In 1965, Bob Dylan shocked the audience at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island, by walking on stage with an electric guitar; and then, he walked off stage after only three songs. There was booing and jeering, to be sure, but it has been questioned as to whether this was because of the guitar or the poor sound quality, this latter factor having been verified as a real issue at the time. Regardless of the issues or the temperament of the crowd, Dylan had made a definitive and lasting change to his image and profile.
This was not the first time that Dylan had done something controversial. His musical career having started in 1959 in a coffee house near the university campus in Minneapolis, he dropped out of college after his first year; and then he moved to New York City in 1961. It has been said that what Dylan lacked in musical finesse, he made up for in audacity.
In 1963, he had been booked for the Ed Sullivan Show. He had planned on singing ‘The John Birch Paranoid Blues’ but was informed prior to going on that this song might have libelous repercussions with the John Birch Society, and he was asked if he would consider playing something else. He chose to walk off the show rather than comply with censorship.
I have always contended that I was inspired to learn to play guitar from listening to the Beatles, after watching them on their American debut on that same show; but it was the folk music of Dylan and Baéz that gave me the simple repetitious verses, allowing me to practice endurance. The Beatles provided the spark, and Dylan provided the initial workout mechanics.
Dylan, to me, seemed to write poetry of the times – long poems that he delivered with folk melodies and a voice that seemed to imply ‘never mind the grittiness, heed the message’; and, like many others, I did. The big shock at Newport blew over without any noticeable grudge. He kept writing great songs.
During the overlap of ’64 and ’65, Dylan changed from the hippie folk image of scruffy jeans and work shirts, taking on a more celebrity-like appearance, but I never noticed. I was listening to the music but going through my own changes.
Going into 1966, Dylan had become one of the many who were pushing themselves with physically demanding tours and appearances, and who kept themselves going by using stimulatory drugs. I figured he was using; we all were. I just didn’t know how bad it had gotten for many of them, especially him.
In 1966, Dylan wrecked his motorcycle, and he claimed to have broken several bones in his neck; but no ambulance was called, and he was never hospitalized. It was speculated by people who knew him that this may have been some kind of ruse by which he escaped the pressures he was undergoing at the time. In a later interview, he disclosed that he had been dealing with a $25-a-day heroin addiction and that he had kicked it.
Dylan’s music addressed all sorts of pertinent issues. When he wrote about racism and inequality, he made it personal and referred to real people and their persecutions and lynchings. He contributed his time and talent to the causes of world hunger, the plights of farmers and miners and laborers in general. And, of course, there was the war. In many, many cases, Dylan was our voice. Yet, I never knew about his addiction or his motorcycle accident until much later.
In the course of his career, he received 11 Grammy Awards, 1 Academy Award, 1 Golden Globe Award, the Polar Music Prize, and he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the (American) Songwriters Hall of Fame.
I have no doubt that I may have missed other accolades. He has even worked on a number of films and received 1 Oscar. And the number of artists with whom he has collaborated is so long a list, I could not bring myself to insert it in here.
In 1997, President Clinton presented him with the Kennedy Center Honor, and in 2012, President Obama presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The number of sales of his albums has been in the millions, here and abroad; and since 1994, he has published 6 books of his paintings and drawings.
So why, in 2004, did he feel at all compelled to appear in a TV ad for Victoria’s Secret? In 2007, he participated in a promotional campaign for the 2008 Cadillac Escalade. In 2009, in his highest profile endorsement, he appeared with will.i.iam in a Pepsi ad that debuted during the Super Bowl XLIII.
There was the mysterious motorcycle mishap and 2 divorces; and then, in the spring of 1997, he was hospitalized with a life-threatening heart infection, pericarditis, which was brought on by histoplasmosis. And we know that many of his later works did not sell as well as his earlier ones. But it is hard to believe that these setbacks were enough to make this iconic musical hero sell out.
The final hump for me is his latest commercial stint. In February of this year (2014), Dylan appeared in another Super Bowl ad, this time for the Chrysler 200. His narrative was, ‘Germany brews your beer, Switzerland makes your watches, Asia assembles your phones, and we build your car’. It so happens that Chrysler is wholly owned by an Italian-Dutch company.
He received $5 million for that appearance alone, which he did have to split with his manager. But did he forget or does it just not matter to him anymore that in years past, he had adamantly addressed the theme that global capitalism and cheap imported goods were doing away with American jobs?
This last merchandising venture uses one of his more contemporary songs, ‘Things Have Changed’; it’s an ad that keeps showing up on TV and probably other mediums. And it’s true that things have changed; in many ways, things have gotten worse than we ever imagined in the 60’s. And many people that we never expected have changed as well; but many of us have not. Those of us who have not changed have held on to a commitment, a commitment about humanity and the world. In the words of David Crosby, I (we) ‘feel like I (we) owe it to someone’.
So, whatever happened to Bob Dylan?
The factual information in this article was gleaned from The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, The History of Rock and Roll by David Shirley, Writings and Drawings by Bob Dylan, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., and some personal notes of my own.