Six Facts (and Corrected Misperceptions) About Bob Dylan
The young Bob Dylan
1. In early 1961, the impoverished young Bob Dylan hitchhiked in the dead of winter all the way from Minnesota to New York. True or false?
False. Dylan – who, as a youth, got himself in hot water more than once by spreading tall tales about his past – is also responsible for this harmless fib, which he told filmmaker Cameron Crowe, who passed it on as fact in the booklet accompanying the Dylan box set Biograph (1985). The singer did indeed journey to New York in January of 1961. But (as Clinton Heylin relates in Behind the Shades Revisited) rather than relying on the power of the thumb, he struck a ride share deal with an acquaintance by the name of David Berger. Thus, he alternately drove and rode – but mostly rode – the distance between Madison, Wisconsin, where he had recently played a few gigs, and New York. Amusingly, Dylan’s constant singing so irritated Berger that he came close to ordering him out of the car. Our Hero arrived in New York on January 24th, 1961… and the rest is musical (and cultural) history.
Bob and Sally
2. The “lady in red” who is seen lounging with Bob on a couch on the cover of the album Bringing It All Back Home is Dylan himself in drag. True or false?
False. It is not a "trick photograph" (double exposure). Although she bears an uncanny resemblance to Bob, the woman in the picture has been positively identified as Sally Grossman, the wife of Dylan’s manager at the time, Albert Grossman. However, the fact that such a rumor could gain currency in the first place shows how odd a public figure Dylan was perceived to be at the time… and how obsessive his fans were (and still are).
3. Dylan married again after his divorce from Sara Lownds in 1977. True or false?
True… although the facts did not become public until relatively recently. According to Howard Sounes, as recounted in his Dylan biography, Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan (2001, revised 2011), Bob started a relationship with African-American singer Carolyn Dennis, who had toured with him beginning in the late 1970s. On January 31, 1986, she gave birth to his sixth child, Gabrielle Dennis-Dylan. Less than five months later, on June 4th, Dylan secretly married Carolyn Dennis. According to Sounes, he did this in order to give his new daughter a stable home life while keeping her out of the public eye… admirable intentions, though he continued to date other women, and even bought a house for one of them! In 1992, Bob and Ms. Dennis divorced. However, the truly shocking revelation of Sounes’ biography (for me at least) was that Dylan was so despondent during the 1980s – the low point of his entire career – that he tried to join The Grateful Dead!
Bob and Tony
4. The musician or group who played with Dylan most often is: A) The Band; B) The Grateful Dead; C) Tom Petty; D) G.E. Smith; E) None of the above.
The correct answer is E. The musician who’s played more gigs with Bob than any other is the obscure bassist Tony Garnier. Garnier, a Minnesota native of New Orleans heritage, joined Dylan’s so-called Never-Ending Tour (NET) in 1989 and remains part of his band to this day. Since Bob has performed, throughout the NET, close to a hundred concerts each year on average, Garnier has therefore played literally thousands of concerts with the Master, which is many more Dylan shows than can be claimed by all the artists cited above put together.
5. The most hostile audience Dylan ever faced was at the famous “Judas” concert at Manchester Free Trade Hall in May 1966. True or false?
False. This is a subjective judgment, but the audience for the show at Tempe, Arizona’s Gammage Center on November 26, 1979, was almost certainly the most hostile Dylan has ever encountered. During this tour, the “born again” singer wanted to preach the Gospel as much as to play, and so featured a setlist consisting solely of his new songs of faith, liberally peppered with speeches to the audience. But part of this audience apparently just wanted to hear Bob’s Greatest Hits. The ungodly din that greeted the singer at the start of the concert suggests what the mob at the ancient Roman Coliseum must have sounded like when the Christians were thrown to the lions.
Bravely (or perversely), Dylan preached even more than usual, warning his fans “you go see Kiss and you can rock-n-roll all your way down into the pit [of hell]”… to which they responded with enthusiastic applause and cheers. However, a spectacular performance by the band of the hard-driving number Solid Rock finally broke the crowd’s resistance, and Dylan ended the concert with the audience in the palm of his hand. Nevertheless, he was so angry he skipped his usual encore.
6. “That guy can’t sing” — Bruce Springsteen’s mother, quoted by Bruce at his speech inducting Bob into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1988). True or false?
False! Again, our view is totally subjective, but since this low estimation of Dylan’s vocal abilities still stands as received opinion for too many music fans, it seems appropriate to address the matter here.
In the mid-1960s, Bob totally changed the standards of pop vocalizing, bringing to it a whole new rawness and excitement (though derived from blues and country traditions). He thus paved the way for the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Van Morrison, Lou Reed, John Fogarty, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello and Joe Strummer, none of whom would have been successful in the Age of Sinatra, or even the Age of Elvis. Yet Dylan himself seems scarcely to have benefited from this change. His voice is still disparaged by people who would never dream of putting down those later singers whom he so powerfully influenced. To put it another way, if even Ozzy Osbourne can get respect, why not Bob?
We can more fully clarify the issue by comparing him to a major artist from an earlier era: Louis Armstrong. By the standard of mellifluousness of tone, we could easily claim that Armstrong lacked a “good” singing voice. But if we judge Satchmo’s singing as it should be judged – for its presence, character and eloquence, rather than its “unpretty” sound – we’d rightly conclude that he possessed one of the greatest American voices, one that long ago became part of Americana. The singer of A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall and Like a Rolling Stone has also entered this great American tradition, and no excuses need be made for the singular voice that achieved this feat.