Bob Dylan: 50 Years After His Debut, Have Things Changed?
Today, April 11, is the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan's first professional show, an opening slot for John Lee Hooker at Gerde's Folk City in Greenwich Village. It's also the golden anniversary of Nazi military Adolf Eichmann's war crimes trial beginning in Israel, but that's not really that sunny of an event. He - Eichmann, not Dylan - was hung the next year for being party to the Holocaust.
So it's been half a century since Dylan began his march into history in earnest, spinning out lines before one of the biggest names in blues. A year later Dylan would write a song partly about his first night onstage in front of a paying crowd, instead of an open-mike throng. Kinda reminds us of a stoned Hayes Carll, in a very good way.
Less than five years later, Dylan would record "Like A Rolling Stone," with that opening snare pop echoing across the world. Thirty years after his 1961 shows, a set of recordings from that time, The Bootleg Series, Vols 1-3, Rare and Unreleased 1961-1989, shed light on those shadows of his career.
We asked the Rocks Off News Team what their impressions are of Dylan, his career, and his influence on music and pop culture in general. The reactions were mixed, to say the least, proving that 50 years since he first stood before the world, he is still stirring up a ruckus. Craig Hlavaty
Neph Basedow: Bob Dylan is not overrated. But what's irritating about Dylan's widespread influence is just that, his influence itself. His style, while genius at times, is attainable and quite simple. Meaning, annoyingly easy to imitate. Obviously, there can be only one "Bob Dylan," but by golly, it seems not every aspiring songwriter agrees.
My favorite Dylan songs include "Fourth Time Around" because of its sweet sincerity and the way its lyrics always paint a picture and storyline in my mind upon hearing it, and "Love Sick" because I wish I'd have written the line, "I'm sick of love/ I wish I'd never met you." Who doesn't?
I don't have any specific least favorite Dylan songs, but they'd likely be from either Under a Red Sky or Self Portrait.
Jeff Balke: There are few things I regret in this life. One of them is not pawning everything I owned to buy a beautiful, stack-knob Fender Jazz bass in the early 90s. The other involved Bob Dylan.
In 1986, I was still in high school, filled with bright ideas and covered in long hair. Rising from the smoke of hair bands and prog-rock that out of my car stereo was a decidedly more mature playlist of American musicians including Tom Petty and Bob Dylan. That summer, Dylan came to Houston on the second leg of his True Confessions tour that included Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as his backing band. I was thrilled. I was excited. I would not be going.
I bought tickets to the show - a mere $17.50, as I recall - but was told the week of the show that I had to go to a family dinner that night, no exceptions. I sold the tickets off to someone at school, who didn't care about them nearly as much as I did. Late in the evening, after dinner, I drove my truck around the 610 Loop, past the Southern Star Amphitheater, where the show was happening, and sighed.
Chris Gray:Today when I think of Bob Dylan, two things come to mind. The first is the human Guadalupe River of people streaming away from Dylan and his band at the 2007 Austin City Limits Music Festival, none of them exactly what you would call "pleased."
At least since he plugged in at Newport, Dylan live has always been hit or miss. It's certainly been the case the six or so times I've seen him, starting in 1995 through that ACL date, which I stuck out through the end but wasn't much to write home about.
Sometimes his shows are spotty enough to make you wonder if that is the same person masterfully fronting The Band in The Last Waltz, but there are almost always a couple of transcendent moments that make the rest of the incoherent vocals and ragged arrangements worthwhile. Maybe even Bob himself knows this, which would explain the Never Ending Tour.
The other is the figurative, almost literal, slap across the face I felt the first time I heard his opening snarl on "Highway 61 Revisited": "God said to Abraham, 'Kill me a son...'." "Like a Rolling Stone" I knew from my copy of Greatest Hits Vol. 1 that got a fair amount of spins in high school, but "Highway 61" started a Dylan phase that spiraled out from Its parent album and Blonde on Blonde and never really abated.
Today my favorite Dylan albums are Highway 61 and "Love and Theft" - neck and neck for No. 1 - Blonde on Blonde, Blood on the Tracks and the dark horse, 1989's Oh Mercy (especially "Everything Is Broken"). Not the most adventurous list, perhaps - you can keep Street Legal, thanks - but five albums that must be within easy reach at all times; I think I'm on my second copy each of Highway 61, "Theft" and Blood.
Nevertheless, my favorite Dylan song - beating out by a nose "Highway 61," "Absolutely Sweet Marie" and "Lonesome Day Blues" (which is my favorite Dylan song to play loud, though) - and the only one I've internalized enough to text the lyrics to friends when I am "a worried man with a worried mind" is not on any of those albums. But it did win him an Oscar: It's the theme song for 2000's Wonder Boys, "Things Have Changed."
To me, it reduces everything great about Dylan down to five minutes, maybe one line: "I used to care, but things have changed." I can relate.
As for Dylan being overrated, of course he's not. As a good friend told me over beers at Leon's Sunday night, nobody who gave American songwriting such a complete (and surprise) makeover could ever be overrated.
Over-imitated, yes. Still, calling Dylan overrated would be like calling Alfred Hitchcock or Claude Monet overrated - they might have made a crap film, painting or album here and there, so you could maybe make a case for their being overrated. But you would be wrong.
Craig Hlavaty: I come back to Dylan's entire catalog every year or two for a vicious month-long orgy of repeated viewings of Don't Look Back and I'm Not There, and vinyl parties in my bedclothes on Saturday mornings.
It's been going on since I first found a copy of his first greatest-hits collection in the stack of discs that my Aunt Julie left over at my house when I was in junior high. That's also the stack where I pilfered my copy of Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti.
I remember that after a had a very traumatic breakup at the end of the Summer 2007, I texted my friend Ferrick with the line "I finally understand Blood On the Tracks now." And just seconds later he wrote me back saying "Did you and Elizabeth break up?" I am too easy to read. Shit.
My favorite Dylan song comes from the bootleg stuff he did with The Band, The Basement Tapes. "I'm Not There" is a damned stunner and it makes time stop when I hear it wherever I am. I first heard it in the neo-biopic of the same name, and it sounds like a dream on vinyl.
Jef With One F: The question isn't whether or not Bob Dylan is overrated. The question is whether or not influencing a tremendous amount of incredibly talented artists is the same as being incredibly talented yourself.
The number of people, famous and underground, talented and untalented, who have cited Dylan as a major influence has got to be at least in the tens of thousands. His music has inspired countless awesome songs.
However, as an artist himself I just don't think Dylan cuts the mustard. His output, especially in his more religious moments, can be of pretty damn spotty quality. His modern work has little of the lyrical twists that made him the great poet - though I admit the quality of the recordings and the musicianship are much better.
Many artists who achieve legendary status, artists like Johnny Cash, David Bowie and Trent Reznor, use their later and more secure years to experiment and grow. They've earned the financial independence, and become free to take a long hard look at their art. I don't think Dylan has. He's stalled.
In the end, we owe an awful lot of great musical moments to Dylan, and that's a heavy debt. On the other hand he seems content to let others define his legacy, to be great because other people say he is.
Brittanie Shey: I loooooove Bob Dylan and would curse anyone who says he's overrated.
Here's my real answer:
People often discount Dylan because of his singing style, but I am more a fan of his lyrics than anything else. Once you start listening to the words he's singing, his offbeat delivery just seems more emotional than anything.
I am a big fan of everything on Blood on the Tracks, and just like Dylan, I go through phases. But I almost always go back to one song as my favorite: "Ballad of a Thin Man."
Allison Wagoner: I understand the historical context of his music and the effect it had on the civil-rights political atmosphere in America, but the music itself is overemphasized today, particularly by arrogant music elitists who were born ten years after he peaked.
Not even my authentic folk-artist hippie aunt could convince me as a child, motherfolker; why would I waste space on my hard drive with music that bores me, just because it's Bob Dylan and because you have some Wayfarers and a harmonica? Folk you. Blonde On Blonde was a good album, but I'd rather listen to Townes Van Zandt.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.