supporting tour that few people realized just how amazing the songs from that period were. Nobody knows exactly what compelled a Jew to begin writing gospel songs like "Slow Train," "Precious Angel" or "Pressing On," but based on the passion he poured into every word he sang in that era, it's clear he meant every word of them.

His nightly sermon to the audience reflected an even more radical ideology than what he espoused in his songs. "You know what's happening right now, when you look at the Middle East?" he asked the crowd one night. "They're headed for a war. That's right, they're headed for war. There's gonna be war over there. I'd say maybe five years, maybe 10 years, could be 15 years, I don't know, but remember I told you right here. I told you 'The Times They Are A-Changin' and they did! I said the answer was 'Blowin' In The Wind' and it was! I'm telling you now, Jesus is coming back, and he is! There is no other way of salvation."

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Lost in the Eighties: 1982-1987

By the mid-Eighties, Dylan seemed largely over his Born Again phase – but the radical message of the period (and his refusal to perform old songs on those tours) cost him some of his audience. It was a bad time not only to record some of the worst music of his career (if you dare, check out Knocked Out Loaded and Down In The Groove), but also to bomb onstage at Live Aid in front of a billion people.

In his 2004 memoir Chronicles, Volume 1, Dylan writes that he hit a low point on a 1986 tour with Tom Petty. "It wasn't my moment of history," he wrote. "I couldn't wait to retire and fold the tent. One more big payday with Petty and that would be it for me. I was what they called over the hill…The mirror had swung around and I could see the future – an old actor fumbling in garbage cans outside the theater of past triumphs."

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The Never Ending Tour Begins: 1988-1996

Dylan got out of his Eighties funk very slowly. It began when he took some advice from Bono and cut an album with U2 producer Daniel Lanois. The previous year he hit the road on a tour that's still going 23 years later. Between 1991 and 1996 Dylan released two albums of traditional folk covers and toured incessantly, but didn't release any new material. "I really thought I was through making records," Dylan told Rolling Stone in 2001. "I didn't want to record anymore. I was more concerned with what I do in personal appearances. It was clear to me I had more than enough songs to play. Forever…I was already playing over a hundred shows a year at that point. I decided I would just go back to live performing, which I hadn't really thought I'd done since maybe 1966."

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The Creative Comeback: 1997-2011

Few people expected Dylan to release a classic album in 1997. His last undisputed masterpiece was more than 20 years in the past, and he hadn't even tried to record anything new in seven years. Around that time, however, Dylan found himself writing bits and pieces down of new songs. "It was starting to pile up," he told Rolling Stone in 2001. "I thought, 'Well, I got all this – maybe, I'll try to record it.' I'd had good luck with Daniel Lanois [producer of the 1989 album Oh Mercy], so I called him and showed him a lot of the songs."

The resulting record, Time Out Of Mind, won a Grammy for Album of the Year. Everybody seems to love it, except for Dylan. "I feel we were lucky to get that record," Dylan said in 2001. "I didn't go into it with the idea that this was going to be a finished album. It got off the tracks more than a few times, and people got frustrated. I know I did. I know Lanois did…I felt extremely frustrated, because I couldn't get any of the up-tempo songs that I wanted." It was no surprise than Dylan's next three records were self-produced.

Dylan has no specific plans for his 70th birthday on May 24th. He wrapped up a leg of the Never Ending Tour in Auckland, New Zealand on April 30th and won't be seen again until it picks up again June 16th in Cork, Ireland. For those that care, the last song he will likely sing in public while still in his 60s was, appropriately enough, "Forever Young." 

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